HARVARD THEN AND NOW: The fruit of These Elite Schools Today!


A failure to adjust: According to its own web site, it's "the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere."

As far as we know, that assertion is accurate. We're referring to the Harvard Corporation, a group which, by its own account, "exercises fiduciary responsibility with regard to the University’s academic, financial, and physical resources and overall well-being."

It's easy to poke fun at such groups. We'll do so before we're done.

Today, though, a sensible person's sympathies surely go to this congregation, which suffered a surprise, Christmas Day attack this week in the pages of the New York Times. 

Few had seen it coming! As we revealed yesterday, the headlines on the Christmas attack read exactly like this:

Print editions:
Claudine Gay Turmoil Brings Harvard Board Out From the Shadows

Online edition:
Claudine Gay Turmoil Forces Harvard’s Secretive ‘Corporation’ Into Spotlight

According to those headlines, the secretive group has been forced to emerge from the shadows. This has happened due to the turmoil surrounding Harvard's president, Claudine Gay.

For the record, this particular governing body seems to carry its secrecy only so far. For the names of the board's current members, you can click to its unencrypted web site once again.

Links are provided to biographical profiles of the various members. The shadows in which this board has lurked only extend so far.

Stating the obvious, there's no perfect way to assemble a board of this type. In an interesting passage from the New York Times report, an observer describes the good intentions surrounding the board's composition:

COPELAND AND FARRELL (12/25/23): The board meets several times a year, and members serve six-year terms that can be renewed once. How it identifies and chooses its members, who are known as fellows, is something of a mystery. Outgoing members help select their own replacements.

[Penny] Pritzker has been the principal point of contact for major donors and others seeking to counsel Harvard on the path forward.

The board seeks to build a well-rounded group of people who have complementary expertise to help govern the university, said Richard Chait, a professor emeritus at Harvard who studied governance in higher education and was an adviser when the Harvard Corporation expanded in size over a decade ago.

According to Dr. Chait, the board seeks to assemble "a well-rounded group of people who have complementary expertise." 

Tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at the board's current makeup. But with respect to the current board, let the word go forth to the nations:

As Copeland and Farrell report, Pritzker is "a billionaire businesswoman and an heir of the Hyatt hotel fortune." 

Balancing Pritzker's role on the board, Diana Nelson is co-chair of Carlson Holdings, a family enterprise (and Nelson is part of the family). Essentially, she seems to be one of the heirs to the Radisson hotel fortune!

A person might choose to poke fun at facts like those. We're going to leave that to others.

Stating the obvious, there's nothing "wrong" with being the heir to a giant fortune.  Stating the obvious, a person can be heir to a giant fortune and do great good in the world, operating with great success and with only the best intentions.

That said, there are many things going on in the world which cry out for correction. Today, we'll call attention to the imperfect basic skills which may sometimes seem to emerge from These Finest Schools Today.

What we have here is a failure to adjust:

This brief aside concerns a new post by Kevin Drum. Drum offers one of his standard complaints in a post which carries this headline:

Holiday sales were flat this year

Holiday sales were flat? In his post, Kevin quotes a news report in the Washington Post—a report which gushes in the following way about the direction of the economy:

SIEGEL AND GREGG (12/26/23): As 2023 comes to a close, holiday shoppers offered yet another sign that the U.S. economy will roar into the new year. On Tuesday, fresh retail sales data from Mastercard showed that consumers spent big on gifts, meals and apparel in November and December.... U.S. retail sales between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 were up 3.1 percent compared with the same period a year before, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures sales in-store and online across various forms of payment.

As Kevin notes, it isn't until the report's fifth paragraph that the authors report an awkward fact:

That 3.1 percent jump in retail sales hasn't been adjusted for inflation! And not only that:

According to Drum, inflation from last November to this November was also recorded at exactly 3.1 percent. 

This seems to suggest that we consumers didn't "spend [especially] big" on gifts, meals and apparel this year. In fact, it seems to suggest the possibility that holiday sales were flat.

This very morning, we read Drum's post, then scanned the New York Times. Sure enough! On page B1 of its print edition, and high atop its Today's Paper site, the New York Times is offering a version of that very same report:

Holiday Spending Increased, Defying Fears of a Decline

Despite lingering inflation, Americans increased their spending this holiday season, early data shows. That comes as a big relief for retailers that had spent much of the year fearing the economy would soon weaken and consumer spending would fall.

Retail sales from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24 increased 3.1 percent from a year earlier, according to data from Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures in-store and online retail sales across all forms of payment. The numbers, released Tuesday, are not adjusted for inflation.

In fairness, the Times offered its key disclaimer—these numbers have not been adjusted for inflation—in its second paragraph. But each of these newspapers gushed about the way the jump in holiday spending suggests that the economy is powerful, booming, strong.

Does that specific assessment really make sense? We can't say we're sure that it does. We can say that this sort of thing is extremely familiar.

Drum has written, again and again, about economics and business reporting in which major publications fail to adjust for inflation. Back in the mid-1990s, a similar, systemwide journalistic failure created several years of press corps confusion concerning the Gingrich Medicare proposal, and led us toward the decision to create this site.

In the current instance, does it make sense to draw major conclusions from those (unadjusted) spending numbers? 

We'll guess that it basically doesn't. That said:

As we pondered that Washington Post report, we discovered that its lead reporter is a graduate of one of our finest schools (Yale). The other reporters involved in this pair of reports emerged from Emory and Southern Cal, two other high-end universities.

On its face, it may not make sense to blame the Harvard Corporation for reporting which tracks back to Yale. Presumably, though, these reports passed through the hands of editors who may have come to us, live and direct, from four years on the banks of the Charles. 

Bungled technical work is amazingly common at the upper ends of our mainstream press corps. That's true in reporting on business and economic issues. It has also been true in persistently bungled and sanitized writing about public school test scores.

Such bungles are virtually endless. This sort of thing can be said to raise questions about the work of These Elite Universities Today.

Tomorrow, we'll return to the membership of the Harvard board. We'll try to take a closer look at the "well-rounded group of people" whose "complementary expertise" allows them to supervise their famous school's "overall well-being."

Along the way, we'll ask the obvious questions:

Just how well-rounded is that group? How complementary are their outlooks, skills and experiences? Should it necessarily be surprising if they've failed to offer the kind of direction their famous university needs?

Increasingly, a lot of somewhat embarrassing conduct is associated with Our Finest Schools, Harvard now included. President Gay's groaning performance last month in the face of Rep. Stefanik's inane questioning would be one high-profile example.

(Also, Stefanik is a Harvard grad! Who's accepting the blame for that?)

Tomorrow, we'll call the roll of this well-rounded board. On Friday, we'll recall the types of academic questions we've never seen asked or answered—questions involving a string of misty memories from our own freshman year.

The Hilton hotels are found on the board; the Radissons offer some balance. Increasingly, though, These Kids can emerge from Our Finest Schools without knowing how to adjust!

Tomorrow: Our Corporate Bodies, Ourselves


  1. Israel is a mistake.

    1. You are mistaken.

    2. Hey we're talking former British colonies here not French.


    3. The Arab nations formed from the portion of the Ottoman Empire administered by France were among those attacking Israel immediately upon its formation. They have largely stopped doing that -- perhaps realizing their mistake. Only Saudi Arabia was never a colony of Britain or France.

    4. Did you not graduate Harvard yet and hear other versions of this story?

      Who do you think funds the Saudi Madrassahs if not Englishmen and American warrior caste barons?

      Crowns stick together in solitaire and in real life too. Now go sit and think with your new cards.

    5. An AI perhaps wrote this bafflegab.

    6. Hello mom someone is a better writer than me on the internet and I need you to pick me up

  2. Why do this? Harvard isn’t responsible for Gaza or Trump or global warming or Chrostmas sales being flat because they didn’t exceed inflation (a new criterion).

    Somerby needs to come to terms with whatever someone did to him at Harvard in the 60’s. Clearly it was traumatic.

  3. Would the Times and WaPo have (mis)reported a great economy if a Republican were President?

  4. 1. They didn’t misreport the economy. They gave true nominal numbers and stated that the figures were nominal, not real (i.e., inflation-adjusted).
    2. If anything, they misreported the economy during Trump years by giving nominal numbers without the disclaimer. I suspect they started giving the disclaimer in response to Drum’s persistent complaints.
    3. Drum’s current complaint is that they should report real numbers instead of nominal numbers, or at least report the real numbers more prominently than the nominal numbers. I agree.

    1. It doesn't seem necessary to do this for a year-to-year comparison. The point is not whether people are spending the same or more now than they did, but whether there is an increase or decrease in spending. Comparing a real number to a nominal one will give a distorted result because inflation is part of one number and not the other. Whatever is done, it needs to be consistent across the two years being compared. But it is the fact of an increase that was being reported, not its size, and people were happy to see an increase instead of a decrease, not quibbling over how big the increase was. Drum is saying there has been no increase, but is that correct?

  5. There are two sociological math constants in America:

    1) Those with annual income roughly over 100k dream that it's already proof of a saintly halo. Keep it 100 percent. Where do you think your lithium batteries came from, the periodic table or Bolivia and other indigenous lands?

    2) These upper middle class neighborhoods and richer hold complete oligarchy influence in national policy outcomes across decades.

    So if winning hotel fortunes paves the way toward hegemony of egocentrist religion and national discourses, then we should question if socioeconomic context itself acts like a disease.

    If we don't feel like educating ourselves in spite, since voting doesn't give us a seat at the table then we will wait for a savior in the glow of old Saint President.

    Talk and look and think like a billionaire today! They made it why can't you? Did you know they wear goofy inexpensive clothes sometimes to feel like humans again and not zoo animals like us, the poor freaks?

    The supposed organs of democracy only gently gently gnaw on the upper class, oblique headlines and equivocating hobbyist worshippers of "genius" , acting as if they're teething with heavy apologetics after biting their source of nourishment, cream of the crop we have on our faces for them every day.

    Their investors serve the corporate Moloch, the embodiment of colonial grandiosity.

    1. George— these two papers reported that a piece of economic news was good, when it was actually somewhat bad. Since we’re still coming out of Covid, flat spending is disappointing, rather than neutral.

      BTW my local San Jose paper picked up the Times article, with the (misleading) headline “Retailers get a boost as consumer spending up”

    2. The spending is only flat after an adjustment. Beware the motives of people making such adjustments. Spending was up 3.1%. Why adjust for inflation when comparing to last year (an unadjusted figure at that)? This conclusion is specious.

    3. @3:59 living in an inflationary environment requires some adjustment. If your family just broke even last year and your income is unchanged in nominal dollars, then you are actually poorer. You will not have enough money if you want to buy the same things you did a year ago.

      That principle was clearer during the Carter Administration when inflation was a lot higher.

    4. There is no reason to believe that the amount of inflation present last year was 3.1% different than this year. The problem is comparing this year to last year's spending at Christmas. Drum wants to say that the entire increase is just due to inflation. Given that inflation may not apply to Christmas shopping items the way it does to the items making up an inflation index, and that no one has adjusted Christmas spending for inflation previously (so last year's number DID NOT account for inflation at all), this is an incorrect adjustment. It makes no sense to say what Drum said about spending being flat. It may even be that without creating a Christmas spending index, there is no way to measure such spending and thus no way to determine whether it is higher now and thus inflated. People buy different things each year as presents. Unless you single out tinsel, how do you know what was for Christmas and what was not? They simply use a time period. That means that saying that Christmas spending equals the rate of inflation is merely saying that the rate of inflation equals the rate of inflation, which is to say nothing at all.

      Drum is not at his best. He didn't think this out. But he isn't making sense.

    5. Drum's minimization of plagiarism in the Claudine Gay case also doesn't make sense and is full of oversimplifications and embarrassing logic.

    6. So they got to Drum. He was our last thought leader. Now we have to think for ourselves.

    7. No one thinks her so-called plagiarism matters except her political enemies, which include Somerby.

    8. Proving such a statement is complex and would require comprehensive data collection and analysis.

    9. !0:26 - When I was college, they appointed a new President named George Beadle who had won a Nobel Prize in biology. That set a high standard for the entire institution. OTOH a President who is a mediocre scholar with frequent plagiarism sets a low standard for all of Harvard. In fact, because Harvard is the leading university in the country, Gay sets a low standard for the whole country.

    10. George Beadle was an atheist.


    11. Gay is now also being accused of falsifying data.

    12. "Gay sets a low standard for the whole country."
      Why? Because she didn't bring her grift to the Supreme Court, like Thomas and Alito did?

    13. Accusations are not proof. We have been seeing this with the attacks on Hunter Biden too.

    14. Presidents of universities are not generally Nobel prize winners. For example, the guy who attacked Bill Clinton in office, Kenneth Starr was later appointed president of Pepperdine University, a conservative religious college. This idea that the President of a university holds such a job because of their research is ludicrous. Most would not have the time to do both.

      Beadle did the work he won the Nobel prize for (in 1958) before becoming an administrator. After retiring, he did additional research. He did not do research while he was Chancellor and then President of the University of Chicago.

    15. Beadle didn’t fake his data.

    16. WTF does any of this have to do with the comment?

  6. Quaker in a BasementDecember 29, 2023 at 3:41 PM

    Regarding retail sales figures and inflation:

    Large retailers do not adjust reported sales numbers for inflation. They use a simple year-over-year comparison as a measure of financial performance. I know this from my years spent working in retail management for a couple of large department store companies.

    Increase (Decrease) versus last year is the single most examined metric retailers study. No, they don't adjust for inflation. Why not? There are many answers. First, there are many different measures of inflation and they all assume some specific benchmark--consumer prices, producer prices, wages, energy, commodities, and more. For a diversified retailer, the mix of products offered isn't constant. Styles and consumer preferences change. New products arrive on the market. Old ones disappear. It isn't possible to measure inflation accurately in a way that reflects changes in a retailer's costs and revenues.

    That said, the consumer price index generally describes changes in the "value of a dollar." And yes, if a retailer's revenues go up by 5 percent while the value of a dollar declines by the same amount, they're just breaking even. But if a customer's paycheck has been devalued by 5 percent and a retailer's revenues increase by any amount, shouldn't the retailer note that as a measure of success?

    As with any data, sales figures can be interpreted in many ways. The general practice among retailers, however, is to compare reported nominal revenues cmpared with the same calendar period from the previous year. That's just how it's done.

    1. Quaker in a BasementDecember 29, 2023 at 3:43 PM

      And don't get me started on the interpretation of Gross Margin.