Saturday, November 12, 2011

Things I've learned from grading students' papers

  • Viewing someone's public Facebook profile without their written permission is a violation of their privacy. (At least if it's a University doing the looking.)
  • Posting something on Facebook (such as bragging about breaking a University's rules) is the same as confessing in a courtroom and is absolutely dispositive.
  • Corporations have good reasons for gathering information on their customers, it's for the customer's own good, and the fact that it may conceivably have a theoretical misuse is irrelevant, because they've said they won't misuse it, so they won't.
  • Copyright doesn't apply to the performance of a play if it's performed outdoors.
  • Bragging about breaking a University's rules can't be used against the student if the rulebreaking or cheating takes place off-campus.
  • You can copy a copyrighted work, as long as the amount copied is less than 100%.
  • Once a company has your data, they can use it for any purpose whatever, regardless of why it was originally collected. This is legal, so by definition it is ethical and there is no rational basis for objecting.
This is why it's so hard to go to work some mornings....

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State, and lacking explanations

The news coming out of Penn State is, of course, shocking, outrageous, and all the rest. Plenty of pundits are trying to come up with reasons why it happened, or how it could have gone on so long, or how varied the reactions are now (the students are rioting because the coach was fired for covering up child rape? and they're seeing the coach as the victim?).

Megan McArdle over at the Atlantic is trying to come to grips with it. I've had my criticisms of Ms. McArdle in the past; I don't remember if I've shared any of them here or not. Her tendency toward glib, dismissive, off the cuff solutions to other people's problems, privileged outrage when things affect her personally (see debit card fees, and limits thereon), blahblahblah. Some of her comments are, I think, pretty much on target; others are almost dangerously out to lunch. Overall, her on-target percentage is higher than average, probably higher than mine, so I keep some opinions to myself. After all, she's putting her thoughts out there with her name on them for public view daily, I'm firing off potshots relatively anonymously when the mood hits me. There's a difference.

She's grappling with why this happened, how it could have happened, what possible reason people could have for letting it go on. And she's coming up short.

Because, as an economist, she's viewing things as a classical economist. To the classical economist, people are rational, utility-maximizing beings, with at least a modicum of empathy toward others, basic fairness, and an enlightened-self-interest recognition of the societal need to protect the innocent and the vulnerable.

Which may be very useful for certain types of analysis, but fails completely (because it is completely at variance with reality) when we enter the dark twilight world where power, privilege, and sex intersect.

On a campus with a winning football team, the coaches (and to a lesser degree the athletes) have power. And they certainly have privilege. The problem with privilege, of course, is that it becomes invisible, taken for granted, and tends to grow. Those with privilege quickly learn that there's no one to say no. Or to give any negative feedback at all. I read a blog yesterday quoting Walter Mondale to the effect that he didn't realize he wasn't funny until he was no longer VP and people stopped laughing at his jokes. So, one tends to assume that if in doubt, one can get away with it. Because one always has in the past.

Meanwhile, for those in the vicinity... Taking on someone with power is risky. It's dangerous. It's unpleasant. Part of privilege is that others will take one's side no matter how egregious the offense (see Students, Penn State, Rioting). If anyone loses their job, it's usually not the privileged one.

So it's easier (lower immediate cost) to look the other way and maybe try not to think about it too much. In fact, after a while, that becomes rather easy. All too easy.

It's not a satisfying explanation. It's not rational. It's not about rational behavior. It's about social pressure and not wanting to rock the boat and not taking on someone who has Very Important Friends, In High Places. No, they didn't market their development office as a pedophile procurement business. But if Big Donor X called up and asked so-and-so to call him back, well, you take the message and pass it along. Do you suspect? Maybe. But you don't know, and why make trouble for a winning program on the basis of rumor? Particularly when whatever hits the fan will not be distributed evenly?

As much as I've ragged on him (and I have shared those views here), Andrew Sullivan understands it. His parallels with the Church abuse scandals are a little overdrawn--I don't believe the comparison is as direct as he's making it here--but it's the same basic dynamic at play.

The people who did know, who saw, and did nothing, are the most contemptible here. But that's another rant. For another evening.

It's not rational. It's not amenable to economic analysis. But it's still reality.