Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Play with Fire? Four Explanations

cross-posted at dagblog.

In my last post, I was worrying aloud about politicians who just couldn't seem to get it together to denounce violence and generally encourage the lunatic fringe to chill out. The intervening days, with the arrests of the "Hutaree army" and of the lunatic who threatened Eric Cantor on YouTube, make the question even more pressing. It's increasingly apparent that there really are dangerous and excitable people to whom you should absolutely not say words like "Armageddon" or "Apocalypse," and palpably clear that whipping up violence won't only harm people on a single side of any political debate. (The "both sides do it" argument, even when it's not factually refutable, is an insane excuse. The idea that political violence might threaten you or your family is not a reason not to try averting that violence.) So, my question remains: why keep the inflammatory rhetoric? Why speak out of both sides of the mouth, with the old condemn-but-condone act? ("Violence is wrong, but the Democrats shouldn't be surprised because they're destroying the Constitution." Please.)

I don't want to lump everyone, or everyone on one side of the aisle, together. There are only a few people actually explicitly calling for mayhem, like the malicious clown Mike Vanderboegh who openly called on other "Sons of Liberty" to break the windows of Democratic lawmakers. Although none of these behaviors is either right or prudent, there remains a real difference between actively urging violent action, as Vanderboegh has, less direct incitement of the kind favored by Beck and the Tea Partiers, and simple refusal to give a full-throated condemnation. All of those behaviors are dangerous, but some are even more culpable than others. And the people indulging in these behaviors have a range of different motivations and incentives: the extremists at Tea Parties aren't fueled by the same things that motivate the politicians, who themselves have different motivations than the broadcasters.

But the Vanderboeghs are actually easier to understand than the politicians and the broadcasters. Vanderboegh's behavior is more outrageous, because it explicitly urges criminal behavior while the others simply provide rationalizations for crime, but it's also makes more transparent sense. Vanderboegh is comfortable urging violent action because he hasn't got much to lose, and more importantly because he hopes to prevail through violence. He seems genuinely to believe that he speaks for a righteous majority who can achieve their political goals if they break enough windows. Of course, he's wrong: he's fringe, and a major outbreak of violence would almost certainly lead to a massive backlash against his position. The Hutaree also fit this model: they have relatively little to lose in the current dispensation, and they actually seem to believe that their terrorist action could start a popular uprising that they would win.

The establishment figures, the elected officials and the multimillionaire broadcasters, are harder to understand, because they can't possibly be deluded in the way that Vanderboegh is. They must know, on some level, that any serious outbreak of civil violence would undermine their own positions. And unlike Vanderboegh and the Hutaree, they have plenty to lose. The Republicans in DC have to know that becoming seen as the party of insurrection would mean the end of their political fortunes for a generation. And Glenn Beck has to know that if some domestic terrorist cites him as an authority, his career will end.

So what on earth could motivate these people, who have to know that violence is not in their own interests? I have four hypotheses, which apply in different degrees (and with frequent overlap) to different players:

1. Lost in the Game
Some major players, I suspect, are not thinking at all outside the rules of whatever daily news-cycle game they're playing. Others are simply not thinking ahead. Some people are, for whatever reason, unable to evaluate anything, even public safety, on its policy merits, or to imagine real-world consequences in a way that comes home to them. When they hear news of unsettling rhetoric or violent behavior, they don't think about what might happen outside the Beltway or the studio. They simply take the news as part of a struggle for political advantage, or as a way to attract ratings. The daily spin has become these people's primary reality, or at least the reality to which their behavior responds. I believe Eric Cantor to be one of these people; denouncing the Democrats for denouncing death threats is clearly oriented toward the spin world rather than the real world. It's to Cantor's personal, real-world advantage that no one harm or threaten members of Congress, but he seems primarily concerned with how threats and denunciations of threats function as political rhetoric.

The ugly part of this is that certain figures on the Right are currently boxed in tactically in ways that keep them from taking a stand on the violence, for fear of being outflanked by some rival. If John Boehner comes out and joins with Pelosi to denounce inflammatory rhetoric, he might actually be attacked from the Right (by Cantor, or else by someone yet more radical than Cantor) during the next Republican leadership election. If Beck seriously backed off his conspiracy theories or stopped comparing Obama to Hitler, he might lose his core audience and be overtaken by some still-crazier broadcaster. A dynamic in which some people's short-term interests discourage them from confronting violence is sobering at best.

2. Low Estimation of Their Following
You know who would really be risking a lot if there were a serious and sustained outbreak of anti-establishment violence? Rush Limbaugh. The man's a multi-millionaire. The status quo is very, very good for him, and civil unrest would cost him big time. Yet the man is on TV and radio every day, telling people that anyone who uses words like "factory" is a "Marxist-Leninist" and calling the current Presidential Administration a "regime," as if it were some kind of occupying junta. What does this tell us? It tells us that, when you get down to cases, Limbaugh doesn't think that he has that many followers.

Oh, he knows he has a few million followers. And he has to know, on some level, that some of those rubes are actually going to buy his act and believe that the elected President of the United States is a Communist tyrant. But Limbaugh knows that even if ten or fifteen percent of his audience decides that the United States is being unlawfully occupied and it's time for a war of "liberation," they don't have the numbers to start one. Sure, there might be some domestic terrorism, on the Oklahoma City scale or even greater, but Limbaugh figures he doesn't have enough believers to actually disrupt the status quo and put El Rushbo's vacation homes and stock portfolio in jeopardy. Also, Limabaugh may be counting on the fact that his viewers and listeners skew quite old, and are less likely to actually act out in criminal ways than the same number of equally angry and disaffected twenty-somethings would.

3. Poor Risk Evaluation
Some people saying things that are inflammatory or provocative are basically playing the odds: somebody might take them seriously and do something awful, but probably no one will. And, like a lot of folks in daily life, those people take a low probability (or high probability) to be determinative; most people operate on the the principle that when something is 99% (or 97% or 95%) likely to happen it will happen, and that things that are only 5% or 3% or 1% probable won't. (Additionally, we all have a natural tendency to view probabilities unrealistically when they apply to us, minimizing the odds of misfortune and maximizing the odds of good luck.) That's a mistaken but still workable approach to everyday probabilities, but a terrible one when applied to calculating serious risks.

The first problem is that low probability has to be weighed against the possible gravity of the consequences. Russian roulette, after all, is a game that you have a nearly 84% chance of winning. An 84% chance means it's a ridiculously bad idea, because if you lose you die. And if we imagined playing Russian roulette with some smaller hypothetical chance of losing, imagining a revolver with 400 chambers and only one bullet, the odds would still remain completely insane. (Taking a 0.25% chance of a bullet in the head is incredibly risky, because even that small chance is a real chance.) I'm sure it's easy enough to say something crazy into a microphone, figuring that there's only a one in a million chance that some yahoo will act on it, but that one in a million chance is still unacceptable if it's a chance that the yahoo blows up a building with people in it.

The second problem, of course, is the law of big numbers. A risk of less than one percent sounds tiny if you're only running the risk once. But if you apply that risk to a big enough number, you will get some bad results. Given enough chances, even a crazily improbable event will become inevitable. A statement that would only provoke one person in a million to committing violence is not responsible when you make that statement to three hundred million people. And it gets even less responsible when statements like that keep getting made every day.

4. Hopes to Prevail
I wouldn't accuse any specific individual of harboring this intention, and I don't believe many people share it. Indeed, I think that most people on the Right would recoil at any expression of this idea, and if anybody is thinking it they're certainly not sharing that thought, not even with their close ideological allies. But it remains possible that somewhere in the ranks of the inflammatory and the pointedly anti-anti-inflammatory there may be people who do secretly hope to benefit from small, containable amounts of political violence.

If such people exist, they are distinct from the Vanderboeghs and the "Captain Hutarees," who are hoping for a broad violent upheaval and hope to win it. The people I'm more worried about don't expect such a conflagration, don't want one, and know that they would lose badly if one happened. No rational person expects to glean any advantage from large-scale violence. But one might conceivably use an atmosphere of potential violence, and of low-level scuffles and intimidation, for political gain. It's a loathsome tactic, but it's been done before: by the Know-Nothing Party in the 19th century, by the Klan and others during the Jim Crow period, and by thuggish local machines of various stripes. Intimidation has sometimes gone a long way in our politics; outright terrorism has usually backfired.

For the most cynical of the cynical, the goal is to keep their followers' rage simmering without letting it boil over. Having people rant and scream in town hall meetings last summer is now regarded in the media as an effective political tactic; angry protesters in the halls of Congressional office buildings before a key vote is apparently also considered part of the game. But if things get crazier, the sponsors and allies of the crazy will pay a steep political price. The cynical strategy is to keep people inflamed, but not to get too many people hurt. It's a reckless strategy, and no one using it could actually be sure that it would work, because mob anger is too unpredictable. You can't keep a pot simmering forever; unless you turn off the heat, it will boil over or its contents will eventually burn.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Death Threats Aren't Politics as Usual

cross-posted at Dagblog

Apparently, there are some Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits who feel that the worst thing about death threats and vandalism is that the politicians being threatened might gain public sympathy. Digby and Billmon both have brilliant analyses of the victim-blaming rhetoric being used here. Instead of wading into the swamp of counter-charges, I'll just point out two logical problems with the Republican complaints here.

If conservatives are genuinely worried that the Democrats will score "points" by being threatened with violence, the easiest and most effective strategy is to calm the lunatics on your own side down. That approach makes instantly makes you look like selfless statesmen, with the bonus effect of diminishing the chance that lunatic behavior might be used against you. You don't want the other party to "score points" when they get death threats? Try to keep them from getting threatened.

And if, as Eric Cantor would have us believe, Republicans are also the targets of threats, that is also a very powerful reason to calm things down. If you actually thought you might be in danger, wouldn't you do your best to calm things down? Or would you be primarily worried about who scores points on C-SPAN? Cantor's behavior indicates that he doesn't feel threatened, because he shows no interest in increasing anybody's safety. If conservatives and Republicans genuinely felt threatened, they would be uniting with Democrats to cool everything down. Instead, they're sticking with accusations, which may not harm but cannot possibly help.

The sorriest thing about Cantor's behavior is that violence against one side of a debate does always eventually lead to violence against the other side. As I've argued before, everyone is endangered when the civil peace breaks down, so preserving that peace is in everyone's self-interest.

Why not do the simple thing, which is also the morally right and the politically advantageous thing? I have four hypotheses, but they're for the next post.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Didn't ESPN Know That Tiger Was Cheating?

cross-posted at Dagblog

After a televised statement, and then a very brief exclusive televised interview, Tiger Woods plans to give another press conference at the beginning of the Master's. All of these press availabilities are on the same subject: his admitted infidelities to his wife. And after each one to date, the media, especially the sports media, has the same verdict: Tiger hasn't said enough. He needs to be more "open." He needs to answer every question that crosses sportswriters' and sportscasters' minds. But the sports media have absolutely no right to ask for more. They are tremendous hypocrites for asking.

Tiger Woods went pro in the spring of 1997. Between turning pro and having his sex life spill into public, he was relentlessly covered by the sports media for twelve solid years. During that period of saturation coverage, Woods has having sex with, according to the most recent reliable estimates, everybody. Much of that extramarital sex happened, naturally, while Tiger was away from home on the pro golf tour, which is to say while a phalanx of traveling sports reporters were obsessively covering him.

How did a small legion of fanatically attentive sports reporters fail to notice that their #1 story was sleeping with a medium-sized legion of women? How could they be so dense? The answer is that they weren't so dense, and they didn't fail to notice. They had to be well aware that Tiger Woods was not faithful to his wife. They just chose not to report it, because it wasn't news and it isn't anybody's business. Now, the golfing press might not have known, or wished to know, the extent or the scale of Tiger's social schedule. They didn't know every date or every name. But it's hard to believe that Woods could entirely conceal his lifestyle from them. Reporters had to have seen him with women not his wife, and noticed that the women who were not his wife changed from venue to venue. Of course, they were free to participate in the polite fiction that they did not notice. But demanding that the rest of us participate in that fiction is not cool.

Tiger can't be the only elite golfer who's committed adultery while he was on tour; there are others carrying on their lives, right now, with ESPN and Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest turning a blind eye. And golf is not the only sport where wealthy athletes do some cheating on the road. It happens in baseball, football, pro basketball, hockey, tennis ... you name it. An NBA player can have a different lady friend in all 29 road cities. And sports writers don't cover that, either. Until, of course, they're shocked! shocked! to discover that there's nookie going on.

It's fine that sports writers didn't cover Tiger's personal life. I prefer it that way. But their high-and-mighty moralizing about the story they wouldn't cover, and tearing Woods down for not telling them things that they spent years choosing not to ask him, is both an insult to the viewers' intelligence and a disgusting act of effrontery: like listening to a pack of sewer rats pontificating about hygiene.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Media Changes Its Story (Not for the Last Time)

cross-posted at Dagblog

I was watching cable news during part of the run-up to the House vote on health care reform (because I was at the gym, which is where I tend to watch cable news). And the most shocking but entirely unsurprising thing happened. Wolf Blitzer was suddenly pushing back on Republican talking points, which had seemed so reasonable to him for the last year and a half. In fact, when Democratic guests wouldn't push hard enough against the conservative talking points, the Blitzinator would call the Republican out himself.

Suddenly Wolf had realized that this bill was actually an extremely moderate and centrist plan! Anyone calling it communist totalitarian socialism needed to explain himself, prontissimo!

Meanwhile, over at 60 Minutes, where Katie Couric was interviewing Rahm Emanuel, health care reform was still poisonously unpopular political Kryptonite. Why would you do that to yourself, Rahm? Do you lack basic survival instincts? Have you asked your physician about Zoloft?

The difference between these two media narratives? Blitzer was live and Couric was pre-taped. Blitzer knew the Dems would win, so his story was all about what great strategists they were and how out of step the Republicans were from the American mainstream. Couric was still in the previous media narrative, in which the Democrats were doomed to lose and therefore out of step from the American mainstream.

It's that simple. There's not much else to it.

The mainstream media is driven by two basic factors: who's winning (which, between national elections and major legislative votes, means who is perceived to win), and how old the existing narrative is. Democrats don't have the votes lined up? America is on the dawn of a New Conservative Era. Democrats win the vote? The Democratic leaders are political geniuses, whose management secrets we all need to learn. These examples should be jokes, but are not. Blitzer has essentially said both things.

Obama's portrayal in the media is about to change from ineffectual over-intellectual Jimmy Carter II, which is who he was alleged to be two weeks ago, to electrical and oh-so-sexual Lincoln Delano Kennedy, which is who he's alleged to be when he's won something. That is stupid, but at least partially fair. A President who manages to enact his policy should get credit for enacting it. (Whether or not the policies are good is another, more important but widely ignored question.) The truth is, Obama periodically gets hyped in ways no politician could live up to, but is a pretty smart and effective president. He's not Jimmy Carter II by any means.

The other problem is that the media has amnesia, and gets bored with a story after they've run with it for a while. The Jimmy Carter II story was inevitable, simply because the media got tired of running Obama the Conqueror stories, and because after a while Obama hadn't won any elections for six! whole! weeks! The Jimmy Carter II story was also never going to last, because the media would get bored with that, too. (The idea that unpopular Obama was going to drag down the ticket in November was always silly, because the "unpopular Obama" story was never going to last for a full six months.)

Obama will be "up" for a while, and then he will be "down" again, and then the media say he's "up" again. Part of that will be tied to external events, but those events are merely convenient hooks for a inevitable rhythm of media coverage. Obama will "ride high," Obama will "struggle." Our political media can't accept the idea that something stays true for four years in a row ... and anyway, that would be boring.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Logic of Electing Hypocrites

cross-posted at Dagblog

Q. What do you call a conservative gay legislator who's in the closet?

A. A safe vote against gay rights.

As usual, a bunch of politicians have had sex scandals recently. As usual, a good helping of them have been family-values types. And as usual, progressive bloggers have been surprised and appalled that many of the scandalous are family-values types, and even more shocked because a bunch of the conservative family-values adulterers seem to be skating. How is it that Mark "Appalachian Trail" Sanford is still Governor of South Carolina, Swinging John Ensign is still Governor of Nevada, and David Vitter, who may have qualified for a loyalty rewards card at one or more houses of prostitution, is still Senator from Louisiana? How are some of these guys running for re-election while Eliot Spitzer is out of office and Bill Clinton got impeached? How is it that the far right wing actually made an abortive attempt to recruit Eric Massa away from the Democrats after his sex scandal broke? There seems to be a double standard here, because in fact there is. And while that's repugnant, it's not illogical. If a voter genuinely wants the government to impose public restrictions on sexual liberties, voting for a creepy adulterous hypocrite is a sound strategy.

There are two bedrock political rules in play here. First, you should always vote for the candidate based on their policies. Second, political scandals become harmful when they resonate with some larger concern or anxiety about the candidate.

David Vitter may have repeatedly broken the law in order to break his marriage vows, but you can rely on him to make the law as sexually restrictive as he can possibly manage. Now, if you're like me you might take Vitter as an example of how difficult and impractical it is to enforce sexual morality through legislation. But family values voters do not. And Vitter is a rock-solid vote for them. He votes against gay marriage, for abortion restrictions, for abstinence-only education: the full family-values list. And now that he's publicly admitted being an adulterous whoremonger, Vitter is never going to deviate from the family-values platform again. If he does, even a little bit, he'll have a God-fearing primary challenger on his hands, and won't be able to defend himself. He knows he can be a libertine as long as there's no hint of liberalism, but his voters won't forgive him any compromise on legislation. An adulterous champion of family values is like a black opponent of affirmative action: voters respond to the policies first, and once the candidate depends upon those voters, his or her personal history and identity only make it harder to deviate from the party line.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton's adultery stuck to him, in part, because conservative voters were wary of his relative social liberalism, and most of all for his fairly egalitarian and therefore "non-traditional" marriage. (The widespread vilification of Hillary in the early 90s testifies to how frightened some cultural conservatives were by a marriage where the man and woman shared power as equals.) Voters who saw Bill and Hillary Clinton as dangerous modernists who were eroding the traditional Husband-Knows-Best marriage were completely rapt when Bill Clinton betrayed that marriage. If Clinton wanted to be unfaithful to his wife, but promote the old-school vision of marriage, he wouldn't have had much trouble. Because Clinton was seen in some quarters as promoting a new modern kind of marriage, marital traditionalists viewed his adultery as part of a larger public question.

In a similar way, Clinton was dogged in his earlier career by the false rumor that he'd fathered an illegitimate African-American child (a rumor Joe Klein chose to immortalize in Primary Colors). That rumor was held against Clinton because he was perceived as progressive on civil rights. Meanwhile, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond could actually have an illegitimate African-American child without consequences. The difference was Clinton was perceived as being on African-Americans' side in important ways, while Thurmond was for maintaining as much white power as possible. The whisper of Clinton's love child resonated with racist fears about his policies; there was no worry that Thurmond would love African-Americans in general, even if he had loved an African-American.

This, while I'm on the topic, is why it's okay for proponents of reckless military policies to avoid Vietnam service, but not okay for politicians who want to moderate our military strategy (or our military spending) to have anything less than a Bronze Star. Bill Clinton, you'll recall, was reviled as a draft dodger, but George W. Bush, who is nobody's war hero, got the full backing of the "War Now!" crowd, even when he ran against a legitimate war hero.

To end where I began, the safest vote against gay marriage or repealing DADT is the closeted gay conservative, who has to experience his (or her, but generally his) orientation as a political vulnerability which must be guarded at all costs. The more open the secret of a gay politician's orientation, the harder "family values" line that politician will hew. That may be ugly. It may be morally suspect. It's certainly very sad. But it's not illogical. Alas.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Down the Republicans' Throats"

cross-posted at Dagblog

It's clearly an orchestrated Republican talking point that health care reform is being "rammed" (or jammed, or crammed) "down our throats." That talking point is silly and deceptive. (After bills passed the House and passed the Senate with a 60-vote majority, the vote to make the details of those bills match is undemocratic?) But I also admit, I find it hilarious.

"Ramming [x] down our throats" is a stereotypical cri de couer on comic-book messageboards, where it's used by fanboys or fangals who've gotten their (Spiderman-themed) undergarments in a knot over some comic-book storyline that displeases them. (Example: "Anyone who understands Batman at all would know that he could never feel the same kind of love for another woman that years of continuity have shown that he feels for Selina Kyle. DC Comics is ruining the character by RAMMING this Silver St. Cloud "romance" DOWN OUR THROATS!") So every time I hear John Boehner use that phrase, I find it hysterically funny. It's like he's some guy who's on the verge of tears about the Blue Beetle not having a monthly comic anymore.

When comic-book fans protest that writers are "ramming a story down our throats" they simply mean that the writers have written a story. That said story happens to displease that particular fans is infuriating, and a sign that, somehow, that the fan's integrity and free will have been violated. (Of course, only a small, vocal, and immature minority of comics fans are like this. But they are, alas, usually among the first ones you'll notice.) The phrase connotes a certain self-righteous hysteria, combined with a deep presumption of hysteria. The fan has not actually helped participated in creating the new Batman storyline, but (s)he feels a right to veto any storyline that is not acceptable by his or her own idiosyncratic standards. The implicit argument is that the writers should provide the fans only with exactly the stories the fans want.

When John Boehner or Mitch McConnell say that a piece of legislation is being "rammed down our throats," they simply mean that they have lost a vote in Congress. The implicit argument is that the losing side should not have to accept losing votes simply because the other side actually, um, outvoted them. And it presumes, oddly, that a piece of legislation should be designed to please all of the legislators who did not participate in writing it and who did not want it to pass. But weirdly, the people who are opposed to bills generally don't like those bills. That's how the world works.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Business of Universities

cross-posted at Dagblog

A lot of people who talk about reforming American universities like to say that they should be "run like a business." Those people seldom explain what they mean by that, because they take their "like a business" phrase as self-evident and self-explanatory. But American universities, even if they're non-profits, already run like businesses. In fact, they are businesses. The only question is what kind of businesses they should be.

(Part of people mean when they say schools should be run like businesses, of course, is that they should be run by a businessman: by a CEO much like the CEOs who run large corporations, with a free hand to use the top-down management techniques seen in Fortune 500 companies. That's a subject for another post, but at least a few universities have already tried their luck with a CEO-style President.)

But if we're seriously going to imagine the enterprise of the university as a business, the key question is what university's product is. Most people who talk about "running universities like a business" generally imagine that the core business is selling classes to the students. That makes a kind of easy, first-glance sense: the students pay tuition, so they must be the customers, and they thing they pay for, the classes and credit hours and diplomas, must be the product. In this model, there's no fundamental difference between selling courses to undergraduates and selling slices of pizza at the mall. You give the customers what they want. When you're selling pizza that means cutting your price and throwing on a little extra pepperoni.

But in a complicated business model, the most obvious place where money changes hands isn't always the heart of the actual business, and it's a rookie mistake to make that presumption. For example, thinking of newspapers as in the business of selling readers the actual copies of the paper is a mistake; the core business of the newspaper is selling advertising, not newspapers per se, and the price of a copy is only a way to recoup the distribution costs. In the same way, tuition at non-profit universities merely offsets the costs of operations. In fact, almost every university (without counting the newer for-profit schools) runs a loss on tuition. Even when a student is paying full price, that full tuition doesn't actually cover the expenses of teaching the student for a year. Maybe that's a sign of inefficient, unbusinesslike practices that require a CEO to whip things into shape. But more likely it's a sign of a different business model entirely. The wealthiest and most successful universities actually take a bigger loss on tuition than other schools, because they can afford to, and because doing so furthers their long-term goals.

The actual product of university teaching is alumni. (The university has another product, research results, but I want to keep the focus on teaching for this post.) The goal of a university, properly understood, is to produce as many educated and successful people as it can. The wealthy private schools, such as the Ivies, spend more money on their undergraduates, give out more financial aid, and keep their sticker price pretty much the same as any other private college's; the top price at Harvard or Princeton is the same as the top price at a less famous place. So Princeton, to take an example, collects less in overall tuition money than a second-tier private university does, but spends much more. Yet it keeps growing richer than its less famous rivals. Princeton's core business is alumni development; the school lives off the gratitude of its successful former students. And the more generous those grateful alumni are, the more Princeton can afford to invest in its current students, in order to maximize their later success. That is a business model, and judging by the last century or two a quite viable one. Public universities also succeed when their alumni donate to them, but the chief source of extra revenue there is funding by state governments. The current rhetoric about free markets makes any government spending look suspect, but funding state universities is a deeply rational economic decision. In effect, the state legislatures are buying in-state alumni, subsidizing tuition in order to have a better-educated and better-paid corps of adult taxpayers in the future. The question of how much to spend on, say, the University of California could be rendered, economically, as the question of how much to spend to increase California's tax base.

The difference between selling classes and producing alumni is enormous, and affects the educational strategy on every level. If you're selling classes by the slice, you keep the costs as low as you can. If you're producing alumni, you keep the quality as high as you can, even if it means taking short-term losses. If you're selling classes, you're focused on providing the customers what they want before they take the class. If you're producing alumni, you're focused on creating long-term satisfaction and long-term success. If you're selling classes, the students only have to be happy when it's time to enroll for next semester, but if you're producing alumni, they have to be happy with the education they got twenty years later. If you're selling classes, the impulse is to sell, and indeed too often to oversell, the benefits of the classes. If you're producing alumni, there is sometimes even an incentive to block students from a career path they might not be suited to; the pre-med courses at Princeton aren't designed to maximize customer satisfaction. They're in fact designed to redirect young people who think they want to be doctors, but who don't seem to have the skills or the motivation to become very successful as physicians, into some other field where they are more likely to thrive. (Princeton would rather have an alumnus become a leading art historian than a pediatrician with lots of malpractice suits; and while it allows its students to make that decision on their own, it lets them face the reality of the professional demands.) Now, that would make for very poor advertising copy ("Princeton: Where We Disabuse You of Your Less Realistic Dreams") but it's ultimately more interested in the student's success than other models of education are.

Universities are in business, right now. Their business is their students' eventual fulfillment and success. When you hear university administrators talking about building up a school's "brand," remember that universities were building their brands, through the quality of their alumni, before business types ever stumbled across the concept. You can try to build a school's brand the way you would for sneakers, or pizzas, or car stereos, with fancy logos and advertising, but at the end of the day a school's real brand is the reputation it gets from the quality of its alumni. If your old students are impressive, people will be impressed with your school; if your old students aren't, people won't be. A university's prosperity is inevitably and rightly linked to that of its former students. And in the end, a school doesn't deserve to be rewarded for anything else.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Eric Massa: Trial by Combat

cross-posted at Dagblog

After days of mounting sexual harassment revelations, Eric Massa has gone old school. As in 12th-century old school. First he was denying that he had any ethics problems, then he was admitting minor ethics problems, then he was resigning over those totally minor ethics problems, then he went on the attack. Those totally-no-big-deal ethics questions he was quitting Congress over? They were trumped up by the House Democratic leadership! So really, this was a dirty trick over health care! Yeah, that's the ticket.

Limbaugh and Beck run with that story. And although the story makes no sense, for three or four individual reasons, George Stephanopoulos dutifully asked Robert Gibbs about it, as the White House bore the burden of refuting this claim.

Massa's basic tactic hearkens back to Merrie England, before there was a guarantee of a jury trial. In those romantic days, when upper-class criminals were thrown into prison, they could basically start accusing everyone they had grudges against of any felonies that came to mind, and challenge them to trial by combat. And then everyone they accused, on the sole basis of the imprisoned felons' accusations, got thrown into prison too, until the imprisoned felon got a chance to fight them. This didn't get the accusers out of jail themselves. It was done purely out of spite, to hurt people. The felonious accusers did it because they had nothing left to lose, and because they were generally evil.

Massa's ploy, likewise, is not an attempt to stay in office (he's already resigned) but a display of vindictive despair. Nothing can save Massa's political career, but he's going to take some other people down if he can.

The felons back in the twelfth century could get away with this vicious trick because they were dealing with a justice system that made no attempt to verify truth independently. It wasn't just that early medieval courts didn't search for truth in the forensic ways that we have come to expect, it's that the courts didn't believe they could determine truth at all. The trial by combat system works on the assumption that no judge can find out who's telling the truth and who's lying, so you let the two parties fight and say that God has vindicated the winner. There was no looking for evidence, no use of any judge or jury's independent reason. So in the name of impartiality every accusation, no matter how wildly improbable, had to be taken at the same face value, and all of the accused treated alike.

This kind of nonsense was eventually replaced by things like the grand jury system, which attempts to sort valid accusations from flimsy or malicious ones, and generally by the rights, such as habeas corpus and jury trials, that the Magna Carta bequeathed to us in 1215.

Massa's accusations can only thrive in an environment where people refuse to exercise independent judgment in pursuit of the truth. Our current political media environment now largely operates like 12th-century jurisprudence, throwing up its hands, proclaiming moral or logical conclusions outside its charge, and calling whoever wins the brawl the rightful victor. It's a 12th-century world these days. We just live in it.