Thursday, March 26, 2020

Universities and Covid 19 relief - an illustration of elitism

Marginal Revolution is among the best places on the Net to access links on the latest research and debates in economics. It is also among the best places for a particular world-view and ideology. In sum, it's a great place for information and knowledge. But as a place for practical wisdom of relevance to the real world, it is not. 

Tyler Cowen cautions against the likes of Harvard using its endowment in Covid relief by paying the wages for its hourly workers and providing housing security to its (less well-off) students. 
I support a radical vision of the university as an institution devoted to learning and innovation above all. If a school is successful and fortunate enough to have a significant endowment, I am happy to see that school invest it at (one hopes) high rates of return.
Note what is missing - culture, attitudes, civic-spiritedness, and so on. In sum, what it takes to be a sensitive and productive citizen. I thought universities were supposed to be an immersion in education. And not some instrumental delivery of "learning and innovation".

In fact, on reading the oped, one comes out with a sweepingly reductionist message - universities should focus on imparting knowledge and stay away from charity! 

As we go down the article, even pretensions drop off,
The real contributions of Harvard, MIT and Stanford to the world are not the food-service workers they hire. They are the ideas and innovations produced by its researchers, plus the talented students they educate. Less successful universities also contribute those same broader benefits, even if at a lower scale of effectiveness.
The oped is a digression from the simple issue (that the students etc are agitating for) of engaging in a very specific and limited manner in favour of those unfortunate few affected by a once in a century (or more) event, interventions which would have been in the best traditions of conveying the ethos that these institutions claim to impart to its students, and one which would, even in the most extremely generous case, have been a chump change for the endowments of these Ivy universities. It is a good example of the unwittingly revealed preferences and attitudes of the elites. 

And this is the clincher, one of the best illustrations of the social challenge that US and other developed countries, as well as the rich elsewhere, have today. 
I am saying that their moral obligation to extend charity to those workers is not very strong. Had such charity been prioritized in the past, the U.S. never would have developed and maintained top universities. Part of America’s greatness as a nation, and as an innovator, is its unwillingness to ask anew every day whether its elite accumulations of wealth should be torn down and rededicated to everyday purposes of a supposedly greater benevolence.
This is pure polemic. I don't think it is anybody's cause for an every day introspection about tearing down elite accumulation of wealth. But such reductionist thinking and its dissemination to unsuspecting and impressible students in universities is preventing them from at least enquiring into the forces that are driving today's elite accumulation of wealth, their own role in those forces, its consequences, and how it is coming in the way of equality in access to opportunities itself. If in the process of such introspection, they collectively and on their own volition come to the view that elite accumulation of wealth should be torn down, then so be it. Unfortunately, the problem is that such reductionist teaching is gatekeeping students away from meaningfully engaging with the world at large, except in a narrow technical way in their limited worlds.

Chris Arnade responds to Tyler in a tweet, 
Leave it to an Economist to not see influence of organizations is not just raw sum of their decisions but the culture those decisions reflect Harvard's power isn't just the Profs & students but the culture it steeps them in & advocates for. Such as accepting elitism & inequality.
In the context of economists, see this old tweet by Kaushik Basu,
In an economic crisis to be told that political leaders, instead of professionals with expertise, are taking charge is about as comforting as during a turbulent flight seeing the minister of tourism step out of the cockpit to assure passengers that he is taking over the flying.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who himself is not immune from some of the same disease, has a very good counter tweet here.

Another example of the arrogance of an unaccountable economist elite is this. I had written earlier about how India's pre-corona economic problems were made in orthodoxy and a legacy of experts.

When we have teachers like these...

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