The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Jason Brennan. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt and this is the Jim Rutt Show. Listeners have asked us to provide pointers, some of the resources we talk about on the show. We now have links to books and articles referenced in recent podcasts that are available on our website. We also offer full transcripts. Go to jimruttshow.com. That’s jimruttshow.com. Today’s guest is Jason Brennan, professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.
Jason: Hey, Jim. Good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jim: Yeah, great to have you on. Jason’s the author of a dozen books and is one of the more entertaining Facebook feeds, at least if you’re on a snowflake and aren’t easily triggered and unlike some of the guests I’ve had on, I actually read a couple of Jason’s books before I tracked him down and asked him to be on the show and talk. We’re mostly going to talk about those two books, Against Democracy and Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education. I must say one of the reasons I wanted to reach out to Jason is not only were the books apparently interesting, but also his style is definitely a bit of a bomb-thrower. He says it like he thinks, doesn’t hold back, and that’s, as our regular listeners know, what we like here on the Jim Rutt Show.
Jim: Before we get started though on those two topics, I would like you to talk a little bit about how you ended up at a business school. You know, looking at your educational background, your publishing background, clearly a philosopher by training with some work in political science. What brought you to the business school? Certainly, that was not the case in my day when I attended the Sloan Business School. We didn’t have any philosophers running around loose.
Jason: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, my entire department here at the McDonough School of Business is sort of like the island of misfit toys. I wish I had like a really nice story to the effect of I realized that business education is the way to go and I just love business education, but in reality it’s just pure greed. Business schools pay a higher salary than liberal arts colleges. So at a certain point, my wife was pregnant with our second kid. We wanted her to be able to basically quit working and be a full-time mom and I realized if I worked in a business school we wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore.
Jason: So I turned down other offers, left my former university and came here. So yeah, that’s it. I’m in a political economy department and a lot of the people here are transplants from the social sciences or from philosophy and law and things like that. Honestly, a good place to be, but ultimately it was a desire to chase the money rather than something more noble.
Jim: I like it. A good honest answer.
Jason: Yeah, why not?
Jim: Why not? What a concept. One final thing before we hop into the books is you’ve posted quite a little bit on the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog. I thought it might be useful provide well, just a little bit of positioning kind of on your macro perspective. Is that still something that you more or less adhere to? And how would you describe what a bleeding heart libertarian is?
Jason: Yeah, good question. So I think in the middle of the 20th century you had a lot of left-wing and kind of socialist thinkers saying something to the effect of, well, the reason you should advocate socialism or the reason you should advocate massive redistribution is because it’s really to everybody’s benefit and it imbues people with the power to lead their lives as they see fit. And then you saw certain libertarians pretty much taking the bait and saying, “Well, it’s true that socialism does that, or at least it aims to.
Jason: But in reality we just we have these rights against each other and we have to respect those rights come what may, regardless of the consequences,” which pretty much concedes the moral high ground to people on the other side. But I thought that was a really perplexing response because there isn’t evidence that socialism works as intended. And in fact, market-oriented societies do a much better job of delivering the goods to the poor than the alternatives. So I think what bleeding heart libertarianism is, is actually the main line of classical liberal thinking over the past few hundred years.
Jason: If you start with John Locke and Adam Smith and so on, and you look at what they were saying, when Adam Smith wrote the Wealth of Nations, he was revolutionizing the way that we think about prosperity by saying that the measurement of prosperity is not how big the king’s army is or how much money is in his treasury, but the opportunity and welfare available to the average person. So I think what bleeding heart libertarians are saying is freedom, economic freedom, civil liberty and so on are important like as a way of respecting people, yes. But also they work, they deliver the goods and it matters that they deliver the goods.
Jim: All right, that sounds good. Although I would like to point out that not only did Adam Smith write the Wealth of Nations, but about the same time or soon thereafter he published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he backed away a little bit from some of his arguments in the Wealth of Nations and it’s good to consider that Adam Smith had other aspects other than the way he’s often portrayed by a, you know, sort of classic Neoliberals.
Jim: I’d also point out for our listeners, and we’ll have a link-up on our website on this, and I recently engaged in a letter Wiki exchange with this really cool new website where thinkers on opposite sides of issues can exchange some one-on-one letters in public view. My correspondent was Max Borders, who’s written on libertarianism and what he calls liberal anarchy. I took the position why I am no longer a libertarian and anyone interested in those issues, I would advise them to check that out. Now let’s hop into Against Democracy. Along you take early on in the book, I thought it was actually quite nice, was describing the players in democracy is Hobbits, Hooligans, and Vulcans. Could you define those for our listeners?
Jason: Absolutely. So if you’ve read the Lord of the Rings novels or if you’ve seen the movies, you might recall that hobbits are this dominion of people that live a kind of 18th or 19th century British genteel lifestyle, like rural lifestyle. They don’t care much about what’s going on in the outside world. There’s a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, but they’re not much interested in that. They just want to eat their breakfast and their second breakfasts and their Elevenses and a lunch and a snack and a second snack and dinner and smoke their pipes and just sort of be on their way.
Jason: The political analog of that is a person who is just somewhat disinterested in politics. If we look at the typical non-voter in a modern democracy, the people that have the right to vote, but who choose not to in voluntary voting systems, what we find about those people is the reason they don’t vote is because it’s overwhelmingly because they don’t think politics is interesting and we also find some other features about them. They typically know next to nothing about politics or in fact, they’re often systematically misinformed. Like they’re not even ignorant. They’re worse than ignorant. They get the facts wrong.
Jason: They have very few political opinions. If you poll people and ask them for an opinion, they’ll tell you on the spot. Because people hate to say, “I don’t know.” But if you ask them that same question a week later or two weeks later, which these studies have actually been done, they’ll give you a completely different response and they’ll be unaware that they’ve given you a different response. So they’re just sort of answering at random. So they don’t have very many political opinions. They don’t have a stable ideology. They’re basically disinterested in politics overall.
Jason: That’s really roughly about half the US population, maybe even more. A recent book came out called Neither Liberal nor Conservative, and they argued on the basis of very strong evidence has been collected over 70 years that really only about 16 out of a 100 Americans has a stable set of political opinions that persists over time. The other 84 out of 100 are basically agnostic. So I might actually be understating the amount of hobbits there are. Now, think about Hooligans. So think about soccer fans and countries that actually care about soccer.
Jason: Like I was in Sao Paulo, Brazil watching two local teams that were rivals play each other and they had to separate the fans in the opposite sides of the stadium, put up large metal barricades that had police officers on either side. They put metal barricades around the stadium and they separated fans so that you had to basically walk about two kilometers to get from one side of the stadium to the other. And that’s because the fans would fight each other. They rabidly hate one another. The thing about sports fans is that they’re often very well-informed, but they’re also extremely biased.
Jason: So if you think about, say Tom Brady being accused of deflating footballs back a few years ago, people from the New England area say that he wasn’t actually guilty and people from everywhere else say that he was. We all have access to the same amount of information, but we interpret that information in a way that flatters what we’d like to believe. There are also sports fans often can recount lots and lots of facts about the games. They can tell you what happened in the world series a couple of years ago or they can tell you about what happened in a World Cup from 40 years ago, but again, they’re biased. So the political analog of that would be the typical citizen who chooses to vote.
Jason: When we study those people, especially people who vote persistently, we find that they’re often significantly better informed. They do know at least some of the basic facts, but they’re extremely biased. They only look for new sources that confirm their preexisting point of views. They ignore and evade new sources that disconfirm what they believe. They’re also only likely to be friends with or date or marry or work in places where they’re surrounded by people with whom they agree. In fact, there’s massive amounts of political segregation in the US where people are basically sorting into zip codes on the basis of whether it’s a democratic or a republican zip code, and they don’t want to live near people that disagree with them, they don’t want to work with them.
Jason: They’re super biased towards the other side where Diana Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania did this really cool study where she went around asking people, “Hey, you’re a Democrat. Why would anyone be a republican?” And the most common answer was, “Oh, that’s simple. They’re stupid and they’re evil.” And the republicans say the same things about the democrats. So it turns out that that’s the most common way of thinking. And those people who say that, they’re the ones that participate the most in politics. A small minority of people are able to articulate the point of view of the other side in a way that the other side would agree with.
Jason: So you’re a Democrat and you explain to me what republicans think. I show that to republicans and they go, “Yep, that’s my view,” those people hardly participate in politics at all. So rabid sports fans of politics are the hooligans, and that’s in the book, I thought it was roughly about 50% of the population. Though some new evidence has come out that maybe there’s more hobbits and fewer Hooligans than I thought. And so Vulcans are supposed to be like ideally rational people who they might have beliefs, but they only hold those beliefs as strongly as the evidence allows. And as soon as they get disconfirming evidence, they change their beliefs in light of the new evidence.
Jason: So a way of thinking about democracy is some people have this hypothesis that the average person is a Hobbit, so to speak. They don’t know much, but if we just get them to participate more in politics, they will turn into Vulcans and then will deliberate with one another, will come to understand each other, and we’re all kind of make a good vote together. But the evidence I think is basically overwhelming that people are Hobbits and Hooligans and the more they participate in politics, the more Hooligan-ish they become. There really are no Vulcans and this is bad because a lot of our theories about why we should have democracy presupposed that we’re going to act like Vulcans when in fact, we’re not, we’re Hooligans.
Jim: Love it. Lots of interesting points there. First Lord of the Rings, I have read it 38 times and I’m about to set off on my 39th.
Jim: My number one touchstone for all kinds of things from the simply narrative to the highly moral. It’s really a book that obviously bears rereading. I read it far more than anything else. With respect to non voters, I actually funded a research effort at the journalism school at Northwestern, a non-voters in the 2012 elections where we surveyed a whole bunch of people and came up with similar lines of results to what you described. But we’ll put a link up on the website for people who want to read that research. But yeah, definitely there are an awful lot of people who are disengaged. Now, to dig into that a little further, your book catalogs along, but the last not very surprising list of ways that the voters are ignorant, apathetic, and irrational. Could you share a few of those, some of the details?
Jason: Yeah, so basically since 1958 there’ve been, these studies have been conducted by large numbers of different peoples including the government itself, cataloging what voters know. So something, there’s thing called the American National Election Studies and what it tests, it’s done every other year and what it test varies from year to year. But in most versions of this they give voters a battery of questions like just basic things like who’s the president, who’s the vice president, who controls Congress? Can you identify the unemployment rate? And so on.
Jason: The funny thing about this test is it going to varies year to year, but on average what you find is it’s a multiple choice test. And when people don’t know the answer, they guess. You typically find that roughly the top 25% of voters get kind of like an A minus on the test. The next sort of middle 50% do sort of equivalent to chance, and the bottom 25% do worse than chance. So that means they’re like actually doing worse than just random guessing. They’re systematically mistaken.
Jason: You know, so like 1996, the bottom 25% of voters were pretty convinced that Bob Dole was more liberal than Bill Clinton. They didn’t know which party was … They thought the democrats were more conservative than the republicans. People overestimate things like the amount of money that’s spent on foreign aid in the Brexit vote. They overestimate the number of citizens from the EU that live in the UK. It’s only about 5% of the population, but the lee voters thought it was something like 30%, and the remaining voters thought it was about 20%, if I remember correctly.
Jason: In 1964, during that version of that test, they asked people if they knew whether the USSR was part of NATO and a large percentage of people don’t. In a given year, most voters, these are voters, not just the non-voters, most voters don’t know who the representative is to Congress and they don’t know which party controls Congress. It’s pretty much for almost any fact you can think of the voters don’t know it other than who the president is. They usually get that and they usually have about six months worth of memory in terms of economic performance. They know where the economy’s been getting better or worse over the last six months, but don’t remember anything beyond that.
Jason: And that’s just on basic information, the kind of stuff that you could Google easily, but sometimes knowing even the basic facts isn’t that helpful because I mean, imagine I have two political candidates, one who says, “I’m going to try to help the country by pushing for protectionist economic measures,” and the other says, “I’m going to try to help the country by pushing for free trade.” Even if you know the difference between them that doesn’t tell you how to vote because you need to know something about economics in order to understand which policy platform is more likely to succeed. But people, they don’t know that stuff either. It’s been tested, they don’t know those things.
Jason: But it gets worse because we’re also extremely biased in how we process information. So we have something called disconfirmation bias, which means that we ignore evidence that goes against what we already believe. We have confirmation bias, which means we overemphasize evidence that confirms what we believe. We have a kind of intergroup bias where we see ourselves as members of a political tribe and we tend to just go along with whatever that group says. So a really nice book called democracy for realists provides a lot of evidence for this kind of behavior.
Jason: But the story that your sixth grade civics teacher told you about democracy goes like this. People have a set of opinions and a set of values. They then learn how the world works and they form a political ideology that’s supposed to express how you realize those values in the real world. Then they look at the various political parties and candidates on offer and they pick the one that best corresponds to their ideology. They vote, everybody votes this way. We get to kind of compromise position and then our will is expressed through democracy.
Jason: That’s almost certainly false. Like all of it is false. Rather for the typical voter it’s more like this. You have a sense of your identity. Like I’m a Boston Irish Catholic person, and through historical circumstance having nothing to do with preferences or ideology or even like the ability of a party to help a certain group. Different groups get attached to different parties kind of through random allocation mechanisms. And you kind of look and you go, “Okay, I’m a Boston Irish person or I’m an African American from the South, or I’m a white evangelical, or I’m a college professor,” whatever your leading identity is, you look at how other people like you vote and you vote the same way largely to sort of prove that you’re one of those people.
Jason: And then for most people, you just stop there. You don’t even know what your party believes. You don’t share the same values as the party. You don’t believe in their policies and you don’t even know what the policies are. But then for some voters, what you end up doing is you find out what your party believes and you convince yourself that you agree with it. And we know that they’re convincing themselves, they’re really rationalizing it because when the party changes, they will change their mind, but they don’t know that they have.
Jason: So I’m not here to pick on the republicans. The democrats are just as bad when it comes to this but a nice example is what happened with free trade and republicans in the last set of election. Before the primaries, most republicans who had an opinion about trade said they were pro free trade. Trump becomes the presumptive nominee, and then suddenly in about a one month period poll show that republicans switched from being pro-free trade to pro-protectionism. Okay, well maybe they changed their minds. Maybe Trump made a good argument, but you then ask them in polls, why did you change your mind? Why did you switch? And their answer was, no, no, I didn’t switch. I’ve always thought that.
Jim: If you don’t mind, another good example of that one from history was the communist party, USA, they famously hated the Germans and the Nazis right up until the non-aggression pack between the Russians and the Germans and suddenly the Germans became their buddies.
Jim: It happens all the time. Anyway, continue.
Jason: Yeah. So to go along with the sports analogy, because I think the psychology of political behavior is very similar to the psychology of sports fandom. They’re almost identical, really. Think about Tom Brady again. I’m from the New England area and people from my area they worship Tom Brady and they think he’s the greatest football player of all time. I agree. I think they’re right. I think there’s objective evidence of that. But imagine that Tom Brady gets on the TV today and says, “You know what, I’m sick of playing for the Patriots. I’m sick of Belichick, and I hate New England. You’re all a bunch of jerks. I’m going to move and work for the Jets instead.”
Jason: Well, Tommy down at the local pub, who yesterday said Tom was the goat, like he’s going to now say that Tom has always been overrated, that he was never that good, that he was always being carried by the team. And when you ask him like, “Well, didn’t you disagree with that last week?” He’s going to go, “Nah, nah, I’ve always thought that.” And he’ll be sincere. He’ll genuinely think that he’s always said that even though in fact he’s changed his mind. So the typical voter for the democrats or republicans, who even knows what those parties stand for, they’re behaving that way. It’s not that you vote Democrat because you’re pro-choice. It’s more like you’re pro-choice because you’re a Democrat. It’s not that you are against immigration because you’re republican because you’re against immigration. But rather you’re against immigration because you’re republican.
Jim: Yeah. I think that’s probably true for a whole lot of, particularly the more inside baseball issues, like for instance, protectionism and trade. But there are some, certainly some hot button issues people seem to have strong and abiding opinions about and have actually caused them to move parties rather than the other way around. I’m thinking about things like abortion and gun control or two that hop out.
Jason: Yeah. Even then there, if you read the Aiken and Bartell’s book, they’ll talk about those issues and the idea of the single issue voter. And they provide a lot of evidence that people like all the sudden groups will just switch almost overnight. They go from being like they’re evangelicals and in a certain year they don’t have any concern for abortion at all. It’s not an issue. And then all of a sudden it becomes a leading issue for them. So one way to think about what political beliefs do for us is think about circumcision with Jews. There’s lots of other examples, but that’s just a case where everyone knows, why do you have this ritual that you slice off a part of a boy’s penis at a certain age?
Jason: Well, what you’re doing is you’re proving that you are a member of the group. It’s an expensive signal that proves sincerity. It turns out that using these expensive signals is a very good way of making groups cohere with one another because it weeds out people that aren’t properly committed to the group. It shows that you can trust them. Another example is why do we give engagement rings when we’re getting married? Well, if I said to my wife, you know, hey, we’re driving in the car and I’m like we’re dating. I say, “Should we get married?: She doesn’t know if I’m very sincere about that. But if I then come to her and I say, “Look, I’ve wasted many thousands of dollars on a useless trinket and I want you to marry me.” She’s like, “Wow, he wasted all that money on nothing. He must be sincere.” It’s a proof of my sincerity.
Jason: So these signaling mechanisms, they abound all over the world and they’re very effective in getting groups to work together. There’s good evidence that a lot of our political beliefs serve the function of being an expensive signal. You believe stuff and you try to show that you believe it very strongly and you mouth the words over and over again in order to prove to other people in your demographic group that you’re one of them and you’re trustworthy and therefore, you can be a good business partner. You’re a good person to date, you’re a good person to be friends with.
Jason: So unfortunately, political views and religious views often serve this kind of function of social cohesion because we don’t really get tested on them, at least not in this life. You know, like if I switch religions and I’m like, “Ah, I’m not going to be Catholic, I’m going to be Muslim,” that just changes at least while I’m alive. That just changes which people like me in which people dislike me. It doesn’t change anything else. If I change my political beliefs about, “I’m going to switch from being a bleeding heart libertarian to a die hard communist,” it doesn’t change what happens in my day-to-day life other than which people like me.
Jason: On the other hand though, if I switched my beliefs about whether there’s a car coming towards me as I cross the street, I will get punished by reality right then for being wrong. So certain beliefs about philosophy and politics and religion were sort of free to use these to express our membership in the group because they have no actual bearing on anything else in the real world.
Jim: Yup. I think there’s a lot to that. My friend Robin Hanson was on the show and we talked a lot about those kinds of expensive signals and how they do produce cohesion. So clearly that’s part of it. But what about the argument that yeah, true that, ignorance, team play, irrationality, but maybe they’re randomly distributed and thus cancel themselves out leaving the Vulcans in control.
Jason: Yeah, that’s right. So there’s this idea called the miracle of aggregation. And the hope is if people were just genuinely and perfectly ignorant then you ask them to pick between two things, they would vote randomly. So imagine like we’re doing a poll and you have a disease and we have to give you some sort of medicine. For whatever reason we let this be decided by the American populace. Well, we’re offering you two drugs, let’s just say A and B, and then we have everybody vote. Well, the thought is the typical citizen has no knowledge of these drugs whatsoever. So they’re going to guess at random. And the more and more people we throw on, the more likely it is that we get literally 50% going one way and 50% the other. Because you know, if you’re flipping a coin over and over again, you’re going to get 50/50.
Jason: But then the medical doctors who actually know something, will all pick the right medicine and that’s the group will behave as if it’s fully informed. Even though only a small minority is fully informed. In theory, as a mathematical theorem, that’s perfectly good. The problem is it just doesn’t apply to the real world for a number of reasons. One is people actually don’t pick randomly when they’re ignorant. We have what is called the position bias. So when you give people a list of things, they tend to pick the thing on the front and the thing on the back, and they don’t pick the middle. So if you give them a multiple choice test and they’re perfectly ignorant, they’d pick a and D over B and C. But you could fix that by just randomizing the answers, and that could some way to some degree overcome it.
Jason: But it turns out there’s other things. When people pick things, even if they don’t know something, they pick something that sounds better. So you think about political candidates, if you had a Kennedy versus someone with like, I don’t know, an Arabic last name, they’re more likely to pick the Kennedy. So there’s that problem. But it gets worse because it turns out people are not ignorant enough for this kind of thing to work. They have some knowledge and so they have a tendency to pick that go for a certain political view over and over again.
Jason: So if there’s systematic error and you can measure that people make these systematic mistakes and they also follow one another, they’re not independent. If you flip a coin and it comes up 10 it’s a fair coin. It comes up heads 10 times in a row, the next time you flip it, it’s still 50/50, right? It’s not dependent upon your previous flips. But voters copy one another and so if voters are making mistakes, they tend to make systematic mistakes. So unfortunately, it’s a good mathematical theorem, but in the real world, when we go to test out, we find that people deviate this from this so much that in fact voters are followers and they make systematic mistakes and error does not get canceled out but rather gets compounded.
Jim: Oh, how pleasant. Yeah, it’s certainly obviously a oversimplification to assume that voters ID random variables who actually are like the coin flip. Yeah, there are all kinds of network effects, aggregation effects, et cetera, that make that theory that the Vulcan somehow control unlikely. Now, it gets even worse. You make the case that it’s rational to be irrational. Could you take us through that argument a little bit? In fact, I think here’s the quote from the book, “A person is rationally irrational when he’s instrumentally rational for that person to be epistemically irrational.”
Jason: Yeah. Good. So it sounds like a paradox to say rationally irrational, but it’s two different kinds of rationality. What we mean by instrumental rationality is, are you taking means or performing actions which promote your ends? What we mean by epistemic rationality is, are you thinking in a scientific way in pursuing the truth? The idea here is that the degree to which people are epistemically rational is dominated and determined by whether it actually serves their ends. That sounds weird in the abstract, but I can give a simple example that I think makes it clear. Imagine that you’re taking Biology 101 at Berkeley and I’m your professor. There’s 1,200 other students in the class. I think the class, they’re supposed to be really big because everyone’s premed.
Jason: I say at the beginning of the semester, “Hey, everybody, I want you to know that I’m an egalitarian professor. I think everyone should be treated equally and I don’t think that you deserve your own scores because of an …” I insert some like leftist argument. “So here’s what I’m going to do. 15 weeks from now, you’re going to take a final exam and that’ll be worth a 100% of your grade. But rather than each student getting whatever score they got on the exam, I want to average everybody’s scores together and everyone will get exactly the same grade.” And then ask, “If you’re in a class like that, 1,200 other students, you’re all getting the same grade no matter what. I’m just averaging all your grades together and it’s all based on an exam in 15 weeks, would you study? Would you actually learn Biology?”
Jason: You probably wouldn’t. And for what it’s worth, there have been attempts to experimentally confirm this and the reality is people don’t learn. So it’s at the end people would know hardly anything about Biology and they might even be feel free to indulge really stupid ideas about Biology. It’s not because they’re stupid as people, it’s not because they’re incapable of learning, it’s because the incentives are all wrong. The incentives reinforce ignorance and punish them for being informed. Like no matter how hard you study, you’re still going to get an F because you can’t count on other people studying. So why bother study?
Jason: What a democracy is, is a final exam that’s held every four years on really big questions, but rather than having 1,200 other people take the test with you, you have in the last presidential election, roughly 140 million people and it could have been up to about 210 million people. So if you have no reason to study hard when it comes to that biology exam, you have even less reason to study when it comes to a major election. That’s what we find, most people don’t study at all. They don’t know any of the information. They feel free to indulge their worst biases. They feel free to believe things that are obviously false. Very few people actually put real effort and care into it. It’s not because they’re stupid, it’s not because they’re incapable of self-rule, it’s because a built-in defect in democratic voting is that incentivizes you to be ignorant and incentivizes you to be irrational.
Jim: That’s not so good. What about some of the other arguments in favor of democracy, like John Stuart Mill’s education argument, that political participation makes us smarter.
Jason: Yeah. So you know, Mill’s writing that in like 1850, he has this hypothesis that he basically says, “Well, in order to do politics well, you would need to know all of these things.” So if we get you to participate in politics, you’re going to have to understand what other people believe. You’re going to have to understand their point of view and be concerned about their welfare. And you’ll have to deliberate with others, and then when you deliberate, you’ll learn from them. But what Mill was basically saying was people are Hobbits and if we get them to interact with one another and do politics, there’ll be turned into Vulcans.
Jason: Yeah, good hypothesis but it’s wrong. And the way we know it’s wrong is by testing it. We run experiments where we put people in forums and allow them to deliberate with one another and then see what happens. Overwhelmingly, you get negative results with these things where people they don’t learn that much. What they do learn, they could have learned by just reading a pamphlet, they become evermore polarized and so on. The funny thing is, you know, there are all these deliberative democrats that cite these studies and it’ll be like one out of 97 will have a positive result and then they’ll say, “Oh, that’s [inaudible 00:29:32] therefore it works.” And then will accuse me of cherry picking, because I mentioned the other 96 out of 97 that had a bad result. So that’s a little bit of Hooligan behavior on their part, too.
Jason: So the evidence is just, it doesn’t work. We don’t learn much and the reason we don’t learn is because our votes just don’t matter very much. If your vote matters, if you were personally going to decide the outcome of the next election or the outcome of the next policy or whatever, then you’d have a stake in really being careful and learning what you’re doing. Unfortunately, you’d also have a stake in being very selfish about it rather than voting for the common good you’ll probably promote your own ends. But if your vote mattered, you would treat it like it mattered, but your vote doesn’t matter. And so you treat it like it does and that’s true of almost everybody.
Jason: You try to provide people education by say, teaching them civics in school or teaching them the things that they need to learn to be a good voter. It just generally doesn’t work and it doesn’t work for the same reason that school in general has a sort of problem. You learn all these things in school, like maybe you learn a foreign language, you learn advanced mathematics, you cover some things about Shakespeare and you read a lot of interesting essays and so on. Then you test people a year after they graduate and you find that they’ve forgotten more than half of it. You test them five years after they graduate and they’ve forgotten something like 80%. Well, why is that? It’s rational ignorance, reborn.
Jason: Like I used to be fluent in Spanish, but after I left college I basically stopped using it. I’ve used it maybe like four times in my life since then, so I don’t speak it very well anymore. I used to be really good at Latin. Not anymore. I did all sorts of advanced mathematics and I still sometimes do, but the only advanced mathematics I really remember is the stuff that I use in my job. I took many, many chemistry classes and if you’d met me at say age 20, I could have synthesized various kinds of drugs in a laboratory really easily. I don’t remember how to do that anymore. Why? I don’t use it so the stuff has been jettisoned from my brain. Same thing happens with political information. We teach people through K through 12 education, the basics of what they need to know to be a good voter, but they forget all of it by the time they’re 24.
Jim: Interesting. Then you go a step further and you say, “Not only are we not made smarter by the process, but maybe we’re actually made worse, more Hooligan-ish. It makes us enemies of each other.” Could you say more about that?
Jason: Yeah, so think about the sports fan analogy again, but what I met my mother-in-law, she said something, which is absurd. She said, “I’m a fan of both the Yankees and the Red Sox.”
Jason: It’s impossible. That’s right. Because part of being a fan of the Red Sox is hating the Yankees and vice versa. It’s built into it. So when I’m growing up in New England area, if I want people to like me, I can put on Red Sox gear. And when people see that, they’re like, “Oh, you’re one of us.” I’m approachable. We have a thing in common, maybe they’re more likely to be my friend and so on, and treat me nicer at a bar or whatever. One way that I can sort of show my commitment to the Red Sox and become more like a member of my group is by hating the Yankees even more. The more intolerant I am of the Yankees, the sort of better I am as a Red Sox fan and the more other Red Sox fans will reward me.
Jason: Now that’s true about sports where, now, I hate to say it because I am a Red Sox fan and I am a Pats fan. I do think Tom Brady is the greatest of all time despite his lackluster performance this year. I hate to say it, but it really doesn’t matter and I really don’t have reason to hate Colts fans. I don’t really have reason to hate Yankees fans. It’s just kind of a thing we do as a sort of play time thing. But when it comes to politics, even though people don’t spend much time thinking about it and they don’t put any effort to treat it as if it’s something serious, nevertheless, it’s about morality and justice and the common good.
Jason: So then you feel like, well, I’m justified and if I’m a Democrat, I’m justified in hitting the republicans. They’re trying to hurt people, they’re trying to start wars and hurt the poor and they hate everyone else other than themselves and they’re purely selfish. Then you ask republicans and they say the same thing about the democrats. So yeah, in order to show you’re a good member of your group, you hate the other side. The more you hate them, the better you are as a member of your group. That’s much stronger in politics than it is with say like sports.
Jason: In fact, the effect is so strong that this current study show that people are more biased about political behavior than they are about race or sex or these other things. If you think that people are racist, you might be right, but they’re more partyist than they are racist. So one study that was done on this, you get people resumes and you independently have a bunch of people code them, which resume is better. So now you know when there’s no political affiliation attached to it that you know, 99.9% of people say resume A is better than resume B.
Jason: Now what you do is you take the same resumes and you attach a political affiliation. You say, “Have the person say that in high school they were on the Republican Club or the young Democrat Club, and then you give it to vote to people and see how they rate it.” What you find is that democrats will overwhelmingly say that a resume from somebody who says they’re a Democrat is better than the resume of the person who says they’re republican even though you’ve carefully made sure the Republican one is actually better. Like this person was captain of the football team and the Democrat was a benchwarmer. This person had a 4.0 GPA and the Democrat had a 3.0 GPA that he went to a better school or whatever. He has more work experience and vice versa.
Jason: The Republicans will discriminate in favor of the Republican candidate against the democratic candidate when it comes to job opportunities, and these are for things like cashier. We’re not talking about a thing where like political affiliation matters. We’re talking about stuff where it’s irrelevant, they discriminate and they do this more than they do with party or with race or sex or anything else.
Jim: [inaudible 00:35:01] I saw recently that was fairly shocking, but I suppose not surprising for those of us who hang around on Twitter and what have you, is that today parents will rank a difference in a marriage prospect for one of their children of a different political persuasion as much more salient than religion or race. Yeah, absolutely. That’s quite a change since say the 1950 so there has been something going on that’s made these Hooligan-ish tendencies in our politics stronger, though it’s probably ebb and flow to probably the same thing was true in 1860 as it is today. But that’s certainly a fairly striking statistic.
Jason: Yeah, absolutely. The difference, too, is people think it’s justified. When point this out to them, they say, when you have them read these studies, it shows that say a Democrat will discriminate against Republican when it comes to hiring a cashier for a supermarket, people’s reaction is usually, “Yeah, but that’s different because I should discriminate against Republicans. They’re evil and bad people.” Whereas if I’m discriminating against a person for being black, that’s not appropriate because there’s nothing wrong with being black. So like that’s their attitude like they will just affirm it. It’s okay to be partyist.
Jason: In fact, if you say things like, “I think we should be accepting of all points of view, and I don’t think … I think I should be friends with people, even though they disagree about politics,” you’ll get a lot of pushback. I mean you see this on college campuses, especially where people say, “You can’t be friends with someone who thinks that stuff. They’re evil, they have evil ideas. They want to silence and hurt people like me.” So if you’re just like, “Oh, let’s let bygones be bygones and still be friends, that means that you’re endorsing evil.” So there’s actually a strong pressure to engage in this kind of partyist behavior.
Jim: Yup. That seems like it’s getting worse all the time. But before we turn to your alternative, I’m going to read a quote from you from the book that I thought of as kind of the summation of the case against democracy, “I contend instead that your political liberties and participation do not enable you to consent to government, do not usually advance your interests, do not increase your autonomy in any meaningful sense, and do not protect you from domination, and do not contribute to your moral development as a free and equal person.” You want to say anything more about that?
Jason: Yeah, well that’s a summary of a couple of chapters worth of work. But basically one thing I do, the first, maybe third of the book is just going over the facts and the empirical research about what participation does to us and what we know. Then maybe the next third is looking at various other kinds of arguments people give in favor of democracy. Some of these things say things like well, democracy is good because it’s fair, but if you really care about fairness, you wouldn’t really want democracy. You’d want something else because it turns out democracy is not very fair. I give in the reasons why at some point there are these arguments to try to say that democracy in some way empowers you.
Jason: But the problem with all of those is that your vote just doesn’t matter. So a good way to illustrate that is if you’re a Jewish person in the fourth or fifth federal election in Germany in 1932, it’s an absolute disaster for you if the Nazis and Nationalists win a coalition government. But you voting for against the Nazis, you voting for the Nazis, and you staying home have basically the same effect on politics. So your vote does not do much for you, it just doesn’t matter. Has a very low chance of making any kind of difference.
Jason: So all of these arguments to try to say, well, you know, it’s your vote protects you from being dominated. It gives you autonomy. And so it allows you to consent to government. They’re just they’re wrong because your vote is so ineffectual. It doesn’t look like any of that stuff is true. So at the end of the day the argument for democracy has to be something about the results that it produces. It can’t be that it’s just good as an end in itself.
Jim: Okay. Now let’s turn to your alternative, which you called epistocracy. Tell us about that.
Jason: Yeah. So epistocracy is a pretty old idea. You can see elements of it in Plato. The idea is that in one way or another, you apportion political power according to knowledge and competence. So the term epistocracy was coined by the philosopher David S. Lind at Brown University. He’s a former colleague of mine. I used to work there with him. And so it’s contrasted to democracy, just the rule of everybody though, no democracy is actually extend everybody the right to vote. Whereas epistocracy is, in some way, weigh political power according to knowledge.
Jason: So the kind of the version that Plato recommended was we basically breed a political class and train them from youth to become good guardians of the public good. That’s his idea. That kind of philosopher kings model. And when people want to be like, because they’re hooligans, if they read my book or like glance at the back cover and they want to dismiss me quickly and they go, “Oh, Plato said that,” and then they’re done. But there’s lots of other versions of epistocracy that are worth considering. So the Mexican philosopher, Claudio Lopez-Guerra, recommends we have a lottery and 20,000 people or so are selected at random and they, and only they are allowed to vote. So that eliminates any kind of bias in say, sex or gender or race or whatever, or income.
Jason: But before they’re allowed to vote, they have to undergo some sort of competence building exercise. If they can’t pass that exercise, they don’t get to vote. That’s the system that we use. That’s a kind of epistocracy because there’s a check on who gets to vote based upon that. Another idea might be a, which is not what I advocate, but I wrote a paper advocating this early on, but I don’t advocate this anymore. You should have to get a license to vote in the same way that you get a license to be a driver. So you have to pass a test of basic competence. It could be as simple as identify your Congress person and identify the vice president from a list of candidates and then you get to vote or otherwise you don’t.
Jason: Some people like John Stuart Mill and even the left liberal philosopher, John Rawls, advocated plural voting where everyone gets at least one vote, but some people get more than one vote. There’s a few other ideas as well. The one that I think is the best, and it’s not clear if we’re going to be really fine about our definitions of terms whether this counts as democracy or epistocracy, it can be debated either way, but it’s what I call in the book Government by simulated oracle that I think I like now to refer to it as enlightened preference voting.
Jason: So here’s how enlightened preference voting works. Everybody gets to vote, including your toddler. It doesn’t matter. Let them show up. It won’t make a difference. So everyone gets to vote. But when you vote, you do three things. One is you tell us what you want. So whatever is being subject to an election or being subject to a vote, I’m agnostic about what should be. But whatever you put in there, they get to tell us their view on that. Second, you have to put down your demographic information because this stuff affects how people vote.
Jason: Third, you take a test or a quiz of basic political knowledge. This quiz does not determine whether you get to vote or not. It doesn’t determine whether your vote gets put in or not, but rather when we have three sets of data, what people want, who they are, and what they know, you can then statistically estimate what the public would have wanted, a demographically identical public would have wanted if it had gotten a perfect score on that test.
Jason: So in fact, when you give this test to people, you know, your average grade is an F but you can simulate, well what would the public have voted for if it had gotten an A? An a priori like just sitting in your armchair there’s no guarantee that there’s going to be convergence, but it turns out that when you run these sort of tests on people, you tend to find that voters vote as if they were informed about economics, they vote for certain policies and not others.
Jason: Interestingly, a lot of different political scientists and economists have used this kind of method before to sort of test the effect of knowledge on people’s voting preferences. They use different data sets, but they tend to get the same results over and over again that the public would say be more in favor of free trade rather than against it. They’d be more in favor of immigration rather than against it. They’d be less belligerent when it comes to foreign policy and so on. So in this sort of system, it’s not literally the case that say you get 7.4 votes and I get 6.8 and that person gets 2.9. In a way, we’re all basically equal, but you’re able to simulate what the public would have wanted if it had gotten a perfect score on this test.
Jason: So it might arguably be a form of democracy, but I think of it as a system of extracting the knowledge from the people. The reason you get their demographic information is that way you’re able to make sure that the results are not because say, of income or race or gender. It’s because of knowledge. You can just test the effect of knowledge.
Jason: One reason to use this kind of system, too is for the past, like say 30 or 40 years when economists and political scientists have wanted to ask the question, how does knowledge affect people’s political preferences or how does gender affect people’s political preferences? This is the way you do it. You use this kind of statistical method. In fact, if you don’t do this, if you don’t do this kind of stuff, your results are basically invalid. Now, the big question that everyone should ask, is the right question to ask is, yeah, but who gets to decide what goes on the test? The answer is me and just …
Jim: I was going to ask you the steel man the argument against. But it sounds like you’re getting ready to do that.
Jason: Yeah. I mean it really should be me, but since I won’t be here forever, we have to pick something, a second best sort of system and the worry that people have, which is a very reasonable worry, is if the political party is in power, we’re forced to do this system. They would try to modify the demographic categories and the test in a way that benefits them at the expense of the other party. Of course they would do that. That’s what every party does and every democracy already, even we’re not doing these kinds of things. They gerrymander districts. They try to control the voting system and so on to benefit themselves at the expense of alternative points of view.
Jason: I mean that’s why like first past the post voting will never go away in the US because the democrats and republicans know they benefit from it. So it’s true that it will be abused and we have to ask like what of all the defective imperfect systems, which one’s the best. But the idea that I have, which might sound paradoxical is you let the people decide what goes on the test. So we’re going to have a test of political knowledge that’s going to be used to weigh or to calculate what an enlightened public would prefer, what a fully informed public would prefer. But you randomly select, say 500 citizens and the way that you’ve just slip people through jury duty, you have them come together for a weekend, you pay them to do this.
Jason: Maybe you have a law that even says that they can’t be penalized by their employers for taking time off, and you tell them, “You, 500 citizens, randomly selected, your job is to decide what counts as an informed voter. What do you think voters ought to know? And you’re going to sit here for a weekend and come up with a list of things and give us the questions and then we’ll use that to weigh votes.” What’s odd about that, because I’ve just been all this time arguing that voters are ignorant. You might think, well how would they know that stuff?
Jason: But the funny thing is when you go in and pull typical citizens, what sorts of things do you think you need to know to be a good voter? They give very reasonable answers. They say things like, you should know who the president is. You should know which party controls Congress. You should know who your representative is. You should know certain statistics about how the country is doing and what money is being spent on, and historical facts. It might even say you should know the bus fare to get across town. They say reasonable things. So in a sense, they know what should be on the test even though they don’t know the answers to the test.
Jason: If that sounds paradoxical, I mean, I’ll use another college example. Think about when you’re in, you know, you’re getting a bad grade, like in Chemistry 101. You know what the questions are going to be on the test. You just don’t know what the answers are, right? You’re like, “I know I’m supposed to know about like what happens when these two things bond together. I know I’m supposed to understand what a mole is. I know …” So people, that’s kind of what’s happening with the average citizen. They know what the right questions are, but they don’t know what the answers are. So I think we can let them decide the questions.
Jim: Hey, that’s not a bad solution. As I was reading your critique, one of the ones that came to my mind, something I’ve written about a little bit, is maybe liquid democracy also called recursive delegative democracy, would answer many of your objections. Are you familiar with delegative democracy?
Jason: I’ve heard that phrase before, and I think maybe rather than commenting on that, I should say there’s lots and lots of other ideas out there about how to sort of fix democracy by changing the way that people vote or how they allocate power. So in a liquid democracy, you’re basically, you’re able to allocate your voting power to another person. Maybe if we did that, we’d allocate in a more rational way or maybe it would end up being being biased. I’m not really sure. But I mean there’s other things that people have in mind and well, one is to just use lotteries instead of having elections, randomly select people the way the Athenians did and have them make decisions.
Jason: And maybe if you randomly select people and kind of have them serve on these sort of citizen councils where they have to pass certain laws, they’ll have an incentive to inform themselves because they’ve been acquainted to an office. Robin Hansen, whom you mentioned before that you’re friends with, he advocates a system in which people place bets on policies and without going into the details, there’s ways of if people place a certain number of bets in one policy being better than another, you’ve turned it into law. The idea here is that when people have to place a bet on something it disciplines them to be informed, otherwise, you lose money and so that it looks like this is a better predictive power than other things.
Jason: So I should say like I’m not wedded to epistocracy as the best alternative. One of the reasons I picked it in the book was because I think it’s the most offensive alternative. It’s the one that pisses people off. So if I can make a case to the average person saying, “You think democracy has a sacred value. When I say democracy, you make the sign of the cross and you hear angels sing. You shouldn’t do that. Democracy is a tool. It is the hammer. It’s all it is. And if we can find a better tool, not only should we feel free to use it, but we are obligated to use it because so much is at stake.” So now let me pick what you’ve been taught since as a young baby is the most evil thing, epistocracy, and make a case for it and show you that well, there’s reasons to think it would be better than democracy, and if it is, we shouldn’t use it. But there might be other things that are even better than that.
Jim: Why don’t we exit democracy, Anti-Democracy, the book is Anti-Democracy by Jason Brennan, and move on to Cracks in the Ivory Tower with the co-author Phillip Magness. Is that how you pronounce his last name?
Jim: Magness, okay. Again, Jason and Phillip are pulling punches here from right upfront in the book? Let me read you this quote, “From a business ethics standpoint, the average university makes Enron look pretty good. University problems are deep and fundamental. Most academic marketing is semi-fraudulent. Grading is largely nonsense. Students don’t study or learn much. Students cheat frequently. Liberal arts education fails because it presumes a false theory of learning.”
Jim: “Professors and administrators waste students’ money and time in order to lie in their own pocket. Everyone engage in self-righteous moral grandstanding to disguise their selfish cronyism. Professors plump out unemployable graduate students into oversaturated academic job markets for self-serving reasons, and so on.” So this is not going to be a puff piece about academia, to say the least. But you also go on to say, “But many people blame these flaws on gremlins or poltergeist. Tell us a little bit about gremlins and poultergeist then we’ll get into your case against higher education.
Jason: Yeah, good. So just like I had Hobbits and Hooligans in the other book, I thought let’s have some cute little dichotomies in this book, too. If you know what gremlins are, you think about these corporeal creatures that come in and sabotage things. Now they come in at night, they find your heater, and they just ruin it because that’s like what they like to do. So the analog of that in a higher education would be when people want to say that something is going wrong in higher ed, they point to particular people that they think are badly motivated and they accuse them of sabotaging the system.
Jason: You know, it could be certain university presidents or it could be the students have bad attitudes or the faculty have bad attitudes and we just have to get rid of the bad people and replace them with good people and good things will happen. And then poltergeists are ethereal and incorporeal creatures that also sabotage things and ruin your house. So the analog of that would be ideologies and attitudes. You go around college campuses and you ask, “What’s wrong with academia?” And they say, “Ah, it’s the spirit of neoliberalism, or it’s the corporate business mentality that’s destroying higher ed.”
Jason: And if you leave the college campus and you ask people on the streets, they’ll say, “Well, the problem is like social justice movements and leftist ideology. They’re ruining higher ed.” So we say they might be writing some of these cases but we challenge a lot of that. We say the problem is most of what’s going on in higher ed can be explained instead by bad incentives. The rules of the game are set up in such a way where all the players involved, from administrators to professors to students, can benefit themselves and pass the costs on to others. Or they can do certain things which are collectively harmful but individually beneficial, and it leads to suboptimal behavior.
Jason: So what we say is why don’t we go through case by case and look at the incentive structure that everybody is under and then see how much of dysfunction we can explain and also reveal, because a lot of the stuff we go after is not the stuff that people have been talking about, and explain through bad incentives, just ordinary people taking the bait. And then if only after that kind of basic explanation fails, do you start looking at things like, oh, it’s social justice warriors are in this campus, or oh, it’s neoliberalism. So at the end we go after those things and say they’re not very much explanatory for us but really it’s just the people who work in higher ed are ordinary selfish people. Not completely selfish but predominantly selfish and they face bad incentives and that’s why they act badly.
Jim: Yup. You gave out a nice example right upfront about a administrator who kept trying to overrule the department on what you might call an affirmative action hire, where clearly one candidate was better than the other, but didn’t check off the affirmative action box. Could you take us through that example?
Jason: Yeah. So the administrator in question, it wasn’t that this person had a very strong view about affirmative action, but rather they face a sort of issue where given the laws that are in place, the department in question did not have the right number of people who meet certain criteria. So if you don’t have that, you’re presumptively guilty of something called disparate impact. If your sued, you have to prove your innocence and you can be fined very easily. So that’s true. They weren’t guilty but they had innocence broken the law that way.
Jason: Unfortunately, the way that the law is written, I’m thinking about … Shoot, I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t remember at the top of my head if that’s Title IV or Title IX of the rules. The way that the law is written … No, I should say this is the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I think it must be Title VII. Well, whatever the number is I’m certain a lawyer can correct me. So the way that the law is written though you’re not allowed to affirmatively discriminate in favor of the other groups in order to make up for the impact for your disparate impact. So it’s this kind of paradoxical thing where in order to … You can comply with that law, but only unintentionally.
Jason: So he had a case where the university did not have a valid affirmative action plan that would allow him to discriminate in favor of a female candidate over the male candidate. But he also knew that the university had too many men to women in terms of like the right percentages. So he was strongly encouraging without flat out saying, “You need to discriminate in favor of the woman.” He was strongly encouraging people to think that way. He would write memos and memorandums and said things like, “I want to remind you that every hire is a diversity hire.” And people would interpret that as sort of telling them to discriminate even though he wasn’t actually saying that and legally speaking he’s not allowed to.
Jason: Then when a male candidate came up who is on paper much better than the female candidate he said, “Well, you know, I don’t understand why you want to hire a male candidate when you have all these female candidates who seem high quality. So I think they should rethink your decision. I’m not going to authorize this.” But again, it wasn’t like this person’s like strongly committed to that. It was just, it was his job to try to make sure the university complied with these and he was sort of stuck between a so-called rock and a hard place where no matter what he did, he’d be breaking a rule.
Jim: Yeah, very true. Another example I loved actually, because it was so to the bottom line, you talked about a case where the dean, a name Nancy, and your experiment letting kids do little mini businesses then and they decided to sell beer pong T-shirts and the dean didn’t like it. It wasn’t totally clear to me if that was actually your dean or some other dean. But anyway, I thought the bottom line was actually totally major case. That’s mostly people dealing with obvious human incentives that dean said, “If students do something that bothers parents such as selling beer pong shirts, the parents won’t call you,” meaning you, Jason, “They’ll call me,” meaning the dean. That I thought was a perfect example of these kind of micro personal incentives that drive behavior and academia.
Jason: Absolutely. I want to make it clear, we do this in the book. We are not saying like we’re above this and we’re better than other people. So in the opening chapters we give examples of things that we do that are like this. Like I go to a hotel and I have an expense account and I could walk across the street and get a burrito from Chipotle, or I could be lazy and pay $100 for room service and I’ll just be like, “I’ve got $7,500 that’s in my account. I’ll go ahead and get the room service. Who cares?” Or I’ll stay in a nicer room than I really need when I’m in a conference or as I’m sitting here talking to you, my feet are on top of my $2,000 standing desk. It turns out I don’t really use the standing desk that often. I forget that it works but I spent a bunch of the university’s money on this.
Jason: Or even thinking about where I invest my time though it’s not clear this is a bad thing, it might just be what the university wants me to do. But I, as a professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown, have a very strong incentive to prioritize research over teaching. I can tell you exactly what the incentive is because it’s money and other things. If I publish one book or article in what the university considers an A level publication, so Cracks in the Ivory Tower is an A level publication published with Oxford University Press, that is the number one peer reviewed press for almost every field.
Jason: The university will reward me by giving me a summer bonus or 2/9ths of my base salary. It will increase my research budget and it will release me from a course. I don’t have to teach as much. On the other hand, if I win the university teaching award, I think I get like 10 grand. So I have a very strong incentive to put my time and effort into research and very weak incentive to put it into teaching. I should try to minimize the amount of time I spend teaching, the amount of time I think about it, and just kind of like mail it in, and instead pump out as much research as possible.
Jim: Yep. Then you go on to what I thought was the deepest analysis in the whole book was perhaps say and attempt to reverse those incentives that most universities now require students to do course evaluations. You know, we didn’t have such things in my day, which was in the ’70s or if they did, nobody looked at them, nobody gave a shit. But, so I understand now from talking to professors, they’re a pretty damn big deal. They count to some significant degree in tenure at least if not top research, track the universities and in promotion. But I think the word you said is, “The research overwhelmingly shows that the course evaluations are well, garbage.” I think you also said, “Actually reading tea leaves would be better. It’s equally bullshit, but it’s faster and cheaper.”
Jim: And you went into all kinds of really interesting analysis about course evaluations. Take us through some of that.
Jason: Yeah. So most of universities, I mean when I say most like literally almost all of them, there might be like three examples of places that don’t use this, student course evaluations at the end of the semester. And they just ask students, “How much did you learn? Was the instructor effective?” Okay, fair enough. I mean, I don’t mind the idea of having some sort of check on professors. I think it’s good to evaluate them and we should care about this stuff. I want to measure learning and hold professors accountable to this. I mean, I don’t really want my university to do that, but I think it should be done.
Jason: However, the question is, are these SETs, the student evaluations of teaching, are they actually measuring teaching? How would we know? Well, the best way to do that is to run various kinds of experiments. There’s are all these problems with if you’re a crappy professor at MIT, your students will probably still learn more than if you are a really good professor at say, UMass Boston because the MIT students are just smarter on average, they’re willing to learn more. There’s all these other problems, like all these confounding variables. But there are ways of running experiments where you control for all possible confounding variables and you actually measure how much do students learn from this professor.
Jason: And it turns out that every time someone does any kind of analysis like this, there is normally not a positive correlation between what students learn and what their evaluation scores. There’s actually a negative correlation. Another recent example of this was experiment was done where they put students in two different kinds of teaching and they measured what they knew before the class and after. Then one kind of teaching method, you have students actively think through things, but the problem with active learning is that it shows you what you don’t know so you feel kind of dumb. Then they ask students to evaluate the teaching and it turned out … They measure, they learned a lot through this method of teaching but students said it was not effective.
Jason: Then there’s another kind of just passive learning. You just lecture the students. Because they don’t feel dumb because they’re not struggling, they felt like they learned a lot, but in fact the measurement showed that they didn’t. So there’s a huge amount of research. I mean it’s amazing how much there is trying to test what are student evaluations of teaching, measuring, teaching ability at all. Are they measuring effectiveness and they’re not. What they seem to be instead is a reward for being a lax grader.
Jason: Also, largely a personality test. Are you fun and engaging and do students like you? By the way, you might think being funny and engaging matters. Maybe it makes them learn more, but it doesn’t. So the reason that universities use them, even though they’re overwhelmingly bullshit, is one, deans don’t seem to know that they’re bullshit. There have been all these studies where they ask students, “Do you think student evaluations of teaching are actually measuring teaching effectiveness?” And the students are kind of ambiguous, the faculty think they are and administrators and deans think they are, even though the research says that it’s not, they’re not aware of that.
Jason: Another thing is, if you think about the … There’s a conflict between administrators and faculty. We’re fighting over resources, we’re fighting over power. Administrators would love it if faculty are interchangeable and you could just replace them at will and that you don’t have to sort of invest in them long term because that means more power and money and resources for them. Faculty would like it if it goes the other way. Insofar as we use student evaluations of teaching, it’s one way for administrators to sort of win the class conflict between admins and faculty. I think you can cash that out in individualistic terms, too.
Jason: Finally, it’s also a good way of bamboozling the students because in the chapter on this, I go through carefully, what would it actually take to show that this method of teaching is effective? What would it actually take to show that this person is a good teacher? It’s really expensive and really difficult and it interferes with student choice. No one wants to do that but you can give these bullshit tests of teaching effectiveness and trick students into thinking you care about teaching and voila.
Jason: Then of course, once you get departments in place that run this as their job, they have a very strong professional incentive to continue to lobby for the use of it. You have all these groups out there that run these tests, provide software for, and they lobby extensively for it. Again, I love the idea of professors being measured and how good they are as teaching and being punished for being bad teachers and rewarded for being good teachers. I totally think we should do that but student evaluations of teaching are not valid measurements of that. They’re measuring something else.
Jim: That’s despite the fact that you score pretty high on these things, I understand.
Jason: Yeah. I selfishly benefit from them the way that evaluations are done here on campus, your raise is determined by being better than the average in your group. I get better than average student evaluation of teaching scores. As a result, my raise is higher than it would be if I got lower scores. However, again, these scores are actually negatively correlated with learning. So I can’t say it in my own particular case whether they’re learning more or less, but on average, the fact that I’m getting a higher scores than some of the other people in my department means probably my students are learning less from me. So I’m probably getting rewarded for being bad.
Jim: I love it. In fact, I actually liked your fairly careful analysis of where the negative correlation came from. It’s one of those things when you think about it, it goes, “Fucking of course.” But I’d never actually seen it laid out like that. Could you take us through the negative correlation phenomenon, what you think is going on there?
Jason: Yeah. It’s puzzling why the negative correlation is there. But it might be things like … This is largely speculative. It’s clear that there is a slight negative correlation but why it’s there is not as clear. It could be that … One thing is that certain learning methods feel good even though they don’t actually work, certain methods require a lot from students and they feel like they’re not working even though they do. Again, lecturing feels like it works even though people learn less from it. Active learning feels like it doesn’t work because when you’re engaged in active learning, you feel stupid at the time because you’re struggling but in fact, you’re learning more. Also, grading people, the easier you are as a grader, the higher scores you get.
Jim: That seems an obvious one to me. That, you know, if you’re a weak grader, if you have you know, any kind of reasonable theory about personal autonomy, hell yes, you’re going to get voted up and the people are going to learn less. People who are sufficing on their GPAs. Right?
Jason: Yeah. I had this professor in college who was a really hard grader and she just didn’t accept anything unless it was good. She would just make you rewrite things over and over and over again. In her case, she got good teaching evaluations only because none of her classes were required classes. People knew she was a hard ass, so they would only take her class if they were willing to put up with that. But if she had need to teach … They never had her do this because of this, so she didn’t need to teach the introductory political science course and she had that same kind of method, what would have happened is most students would punish her. They’re like, “She’s really mean and hard on me. She keeps making me do more work,” and they would have given her very low scores.
Jason: As a professor, your incentive is to take it easy on students and there’s actually almost a kind of implicit bargaining that goes on with students. It’s like, “I won’t require much from you and you don’t require much from me.” You get benefited because you have more free time to do the summer camp stuff that happens in college and have fun. And I benefit because I have more time to do research and all the fame and money and status of research rather than teaching.
Jim: It reminds me of the old Soviet Union joke, you know, “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”
Jason: Absolutely. For what it’s worth, there’s really good evidence that students are studying much less now than they used to do in the past. In the year 1960, the average student in college was spending about 40 hours a week engaged in academic activities. Now it’s somewhere between 23 and 27 hours. Some of that might be because students are more efficient, they’re better able to self-select into the right programs that they’re good at. Maybe teaching methods have actually improved and that might be it. But I think a lot of it just comes down to we expect less from students and get less.
Jim: Okay. I’m going to jump ahead a little bit here on my list because it ties into the ongoing conversation. You had some interesting things to say about the fallacy of GPAs and grading in general. Could you take us through that argument a little bit?
Jason: Because that book we want to throw fire in everybody. We have that chapter on student evaluations and faculty are going to read that and go, “Yeah, I knew it.” And you went carefully through, “I knew it was bullshit.” Then the next chapter is, “Don’t go so easy on yourselves because you’re doing the same thing.” Then the empirical research shows that assigning great … Again, I love the idea of measuring things. I am not a Hampshire College hippie. I have another book where I think, I argue that you can assign a dollar value to every human life. I believe in numbers, but because I believe in numbers and I want to be scientific, I don’t like GPA. It turns out that the process of assigning grades to people, like giving them a letter grade actually demotivates them and it makes them learn less. That’s a problem. That suggests that we should maybe just tell people how they’re doing but not give them a grade.
Jason: But it gets worse. One problem is that we say you know, we all use the same letters, but we don’t mean the same things by it. It’s not just Bob over here and Tommy over here, they’re both, one’s easy grader and one’s a hard grader so it’s easier to get an A here than there. It’s not even that. That’s not even the half of it. The problem is grades mean different things. For some classes, like if you take a class at the McDonough School of Business or if you take a class in the law school, at any law school, grades are stand in for class ranking. That’s what it is. You’re supposed to rank people from first to worst in the class and then you assign them a grade that shows a rough reflection. Maybe the people at the 50th percentile get a B plus or whatever. It depends on what the curve is.
Jason: That’s how it is in some classes. In other classes, a grade is supposed to be a shorthand for a qualitative description, like excellent, good, average, poor, bad. In other classes, a grade is a shorthand for percentage of questions you got right on some sort of tests. The problem is you can’t average these things together. Imagine you’re taking a class at the McDonough School of Business, you get an A in one group class. I mean, you’re ranked one out of 45 students, you get a B in the other, that means you’re ranked 22 out of 45. You cannot average. It’s just mathematically incoherent to average those together because they’re not identical scales. Say, “Well, what’s your average ranking?” The answer is there isn’t one because the gap between students in these classes might be very different.
Jason: It might be very clustered together in one class and very spread out in other, they’re not a coherent thing. When you have a class in English and a class in finance and a class in chemistry, what you might be doing is saying something like, “Here’s what your grades mean. Excellent plus ranked seven out of 45 plus 85% divided by three equals what? Nothing. It means nothing. It’s mathematically incoherent so we nevertheless do this.” This could be rescued if it turned out that grades were highly correlated with future success. Like if it turned out it’s mathematically coherent but we do this and it turns out that people with high GPAs do better than people with low GPAs.
Jason: There’s a little bit of that though. To my surprise, I tried searching, you know, through all these journals and using Google Scholar for literature on what does future grade GPA predict about people’s outcomes. It looks like not that much. Maybe high school GPA matters a lot more than college GPA but it doesn’t seem to matter that much.
Jim: Yeah. We all remember that you could pick and choose amongst known gut courses to pad your GPA if nothing else. Right?
Jason: Absolutely. We professors, we complain about student evaluations of teaching. We are absolutely right to do so but we should apply the same standards to our own process of grading. Grading does not pass. Grading gets an F.
Jim: I love it. I don’t recall it being in the book, but do you have a theory on what might work better for evaluating students?
Jason: Yeah, actually I do say something in the book and then I say, “Because we’re selfish, we hope that our own universities don’t follow our advice.” What we should do is give them qualitative feedback on how they’re doing with written descriptions of what they did well and what they did badly and give that to them. There’s really good evidence that that makes them learn more and it avoids the problem of students engaging in great grubby behavior, of students chasing the grade rather than chasing quality. It’s good evidence that that works and people learn more when you do it. However, it takes much, much more time. I selfishly don’t want to spend more time on grading, I want to spend more time writing papers. Again, if I spend an extra 40 hours a semester grading, that’s time I could have written an article. If I write an article, I get a bigger raise.
Jim: And we come back to our incentives problem. If we put more incentive on teaching and required good qualitative feedback that you’ve put some serious time in, education maybe improved though, maybe you have to do more work to make your money. But that’s okay. We’ll talk maybe very briefly at the end about college costs and what the fuck is going on there. But before we do that, let’s jump up to another topic. This had a very nice inflammatory chapter heading. Why most academic advertising is immoral bullshit?
Jason: Yeah. For what it’s worth, I recently gave a talk at the Department of Education here in DC on that very question. If five years from now it turns out that academic advertising is regulated heavily, then you might be able to thank me. You know, there’s nothing quite so tasty as the hand that feeds. Here’s the worry, in the opening of that chapter, we go through a lot of the advertising that colleges do. Universities, in general, will make these promises about how education will transform you. It will make you a more moral person, a nicer person, smarter, it will improve your ability to think. You’ll get all these soft skills that you’ll be able to use and no matter, any kind of job you get, you’ll be able to use these soft skills and you’ll in fact use them. They make these big promises.
Jason: Liberal arts colleges, in particular, at universities, you know, like Arizona State has a liberal arts division. They’ll say things like, “Well, you know, liberal arts training, it’s not professional training. But the good news is it’s better than professional training because we’re going to have you analyze Shakespearian sonnets and write philosophy essays and think about sociological problems, but the skills that you learn in class, you can apply them to any job and you’ll be more creative and more open-minded and a better thinker and better writer no matter what you’re doing.”
Jason: Then even specific departments. I picked philosophy because I have a philosophy PhD, they’ll make claims like, “Philosophy students get the best scores on the LSAT and the MCAT the best GRE scores.” Philosophy obviously is making you smarter and you should major in. It also turns out the philosophy majors, despite the joke about becoming hamburger flippers, in reality, they actually make a lot of money and do really well. After about 10 years out of college, they end up making more money than almost any other major. Therefore, we’re actually helping you make money. You should major in philosophy. That’s what they say. We give lots of examples. We even invite you as the reader to just pick a college near you, go to their website and see what sorts of promises they make.
Jason: Here’s the problem with all that. One problem is many of the outcomes of college are not the result of what the college did for you, but the fact that you are good enough to get in. That’s called the selection effect. If you think about 100 people who’ve been admitted to Harvard University, think of how hard it is to get into Harvard, they only have a 4.1% acceptance rate, you have to be incredibly smart, incredibly talented, incredibly driven or even just have good connections, too, to get into Harvard.
Jason: Then consider the people who get into Keene State University in Southern New Hampshire. To get in there, you have to have a pulse and be alive, I guess. It’s pretty much what it takes, a high school diploma and be alive. I mean, no offense to the schools because I’m about to criticize Harvard as I say this, but the people who get into Harvard are really impressive. So it’s not a surprise when they graduate that they do really well because you had to be the kind of person who was bound for success to get in, in the first place.
Jason: Ellen Krueger and Stacy Dale and a few others have done studies where they look at people who are admitted to these really fancy schools that have incredibly high selection criteria, but then it actually go to the schools versus people that have been admitted and then go to a much lower tier university. Because now you can start seeing you have the same quality person but one goes to the school and one doesn’t. What’s the difference in their life outcomes?
Jason: It turns out in terms of salary, they end up making the same amount of money. Yes, Harvard grads do better on average but not because Harvard is doing something but because they’re good enough to get into Harvard. That’s already really depressing, but it gets worse. They make these promises about how much you’re going to learn, turns out they don’t learn very much. You can test for how much students learn. They forget almost everything that they do learn.
Jason: They make these claims about how the skills that you learn in class, you can transfer to any job. It’s true that you could but the question is, “Will they?” There’s this idea in educational psychology called “Transfer of learning.” Transfer of learning is the idea that if you learn how to analyze a Shakespearean sonnet, that will make you better at writing a business memo. If you learn how to do advanced mathematics, that’ll make you better as doing whatever kind of math you do on your job.
Jason: It turns out that for about 100 years, educational psychologists have studied the phenomenon of transfer of learning and they overwhelmingly conclude that people do not engage in it. That learning is instead very highly specific in particular and compartmentalized. If you want people to be good at something, you have to teach them to do that thing. Very few people will engage in transfer of learning unless they’re pushed to do it by an external force. You know who’s actually really going to transform learning? College professors. What really is going on is our model of liberal arts education is based upon a theory of psychology, which is true of ourselves and false of everybody else.
Jason: That’s pretty bad but it gets worse. The reason it gets worse is that college is extremely expensive and it’s time-consuming. It has a high opportunity costs. So we make all these promises to students and we are sincere when we make them, we believe it. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Imagine, I sit here in my office and I find the various chemicals and stuff I have here and I put them together and I make some sort of new serum and I say to you, “If you pay me $200,000 for the serum, it will make you smarter. It’ll make you a better person and it’ll increase your IQ by 10 points, it’ll make you more open-minded and kinder and nicer and better able to write.” I offer you this snake oil serum.
Jason: Well, if I were to do that, you’d be able to sue me and you’ll be able to win prevailed in a court of law. I’d even might get fined by the FDA and others. I mentioned a drug company said, “We have a new drug called Caligra. Caligra, it takes about 36 hours per week, over four years for you to take. It costs $200,000. You won’t be able to work a full-time job. But if you take Caligra, you’ll become smarter and get better test scores and you’ll be employable at any job and better at whatever job you do, and you’ll have a more open mind and become a better person.” If Pfizer made that advertisement, the FDA would find that. They wouldn’t allow them do it in the first place and they’d get fined. If they actually sold the drug and it didn’t work, people would sue them and they would win.
Jason: Universities are making exactly the same kinds of promises and the only excuse they have is, “Well, we’re not lying because we believe it.” The reason we believe in it because we don’t look at the evidence. There’s mountains and mountains of evidence to the contrary that’s been induced by educational psychologists over the past 100 years and we completely ignore it. I call it not false advertising but negligent advertising. It’s selling something on the pretense that it works when you, the seller, should have done the due diligence to test it before you made that promise.
Jim: It’s a libertarian. You support an FDA type standard for academic advertising?
Jason: Yeah. You know, when I was at the Department of Education, I said, “I’m kind of a person who’s not a big fan of regulation in general. I guess, I think you should be consistent with your regulations and not exempt universities from them just for procedural reasons.” But I guess what I really like to see is more of a tort system fix. I think if someone sued and won, then that would change things. There were some cases recently, I don’t remember the exact details where I know people were suing certain law schools for making certain promises about employability. Because of those cases, law school stopped making those kinds of promises. I think there should be something done about it. I think universities should be punished for lying, one way or another. I mean, again, not lying, negligent advertising. Saying stuff that’s false, they should know better than to say.
Jim: They may believe but without any basis for such belief.
Jason: Absolutely. You know, the degree of harm, I want to make clear about this. If you go to the Metaphysics Store. In Tucson, Arizona, I don’t know if it’s still there, but when I was a graduate student, there is a store called the Metaphysic Store. If you walked in there, they don’t sell you books about philosophical metaphysics, they sell you crystals and other bullshit. If you walk in, they’re like, “Hey, man, if you take this crystal and put it by your bedside table, you won’t have any bad dreams.” If it costs me $10 …
Jason: That guy, he’s full of shit and he should know better, but at least I’m only out $10. It’s not that harmful. If he says, “If you take this crystal, it will cure your cancer, man,” and then I die, well then he’s done something pretty rotten by making that promise to me. At least in this case, you might think, “Well, you know, buyer beware. I should know better than to think that crystals are going to cure cancer or fix my bad dreams. You’d have to be an idiot to think otherwise.”
Jason: But universities, there’s reasons for people to think that they’re working, it’s not like buying a crystal. But the other thing with universities is we’re costing people so much money. Even if it’s a state university, people were like, “That’s because they’re … They shouldn’t be private, they should all be paid for by the state.” Same argument applies. Education is expensive. So whoever’s paying for this, this is money that could have been spent on all sorts of other valuable things. It takes tremendous amounts of time. You’re wasting student’s time and you’re wasting the money of whoever is paying for this stuff, and you’re depriving people or whatever their next best opportunity would have been. The more expensive college is in terms of time and money, the worst it is for us to make these promises and not be able to back them up.
Jim: All this in the context of unbelievably insane prices. I actually went and did some numbers this morning, compared then and now. I was a working class kid. My father dropped out of high school and at the end of ninth grade, my mother left home when she was 14. I did not come from a privileged background, by any means. Somehow I managed to scrape my way through MIT. I spent $16,000 between loans and grants and working and, you know, a couple of awards I got, what have you. I just barely made it. Today, I looked up the MIT’s forecast what four years would cost there, $300,000. I then went and looked at the St. Louis Fed’s deflator GDP since 1975 and the answer is 3.8. My 16K should have become 62K in those years but instead it’s 300,000. What the fuck.
Jim: Of course, the issue is that it works “on the numbers” and higher ed is essentially become a positional good. I want higher ed just so I can say that I have it probably for signaling purposes, et cetera. That puts us all in this crazed race degenerate game theory, race to grab our spot at whatever price they charge us because it, perversely, is valuable. I think this screams to me is why hasn’t an industry arisen that does signaling an evaluation that is not free, because we know that free signals aren’t worth anything, but it’s expensive enough to be a good signal but it’s way less expensive. I can imagine a sixth month process of physical, mental, moral evaluation that could probably tell me as a hirer more about who I’m hiring than $300,000 worth of fancy higher ed. Why hasn’t that happened?
Jason: Yeah. Good question. You have to go and speculate here about these things. One thing’s worth noting though is that the sticker price of these universities and the actual price is often very different. My university, its sticker price for four years is $270,000 but on average, people are paying 120 including all expenses. Because people have financial aid kind of grants and scholarships and other sorts of things. The real price is lower but it’s still … Even when you take into account inflation, it’s still much higher than it should be. The average student at MIT, you can go on to the Department of Education’s website right now, look it up, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re paying on average about 125. As you said, if you were just keeping pace with inflation, it should have been like 62 or 65. It’s much higher than it should be even taking that into account.
Jim: There was a lot of financial aid back in my day. I mean my 16K, half of it was financial aid.
Jason: Yeah. There you go. What do we do about this? Why is it so high? A couple of things. One is there’s this thing called Baumol’s cost disease explaining some of the pricing problem. In fact, it might even be explaining most of it. Even in Baumol’s price disease is that certain kinds of fields become more efficient over time and others don’t. His example, he was using Opera. The technology for doing opera is basically the same. I mean, now we have microphones inside of some opera houses. You’re not really supposed to, it’s actually considered a bad thing. But opera singing is not really more efficient but in order to hire someone who haven’t done opera, you’re basically competing with all the other things that that person can do and other fields have become much more productive like auto manufacturing and so on.
Jason: Since they could be learned a way to do these other sorts of jobs, you have to pay people more to do the job you want them to do even though they’re not more efficient or more productive. That’s called Baumol’s cost disease. That might be explaining half of what’s going on in higher ed. Another problem, though, is the fact that we subsidize higher ed actually increases the cost of higher ed. To analyze that, imagine a new candidate comes to power over the next election. He says, “I’m worried that too many Americans cannot afford a Honda Civic. You know, they should be able to buy a small high quality compact four-door sedan, but too many of them can’t afford it. What I’m going to do is every one of the country gets a $15,000 tax credit to be spent on Honda Civics or any other car like that.”
Jason: Then you ask, “Well, what would happen to the price of Honda Civics? How do you think auto dealers would respond if we did that?” They would raise prices. They would raise prices probably by about $15,000. In fact, that’s what companies do when you give mass subsidies. If you get a targeted subsidy to a smaller number of very poor people, it won’t have much of effect in prices. But if you give a subsidy to almost everybody, then what happens is the price of that good goes up. But that’s for profit auto dealers. Of course, those greedy jerks are going to try to take the money. But obviously noble people working at Harvard and Princeton and Keene State College are not going to do that. Unfortunately, it turns out they do.
Jason: When governments put subsidies towards universities, universities respond by saying, “There’s an artificial increase in effective demand. We can charge more money and then we can offer certain kinds of services we didn’t before.” You know, the difference between … If you went to MIT now, the experience as a student might be a lot more fun because they have the rock climbing walls and the lazy river and it’s more of the dorms are nicer and it’s more of a summer camp feel. They can also take that money and do more research now than they were doing in the past and have a bigger faculty and so on.
Jason: Universities react the same way auto dealers do. They just capture all that extra money and they keep raising prices. The perverse thing is that the phenomenon of subsidizing everyone is actually increasing the cost of college and making it ever more unaffordable. I don’t want to say that’s the only thing doing it, there’s phenomena that would cause it to rise in price even without that, but it’s still going on. Now you’re asking like, “What do we do about it? Why don’t we have a fix?” You pointed out that people aren’t learning that much. If it’s just an expensive signal, why don’t we find some other alternative signal?
Jason: I think here, my buddy, Brian Kaplan has a good line where he says, you know, “Going to college signals not just that you’re smart, it signals not just that your perseverance but it also signals that you’re normal, you do what society expects of you.” You know, think about signaling when it comes to proposing to my wife. One thing I could do to prove that I’m sincere is buy her a $5,000 ring and say, “Look, I’ve wasted money on a trinket. I really love you.” Another thing I could do is cut my arm open and bleed right up until the point of death and go, “Look, I want you to marry me. To prove that I want you to marry me, I’m going to bleed for four hours and then I’m going to stop right before I die and call an ambulance.”
Jason: Now, those are both really good signals of sincerity. In fact, the second one might be better, but she probably be more likely to take me in the first one than the second because the second one is so weird. She’d be like, “Who the hell is this guy? I don’t know, if I can … He means he really does want to marry me but he’s a creep and a weirdo. I don’t know if I should be with this guy.” The worry is that alternative mechanisms of proving that you’ve got what it takes and you’re the right kind of person come across as being the person who cuts himself to bleed in order to show he wants to get married. Employers are like, “I don’t know if we should take a risk on these people, they’re weirdos.” Education has the benefit of being a conformist behavior that proves you’re the normal kind of person. Why take the risk of something else?
Jim: Yeah. That’s unfortunate, but unfortunately, probably true. Well, I think we have time for one last question. I got a bunch more on my list here but in the spirit of throwing elbows every which way, why don’t you talk a little bit about the moral grandstanding around tenure?
Jason: Moral grandstand is this phenomenon of using moral language in order to promote your own status. You talk about morality and it sounds like if you just take what people literally they’re concerned about ethics, but in reality, what they’re trying to do is show that they’re a good person. We engage in a lot of moral discussion in academia when we’re just promoting our self-interest. We’ll say, you know, the English department will say things like, “The reason we need to force people to take four courses in English is because it’s good for the students and they’ll learn more and become better writers.” But the truth is, we need to force them to take four courses in English because that gives us money and status. That’s the kind of behavior.
Jason: Tenures looks like another example of this. The arguments for tenure are things like people need to have academic freedom in order to do high level research and risky research. You give people tenure of reward to give them the freedom to swing for the fences and do risky things that might not pay off. Good hypotheses, testable hypotheses. They’ve been tested and they’re false. It turns out, as you would expect in any other field, when you give people a job for life that’s very hard to lose, they stop working as hard, they publish less, their ideas become smaller rather than bigger, they don’t swing for the fences, they don’t go for the bigger long term riskier projects. They just do less work.
Jason: People’s research productivity, there’s much higher when they’re chasing tenure than after they get it on average. Again, it’s not true of everybody. I mean, I’m publishing a higher rate of books now than I was before I got tenure but I’m a weirdo and probably at some point, I’ll get lazy, too. On average, people slow down after getting tenure. They take lower risk projects, they go for smaller ideas rather than big ideas. That’s exactly what you’d expect in any other field.
Jason: If you’re working as an auto mechanic and your boss said to you, “Here’s the deal. I don’t care how many cars you fix or how much value the repairs is, as long as you avoid sexually assaulting the other people who work here and you just show up every day and do the bare minimum, you can keep your job forever and get a 5% raise year after year.” You’d expect that auto mechanic would probably slack off. That’s what faculty do, too. The only really good argument I saw for tenure was an argument that said, that maybe holds up as an argument that said, “If we were all able to get fired as soon as there was a financial exigency, then what we would do when we hire people, because faculty decide who gets hired in their own department, we would purposely try to hire people that are inferior to us.”
Jason: That seems right. I mean, if I knew that the next time university has a budget crisis, they were just going to start firing the least productive faculty. Well, that would make sure the next time we have a job, I try to hire people that suck compared to me so that I keep my job and they don’t. I think that’s probably true. But the other other arguments just don’t hold up, tenure makes people worse.
Jim: That’s a fact. Internally at the Santa Fe Institute, where I’ve been involved for many years including as chairman for a while, we resolutely do not have tenure for just those reasons. We only grant five-year appointments that are renewable, it used to be only twice, but now they’re renewable an infinite number of times. I’m with you, I would not expect to defy human nature by giving people a job for life.
Jim: Listen, that’s a wonderful conversation. I knew it would. My wife asked me what I thought the conversation today would be like and I said, “It’ll be hot and furious and it’ll annoy the piss out of a bunch of people but it’ll be a lot of fun.” It was all those things. We really like to thank you for being on here and, again, to remind our listeners, two books, Cracks in the Ivory Tower and the other one was Against Democracy. I would recommend people read them. I read them before I even tracked Jason down. Thanks a lot. This was fun.
Jason: Thank you for having us, great time for me, too.
Jim: Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mahler at modernspacemusic.com.