by Gary North
In most colleges, there is one course, required for graduation, that worries students. For humanities majors, it's usually a math class. For science majors hoping to go to medical school, it's an art history or literature class.
On the other hand, there is usually another course that students take when they are looking for a snap course to take in the same year that the killer course is required. If it's offered on a pass/fail basis, so much the better. This leaves more time to study for the killer course.
Every American is enrolled in Lifestyle University. Some of them are getting high grades. Others are on probation. Golden Years 101 is the final required course in the curriculum. After that, it's either graduation day or dismissal.
Scuttlebutt has it that it's a snap course. Everyone who has taken the class so far has passed. But there is a rumor floating around that the Administration is going to tighten the standards for passing the course. It's no longer going to be a snap. In fact, one rumor says, the Administration is going to turn it into a killer course.
Are you preparing in advance for this class? Probably not. You assume that the rumor is unreliable. After all, why would the Administration impose new standards for the course at this late date?
I have it on reliable authority that the regional accreditation association has sent down the word: either tighten standards for Golden Years 101 or else Lifestyle University's accreditation will be revoked. That would put a whole lot of administrators out of work, possibly permanently.
So, the Administration faces two difficult options: (1) tell enrolled students in advance about the proposed tightening and let them start preparing in advance, preferably in summer, when the sun is still shining; (2) let them keep attending, unaware of the looming transformation, and then flunk 80% of them on the final exam as a warning to lower division students. If the Administration chooses option #1, too many students might decide to drop out of Lifestyle University. The school could be forced to close its doors, putting administrators out of work. But if they lose accreditation, the place could also go under. It will become too difficult to raise funds from donors. What's an administrator to do?
PROFESSOR GREENSPAN'S SOLUTION
Professor Greenspan, the beloved but visibly aging chairman of the economics department, is known for his ability to raise funds for Lifestyle University under all conditions. No matter what happens to enrollment, no matter what the competition is doing, he always comes through. He gets the money to keep the doors open. That's why the Administration keeps him on the faculty. He is well beyond normal retirement age.
The Administration generally trusts him. The students think he's kind of quaint — the 1964 black rim glasses, the weird way he lectures, and his ability to answer questions at the end of class without giving even a hint of what's going to be on the final exam. A few economics majors complain that his answers make no sense, but they are a minority. The rest of the students don't care, since almost everybody passes the only course that the department offers that is required for graduation, Golden Years 101. Professor Greenspan has taught it for many years.
He has come up with a plan. Go ahead, he has told the Administration: raise the standards for his class. Get the accreditation association to accept the new standards. Then, secretly, he will leak the questions and answers to a few trusted students on the night before the final exam. (All of these students are majoring either in communications or political science. Not one is majoring in economics.) The student grapevine will work, everyone will still pass, and the Administration can tell the accreditation commission that it's the result of hard work by students.
The problem, of course, is that the accreditation association is concerned that the graduates are unprepared for the world beyond graduation day. With everyone basically guaranteed a passing grade in Golden Years 101, nobody is studying for the final. Why bother? Everyone passes. The association is known to have student informants on campus, and if the exam questions get leaked, the accreditation commission will find out. They will revoke accreditation, and the graduates, degrees in hand, will find that the degrees are worthless, or close to it, in the real world.
THE REAL FINAL EXAM
A word to the wise: the accreditation association has learned of Professor Greenspan's plan to get around the association's new requirements. Someone deliberately tipped them off. I mention no names.
They have developed counter-measures. How I know about this, I am not at liberty to say. Trust me. They have consulted with a team of little-known economists from Austria to prepare a far more rigorous final exam. On the day of the final exam, the accreditation commission's representative — again, I mention no name — is going to substitute a different final exam for Professor Greenspan's.
But, you ask, haven't I just let the cat out of the bag? Haven't I blown the cover for the accreditation association? Hardly. Most students really don't care. Lifestyle University is so much fun, and the keg parties are so frequent, that they really don't pay attention to academic details. Their parents graduated from Lifestyle U years ago, and they're still doing just fine. Professor Greenspan is grading the course the same way that Professor Volcker graded it, at least after that brief tightening period back in 1980—83, when it looked like a lot of students were going to flunk Golden Years 101. The students' philosophy is eat, drink, and be merry. Professor Greenspan will find a way!
So, what about you? Do you think my scenario is plausible? Will the accreditation association substitute a different final exam at the last moment? Will you walk into class, confident that Professor Greenspan will hand out the same final that his favorite students leaked the night before?
Sadly, I think most of you will. This bothers me. I like you. I really do. But I have discovered over the years that whenever I begin talking about Golden Years 101, most people get a wistful look in their eyes, and start telling me stories about how their parents passed the final exam with flying colors, as did their grandparents under Professor Martin, who taught the class even longer than Professor Greenspan has. Then they depart. There is always a keg party going on somewhere at Lifestyle U.
A CRIB SHEET
Okay, now that the others have gone, I'll let you in on a little secret. I have a copy of the accreditation association's final exam. I hope I can trust you to keep your lips sealed. I wouldn't dare hand this out to a large group, but by this time, there is hardly anyone still reading this report.
The trouble is, you will find this exam difficult, even with this prior warning. I worry that you will not go through the questions, one by one, and write down your answers. That's the way it is with even the best students. They prefer not to consider the possibility that a final exam will be really difficult to pass. They would rather think about the good old days, when things were easier. They prefer to believe that things haven't changed. Even when they have an opportunity to get their hands on a purloined copy of the final, most of them prefer not to think about the questions. They don't like to do the necessary research in advance to make sure that they will pass the final. They say they never cheat. They say they don't want to gain an unfair advantage on their peers. Maybe that's true. But maybe they just don't want to find out in advance that they are going to flunk because they can't answer the questions. They find the questions quite difficult to answer.
But a handful of you may decide to prepare for the final for Golden Years 101 — I mean the real final, not Professor Greenspan's — in advance. If so, here are the questions.
Question #1 (25%)
Because this answer varies with each person, you are going to have to provide the income numbers. The grader will give you a grade based on your strategy in solving the problem, not the actual numbers. Here's the accepted strategy to solve the problem.
How much money must you have in your pension fund on the day you retire if your goal is to receive 50% of the income that you will generate in your final year of full-time employment?
First, estimate what your income will be in the final year of your employment. This involves making guesses. Your grade will depend on how persuading the grader will regard your assumptions. Here are the basic factors he will be looking for:
Estimated income in that final year:
Total from salary, bonuses, investment income, moonlighting, and inheritance
Consumer prices in that year, adjusted for price inflation compared with prices today
Divide by 2.
Ratio of dividends to invested capital in your retirement portfolio:
- Past five years
- This year
- The year of your retirement (guess)
- From retirement to the Final final exam
Social Security income
- What monthly income has the Social Security Administration officially promised you, given your level of "contributions"? (The answer to this question will not be known on final exam day by 95% of the students.)
- What is the likelihood that Social Security will still be solvent in your tenth year of retirement? (This is an essay question — possibly quite brief.)
- What is the likelihood that the U.S. dollar will still be solvent in the tenth year of your retirement, assuming that Social Security is still solvent? (Another essay question.)
Question #2 (25%)
What will be the effect of prices on this level of income in the years following your retirement?
The effect of price inflation:
- What has the average rate of consumer price inflation been over the last five years?
- Why did you select either the CPI or the Median CPI (published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland)?
- What economic factors are likely to raise or lower the rate of price inflation during your years of retirement?
- By how much?
Question #3 (25%)
A. If your previous answer predicts price inflation:
How will you keep pace with rising prices on a fixed monetary income?
- Moonlighting, wiser investing, inheritances, Social Security increases, sponging off your children
- What new expenses will you be paying after you retire that you do not pay now?
- Will Medicare still be solvent? (An essay question — again, possibly brief)
B. If your previous answer predicts price deflation:
- How will your investment portfolio continue to deliver the same ratio of dividends?
- How will the value of your investment portfolio continue to remain stable in an era of price deflation?
C. If your previous answer predicts stable prices:
- How will the Federal Reserve System produce this outcome, given its failure to do so ever since 1929? (An essay question — probably quite long)
- How will the U.S. manufacturing sector do this, given China and India?
Question #4 (25%)
What will be the likely result politically if 80% of the people who take this final exam flunk it? (An essay question.)
You will get five bonus points if you write this exam in red ink. This indicates that you have understood Golden Years 101.
October 25, 2003
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