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Many of my readers may know that the single-event that most changed my intellectual development, and my outlook on the world, was when someone who was once very close to me abrogated everything I thought I once understood about the point of the academy, the pursuit of inquiry and the seeking of a better world. It was when a world famous labor economist, who wrote an entire labor economics textbook that included a chapter on why the minimum wage was not a good way to help the poor (empirically and theoretically) and that there were even other labor market policies that were clearly superior (again both empirically and theoretically) came out and led a major group of signatories in support of the minimum wage hikes during Bush’s second term. Asked whether everything he taught me was wrong, I was told that no, not everything I was taught was wrong, but rather it is the symbolism of publicly supporting the minimum wage that matters.

Symbolism.

Let me be as clear as I possibly can. When you hear the term “symbol” invoked as a reason for why a particular behavior was chosen, you have left the domain of reason and entered the realm of tossing virgins into volcanoes. This may sound harsh, but invoking symbolism should have one removed from any serious consideration as a fellow reasoning human being. Why? Because there is a reason for everything. A cause and an effect. Those things may not be obvious, they may be too complex to follow, but that does not mean that they do not exist. When someone says that they did something because the symbolism is important, it is an intimidation strategy intended to shut off any and all rational discussion.

Why did you waste $11,500 on a solar powered picnic table that is probably doing environmental harm? Symbolism. Never mind whether it makes any sense on any grounds. When you invoke symbolism, it makes it out of bounds to discuss any cost and any benefit – none of that matters when we are just making symbols. Of course, lost on the unreasoning is that by appealing to symbolism for any particular activity merely pushes the question down one more level. Why is THIS particular thing the best way to demonstrate the symbol that you care so much about? Crickets.

I cannot possibly imagine any other institution where symbolism is more regularly invoked than in higher education. This is not harmless. This is not just a reason why college costs so much, but it is a reason why the very foundation of why higher education is supposed to be about is eroding. Think about why many of the organizations on campus exist. I am sure I’ll be lambasted for naming any of them, but let your imagination run wild. We have an office of the perfect baloney sandwich, offices for the establishment of fair treatment of skateboarders, offices for the development of inspirational window treatment design, and so on. And not only do these offices exist, but we have a very thick bureaucracy built to support them. Inquire one day about why we must support these endeavors on college campuses, and keep asking questions and it will not be long before you hear what amounts to an admission that symbolism is the reason to institutionalize the importance of baloney sandwiches. Look, I am every bit a part of the building of yummy baloney sandwiches, the irony is not lost on me. In any case, imagine what happens when your university finds itself in financial trouble. Imagine the sorts of things that we’d do in order to save money. And ask yourself what is more likely: that a statistics class be outsourced to a graduate student, or an office of unicycle affairs be eliminated? In case the answer is not obvious, go look at the big departments of ANY major university and see how they are already staffing their courses. And the reason for this sort of a decision is that we can be pretty sure that a grad student knows his statistics and we can imagine that having him or her teach students reasonably well: we have some way of evaluating the tradeoff. But when the reason we have an office of unicycle affairs is because “this is the message we want to send to people” then no such calculus, regardless of how crude, is in the offing. Thus we find the appalling trend in higher education that at the same time that almost every administrator is begging for funds, decrying the “crisis” in state funding for higher education, worrying about global US competitiveness, etc. that these ancillary symbols proliferate. And it is appalling particularly when you come to the realization that the entire higher education establishment is conditioned to accept that “this is what good higher education institutions do.” Couple this with the fact that even if we took a reasoned approach to whether we have an office of unicycle appreciation, that measuring “success” or any crude measure of “output” is so elusive that we end up talking about inputs and effort as signs of success rather than achieving any real goals. Thus, when asked if the office of unicycle appreciation is doing its job, or is worth its weight, we end up pointing to the fact that “all students get to see unicycles, and they would not have been able to see them without coming to our school,” or that “we put on 10 unicycle appreciation events this year as compared to 8 last year.”

The debased currency of unreason continues to make its way into circulation. We’ll explore some additional illustrations soon.

8 Responses to “Symbolism: The Debased Currency of (Un)Reason”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    This post is a legendary rant. Well-done!

    And I’d love to hear more about this labor economist.

  2. Speedmaster says:

    I wonder if the main reason this economist sold out what he knows to be true is that the move was much better for his career.

  3. […] All of this is assuming of course that in nowhere along the way is anyone motivated by political or ideological reasons either on the science or policy side, so that we actually could be having a serious entertainment of the inquiry. But I’m a 9 foot tall Nobel Prize winner if that is true. I keep coming back to this thought. […]

  4. […] Part of my organization here gets funding from the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation. We are proud that they wish to support our efforts to become better educated and better citizens. Of course, as you can imagine, despite us being an independent organization with no university affiliation (outside of the obvious fact that U of R students and faculty work with it), it makes some people angry. I am not going to defend any of it here – I’ve never spoken to the Koch’s nor has anyone from the charitable foundation ever dictated a single thing about what we do or read, but even if they did I would see no problem with it. That said, here is a brief excerpt from an e-mail that was sent to me recently: Who funds the institute (specific sources of funding and amounts, please), and what is the yearly budget of the Rochester chapter? How are the funds distributed?  Do they come attached with any stipulations? If the Koch brother do in fact fund the Rochester Chapter of the AHI, to what extent does their agenda influence the programming of the institute? The Koch brothers have given campaign donations to Tea Party candidates (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/opinion/29rich.html?pagewanted=all) like Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain, who are openly homophobic, Islamophobic, and deny climate change.  Thoughts? I won’t share my thoughts with you yet, but I’d like for you to see what the Koch’s have said publicly in regard to similar attacks this time from a direct attack from President Obama. The letter is worth reading in its entirety, so I will publish it below. As for the thinly veiled intimidation in the above questions, let’s just say that those are as close to “intellectual” considerations as we see around here – never once has anyone offered up a reasonable discussion as to why, for example, the Rule of Law is horrific, or that voluntary exchange is oppressive, or anything like it. It’s motivation, motivation, motivation, money, money, money all day long. Nice. Here are the homophobic, Islamophobic, global warming deniers (think the student took the time to even consider this?): […]

  5. […] wrote recently, with much disgust (which I will not redact), about the use of symbolism. The implicit message which should have been made explicit, is that relying on symbolism to […]

  6. […] trying to sort out actual arguments from non-arguments. In the case of his initial post, he makes THIS POINT far more eloquently, succinctly and better than I ever could – it is precisely the message I was trying to […]

  7. […] trying to sort out actual arguments from non-arguments. In the case of his initial post, he makes THIS POINT far more eloquently, succinctly and better than I ever could – it is precisely the message I was trying to […]

  8. […] course, this has nothing at all to do with raising revenue. It has everything to do with crude symbolism. We want to show that we “care” about the appearance of “social justice.” […]

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