Pathologies in higher education: a book, a review, and a comment

Cracks in the Ivory Tower, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, brings a much needed discussion of the pathologies of US higher education to the table. Brennan and Magness are two well-known classical liberals with a strong record of thoughtful interaction with Public Choice political economy.

Public Choice is an application of mainstream economic concepts to political situations. One of the key points of Public Choice is that people are self-interested and rational. This drives the choices they make. But people also act within formal and informal institutional environments. This constrains and enables some of their choices to a large degree. In other words, people react to incentives.

The Public Choice approach is not so much a normative handbook, but rather an attempt to explain how politics operate. The application of this theory to understand higher education in the US is a welcome addition to a growing literature on the economics of higher education.

It is perhaps surprising how the subtitle of the book stresses an aspect that tends to be extraneous to Public Choice scholarship: “The Moral Mess of Higher Education”. Of course we all draw on moral reasoning and assumptions in order to pass judgment on economic and political phenomena, but normally the descriptive side is kept separate – at least by economists – from explicit value judgment.

John Staddon, from Duke University, has reviewed Brennan’s and Magness’ book. In his review, he focuses on three main key issues. First, colleges and universities act on distorted incentives created, for example, by college rankings, to recruit students in ways that are not necessarily related to maintaining or expanding the academic prestige of the institution.

Second, teaching in higher education, at least in the US, is poorly evaluated. Historically, it has shifted from student evaluation to administrative assessment.

So why the shift from student-run to administration-enforced?  And why did faculty agree to give these mandated evaluations to their students? Faculty acquiescence — naiveté — is relatively easy to understand. Who can object to more information? Who can object to a new, formal system that is bound to be more accurate than any informal student-run one? And besides, for most faculty at elite schools, research, not teaching, is the driver. Faculty often just care less about teaching; some may even regard it as a chore.

The incentives for college administrations are much clearer. Informal, student-run evaluations are assumed to be unreliable, hence cannot be used to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion. But once the process is formalized, mandatory, and supposedly valid, it becomes a useful disciplinary tool, a way for administrators to control faculty, especially junior and untenured faculty.

This is not necessarily conducive to improvement in the quality of teaching. Perhaps colleges fare better than universities here, given that their faculty is not expected to allocate a large amount of hours per week to research and writing.

Third, Brennan and Magness offer a critique of what is known in the US system as “general education” courses. In their view, it is clear that those courses are unhelpful in a world where academic disciplines are increasingly more specialized. However, offering those courses is a good excuse for universities to grab more money from the students.

This is where Staddon begs to differ:

Cracks in the Ivory Tower usefully emphasizes the economic costs and benefits of university practices. But absent from the book is any consideration of the intrinsic value of the academic endeavor. Remaining is a vacuum that is filled by two things: the university as a business; and the university as a social activist.  Both are destructive of the proper purpose of a university.

I tend to agree with this point, and I do not think it is a minor point. We can do colleges and universities without football, without gigantic administrative bureaucracies, and without the gimmicks to game the college ranking system. I could even go further and argue that we should do colleges and universities without dorms and an artificial second and worse version of teenage years right when students are supposed and expected to behave like adults. Getting rid of those tangential features of US higher education should help refocus on knowledge and reduce the cost.

Colleges and universities in the US are also expensive and unnecessarily inflated because of the structure of the student loans system, which also generates perverse incentives. But this point has been explained and described to exhaustion in the economic literature. This also has to change.

However, I am not convinced that making universities focus on professionalizing their students would be the best way to go. Brennan and Magness raise some important issues and concerns, some of which also apply outside the US, but the Staddon highlights in his review an important counterpoint: higher education, at least on the undergraduate level, shouldn’t be seen 100% as an investment good, but also as a consumer good:

Higher education does not exist for economic reasons. It exists (in the famous words of Matthew Arnold) to transmit “the best that has been thought and said,” in other words the ‘high culture’ of our civilization. Job-related, practical training is not unimportant. Universities, and much else of society, could not exist without a functioning economy. But — and this point is increasingly ignored on the modern campus and by the authors of CIT — these things are not the purpose, the telos if you like, of a university.

Undergraduate education is there to hand over knowledge to the next generation. It can be small and cheap. You need an adequate building, a small library with the best classic books, electronic access to journals, and faculty that excels at teaching. Courses would be general, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary by definition. The program could last only three years. An optional additional year could be offered to those with an academic profile, where they could pursue more specialization as a bridge to graduate education.

This is more or less the mediaeval model. I am not sure we need to reinvent the wheel in order to deal with the crisis of higher education. What we need is to get back on track – back to the bread and butter of college education. This is a reflection that both sides of the story – those who demand education and those that offer it – need to make.


Read more:

In a recent contribution to Notes on Liberty, Mary Lucia Darst has recently commented on the status of higher education during the 2020 pandemic and prospects for the future.

I also wrote about the college trap in the US a few years ago.

Nightcap

  1. The Old Normal Andrew Bacevich, Harper’s
  2. Iran Doesn’t Want War but has a big appetite for riskWar on the Rocks
  3. Nice try, economists Arnold Kling, askblog
  4. Against “aggregate demand” Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling

Nightcap

  1. Interpreting the Ottoman Empire Michael Talbot, History Today
  2. Throw your testicles (medieval Europe) Tom Shippey, LRB
  3. Gold standards, fiat money, and resource costs Larry White, Alt-M
  4. On sovereignty versus empire Michael Anton, Modern Age

Be Our Guest: “How to make Brexit Really Worthwhile – Example: Financial Regulation”

Be Our Guest is an open invitation to NOL‘s readers to participate with us. Pretty much anything is on the table. The latest article comes from the Freeconomist, who is following up on his earlier piece about making Brexit worthwhile via information asymmetries. His new piece is on financial regulation through the prism of Brexit. Check out this excerpt:

I do not want to write a lengthy discussion on the question of which alternative is the least costly in dealing with the incentive problems arising from the implicit subsidy by the taxpayer. There are good reasons to believe an incremental, decentralized and evolutionary system of market-based regulation to be superior to centrally designed government regulation. (4)

But even if this is the case, private regulation arising as a response to the incentive problems resulting from explicit and/or implicit government guarantees is still costly. Indeed, the evolved system of private regulation in the UK banking industry was giving the appearance of a restrictive cartel. If my analysis is correct, this “cartel” served a useful social function, namely to deal with the incentive problems created by the implicit government guarantee. Nevertheless, it also involved costs.

At the root of the problem are the taxpayer guarantees.

Please, read the rest. It’s another excellent piece of work.

And don’t be afraid to submit your thoughts to us.

What is clientelism and why we should care about it

In my first post, I would like to share with you part of my work as a scholar of politics.

I study clientelism, which is, in my view, a fundamental but understudied and highly underrated phenomenon in politics. In my book, Clientelism and Economic Policy: Greece and the Crisis (2016), I define clientelism as ‘the distribution of resources by political power through an agreement in which politicians – the patrons – make this allocation dependent on the political support of the beneficiaries – their clients’ (page 12). Clientelism emerges at the intersection of political power with social and economic activity.

Why is this phenomenon important? As Harold Laswell put it, politics is the art and science of ‘who gets what’ in society (1936). This famous phrase epitomizes the nature of politics as a competitive process for power and resources. Because these resources are often excludable and rivalrous, multiple social actors and groups are expected to compete with one another for access to political power and the resources it distributes. In addition, as political power decides how scarce resources are to be allocated, there is competition among political actors who wish to gain power and take control of the distribution mechanism. Either way, participation in political competition is costly and occurs in anticipation of higher benefits for each of the participants. Clientelist exchange occurs when political actors competing to gain political power interact with socioeconomic actors striving to persuade political power to meet their demands and claims.

A ‘political market’ for the allocation of economic resources emerges and has distinct characteristics. On the one hand, it generates informal ‘prices’, for the goods and services provided by the government: there is demand by economic actors for preferential treatment and there is supply by political agents of resources, opportunities and benefits. On the other hand, the terms under which clientelist exchange takes place differ substantially from ordinary market transactions, primarily in terms of bargaining power, the enforcement mechanism, externalities, and selection process.

Power asymmetry characterizes the relations between patrons and clients. Clientelism works as an oligopoly. Few patrons occupy the supply side while myriads of candidate clients inhabit the demand side. Depending on what resources each side trades or possesses for future trade, as well as how long one has been – or expects to be – in a position to trade, power asymmetry can tilt in favor of the patron or the client, as in the case of big donors.

Another distinctive element of clientelism is the fact that, while clientelist exchanges is not legally binding or enforceable before courts, honoring the agreement depends on expectations of reciprocation from each party and, quite often, on fears and threats of retaliation in case one party fails to meet the terms of the agreement. On the part of the political agents involved in clientelist exchange, it is a matter of building trust and reputation over time, which, in the absence of formal sanctions, reduces the perceived risk of breaking the terms of the agreement.

In economic theory, clientelism is linked to the concept of rent seeking. Clientelist exchange is actually a subset of rent seeking. It involves explicit agreements according to which the beneficiary must reciprocate by supporting the agent in the political and administrative authority who has offered them the opportunity to extract a rent.

The conventional approach in economics is to view rent seeking as a distortion of market competition for the externalities it imposes on all other non-participating actors. In the real political economy approach, almost all political decisions distribute benefits and costs. My work focuses on the political implications of clientelism.

The process by which the government distributes clientelist benefits inevitably requires some sort of selection of who would be the beneficiary among a pool of prospective clients. Politicians whose political survival and success depend on getting elected to office have a strong incentive to distribute resources to those who would offer them the most valuable form of political support; not just a single vote, but campaign funding, loyal party membership, activist support or favorable media coverage (Trantidis 2016, 18)

The concept of clientelism is mistakenly reduced to a form of vote-buying. This is a narrow view of a much broader phenomenon. Indeed, clientelism serves politicians as a way to strengthen their chances to win elections but resources for clientelist distribution are scarce and the best way to use these resources is to attract those who could made a campaign contribution. It is difficult to monitor voters’ behavior and it is definitely not economical to use resources indiscriminately to buy individual votes, particularly in advanced economies where voters may be too costly to buy and many may simply refuse to be bought off.

Instead, clientelism works as an indirect way of gaining votes (Trantidis 2016, 19). By allocating benefits strategically to attract the biggest possible campaign contributors, politicians can gain an advantage in campaign resources that would allow them to make a stronger appeal to general voters. In short, clientelism is a strategy for political organization and campaign recruitment that has an indirect effect on voters’ behavior. Resource endowments define the capacity of each party to perform a number of tasks necessary for political survival and growth.

As I explain in the introduction of my 2016 book, the first and typical ‘image’ of clientelism is that of an individual agreement. The second ‘image’ of clientelism is that of a strategy for collective mobilization. Politicians create networks of clients that help them organize a campaign infrastructure with a strong support network.

The second image of clientelism refers to the formation of groups of loyal supporters on a more permanent basis. Clientelism is a way by which politicians and political organizations overcome the famous problem of collective action (Olson, 1965). Collective action does not occur automatically from groups having common concerns or a perception of shared interest. This holds especially if the perceived collective benefit is to be indiscriminately shared by multiple actors in large groups. In that case, there are weak incentives for someone to actively contribute to the collective effort. This logic of collective action applies to political organization too. Political parties need active supporters and campaign resources to be able to compete for votes and, for that purpose, they have to find a way to overcome a free-riding problem. For party leaders, the organization of a coherent and active party basis can be achieved through the distribution of targeted benefits to party members and supporters entering a clientelist network. While it is costly to mobilize political support, available state resources allow political actors to pass this cost on society. In forthcoming posts, I will discuss how this phenomenon could affect the design of public policies.

For the time being, let’s summarize the three key characteristics of clientelism:

  1. Clientelism is a common form of distribution of resources by political power. It stems from the intersection of two competitive processes: a ‘market’ for political support and a ‘market’ for rents and other government granted privileges.
  2. Clientelism is more than vote buying. The practice gives preference to those who can make the highest valued contribution to a politicians’ campaign infrastructure and support network: donors, activists, prominent figures, journalists.
  3. Clientelism generates support networks. It is a way for political agents and organizations to overcome a collective action problem regarding how to mobilize, control and discipline active groups of supporters. This is a valued strategy for political organization that can hardly be eradicated from the political process.

Clientelism is a common, expected and inevitable practice in politics. In the next blogs, I will talk about how this practice should make us reconsider the notions of political participation and representation, rethink how public policies are formulated and reconceptualize democracy as a competitive arena in which authoritarian and democratic governments work to become dominant political forces. Thank you for your attention.

References

Laswell, Harold. 1936. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York: Whittlesey House.

Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Trantidis, Aris. 2016. Clientelism and Economic Policy: Greece and the Crisis: London and New York: Routledge.

There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy

The advocates of the sunk cost fallacy state that, since an agent ponders in his decisions marginal costs against marginal incomes, any consideration upon sunk costs would be irrational. Notwithstanding, as soon as we accept the arguments of the said sunk cost fallacy and try to put its recommendations into practice, we discover that we have just become an easy prey of a more severe kind of irrationality: the one that concerns with intransitive preferences.

Jon Elster exemplifies the sunk cost fallacy with the case of a huge snowfall that pours onto the city the very same day we were planning to attend a theatre play whose tickets we had bought the previous days and are not refundable. Elster points out that, since our attendance to the play will not bring the money we had paid for the tickets back, there is no reason to make the decision on whether or not to attend the play on the basis of the sunk costs of the tickets. The correct reasoning should take into account only the cost of enduring the heavy snowfall in order to reach to the theatre where the play would be performed. Nevertheless, the same Jon Elster makes the disclaimer that a zealous observance of avoiding the sunk cost fallacy could lead to make choices following non transitive preferences.

If we change our mind every day, discarding previous decisions and assuming a new direction just because a new opportunity has arisen, we risk to end up in the ruin. Transitive preferences tend to assure the agent of a certain profit and non transitive ones exposes him to losses. In evolutionary games simulations, agents who act according to transitive preferences outshine agents who do not. It seems, then, that the rational agents walks on the edge of the razor, between sunk cost fallacies and non transitive preferences.

That is why there is not such a thing as a sunk cost fallacy. The rational agent, to be such, must ponder a whole plan against an alternative plan in a whole as well, which in some cases, both of them last several periods of time. It is true that in the “very short term” all past costs are sunk and that it only matters the opportunity costs, but most decisions are made in the short term, which lasts more than just a moment. Otherwise, the very concept of transitive preferences would lack any meaning.

Of course certain costs are sunk: if the flux of earnings that a good of capital produces just covers the variable costs of putting it to work (for example, a truck whose earnings just pay for the gas and the salary of the driver), the more rational choice is to use it until it becomes full obsolete and do not replace it with a brand new unit.

But the sunk cost fallacy does not provide a criterion to distinguish sunk costs from just mere costs of a single plan. What a rational agent with transitive preferences discards in his considerations will be named sunk costs, and what he does not, will not. A pure tautology.

Even the snowfall case does not explain satisfactorily the said fallacy: when the agent bought the tickets, their cost were inferior to the income of watching the play, but a heavy snowfall adds not a marginal cost but increases the marginal cost of the plan composed by the cost of the tickets plus the cost of enduring the snowfall.

Notwithstanding, the sunk cost fallacy derives into a philosophical puzzle: what is the subject? How are relations between time and being and between being and becoming. It seems that our permanence as rational agents depends mostly upon not to put into practice the opportunistic approach of the sunk cost fallacy ad libidum.

Moreover, the matter has a political strand: constitutional constraints demand from the authorities to take into account the weight of certain principles in their decisions and those principles could be disregarded if the decisions are purely made on the basis of expediency. If it is the same authority the one who decides whether certain constitutional principle should be followed or not, then all the citizens would be left exposed to arbitrariness.

The considerations about the length of the period a plan should last, the responsibility upon the consequences of our past choices, and the weight of the constitutional principles on the legitimacy of political decisions, become rational if they are not pondered by an isolated agent but in the framework of the interplay among several agents.

This framework of human interaction upon which the agent’s choices take place had been characterised by Friedrich A.Hayek as a spontaneous, or abstract or extended order. He proposed to leave the term “economics” to the explanation of the choices made by an isolated agent and to establish the science of “catallaxy” as the study of the complex phenomena involved in the said structure of interactions. In the same line, James M.Buchanan labelled the interplay of individual agents as “symbiosis” and proposed to redefine the task of the political economy to its study.  More recently, in 2009, Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, in Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, coined the term “open access orders” to analyse the same set of events. To this stream of thought, it also belongs Vernon L. Smith’s own account of the concept of ecological rationality.

Catallaxy, Symbiosis, Complex Phenomena, and Open Access Order or Ecological Rationality are some of the aspects of what Karl Popper once called “critical rationalism” and supersedes old problems such as those of the instrumental or subjective reason. An authentic “toolbox,” ready to be used.

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 5): Logical models

There is a thin line between the abstract model of “natural selection of institutions,” its instantiation in an imaginary example that interprets it and the application of that theory to interpret historical experience. The latter does not test the model, but is the result of the organization of the record of events around this interpretive model. The instantiation in an imaginary example is a visualization that allows us to identify the inconsistencies in the model -if there are any- and to test general predictions about the behaviour of the variables. Such interpretations of the model assume that the rest of the variables remain unchanged, that is, the ceteris paribus condition.

If the abstract model does not have inconsistencies, i.e.: if in its imaginary interpretation, contradictory events do not arise, and, nevertheless, its explanatory or predictive power is contradicted with the experience, this does not imply a refutation. On the contrary, it is an indicator that another set of events are acting that neutralize the effects of the process described by the theory. In this case, although the theory does not achieve results in terms of explanations and predictions, it does fulfil a heuristic function: that is, it inspires new lines of research and discovery.

One such line of such lines is, for example, how politics plays out in the process of natural selection of social habits and practices. As indicated by the School of Public Choice, the regulations on economic activity that affect the distribution of corporate profits, assign monopolies, restrict imports, intervene in the market of credits and capital to favour certain activities over others, among others many cases of economic dirigisme encourage the development of practices known as “lobbying.” Investing in human capital and new technologies means an opportunity cost that will never be assumed if higher yields are obtained as a result of influencing government decisions that protect the producer from competition, or allowing the State to sell at a price higher than the market price. Therefore, if experience is indicating a low capacity for innovation, lack of initiative and stagnation, it is most appropriate to focus the observation on which incentives are acting effectively in that country.

The counterpart of the logical models is the empirical models, the latter consist of abstractions of elements that occur in reality, highlighting their common notes to obtain various classifications of such elements, and they are a simplified scheme of perceived reality. However, any system of abstraction of the common notes of a set of objects requires a prior conceptualization of such notes as defining a set or class. In order to classify diverse populations in countries, it is previously necessary to be in possession of the notion of population, for example.

On the other hand, abstract notions are not necessarily conformed by a deliberate operation of consciousness, but by the perception of series of events that are repeated and differentiated from one another, generating in the cognitive apparatus an association of diverse stimuli. Out of habit arises the expectation that from the appearance of a particular event or series of events a range of determined events will follow and not follow another range of events of various kinds. On these spontaneous classifications, articulated around the repetition of events, their differential in the system of stimuli of the nervous apparatus, and the predisposition generated by the habit of waiting and ruling out the consequent appearance of other events and stimuli is that consciousness is conformed and the cognitive apparatus of the knowledge subject.

But, likewise, those “spontaneous classifications” allow the appearance of an abstract set of functionally related notions whose ordering does not depend on a deliberate decision. These are the cases of norms with empirical observation and of what Douglass North called “informal institutions.” The value of the contribution of Friedrich Hayek in Law, legislation and Liberty consists in both the positive legal norms (deliberately created by the legislator) and the informal institutions that condition our conduct also depend for their enunciation of that abstract order of notions that it arises from pure experience.

These logical models -as they are abstract- that make up the consciousness and the cognitive apparatus of the subjects, are in permanent trial and error testing and, therefore, in continuous reformulation. It is a kind of negative feedback process in which the frustration of an expectation is corrected in the interpretative scheme of reality that the individual has, in a process of continuous readjustment. From the invariant reiteration of a certain series of events, a structure is formed that serves as a parameter to order other events of less frequency or more erratic behaviour.

To the extent that the subject continues its experimentation, the spontaneous classification system that makes up its consciousness becomes more complex, incorporating new ranges of events, adjusting its frequency and incorporating new structures. These are the relative limits of knowledge. They depend on the experimentation and the readjustment of the abstract patterns that allowed the subject to classify the events of reality.

However, knowledge can also grow in another direction: consciousness can focus not on the events that come from its perceptions but in the analysis of the classifications themselves. In this activity, the abstract classification schemes that had been shaped by habit do not apply to reality, but reflect on these classifications and extend and reformulate them, not in terms of their experience, but in virtue of their abstract speculation. This is the task of deliberately shaping the logical models to be applied to the interpretation of reality.

The elaboration of a legal theory -for example, about representation-, the description of a market structure -for example, monopolistic competition-, the outline of a sociological explanation -through the ideal types statement, to cite a case- , are situations in which the subject of knowledge does not experiment on events, but reformulates the classificatory systems that until then had arrived spontaneously. Knowledge in this case does not grow in specificity, but increases in levels of abstraction.

These are the cases in which the historian questions not only the interpretative frameworks he uses, but also the conditions that underlie these interpretative frameworks. The philosophy of science dabbled in the scientific paradigms (Thomas Kuhn), or in the research programs (Imre Lakatos), or in the great stories (Jean Francois Lyotard). The common denominator of these three concepts can be found in that they lack an “author,” they are inferences, true conjectures that we make about the framework in which a given scientific community develops tacitly.

Many interpret these currents of philosophy of science, although diverse, as relativistic, since they lend themselves to postulate that the statements of science are conditioned by the historical circumstances that serve as the frame of legitimation. There would not be a truth in itself, but a truth enunciated in a frame of reference. Another way to see it is to interpret these scientific communities structured around a set of practices, procedures, and validation rules whose origin is mainly spontaneous in a sort of “abstract discovery machines.”

In general, a series of physical devices conformed in a process of transforming inputs into exits is called a machine. But such physical devices are organized according to an abstract plane that assigns them functions for a certain process. This plane can be interpreted through mental operations without resorting to the construction of the physical machine, throwing said mental operations verifiable results; we are faced with an abstract machine. In recent times, the term “algorithm” has also been used to compare an information process that does not depend on the free will of the researchers, but consists in the follow-up of an automatic process.

In this line, Friedrich Hayek characterized competition as a process of discovery, that is, as an abstract machine that processes data and yields results that describe reality. In fact, the discovery would be the only function of a system of free competition that gives a differential over the rest of the systems. A monopoly, whose margins of profitability were controlled either by a maximum price or by a tax on profits, would be more efficient in terms of the production of a given good, than a set of small producers without market power and without scale. The scale of the monopolistic producer allows greater efficiency at a technological level than small producers competing with each other, being able to resolve economic inefficiency through regulatory or tax tools. However, in what a system of free competition is incomparably superior is in terms of the discovery process that drives its own dynamics. These are the benefits that innovation brings, as a consequence of an unanticipated system of free competition or competition, which far exceed all the supposed advantages of a regulated system.

It is this innovation that produces, most of the time involuntarily, an institutional system of free competition, called by Acemoglu & Robinson “inclusive economic institutions” – the one that allowed Hayek to characterize it as a process of discovery, in other words, as an abstract innovation machine.

This characterization of innovation processes through institutions that function as algorithms that produce new knowledge can also be extended to scientific communities and to the evolutionary process of legal norms.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 4 here, and the full essay can be read in its entirety here.]