11 Aug 2015

The Thing Itself -- the review

Folks in Havana should read this book
Mike Munger is funny, smart and sharp. In this collection of essays (subtitle: "on Academics and the State"), he describes how "the thing" -- the word Hume used in 1756 to describe a State that turned against the Men it was meant to govern -- is constantly underestimated in its presence and damage.

These essays, in other words, are meant to caution those who feel that the State (or any governing group) should be allowed to rule over us "for our own good," as that hope is often misplaced.

He then describes how that failure in conception turns into a rationalization for further action:
  1. X is a problem. We should do something
  2. Y is something.
  3. Therefore, we should do Y.
  4. If Y does not solve X, it must mean we didn’t do enough Y, and we need to do more.
It should not be hard for you to remember some version of this process affecting your life, where "flogging a dead horse" did not make it pull any faster.

Munger cautions that there are many opportunities for a slip 'tween cup and lip -- a caution that far too few people acknowledge, as they pretend that the State will implement Policy X according to its stated goals and in an efficient manner. Munger suggests, rather, that we substitute "politicians we know" for the State, as an realistic means of thinking about how Policy X will actually be implemented. This type of thinking tends to reinforce economist's reputation as "dismal scientists" but I'd rather be in that group (calling attention to problems) than a group of hopeful Pollyannas condemned to endless disappointment. For example:
If someone says, "The State should be able to choose subsidies and taxes to change the incentives people face in deciding what energy sources to use," ask them to remove "The State" and replace it with "Senators from states that rely on coal, oil, or corn- ethanol for income." Still sound like a good idea?
This though, ironically, leads to one of Munger's silver-lining observations, i.e., the need for a mindless bureaucracy that cannot deviate from the plan due to the danger that such autonomy would allow bureaucrats to choose how to wield their power, to the detriment of those they disliked. This is a useful observation at the same time as it explains how American bureaucracy is so tied up in rules as to be ineffective or Russian bureaucracy is so overladen with rules as to allow the bureaucrat to choose which they prefer to enforce.* (Dutch bureaucracy is rigid in following reasonably clear and fair rules, making it rather useful.)

Munger's suggested solution -- fewer laws, more community discretion -- might scare some, but we're taking costs and benefits in a murky world. Who would you trust when it comes to choosing a doctor or plumber -- the certificate on the wall or your neighbor's recommendation?

These are the major themes in the essays (many of them published in the past), but it is sometimes hard to see them, or see how they interweave, when the essays were not written to accumulate evidence or energy towards a point.

This brings me to the (predictable) weakness of this book: three chapters on The State and five chapters on Education (or the university environment). Although all relate to "the thing," it may not be easy (or interesting) for readers who would prefer general or broader discussions. By the same measure, they may be VERY interesting to, say, academics (and students!) who want to think more about political correctness, academic freedom, etc. I enjoyed these chapters, but I am not sure that everyone attracted by this theme will.

Moving along, my favorite chapter had a "you won't believe how bad this gets" description of how Santiago, Chile, replaced a reasonably efficient private transportation system with a disastrously dysfunctional public one. The rationalization was safety and less pollution, which were achieved by, more or less, making it too hard to get to work. (See this blog post and EconTalk for more.)

Munger then tells a few tales of upside-down incentives in Cuba (a favorite for economists interested in crazy) before moving to Education. In these chapters, Munger pleads for the open debate and common sense empirics that we (academics) are supposed to uphold, rather than the narrow, rationalized gobbledygook steering young minds to embrace sacred cows. He summarizes it thus:
I'm worried about the folks who get it right. Our educational system is failing the students on the left . They aren't being challenged, and they don't learn to think. Students on the left, rather than the right, ought to sue our universities for breach of contract. We promise to educate them, and then all we do is pat them on the head for memorizing the "correct" answer!


The academic left needs to see itself as being outrĂ©, oppressed, and the “other” in the society in which it lives. If the left started to think of itself as conventional and established, two things would happen: First, they would actually be responsible for the problems and inadequacies of American university education, rather than the rebels trying to make things better against overwhelming odds. The second is that many people on the left (not all, maybe not even most, but many) require a sense of “otherness” to be able to survive psychologically. Intellectual laziness and moral bankruptcy are not very attractive; much better to see yourself as beaten down and discriminated against by “the man.”


Many students want more and suspect that there is more. They want to hear the best argument from the other side. It's more interesting to play against the first team. Conservative students are already challenged. We might wish that things were a bit different, but by and large, a committed conservative student comes out of a place like Duke with a real education.
Munger concludes the book with a warning and a plea:
Saluting the collective wisdom is simply a way to hold other citizens down whilst we steal their purses or pack their children off to war.


[G]roups cannot be thought to have preferences in the same way that individuals do. To put it another way, it is perfectly possible, and legitimate, for reasonable people to disagree. The role of democracy is not to banish disagreement but rather to prevent political disagreements from devolving into armed conflict.

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for its entertaining and thoughtful essays on "the thing" -- the misplaced certainty and power that keeps us from stumbling and groaping towards ideas and solutions suitable for our countries, communities and universities.

* Munger gives the example of American police targeting poor blacks because they are associated with crime, thereby ensuring they are branded criminals (black v white drug arrests and convictions). For an example of selective enforcement of laws as a means of abusing citizens, see Ferguson.

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