Posts tagged ‘paternalism’

Harvard Business School and Women

The New York Times has a long article on  Harvard Business School's effort to change its culture around women.  Given that both my wife and I attended, albeit 25 years ago, I have a few thoughts.

  • I thought the article was remarkably fair given that it came from the NYT.  Men who are skeptical of the program actually are allowed to voice intelligent objections, rather than just be painted as Neanderthals
  • I would have abhorred the forced gender indoctrination program, as much for being boring as for being tangential.  I am fortunate I grew up when I did, before such college group-think sessions were made a part of the process everywhere.  I would presume most of these young folks are now used to such sessions from their undergrad days.   I would not have a problem having an honest and nuanced discussion about these issues with smart people of different backgrounds, but I thought the young man they quoted in the article said it really well -- there is just no payoff to voicing a dissenting opinion in such sessions where it is clear there is a single right answer and huge social and even administrative penalties for saying the wrong thing.
  • I went to HBS specifically because I loved the confrontational free-for-all of the classes.   It was tailor-made to my personality and frankly I have never been as successful at anything before or since as I was at HBS.   I say this only to make it clear that I have a bias in favor of the HBS teaching process.   I do think there is an issue that this process does not fit well with certain groups.  These folks who do not thrive in the process are not all women (foreign students can really struggle as well) but they are probably disproportionately women.  So I was happy to see that rather than dumb down the process, they are working to help women be more successful and confident in it.
  • It is interesting to see that the school still struggles to get good women professors.  When I was there, the gap between the quality of men and women professors was staggering.  The men were often older guys who had been successful in the business and finance world and now were teaching.  The women were often young and just out of grad school.  The couple of women professors I had my first year were weak, probably the two weakest professors I had.  In one extreme case our female professor got so jumbled up in the numbers that the class demanded I go down and sort it out, which I finally did.  I thought it was fun at the time, but now I realize how humiliating it was.
  • To some extent, the school described in the article seems a different place than when I was there.  They describe a school awash in alcohol and dominated by social concerns.  This may be a false impression -- newspapers have a history of exaggerating college bacchanalia.   At the time I was there, Harvard did not admit many students who did not have at least 2 years of work experience, such that the youngest students were 24 and many were in their 30's and 40's.  A number were married and some even had children.   To be there, they not only were paying a lot of money but they were quitting paying jobs.  The school was full of professionals who were there for a purpose.  I had heard that HBS had started to admit more students right out of college -- perhaps that is a mistake.
  • The fear by the women running the school that women would show up on Halloween wearing "sexy pirate" costumes represents, in my mind, one of the more insidious aspects of this new feminist paternalism (maternalism?) aimed at fellow women.  Feminism used to be about empowering women to make whatever choices they want for their lives.   Now it is increasingly about requiring women to make only the feminist-approved choices.
  • I actually wrote a novel where the protagonist was a confident successful female at HBS.   So I guess I was years ahead of the curve.

Postscript:  Below the fold is an excerpt from my novel.  In it, the protagonist Susan describes how an HBS class works and shares my advice for being successful at HBS.

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Arrogance and Coercion

Years ago I had an argument with my mother-in-law, who is a classic Massachusetts liberal  (by the way, we get along fine -- I have no tolerance for the notion that one can't be friends with someone who has a different set of politics).  The argument was very clarifying for me and centered around the notion of coercion.

I can't entirely remember what the argument was about, but I think it was over government-mandated retirement programs.  Should the government be forcing one to save, and if so, should the government do the investment of those savings (ie as they do in Social Security) even if this means substantially lower returns on investment?

The interesting part was we both used the word "arrogant."  I said it was arrogant for a few people in government to assume they could make better decisions for individuals.  She said it was arrogant for me to assume that all those individuals out there had the same training and capability that I had to be able to make good decisions for themselves.

And at the end of the day, that is essentially the two sides of the argument over government paternalism boiled down to its core.  I thought coercion was immoral, she thought letting unprepared people make sub-optimal decisions for themselves when other people know better is immoral.  As with most of my one on one arguments I have with people, I left it at that.  When I argue face to face with real people, I have long ago given up trying to change their minds and generally settle for being clear where our premises diverge.

I am reminded of all this reading Bruce McQuain's take on Sarah Conly's most recent attempt to justify coercive paternalism (the latter is not an unfair title I have saddled her with -- it's from her last book).  Reading this I had a couple of other specific thoughts

  1. I am amazed how much Conly and folks like her can write this stuff without addressing the fundamental contradiction at its core -- if we are so bad making decisions for ourselves, why do we think the same human beings suddenly become good at it when they join government?  She would argue, I guess, that there are a subset of super-humans who are able to do what most of us can't, but how in a democracy do we thinking-impaired people know to vote for one of the supermen?  Or if you throw our democracy, what system has ever existed that selected for leaders who make good decisions for the peasants vs., say, selected for people who were good generals. 
  2. Is there any difference between Conly's coercive paternalism and Kipling's white man's burden?  Other than the fact that the supermen and the mass of sub-optimizing schlubs are not differentiated by race?  It's fascinating to see Progressives who are traditionally energized by hatred of colonialism rejuvinating one of imperialism's core philosophical justifications.

Public Saftey Fail

Via Radley Balko, here is a great article on 5 great public safety measures that failed, and why.  Here is one brief excerpt, on why speed limits fail:

Because, and this surprised the hell out of us, people aren't completely retarded. As it turns out, people tend to drive at speeds they feel comfortable driving. Yes, there are reckless madmen out there, but they're not going to obey a couple of digits on a sign anyway. It just becomes a make-work project for traffic cops.

We Know How You Should Be Living

TJIC has a nice post on the arrogant paternalism inherent in urban planning.

The Party is making decisions about how we should live, and then, eventually, telling us about them.

The aim is to have 80 percent of new housing and new jobs in cities
and larger municipal centers such as Framingham, Peabody, Norwood, and
Marlborough. That would enable more people to walk or use mass transit
and thereby reduce traffic and pollution, according to the plan.

So, of the million possible variables, the ones they've chosen to
optimize are the minimization of the average distance one has to drive
to get to work.

Things they have implicitly then de-prioritized:

  • open space per family
  • privacy per family
  • floor space per family
  • minimal overall commute time per individual
  • noise abatement
  • etc.

I liked this bit:

The problem is, the statists don't really care about green space per
se. They care about government owned (or at least government
controlled) green space. Which is better? 20 acres of land lumped into
a government owned wetland sanctuary that no one ever visits, or 20
houses, each on 1 acre lots, covered with gardens, yards, trees, and
tree-houses? The government employee doesn't get to meddle in the
individual lots, so he's always going to say that the government owned
patch is better.

Welfare for Everyone

Congrats to Santa Barbara for breaking new ground in government paternalism:

The City Council here had already created a class of affordable housing
several years ago for people making up to 200% of the median income.
Last week, they agreed to tailor the Los Portales project for people
making up to 240%, or nearly $160,000. (To keep these affordable condos
affordable, buyers would be subject to price controls on resale that
would restrict any price increase to about 2% a year.)

Wow, government housing projects for people who make $160,000!  I loved this quote:

"it's hard to get sympathy for people making $160,000 a year if you're
down in Texas or something," said Bill Watkins, head of the UC Santa
Barbara Economic Forecast Project.

No shit.  So, why the project? 

But this is Santa Barbara, a built-out city hemmed in by the Santa Ynez
Mountains to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the south and politics in
every possible direction. And this is believed to be Santa Barbara's
last vacant lot big enough to hold a housing development.

So this is just the fault of geography and the bad old supply and demand system, right?  Well, it turns out the government had just a little to do with it too:

The city is zoned for 40,005 housing units. About 38,000 have been
built, and the only housing construction these days is in-fill: a few
units here, a few there. Unlike other land-poor cities, Santa Barbara
has been loath to tear down large swaths of outdated structures and
rebuild, said Paul Shigley, editor of the California Planning &
Development Report.

"They think they've got paradise," Shigley said. "They don't want it to change."

The tallest building here is the eight-story Granada Theatre, built in
1924. It could never be replicated today, in part because the City
Charter strictly limits buildings to 60 feet, about four stories. And
even four stories is a hard sell.

Oh, so the lack of new lots is an artificial government zoning limit, AND the government limits the height of new building to just a few stories AND the government won't allow tear down and gentrification of old neighborhoods.

By the way, housing projects like this in expensive areas are really just massive corporate welfare subsidies of local businesses.  If workers really need their housing subsidized to live there, and the government does nothing, one of two things happen:  Either busineses go somewhere else cheaper, or else they have to pay their employees more to live in the area.  By subsidizing this housing, the local government is in effect subsidizing local businesses by letting them pay lower wages.  In particular, this is typically a subsidy of tourist businesses (hotels and restaurants) which have a hugely disporportionate influence on local governments and who typically are tied to the local area and can't leave.  The town of Vail, for example, has subsized similar housing under presure from the ski resorts.

Hat tip: Hit and Run

Progressive Hypocracy

Self-described "progressives" on the left have gone nuts over the past several years over creeping legislative and regulatory inroads made by religious conservatives.  Fascism! They are quick to reply.  The government can't tell us what to do with our own bodies, or in the privacy of our own homes!  Abortion, homosexuality?  Hey, that's our choice, its our bodies.  NSA eavesdropping, warrant-less searches?  Hey, those are our private phonecalls made from our private phones.  Searches of private cars without probable cause to enforce seat belt use?  Hey, what a great idea!

Boston Globe columnist Scot LeHigh editorializes against Massachusetts Democrats attempt to micro-regulate personal behavior:

THIS WEEK, the Massachusetts House of Representatives will face a telling test:
Can it resist a progressive Legislature's ever-present impulse toward pesky

The issue is seat belts, and whether the police will be allowed to stop
motorists upon suspicion that someone in their vehicle is not wearing a seat
belt or only ticket them for that grievous offense if they have first been
pulled over for something else.

This is exactly why I am suspicious of progressives and resist making common cause with them, even on issues where we tend to agree.  For while they talk the libertarian talk pretty well when they want to (abortion with its "I should control decisions over my own body" defense being the most obvious example), progressives also have a very strong streak of "we are smarter than you are and sometimes will tell you what to do because it is for your own good".   As a result, for example, progressives support abortion because a woman should make decisions for her body without government intrusion, but oppose the legality of breast implants and vioxx because a woman should, uh, not be able to make decisions for her body without government intrusion (more on this here).

And what decision could be more about my own body than what level of protection I want to afford myself in a vehicle?  If I choose, for whatever reason, not to wear a motorcycle helmet or a seatbelt, who cares?  It may be a really, really stupid choice on my part, but its my decision for my own body, right?  (By the way, I know that some people will make the 'taxpayers pay for your medical care argument', which I dealt with earlier in my post about government health care funding as a Trojan horse for fascism).

But even beyond the issue of individual decision-making, what about the 4th amendment issues?  It is amazing but true that progressives and the Massachusetts legislature, who would never in a million years give the police, the FBI, or anyone under George Bush's chain of command the right to stop a motorist without probable cause to check for evidence of terrorist intent, are actually endorsing that the police have this power to stop motorists without probable cause for freaking seat belt use.  Is this really the alternative we are being offered today - you can choose fascism to stanch the threat of terrorism or you can choose fascism to increase seat belt use? 

I predict that the left may come to regret setting this precedent, as they have come to regret other expansions of government power that their political enemies have used as stepping stones for their own agenda.  A good example is Title IX, which is beloved by the left for using the fact of federal funding to browbeat even private universities into changing their admissions policies, but has been used as a precedent by the right to browbeat private universities into accepting military recruiters.  Government micro-managing of individual decision-making is only fun as long as you and your gang are the ones doing the micro-managing.

I would love to see someone in Washington making a consistent case for freedom of decision-making for individuals when the decision affects only themselves or others with whom they are interacting in a consensual manner.  But I am not holding my breath.

What a Concept

Marginal Revolution notes a recent piece by Jeffrey Rosen about potential libertarian supreme court nominees.  In particular, they noted this quote:

...Epstein was promoting a legal philosophy far more radical in its
implications than anything entertained by Antonin Scalia, then, as now, the
court's most irascible conservative. As Epstein sees it, all individuals have
certain inherent rights and liberties, including ''economic'' liberties, like
the right to property and, more crucially, the right to part with it only
voluntarily. These rights are violated any time an individual is deprived of his
property without compensation -- when it is stolen, for example, but also when
it is subjected to governmental regulation that reduces its value or when a
government fails to provide greater security in exchange for the property it

Whoa, how crazy is that?  I find it depressing that believing in the right to part with property "only voluntarily" is today considered so wildly out of the mainstream that it is necessarily a disqualification to be a Supreme Court judge.  The courts today are terribly important battle ground in protecting individual rights against both creeping socialism and paternalism.  Unfortunately, neither Republicans nor Democrats can be trusted with leading this battle.  Each wants the judiciary to protect individual rights in one area and restrict them in another.  The left supports limitations on political speech via campaign finance restrictions and an unfettered right of government to invade personal property.  The right wants limitations on non-political speech via "community standards" on entertainment and hopes to regulate America's sexual practices.

Most people interested in politics are constantly hoping their party is the winner in the race to power.  I just wish I had a horse in the race.