The Dissident Ambassador

In a new paper, Greg Mankiw shares some thoughtful reflections on teaching and heterodoxy:

I have always thought that instructors, especially in introductory courses, are like ambassadors for the economics profession. The role of ambassadors is not to represent their own views but to act as agents for their principal. Just as ambassadors are supposed to faithfully represent the perspective of their nations, the instructor in an introductory course (and intermediate courses as well) should faithfully represent the views shared by the majority of professional economists.

[…]

This perspective of instructor as ambassador raises the question of what instructors should do if they hold views far from the mainstream of the economics profession. If you are an Austrian or Marxist economist, for example, what should you do if asked to teach an introductory course? In my view, there are only two responsible courses of action. One is to sublimate your own views and spend most of the course teaching what the mainstream believes, even if you disagree with it. Because many introductory students will take only one or two courses in economics throughout their educations, it would be pedagogical malpractice, in my judgment, to focus on an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint. The other responsible course of action is to avoid teaching introductory (and even intermediate) courses entirely. In a more advanced elective, there is nothing wrong with teaching an idiosyncratic minority viewpoint, as long as students know what they are getting.

Mankiw’s view definitely resonates with me, but my position – and my practice – is rather different.  I say that a professor’s fundamental fiduciary duty is to teach their students about the world – not what his peers think about the world.  As long as your discipline is fundamentally sound, fortunately, these two goals closely overlap.  If your discipline is a corrupt pseudo-science, however, your obligations to your students require you to teach heterodoxy.  Sure, you’ll have to explain the normal view in the process of debunking it.   Yet it’s a dereliction of duty to teach nonsense as fact.

Analogously, by the way, it’s fine to act as a loyal ambassador for a fundamentally virtuous organization.  But if you’re the ambassador for North Korea, you have not only the right but the obligation to be a traitor.  “I’m just promoting my client’s interests” is as flimsy a defense as “I’m just following orders.”  See Mike Huemer on legal ethics for further discussion.

Since I am a professional economist, I’m happy to say that I don’t consider my discipline a corrupt pseudo-science.  However, economics is also far from “fundamentally sound.”  When I teach, then, I try to split the difference.  I spend about half of the time as Mankiw recommends: neutrally describing the economic consensus.  When the consensus is far from the truth, though, I go out of my way to amend it.

Yes, I try to plainly disclose whether I’m describing the research consensus or just telling them what’s actually reasonable to believe.  And no, I don’t penalize students for arguing that the consensus is right and Caplan is wrong.  Some of my exams even require students to disagree with me!  Still, my primary goal is to teach students how the economy works, not what most economists happen to believe.

Furthermore, the only economics students who really need to understand the current conventional wisdom of economics are… graduate students!  After all, no matter how misguided the research consensus happens to be, you can’t be a successful researcher unless you understand it.  Most Econ 1 students, in stark contrast, will never take another economics class.  So the sole economics instructor they’re ever going to have should rigidly focus on economic reality.  Thus, I essentially reverse Mankiw’s advice to confine “idiosyncratic minority viewpoints” to advanced students.  No matter what you think about Keynesianism, you have a fiduciary responsibility to teach your grad students all about it.  Otherwise, they’ll be at a severe professional handicap.  For undergrads, in contrast, the truth of Keynesianism is pivotal.  If your students’ lifetime commitment to economics comes to fifteen weeks, it would be silly to spend five weeks on an intellectual dead-end.

Am I saying that professors should teach whatever they feel is true?  No; a thousand times no.  If you use your “feelings” to form beliefs, you shouldn’t be a professor at all.  The first fiduciary duty of every intellectual is to set emotions aside, and calmly and patiently study a wide range of arguments and evidence.  Once you’ve done that, however, you owe it to your students to share the fruits of your labors.  And if, along the way, you discover that your discipline is misguided, you should let your students know that, too.

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I’m Shocked — Shocked! — that Wealthy Parents Love Their Kids Too

In the film version of Forrest Gump (but not, if memory serves, in the novel), Forrest’s mother tries to convince the local elementary school principal that her son belongs at  his local elementary school rather than at an institution for what we would now call “special needs” students. The two reach an understanding on Mrs. Gump’s remarkably squeaky bed while Forrest waits on the front porch.

That scene popped to mind uninvited in early March when fifty parents, test administrators, and college sports coaches were indicted in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.

Coaches allegedly took bribes to accept students as fake athletic recruits to get around academic standards. Test prep services supposedly taught students how to cheat on tests and bribed proctors to smooth the way for the cheating. An “admissions consultant,” William Singer, is accused of orchestrating the scheme to the tune of $25 million.

None of which, obviously, is According to Hoyle.

I’m surprised, though, at the vitriol directed at the parents in particular.

I suspect most movie viewers empathized with the fictional Mrs. Gump, who did whatever she felt she had to do to secure the best education possible for her child.

Real-life parents like actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — the two most famous of the indicted parents — did whatever they felt they had to do to secure the best educations possible for their children as well.

The difference, of course, is that the fictional Mrs. Gump was poor, while Loughlin and Huffman are wealthy.

The public heartburn over Loughlin and Huffman seems less about them bribing their kids into good schools than about them being able to AFFORD to bribe their kids into good schools.

Suppose the scandal had unfolded in a different way. What if, instead of rich people writing checks they could afford,  it was working class parents scraping together money they really couldn’t afford, or trading menial work or even sexual favors a la Mrs. Gump, for illicit “admissions assistance?”

In that alternative scenario, I suspect most would regard the parents as victims, not as evil-doers.

In that alternative scenario, I expect that most parents could see themselves doing exactly the same things in the same circumstances.

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.” True. But not when it comes to loving their children. I won’t condemn them for that.

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What the College Admissions Scandal Reveals

A Tweetstorm.

1/ The signaling theory of education is correct.

Except a degree is not a signal of employability.

It’s a signal of adherence to the dominant social status religion of the day.

2/ Evidence is everywhere.

The mother who pressures her successful, happy, entrepreneur child to get a degree, while she proudly brags about her depressed, unemployed, basement-dwelling degreed child.

3/ The human capital theory of education is clearly bunk. Most people then conclude that degrees are bought because they are an employability signal.

This is also untrue, though it’s easy to see why it can appear that way sometimes.

4/ Not only are there classic correlation problems (e.g people with sports cars/degrees have more money on average), but social status games play a part in other games, like workplace politics, etc.

5/ The signal of social status games has overlap with the signal of employability. Some people prefer to hire other people who play the same social status games.

But employment signal is not the fundamental, causal mechanism for why people buy degrees.

6/ This is proven in so many ways but it’s hard to see until the blinders fall off.

People go into debt and suffer boredom for years “because I have to get a job” without ever asking what it would take to get a particular job.

7/ Imagine someone training for and running a marathon “because I have to to get customers for my artwork”, without every exploring the market to see what customers would need to make it worth buying your art?

8/ That is precisely how 90% of students/parents approach college. They have no idea what they want to do and whether college will help or hinder, yet they go in totally blind to the employment signal ROI, and spend irresponsible amounts of money on the degree.

9/ Why? Because they cannot resist the shame/envy/fear of being outside the dominant social status doctrine.

Again, pride for unemployed degree-holders dramatically exceeds that for successful drop-outs and opt-outs. Not even close.

10/ Multimillion dollar athletes and entertainers go back and buy degrees later in life and get treated as heroes. The employment signaling theory cannot explain any of this, because it’s not the dominant cause of degree buying.

11/ Degrees are a purchase made almost always for other people, not for you. They are made to make those around you feel comfortable with your opting in to their envy games.

12/ If an individual has a career goal and they plan the next few steps to it, if it doesn’t involve a degree, everyone pressures them and tells them they are a loser.

It it involves a degree, no one demands any plan, or any successful outcome at all and they get praise.

13/ Those who opt out of status games are a threat to the herd. They cannot be manipulated, they are unpredictable, they are bold.

They are also the only ones who every create progress and improve the lot of the herd.

14/ Make each step your step, not the step that makes everyone clap and give you cheap praise.

Make your goals about you.

Go build the life you want, don’t seek the badges that keep everyone happy.

15/ Your individual scoreboard is more important to your flourishing than your relative status on the collective status scoreboard.

16/ Fin.

Addendum:

I think it once was primarily an employment signal and status second. That became a religious belief and the social status part flipped to dominant.

Like buying a home was a good investment, that advice became religion, then people bought homes based on status.

(And subsidies and propaganda)

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That Look College Opt-Outs Get

There is a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the nearly 5 years since I decided not to go to college. I’ll call it the college opt-out look.

It happens like this:

PERSON: Are you in school? / Where did you go to school?

YOU: Oh, I didn’t go to university.

PERSON: Oh.

Accompanying this response is a look that suggests you might be less bright than you appear. If the person is nice, they might half-heartedly add something about how “college isn’t for everyone.”

Immediately accompanying that, you’ll find in yourself a desire to justify yourself.

This is a test: will you seek to soften the blow of being different?

“Yes, but I have an awesome job.” 

“Oh, I was accepted into X college/got X scholarship. I just wanted something more.” 

“I didn’t need college – I’m already smarter than my peers and know how to teach myself.”

You could say all these things. But that would be ego and insecurity talking – the same ego and insecurity that you chose to disregard when you chose your own life path around education.

There are going to be plenty of people who believe that you are ignorant, lazy, or unwise for not going to college. They are going to give you plenty of chances to deal with the awkwardness of having made an unconventional decision. You will want desperately to say something to wipe the look of pity or contempt or condescension from their faces.

Or you could own it. You could decide not to bat a lash. You could acknowledge the fact that you don’t have a degree, and move on like it’s not a big deal – because it isn’t. What *is* a big deal is how you live your life and what you do with it.

You might have to put up with some looks of pity, contempt, and condescension. But you can learn to smile inside in response. You’ll be in solidarity with your fellow opt-outs. You’ll be respecting your own decision enough to state it unapologetically. And you’ll live loudly enough that anyone who knows you knows that any prejudice around college opt-outs is nonsense.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Lawmakers Want to Give Voting Rights to Teens They Treat Like Toddlers

Newly-elected US Rep. Ayanna Pressley caused a stir this month when she filed an amendment to lower the legal federal voting age from 18 to 16. While Pressley’s amendment failed to pass, the action brought attention to the place of teenagers in society. Regardless of how we may feel about the role of the voter, many of us would argue that teenagers should have more autonomy and agency and be more active, productive members of their communities. The irony, however, is that at the same time legislators seek to empower teens by expanding voting rights, they are increasingly infantilizing them in other pernicious ways.

Confining Teens through Compulsory Schooling

For instance, the call to lower the voting age comes at a time when more states are tightening compulsory schooling statutes, requiring teenagers to stay in school longer under a legal threat of force. As of 2017, 24 states plus the District of Columbia had raised the minimum age at which a young person can legally leave school to 18. Lawmakers in Oregon announced legislation last month to lower the voting age to 16, but the state also raised its compulsory schooling age to 18. Sixteen-year-olds may get permission to vote, but in school, they still need permission to use the bathroom.

The alleged goal of expanding compulsory schooling laws is to lower drop-out rates and improve academic and social outcomes, yet research shows no clear benefit in raising the compulsory school attendance age. In Pressley’s home state of Massachusetts, a Boston city councilor recently proposed offering an optional 13th year of public schooling, prolonging the state stewardship of teens.

More time in compulsory school settings means less time adolescents spend working or otherwise constructively engaged with their larger communities. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a sharp decline in teenage labor force participation from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Much of this decline is due to the increased emphasis on time in school and academic performance while devaluing the critical life skills, mentoring, and real-life problem-solving that teens can experience through work and community involvement. Even summer jobs have been by replaced by school. According to the BLS, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985.

Psychologist Robert Epstein points out how our society harms adolescents by stripping them of responsibility and authentic immersion into adult life. In his book, Teen 2.0, he writes that “high school is little more than a prison for many of our teens, and the time has come to explore bold new approaches to education that will allow our young to reconnect meaningfully with the adult world they are about to enter.” Dr. Epstein argues that the “artificial extension of childhood” past puberty is why so many US teenagers today are in turmoil.

The Power of Self-Education

The concept of adolescent empowerment and greater participation in the larger community is not new. For decades, social reformers have been advocating for more freedom and responsibility for teenagers. Paul Goodman brought these ideas to the forefront in his books, Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Mis-education (1964). Goodman influenced John Holt, who took the ideas a step further. In his 1974 book Escape from Childhood, Holt promotes extending children’s rights, including allowing children the right to vote, as well as to direct their own education. The self-directed learning principle is critical for Holt. He writes in Escape from Childhood:

“A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

Holt went on to coin the term “unschooling” in 1977 as part of the nascent homeschooling movement, urging parents to remove their children from institutional schooling in favor of non-coercive, self-directed learning. Today, unschooling continues to gain popularity, particularly as more self-directed learning spaces provide alternatives to school for children and adolescents.

Lowering the voting age is a reasonable proposition. Indeed, it’s something worth considering as a mechanism for inviting adolescents into the larger discourse of our society. But lowering the voting age while forcing these same teens to spend additional years in mandatory schooling environments, cut-off from authentic, inter-generational community interactions, is nothing more than a political ploy.

Teenagers are capable of being valuable contributors to civil society. They should be granted greater freedom and responsibility. Lowering the voting age while trapping them in compulsory schooling gives teenagers neither freedom nor responsibility.

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Hypocrisy and Hyperbole

I teach at a public university.  Am I a hypocrite?  Bernie Sanders’ net worth is about $2M.  Is he a hypocrite?  How about vegetarians who regularly eat meat?

The right answer: It depends on the details of the speakers’ moral position!  Consider the following cases.

1. You say, “It is always morally wrong to eat meat,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Of course, because you break your own absolute rule.

2. You say, “We have a duty not to eat meat, except in extreme circumstances,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Almost certainly, because we’re rarely in extreme circumstances.

3. You say, “Eating meat is very bad,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Probably.  Yes, you could believe there are important offsetting moral factors that justify your meat consumption despite its badness.  But if you thought these offsetting factors were important, you probably would have discussed them.  And if you think these offsetting factors are unimportant, what are the odds that they just-so-happen to excuse your meat consumption?

4. You say, “We should eat less meat,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Perhaps.  If your meat consumption is low or at least falling, your behavior is plausibly consistent with your principle.  Otherwise, not.

5. You say, “Government should discourage meat consumption,” but still eat meat.  You don’t say anything resembling #1-#4.  Are you a hypocrite?  Probably not – unless you’re a powerful politician who ignores the issue.

So how hypocritical are people, really?  Exceedingly so.  Why?  Because humans love hyperbole.  When they moralize, they gravitate toward strong versions of their moral positions.  They don’t like to say, “Well, government should raise taxes on the rich; but until that day, the rich are doing nothing morally wrong.”  Neither do they like to say, “The rich should give 13% more money to charity.”  These positions aren’t fun.

Instead, people like to say things like, “It’s a crime for billionaires to exist in a world with hunger” or “The rich are nothing but a bunch of bloodsucking parasites.”  And when you make such extreme statements, you routinely end up condemning yourself as well – at least by extension.  After all, if it’s a crime for billionaires to exist in a world with hunger, why isn’t it also a crime for millionaires?  For single adults who make $30k a year?  Moralizing with hyperbole is like a detonating a massive moral bomb; unless you’re careful, you end up in your own blast radius.

Which brings us back to my initial questions.

1. Am I a hypocrite?  No, because I avoid hyperbole.  I don’t claim that anyone who teaches at a public university is a wrongdoer, evil, etc.  What I do claim is that (a) taxpayer support for education is extremely wasteful, and (b) politicians and their subordinates who forcibly extract that support have a moral duty to stop.

2. Is Sanders a hypocrite?  Of course.  Virtually every politician is a hypocrite, because hyperbole is their livelihood.  This is no surprise, because politicians are an evil bunch.  And that’s no hyperbole.

3. Are vegetarians who eat meat hypocrites?  Usually.  The modest vegetarians who eat meat once a month and say, “I’m just trying to help reduce animal suffering a little bit” are in the clear.  But any vegetarian who eats meat after claiming that “Meat is murder” – or even “Animal pain is just as morally important as human pain” is indeed a hypocrite.

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