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From Obama, a new focus on math and science education -- and a new plum for prize-winners

Ohanian Comment: Another phony crisis, used by the President and others to divert us from the deep, fundamental economic crisis which is real. I happen to live in Vermont, the state ranking 6th in hunger. According to the US Department of Agriculture one in 20 Vermonters ranks as "severely hungry." To put that in a national context: 49 million Americans are having a hard time getting enough food. Millions of these people are children. Look at the research on what food deprivation does to the brain of a child.

Note in the Washington Post piece below that surprise, surprise, President Obama partners with business. Hmmmm. Maybe he should start his conversations with business by asking Goldman-Sachs why they paid only 1% tax on their profits last year. And then there are the salaries. Don't you think that someone with a math degree might have second thoughts about a science-related job when the average salary, including benefits, at Goldman-Sachs is $770,000 smackers? Physics Ph.D.s will find jobs at universities hard to come by--except as adjuncts, where the pay is around $5,000 per course.

See Steve Krashen's letter to the Washington Post and read George's analysis below. Read his analysis, and then subscribe to Substance.

George Schmidt comment:

The problem isn't with college and university graduates in engineering, math and science, but with the salary structure they face upon graduation, especially those with huge college loan debt, on the one hand, and huge math abilities, on the other.

In other words, it's structural in the economy, or, to put it in the classical sense:


Here is how the "crisis" works ΓΆ€” and how Obama just made it work.

First, remember:

Financial "engineering" (read: Wall Street manipulation of huge numbers using huge computer systems) is just another kind of "engineering", albeit at the same time socially useless and (now) proven to be dangerous.

But as long as the "market" for the "best and the brightest" functions as it does today, the old poker player's warning holds. If you sit down at the table and you don't know who the sucker is, it's probably you.

In this case, the sucker is everybody who prattles on about how we need more "engineering" (read: math, science, and computer) whiz kids, when in fact we just created an economy which is forcing them into "financial engineering" as if that were the only place worth rewarding socially. It's a market thing.


Advanced students in engineering, math and science at the undergraduate level are being burdened with increasing student loan debt, both for their undergraduate and graduate work. However, the skills that get them through the toughest programs in math, science, and engineering, are rewarded most (in dollar terms) not by going into "green" technology jobs, as Obama and the administration seem to fantasize, but by going straight to Wall Street to jobs tweaking massive amounts of data to create new "investment instruments" that only skilled math wizards with some of the most arcane knowledge can understand.

Since the collapse of Long Term Capital Management more than ten years ago, Wall Street's investment banks have understood that the ability to manipulate arcane numbers and create massive, usually computer driven, data bases is worth rewarding. Couple those outsize pay and bonus schedules with the debt most undergraduates (and virtually all graduates) face when they arrive in the job market at age 21, 23 or a bit later, and the choice is as basic as "markets 101" -- they take the jobs that will pay the most.

And those jobs are no longer in the engineering of real things (automobiles, dams, energy transfer systems, new ways to capture and exploit energy resources -- as the "green" fantasists would have) but in financial engineering (which requires some of the same basic math, statistical, and computer skills).

How did Obama just make that worse?

By pouring out taxpayer dollars to the same banks whose "best and brightest" helped created the mess that collapsed the world economy a little over a year ago. (A good date is September 15, 2008, when they allowed Lehman Brothers to go under).

Financial "engineering" using super sophisticated computer models and advanced math skills wasn't even thought of as a lucrative "engineering" career choice until the past decade, when the entire economy began to be distorted (forever?) by the lopsided structure of "pay" in the financial sector.

Not it's one of the biggest reasons for the domestic brain drain of math, science and engineering students in the USA today.

Why spend ten years at relatively minimum wage tinkering with windmills or solar paneling, when you can make more in one year in "financial engineering"?

Only a sucker could miss the underlying math in this one.

But it looks like the suckers in this game began in the White House (two administrations) and continue through those who just let the rats out of the Wall Street barns again after the bailout.

George Schmidt is the editor of Substance.

by Michael D. Shear, The Washington Post

President Obama today announced partnerships with private businesses to increase achievement in math and science, saying the country must do more to compete with the world in those areas.

The new federal campaign will encourage businesses and non profit groups -- including the Discovery Channel, Intel, and Time Warner -- to focus more energy and money to teach kids about math and science.

"The hard truth is that for decades we have been losing ground," Obama told a group in the East Room of the White House Monday, noting that American students are rated 21st in the world in science and 25th in math. "We all believe that we can't allow division and indifference to imperil our position in the world."

Obama's proposal, called "Educate to Innovate," will feature a new two-year focus on math and science by Sesame Street and a national "lab day," sponsored by several national philanthropic groups.

The president also announced a new, annual White House science fair for the winners of national science and math competitions.

"If you win the NCAA championships, you come to the White House," he said. "Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and celebrities as role models."

— Michael D. Shear with comment by George Schmidt
Washington Post





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