Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Caught up in the political sizzle, it is easy to overlook the educational puzzle.

Charles Cooke has a cruel but interesting set of observations in The Unserious Face of an Unserious Movement by Charles C. W. Cooke.

Over the past few decades, I seem to have had to resort to profoundly unserious as the explanation for many individuals and circumstances which were otherwise inexplicable. The recurring infatuation among certain sectors with the idea of autocratic socialism and marxism is one of those inexplicable circumstances.

The subject of Cooke's column is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat insurgent who recently unseated a party lion, Joe Crowely, in the primary for the Democratic candidacy for New York House District 14. It was a remarkable feat, comparable to Eric Cantor, Republican House Majority Whip, defeated in the Republican primary of 2014 by a Tea Party candidate, David Brat.

I was arguing a few weeks ago with a colleague who has a bad case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, that a good portion, perhaps most, of the political angst we see right now is not, as the media characterizes it, polarization of the electorate, but rather, a rejection by the electorate of the establishment parties. The Republicans started their purge of the comfortable establishment earlier and have progressed further, substantially through the amorphous Tea Party movement. The Democrats are just starting their purge and have a long way to go. Ocasio-Cortez is just the canary in the coal mine under this interpretation of events.

There is a Greek tragedy in this. Ocasio-Cortez is an ordinary flawed person, suddenly thrust into the center of a ring of action for which she is unprepared. The fact that she put herself there is only part of the tragedy.

Cooke mercilessly dissects the foolish media and party infatuation with a photogenic, victorious insurgent. The individual Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is being buried under projections and unfounded assumptions. When she comes up short of expectations, the backlash will be, as it always is, unrelenting and destructive. You can see it coming and there is little that anyone can do to prevent it, given the aspirations and desires and motives and behaviors of all the parties.

When, last Thursday, she was asked an elementary question about spending, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez struck her best Cobra Kai pose. “I sat down with a Nobel Prize economist last week,” she exclaimed, contorting her face into Jack Nicholson’s and attempting to shoot webs from her fingers. “I can’t believe I can say that,” she added. “It’s really weird!”

Alas, nothing from this brush with greatness appears to have worn off on her. Mere seconds elapsed between the boast and the disaster that followed. Speaking to a friendly Trevor Noah, Ocasio-Cortez revealed that she does not know the difference between a one-year and a ten-year budget; confused the recent increase in defense spending with the entire annual cost of the military; implied that the population of the United States was around 800 million strong; and, having been asked to defend her coveted $15 minimum wage, launched into a rambling and inscrutable diatribe about “private equity” firms that would have been a touch too harsh as a parody on South Park. If anything, she was worse this time than she had been during her appearance on Firing Line a few days earlier, on which newly revamped show she demonstrated her obliviousness to the fact that the United States economy exploded during the 1990s, to the manner in which unemployment numbers are calculated, and to even the most obvious facets of the Israel–Palestine question about which she has assured her supporters she is so passionate.

“It’s really weird!”

It is, yes. Especially given that, before her two interviews aired, Ocasio-Cortez had taken to exhibiting that jealous penchant for credentialism that so stains the world’s wannabe socialists, and to boasting about her intellectual prowess. At the beginning of July, she tweeted with self-satisfaction — and a noticeably premature use of the word “other” — that she was “Wondering how many other House Democrats have a degree in Economics like I do?” Two days later, she upgraded that claim: “If you think the GOP is terrified of my politics now,” she threatened on Twitter, “just wait until they find out about public libraries.” Just wait, indeed! From a BA from BU to the embodiment of all human knowledge in just 48 hours!
Let me google that for you. How many House of Representatives members have a degree in economics? In 2014,
Twenty-seven members have undergraduate degrees in economics, according to a CQ database of the various educational degrees and occupations each congressmen lists on his resume.
Ironically, Ocasio-Cortez's insurgent doppelgänger, David Brat who unseated Eric Cantor, can see her undergraduate degree in economics from Boston University, raise her a Masters in Divinity from Princeton, raise her again with a PhD in Economics from American University, and to crown it all, was a professor in economics for more than twenty years at Randolph Macon University. As they say in the legal profession, when making an argument don't ask a rhetorical question to which you don't already know the answer.

As an aside, in checking on the number of House members with a degree in economics, I came across this factoid from the Congressional Research Service which I find oddly pleasing:
20 Members of the House have no educational degree beyond a high school diploma
We have a great Republic where everyone has a chance.

Reminds me of that old saw from William F. Buckley.
I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.
Back to Ocasio-Cortez. What is striking to me is the profound disconnect between her demonstrated lack of economic knowledge in these two interviews and the fact that she has an economics degree from Boston University, and from not too long ago, she having graduated in 2011. What are they teaching in econ at BU these days? Or, apparently more pertinently, not teaching? This level of profound unawareness seems incompatible with so recently having been, nominally, steeped in learning economics. As a major.

What is that they are teaching at BU for a quarter of million dollars that puts you in a position after four years of not even knowing the basics of your own chosen field of study?

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