The Bear’s Lair: Defund the colleges, not the police

There has been a cry among the college-educated left this week to “defund the police.” For normal citizens, especially those living in big cities, that is a terrible idea – the crime rates of the 1970s and 1980s are not something they want to return to. However, it is clear that much of the unhappiness and unrest among Millennials and Gen-Z derives from the problem that there are now more college graduates than what were traditionally considered “college-level jobs.” If we are to defund something, therefore, would it not make more sense to defund the colleges?

The left, who now wish to defund the police, also get upset about the 1819 “Peterloo Massacre” and write indignant books about the brutality of the regime that produced it. Yet that unfortunate event stemmed directly from the lack of an urban police force. It occurred in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, where a gigantic crowd, estimated at 60,000 (probably too high a figure, since the 1821 Census population of Manchester was only 126,000) assembled to hear a speech from “Orator” Henry Hunt and petition for relief of the depression that had hit the Manchester cotton industry. (That depression had two causes: deflation from resumption of the Gold Standard and a massive trade depression, the “Panic of 1819” in the United States, with which Manchester had large commercial links.) Keeping order was the responsibility of the Chief Magistrate, a foolish man called William Hulton (whose family were later to kill 20 times Peterloo’s casualties in their family-owned coal mines in the second worst mining disaster in British history. An accident-prone gene-pool.)

Having no police force, Hulton took the dubious decision to arrest Hunt during the meeting, and sent in the Yeomanry, a scarcely-trained militia on scarcely-trained horses, to do so. The militia rode into the vast crowd, where they and their horses panicked, and they started laying about them with their swords. The crowd then panicked; the militia and the crowd’s panic killed about 15 people, but injured hundreds more. Order was restored by the 15th Hussars, a “regular” Army regiment, which being much better disciplined, dispersed the crowd without significant further casualties.

After this disaster, Lord Liverpool’s government, which has been rather unjustly blamed for it for 200 years, introduced the “Six Acts” regulating public meetings. A few years later the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, invented modern police, the Metropolitan Police Force, initially for London, but rapidly copied by large provincial cities such as Manchester. With a capable police force and a more sensible Chief Magistrate, the casualties of “Peterloo” would presumably have been avoided.

Today, we can see an experiment in defunding a police force in the recent history of Detroit, where the city’s bankruptcy caused a partial defunding of the police force. While much of the city was reduced to near-anarchy, the middle-classes, according to a “Vice” story last year, hired a private security force, VIPER, supported by local residents and businesses, to deter criminals by a show of force. VIPER uses black and chrome vehicles topped by strobe lights, and paramilitary tactics. While VIPER is fully multi-racial, if you’re a low-level hoodlum you’d probably rather be stopped by the remnants of the Detroit police.

As the Peterloo and VIPER examples show, conventional policing, if done correctly, protects the malefactors as well as the residents by controlling the force used against them. The one useful de-funding that might take place is of police unions, which protect the malefactors among the police, leaving them free to err again. Camden, New Jersey, appears to have removed police unions by dissolving and re-forming its police force; its example would seem one to follow.

While defunding the police is not a good idea, defunding colleges looks much more sensible. The percentage of U.S. adults with 4-year college degrees is currently 35%, up from 5% in 1960, and the rise in Britain has been even steeper. However, the number of jobs for which a college degree is desirable has not increased in parallel. The New York Fed noticed as long ago as 2012 that a large percentage of college graduates were working in jobs that did not require a college degree, and even with full employment before the coronavirus, some 41% of college graduates were “underemployed” in 2019. That is an enormous waste of resources; nearly half the people who devote four years of their lives and untold amounts of money to getting a 4-year college degree receive no return on their investment.

In Britain, the expansion of universities came in two phases. The first, in the 1960s, produced a lot of “plate glass” universities that were mostly heavily dominated by the left but some of which, for example Warwick University, evolved into capable scientific research institutions. The second expansion was achieved by a stroke of prime minister John Major’s pen in 1992, when he re-designated all the lower-tier technical colleges as universities. The technical colleges had been providing a useful service similar to U.S. community colleges, without engaging in high-level research. Once they had been re-designated they gave themselves airs, bloated their administrative staffs, devised politicized courses and fourth-rate research operations, and soaked up a vastly increased amount of the nation’s education budget.

Major’s own career, leaving school at 14 and becoming prime minister, was an indication that a complete lack of education was indeed a disadvantage in the very top jobs, but a decent high-school qualification would probably have been sufficient for the usual prime ministerial functions, although it would doubtless have left him with the huge chip on his shoulder that was a further disqualifying factor to his success. In any case, the results of Major’s action decisively disproved his belief that by forcing twice the number of students to waste years of their life at universities you can get double the number of qualified graduates. In practice, about 5% of British graduates are qualified for high-level jobs, the same percentage as in 1950. The remainder would do much better to leave after high school, or possibly take a year or so of vocational training that gives them a leg-up for a job in an industry where there is a continuing demand for labor.

Contrary to what the experts have been telling us for the last 50 years, technology is not increasing the demand for university degrees and will not increase it in the future. Manufacturing has been outsourced to China; it is likely that it will have to be de-outsourced again over the next decade or so. However, the manufacturing jobs thereby created will not require university degrees. Instead, they will require very specific skills, better learned in an apprenticeship program, which can be combined with “distance learning” courses to firm up any skills that have been neglected in America’s and Britain’s lamentably low-grade high school systems. Certainly, there is no additional need for innumerable modestly skilled liberal arts and sociology graduates; such people are fit only to be government bureaucrats, and the fewer of those we have the better.

The workforce of tomorrow will not in general need college degrees, although about 3-5% at the top should continue to attend the best colleges, to acquire the very top-level skills of Silicon Valley’s best minds, or to train as future professors and full-time intellectuals. The remainder will do much better to rely on distance learning, picking up the skills they need through Khan Academy or some similar service. There should be a plethora of one-year courses available, mainly for mid-career life changes – you cannot rely that an industry or occupation that seems attractively expanding at 20 will still exist by the time you retire at 70.

With most colleges swept away, high schools will have to step up. Skills that are genuinely needed by a large percentage of the workforce will have to be taught properly in high schools, rather than left to colleges to sort out. For example, calculus, left in most U.S. school systems to the senior year of high school, when most students are busy with college applications, should be studied on an elementary basis in the freshmen year of high school. That way, students will have more than 3 years to get used to integrating calculus concepts into their quantitative thinking and will be properly trained to use calculus techniques in their future lives. I will leave it up to the reader’s imagination to consider what courses high schools could drop to make way for this new emphasis; I am sure we could all devise long lists.

Police forces perform a vital function; without them our society would return to barbarism. Colleges, on the other hand, have been grossly over-expanded and are mostly unnecessary, indeed undesirable for a comfortable existence in the world we inhabit. Furthermore, they have recently devoted themselves to trammeling young minds into channels of political correctness, limiting the information they process and leading them to favor the worst options for society’s future. As barriers to fully informed thinking, colleges are thus not merely a waste of money but a menace to society. Information needs to be free, and by de-funding colleges we can make it so.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)