Sunday, October 30, 2011

Observations and Examples

So my economics professor has a tendency to run little social experiments on the class in an effort to get us to more fully understand the material. Like equating grades on an exam with wages earned, time spent studying with effort spent working, and talking about how a more equal distribution of grades results in less over all effort because of diminishing marginal returns (ie I'm not going to spend an additional 2 hours studying if the “reward” is going to someone else). And it's a neat way to connect the material with real life, so hopefully we understand the concepts in the class better.

There's a clique (about 1/3 of the class) who has all the same classes, all sit together, all economic majors, all really conservative, all homogeneous with their opinions on these experiments. Obviously I can't claim to know the political leanings of everyone in class, but for clarity I'll refer to this group as “the conservatives”. Their opinions are generally along the lines of “personal responsibility! I bear no duty to help others, in fact it's virtuous if there are no rules making us help each other. The rules are what they are, we all have an equal opportunity to do well”.

So in the “grades are wages” example, the professor used hypotheticals like “what if a student is a single parent, their child is sick, and they can't study?” or “what if a student is forced by his or her boss to work all night before the exam?” or other examples generally trying to say that sometimes doing poorly on an exam isn't indicative of laziness, it's indicative of chance or being exploited by an employer. So he was suggesting that the fair thing might be to re-appropriate the grades somehow (upper/lower limit, average, grading curves, etc). And the response from “the conservatives” was positive, until they realized it might mean they would have a lower grade with the re-appropriation than without it. At which point they took up the banner of personal responsibility: maybe he shouldn't be in school, maybe he's just using an excuse to be lazy, life isn't fair, it's an incentive for people to be lazy and that's bad, maybe he should just study sooner, etc. The gist was “it's not my problem, changing the rules to benefit someone else is unfair to everyone”.

We also had a discussion when “the conservatives” asked the professor to post the class notes online before class. The professor said that he was hesitant to because people would stop coming to class until right before the exam, they would do poorly, the entire vibe of the class would diminish. There would be less learning and lower grades. So he turned it into a class wide discussion, and the end result was “the conservatives” picking up their personal responsibility banner once more. They used arguments like “those people wouldn't learn anyway; those people wouldn't study anyway; we aren't forcing them to do anything; those people would do poorly anyway”. And because “the conservatives” felt that having the slides posted online before class would help them, they were advocating changing the rules to benefit them in a way that would hurt others – and they rationalized it by stereotyping, de-humanizing language, and absolute personal responsibility.

Nothing particularly eye-opening so far, but recently the date of an upcoming exam was close to another exam “the conservatives” had. So they loudly objected, and the professor ran another experiment asking the class if we should change the date of the exam. Personally, I couldn't care less. But some people wanted to keep the date the same, and about ¼ of the class wasn't in class. Those that were there said they had already formed their schedule around the date set, one said moving the exam to a Tuesday would mean two exams in one day, another said she works Sunday and Monday so a Thursday exam is really preferable to a Tuesday exam, etc.

But, and this is key, every objection raised by an individual in favor of keeping the exam date was met by “the conservatives” as a group explaining why that objection wasn't valid. Even when it was literally the word-for-word objection they were using themselves. They used this sort of bullying tactic of having an individual say “I don't want that” and then the group of ~10 people all loudly say why that individual is wrong. They used the same tactics as before: the people who disagree with us have invalid objections because they're lazy, the best thing for everyone is whatever is best for “the conservatives”, And it all led to advocating a change in the rules to benefit them at the expense of everyone else.

There's a clear pattern they've been showing all semester, and I think it's indicative of the pattern of behavior conservatives in general have been exhibiting:

  1. When a proposed change to the rules would benefit someone else: claim the others want the change so they can be lazy
  2. Claim personal responsibility is the best policy for everyone, changing the rules to benefit one group at the expense of another group isn't the role of [the government, the professor, etc]
  3. Therefore the proposed change designed to benefit someone (while appearing to be fair) is actually unfair to everyone
  4. Keep the original rules that benefit them, and claim we all have equal opportunity to succeed
    1. When a proposed change to the rules would benefit them: claim they want the change so the rules are fair
    2. Claim fair rules are the best policy for everyone, changing the rules to benefit one group at the expense of the other is just making fair rules
    3. Therefore the proposed change designed to benefit just them (while appearing to be unfair) is actually fair to everyone
    4. Change the rules to benefit them, and claim we all have equal opportunity to succeed
    It's possible, in the future, that they might claim a rule that's detrimental to them is fair, and a rule that benefits them is unfair. It's possible, in the future, that they use a metric other than self-interest to determine fairness and unfairness.

    It's unfair and untrue to claim that every conservative person uses the selfish metric for ethical claims. But that doesn't mean we can't study and judge their behavior as a group. Hopefully I've given an accurate example of how the meme of “personal responsibility and fair rules with equal chance at success” is often code for “I have no duty to help others, the rules should be set up to benefit me, any attempt to change those beneficial rules is unfair”.

    Ron Paul Quote

    I overheard this gem on CNN today from Ron Paul: "We got into this mess by spending money, taxing, and printing money. So (heh) how can we get out of it by spending money, taxing, or printing money?"

    Ron Paul 2012 - because the less you know the more confident you need to be