books

Lumen and Follett team up to deliver open course content through bookstores

OER provider Lumen Learning joins with Follett to bring open course content to faculty through the campus bookstore.

Is New York's decision to spend $8 million on OER a turning point?

Inside Digital Learning asked ed tech experts if New York State's decision to pour millions of dollars into open education resources represents a breakthrough for OER. Here are their responses. Do you agree?

Pearson enters partnership with Chegg on textbook rentals

Student-services provider Chegg is the first company to work with Pearson on a new textbook-rental program the publisher announced in January, according to a report in Inside Higher Ed last week.

Follett, Lumen Learning announce OER partnership

OER provider Lumen Learning joins with Follett to bring open course content to faculty members through the campus bookstore.

History journal apologizes for assigning review of book on urban education and inequality to someone viewed as a white supremacist

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Leading history journal apologizes for assigning review of book on inequality and urban education issues to a professor viewed by many as a white supremacist.

Conservative Outrage at Academe: MIT Press

Word spread last week that MIT Press has published a book called Communism for Kids, by Bini Adamczak, a Berlin-based social theorist and artist. The press describes the book, in part, this way: "It all unfolds like a story, with jealous princesses, fancy swords, displaced peasants, mean bosses and tired workers -- not to mention a Ouija board, a talking chair and a big pot called 'the state.' Before they know it, readers are learning about the economic history of feudalism, class struggles in capitalism, different ideas of communism and more. Finally, competition between two factories leads to a crisis that the workers attempt to solve in six different ways (most of them borrowed from historic models of communist or socialist change). Each attempt fails, since true communism is not so easy after all. But it’s also not that hard. At last, the people take everything into their own hands and decide for themselves how to continue. Happy ending? Only the future will tell."

While there have been no reports of school districts assigning the book, conservative bloggers have sounded an alarm. And to the alarm of some in academic publishing, some on social media have called for the book to be burned. One much forwarded (and liked) tweet says, "Academia Out of Control: MIT Press Publishes ‘Communism for Kids’ Book Should Be Burned & Banned."

MIT Press issued this statement from its director, Amy Brand: "The MIT Press gives its editors and authors the freedom to publish peer-reviewed works that inspire conversations and provoke thought. Recently we have heard objections from media outlets and individuals who find this book offensive. We respect that criticism and of course expect to receive it in the case of any book that makes a controversial case. We do not endorse any philosophy other than freedom of expression -- for our authors, our readers and, in times like this, our critics. All of us benefit from the full and free exchange of ideas that matter."

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Coloring book offers academics chance to be creative while poking fun at their lives

A coloring book from the University of Chicago Press? Yes, and it pokes fun at academe.

Review of Richard Murphy, "Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy"

A march in Washington calling for the release of Donald Trump’s income tax returns is scheduled for April 15 -- putting turnout somewhat at the mercy of potential participants’ diligence about getting their own returns filed early. The demand is reasonable and has been called for by, at last report, 53 percent of voters, though that is no reason to expect the demonstration will have much effect. Whatever Trump needed to hide as a candidate obviously remains a vulnerability now that he is president.

His returns might yet enter the public record in the course of congressional (and other) investigations. But there is little chance of full disclosure even then, as Richard Murphy’s Dirty Secrets: How Tax Havens Destroy the Economy (Verso) has the indirect effect of reminding us. The available means for concealing assets -- whether from tax agents, creditors or the lawyers of former spouses -- are highly developed and amount to an alternative global economy in their own right.

Murphy, a professor of practice in International political economy at City, University of London, is both a chartered accountant and a co-founder of the Tax Justice Network, an international research and advocacy group. Of the five books he has published, this is the fourth on taxation; he mentions in passing that he wrote it in three months, almost certainly meaning last summer. (The endnotes tend to confirm this hunch: the latest articles and reports they cite are from August.) No discussion of taxation can be too short for the lay public, but Dirty Secrets puts muckraking and pedagogy in tandem to good effect.

The expression “tax haven” is still in general use, understood, Murphy writes, as “a place whose tax system provides an advantage to a person who is not resident in that place.” It calls to mind the discreet, friendly, uninquisitive accountants of Switzerland or the Bahamas, hiding cash in your name in a vault somewhere far from the authorities back home. But the somewhat broader term “secrecy jurisdiction” proves much more suitable for conveying both the range and the mechanics of the offshore economy.

“All the tax haven does,” Murphy explains, “is record the ownership of assets that are located in one place (which is not the tax haven) by a person who is themselves resident anywhere but the tax haven.” The ownership may be by a company or fund rather than an individual; the assets may be “title to lands and buildings” or such tangible wealth as “art, yachts and the like,” not just currency. “Nor,” the author explains, “are these investments usually managed from the tax haven in which their ownership is recorded. The decisions on where, and in what, the funds are ‘invested’ will, in all likelihood, be made by fund managers or share owners who are themselves almost certainly located ‘elsewhere.’”

For that matter, “very few banks [are] based in tax havens,” which instead host branches of international institutions (Deutsche Bank, Lloyds Bank, the Bank of Cyprus, etc.). Murphy’s own research into “the 60 secrecy jurisdictions studied as the basis of the first Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index” in 2010 found that more than two-thirds of them had local offices of at least two of the world’s four leading accounting firms. (All four firms had offices in 33 of the countries studied.)

Determining how much wealth is involved -- or the economic impact of the loss of tax revenue, especially in the poorest countries -- requires great effort as well as considerable tolerance for wide margins in the final estimates. In 2011, Murphy’s analysis of World Bank data “estimated the total cost of tax evasion in the world as a whole at $3.1 trillion, or about 5 percent of world GDP at the time.”

A report released the following year by his colleagues in the Tax Justice Network used a number of methods to handle data from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and numerous other sources to make an estimate of between  $21 trillion and $32 trillion “for global offshore financial assets as of 2010,” with “estimated annual loss of revenue at between $190 billion and $280 billion.” While not satisfied with the methodology of some researchers he cites, Murphy notes that they seem to converge on the figure of at least $200 billion a year of tax revenue lost to offshore concealment alone.

Very large numbers are easier to cite than to wrap the mind around, and they at best convey only a very general sense of the scale of the problem. The cumulative effect on public budgets around the world is obvious: Murphy treats the rise of secrecy jurisdictions as integral to the neoliberal agenda, with its ultimate ambition of ensuring that tax revenue is directed to funding police, prisons and the military while not a dime is spent for any other public purpose.

But Murphy also, surprisingly, regards tax havens as an affront to the power of the marketplace and their defeat as essential to saving capitalism from itself. I admit that this argument caught me off guard. Here is the author making it in brief.

If markets are to be efficient in the way that economists have described -- and as those who suggest they provide optimal solutions profess to believe they operate -- then there must be the highest-quality information available to all market participants so that they can act rationally, allocating resources to the person who is best able to use them to maximize return, and who exposes the provider of capital to the lowest risk in that process. Very obviously, tax havens undermine these principles. They are in fact designed to deny market participants the information they need to act rationally, allocate resources efficiently and minimize risk. … If risk is increased, then the required rate of return within marketplaces also increases. This means that the number of projects that can be invested in is reduced, so that the amount of capital committed is diminished. As a consequence, productivity declines, and along with it growth, output, wages and profits.

The suite of reforms Murphy proposes amount to a program of robust data collection by the European Union and other international actors combined with legislation that would, bit by bit, make access to secrecy jurisdictions more difficult and less profitable. The alternative is even more staggering levels of inequality than have already become the norm. Murphy’s trust in the possibility for reform would be easier to credit if the shadow economy were some kind of lamprey that had attached itself to an otherwise healthy organism; then it could be removed. But his book is too persuasive in its depiction of tax havens as tightly connected to banks, accounting firms and other established institutions. They seem to exist in a kind of symbiosis -- which can’t end well.

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Trial and Error: Cutting textbook costs

Lynn University strives to slash students' spending while increasing the quality -- and use -- of course materials.

Review of Joseph Mitchell, "'Man -- With Variations': Interviews With Franz Boas and Colleagues, 1937"

“A newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature,” Joseph Mitchell confessed in the opening pages of My Ears Are Bent (1938), a selection of the pieces that had, presumably, gotten him into trouble. “It is not easy,” as he also noted in passing, “to get an interview with Professor Franz Boas, the greatest anthropologist in the world, across a city desk.”

But in fact he had recently done so -- in a series of articles for The New York World-Telegraph that have only now been collected between covers as “Man -- With Variations”: Interviews With Franz Boas and Colleagues, 1937, published by Prickly Paradigm Press and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The volume, best described as a pamphlet, was edited by Robert Brightman, a professor of Native American studies at Reed College, whose excellent introduction supplies not just context but also a thoughtful consideration of Mitchell’s place at the convergence of ethnography, journalism and memoir.

In 1938, Mitchell became a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he passed into legend as one of the pre-eminent literary journalists of all time. These earlier pieces are invaluable for understanding his work as a whole, and it's good to have them rescued from oblivion.

“Greatest anthropologist in the world” may sound like journalistic hyperbole, but much the same was said by Boas’s peers, and Mitchell was well within the bounds of fair comment in presenting the German-born professor to American readers as “the most dangerous enemy of Adolf Hitler’s racial concepts.” (The very concept of race he regarded as imprecise and scientifically dubious, while that of a “pure” or “superior” race was “impossible to countenance.”)

Beyond the topical significance of Boas’s work -- increasingly clear as the Nazi juggernaut was warming up -- Mitchell presented anthropology as the discipline that could, in effect, teach the world to recognize human nature within human variety, and vice versa.

A solemn priority -- not that Mitchell was po-faced about addressing it. In the third article, he pivoted from profiling Boas to describing the work done by the anthropologists he had trained, making the transition with what is the best sentence I have read so far this year, and probably for a longer while than that.

Nothing disgusts the average young anthropologist so much as the heroic stories in the newspaper about those African expeditions organized by well-heeled young gents whose mamas are willing to buy them yachts and tons of Abercrombie & Fitch equipment just to keep them from going on sit-down strikes in fancy gin mills or from getting themselves betrothed to fan dancers.

This is the first line -- in journalistic argot, the lead -- of the third of Mitchell’s six articles. Any lead tries to stake a claim on public attention somehow; that obligation grows exponentially more difficult if it is certain that quite a few readers will not have seen the earlier installments of a series. Mitchell goes about it with humor, obviously, but also with great rhetorical finesse.

Every word in the sentence is precisely chosen to elicit wry recognition from the newspaper-buying public of 1937. The reader today will share very little with the “imagined community” (to borrow a more recent anthropologist’s expression) for which Mitchell was writing. Yet after 80 years, his lead still works: scenes from some long-lost Marx brothers film flicker in the mind for just a second while reading it.

In 1937, the American high school graduation rate had not yet reached 50 percent, yet Mitchell was undertaking not just to explain anthropology to a heterogeneous public but also to convey to readers that Boas’s students and colleagues were dedicated and serious researchers. Two paragraphs after mentioning the fan dancers, he sketches a portrait of the anthropologist as a young penny-pincher.

If, for instance, he goes for a summer’s work on aboriginal linguistics he will not have much more than $500 to spend, and he will probably buy a used automobile to save traveling expenses, selling it when he returns, and he will eat scantily and live simply spending every possible copper on the problem he has set for himself.

How effective was this in convincing John and Jane Q. Public at the height of the Depression? It’s impossible to know, but with a few precise words in the best possible order, he conveyed a sense of fieldwork as work, rather than the pastime of dilettante playboys out to collect souvenirs. I don't know if his series qualifies as literature, but very little journalism reads this well after 80 years. Very little of anything does.

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