This week’s reading

Week ending 30 May 2014

This week I’ve been reading articles on:


America and the death penalty

I’ve long been an opponent of the death penalty. I support its total abolition in the United States, preferably in the form of a constitutional amendment. So I’ve been gratified to see the U.S.’s use of capital punishment coming under increasing scrutiny in the light of recent botched executions.

In an article on 30 April, the day after Clayton Lockett died at Oklahoma State Penitentiary from a heart attack following a failed execution attempt, American freelance writer Jesse Berney wrote eloquently in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper of his shame that his country still carries out death sentences:

Lockett was the 20th person put to death in the United States in 2014. That’s 20 lives ended so far this year not by accident or illness or murder, but by our collective will, acting together to decide that we, as a society, have the right to declare that someone should die. It is a terrible stain on our humanity, and there are no studies, no reforms, no changes we can make to erase that stain. The death penalty cannot be improved or corrected. We can only stop killing people. And we must.

But the scrutiny isn’t just here at home. Steven Erlanger of The New York Times noted Europe’s disdain for this “particularly brutal American anachronism”:

The criticism spanned Europe’s ideological divide, outraging conservatives and liberals. Alice Arnold, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, a right-leaning newspaper in Britain, wrote that “America is missing the point,” which is about “the very concept of killing in cold blood” and not about the method.

“I am proud to be British today, proud that I live in a country where this barbarism does not exist, but we must remember this atrocity occurred not in some far-off, third-world dictatorship,” Ms. Arnold wrote. “It happened in America, land of the free.”

Read more
Every US execution is just as shameful as Oklahoma’s botched killing
by Jesse Berney
The Guardian, 30 April 2014

Outrage Across Ideological Spectrum in Europe Over Flawed Lethal Injection in U.S.
by Steven Erlanger
The New York Times, 30 April 2014


Sprawl’s Achilles heel

Over at The Urbanophile, Aaron Renn explains what may finally get American cities to turn away from low-grade suburban sprawl: they can’t afford it.

“… the real reason sprawl, or suburban development as we’ve been practicing it, is a problem isn’t because it’s ugly, environmentally damaging, racist, or some other form of evil. The more fundamental problem is that it’s a long term financial loser. The numbers just don’t add up over the long term when you take a lifecycle view of it.”

Read more
When Sprawl Hits the Wall
by Aaron Renn
The Urbanophile, 22 May 2014


Is college worth it?

I’ve written extensively on my own doubts about the value and quality of institutions of higher education in the United States. A friend pointed me to blog post at NYTimes.com that asked if college is worth it and came to the conclusion that, yes, it is.

The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year, according to the new data, which is based on an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.

But what of the pressing feeling for many—especially many recent, highly educated college graduates with mountains of student debt working as baristas at Starbucks and sleeping on their parents’ couch—that college just isn’t worth it? “[P]ublic discussion today—for which we in the news media deserve some responsibility—often focuses on the undeniable fact that a bachelor’s degree does not guarantee success,” David Leonhardt notes. “But of course it doesn’t. Nothing guarantees success, especially after 15 years of disappointing economic growth and rising inequality.”

NPR got in on the action, too, asking if there are times when college really isn’t worth it. Anya Kamenetz concludes that there are three situations when higher ed doesn’t pay:

  1. If you don’t graduate.
  2. If you pick the wrong college.
  3. If you pick the wrong degree.

Sounds like a lot of situations where something could go wrong, if you ask me. But, undoubtedly, I’ll be visiting this issue again soon.

Read more
Is College  Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say
by David Leonhardt
NYTimes.com, 27 May 2014

When College Isn’t Worth It
by Anya Kamenetz
NPR.org, 28 May 2014


Personal finance

Moisés Naím at The Atlantic wrote about a simple, three-question finance quiz administered to people in various countries around the globe. The results were published by two economists, Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell, and they are startling. Only half of Germans and the Swiss, the highest scorers, got all three questions correct. Americans fared considerably worse: only 30% aced the quiz (fortunately, I am among them).

The problem? “Financial ignorance is widespread even as the world has changed in ways that make such ignorance more dangerous than ever before,” Mr. Naím writes, and he goes on to quote Ms. Lusardi and Ms. Mitchell on just why “dangerous” is a perfect descriptor:

Financial markets around the world have become increasingly accessible to the ‘small investor,’ as new products and financial services grow widespread. At the onset of the recent financial crisis, consumer credit and mortgage borrowing had burgeoned. People who had credit cards or subprime mortgages were in the historically unusual position of being able to decide how much they wanted to borrow. Alternative financial services including payday loans, pawn shops, auto title loans, tax refund loans, and rent-to-own shops have also become widespread. At the same time, changes in the pension landscape are increasingly thrusting responsibility for saving, investing, and decumulating wealth onto workers and retirees…. [Today], Baby Boomers mainly have defined contribution (DC) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) during their working years. This trend toward disintermediation is increasingly requiring people to decide how much to save and where to invest and, during retirement, to take on responsibility for careful decumulation so as not to outlive their assets while meeting their needs.

Read more
Most People in the World Have No Idea How to Manage Their Money
by Moisés Naím
The Atlantic, 7 May 2014

And seriously, people, if you can’t answer all three questions correctly, you need to get in touch with these people.


Watch London grow

This video made the rounds a couple of weeks ago, and I’m finally getting around to sharing it myself. A little something for everyone—urban planners, historians, Anglophiles—in this one.

Collegiate brutal: Why brutalist-style buildings are so common on American college campuses

My first day as a student at the University of Utah, I passed through heavy wooden doors and entered the labyrinthine complex of corridors and classrooms where future architects and urban planners learned their craft. It always reminded me of the gatehouse of a medieval castle. It was dark, with most daylight blocked out in much of the building, the recessed incandescents effecting the faint glow of torches. The bare concrete and brick walls were always cold to the touch; it may have been dank were it not for a modern climate-control system. I rather liked it, though I may have been alone in my affection.

Angular, heavy, austere, concrete brutalist buildings are a hallmark of college campuses in the United States. Rare is the campus without at least one of them; rarer still is the one that doesn’t inspire a considerable amount of derision in modern eyes. But why do American universities have so many brutalist buildings?

The reason most commonly given—to prevent student riots and occupations—is in all likelihood an urban legend, writes Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder:

Many campus Brutalist projects were planned (if not totally completed) before the student movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s really took off, so crafty administrators would have to have been very prescient to foresee the countercultural-quashing usefulness of any particular style.

In fact, Mr. Lowder points out, “the philosophy behind Brutalism—which was developed in the ’50s and early ’60s, again well before the student rebellions began—was directly opposed to repression and control, a detail which makes the style’s later association with totalitarianism all the more ironic.”

The real reasons? First, it was modern and vogue, eagerly adopted by universities anxious to “demonstrate their modernity bona fides.” Second, “building in concrete was way, way cheap.”

So, there you have it. University administrators were looking after the bottom line a little more than they were looking to quell student aspirations. Though, as any student who has taken classes in a cold, colorless, concrete brutalist building may tell you, they may have succeeded in doing that, too.

Read more
“Were Brutalist Buildings on College Campuses Really Designed to Thwart Student Riots?” by J. Bryan Lowder
Slate, 18 October 2013

Photo: The Art and Architecture Building at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Image by Paul Richer/Richer Images via the University of Utah.