Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently re-reading Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Systems of Survival, mid-way thoughts

I'm half-way through Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.  She divides many activities into "Commercial" and "Guardian" activities, and the associated value systems into "Commercial" and "Guardian" moral syndromes.  (The word "syndrome" simply means "things that go together", not necessarily "illness.")  Commercial activities are fairly self-explanatory.  "Guardian" activities are not just the military and police actions of government, but many things in government, and many things reliant on patronage or largesse.  The arts and sports fall largely under "Guardian" values because traditionally they have enjoyed substantial patronage. Also, athletic competition was historically an activity of warrior castes biding time between wars. Yes, art has been made for commercial purposes, and yes, sports are an entertainment business, but the local Little League team usually relies on sponsorship from the community, and the revenue-generating college football teams subsidize the track team.

Now, Jacobs also notes that when people try to blend the syndromes bad things occur.  You get corruption when government and business mingle, you get inefficiency when government planners try to provide goods that the market could handle better, and you get the mafia when a family uses bonds of loyalty and threats of violence (Guardian traits) to take control of neighborhood businesses.  Interestingly, the mafia loves its ceremonies and symbolism as much as royalty does, and as much as armies love their dress uniforms and parades, while businesses tend to pay less attention to aesthetics (except in advertising and branding, or in response to specific consumer demands).  Moreover, the Mafia dispenses largesse to the poor and the Church, to bolster their image and command loyalty, just as governments do.

The problems of mixing Guardian and Commercial activities help us understand why sports teams (traditionally Guardian, though now Commercial) pressure city governments (Guardians) to build stadiums.  They help us understand why there's so much corruption in revenue-generating college sports.  Yes, yes, I'm sure that somewhere out there a Division III College Athletics Director is dealing with a pole-vault scandal, but it pales in comparison with the corruption in Division I football and basketball.  It also helps us understand why agricultural policy is always and everywhere a quagmire:  Agriculture is most efficient as a commercial enterprise but because it relies on control of land (historically a government activity) it is always entwined with politics in ways that go beyond ordinary corruption or misguided regulatory zeal:  The value and use of land goes to deep values of what it means to be a state.

Anyway, let's take this to the things that I care about: Science and academia.

Jacobs argues that science is largely in sync with the values of the Commercial Syndrome:  Honesty is the best policy (unlike the deception and secrecy required for many security functions, whether espionage or sting operations), innovation is more valuable than tradition, collaboration with outsiders is to be welcomed (scientists collaborate internationally, just as merchants have always done business across borders), at the same time competition is to be encouraged (hence we look for replication processes to weed out error), etc.  I agree with these points, but at first I disssented because basic science is so heavily subsidized.

However, I think I can nonetheless endorse her equating of science with the Commercial Syndrome for three reasons:
1) No analogy is perfect.  Yes, the funding source is more than just a tiny flaw in the analogy, but we shouldn't just ignore the fact that in a great many ways the values of science fall much better under the Commercial Syndrome than the Guardian Syndrome.

2) Plenty of science happens outside of state-subsidized labs.  To the extent that science happens under state subsidy the rationale is generally some mix of long-term benefits (states can afford risk-reward ratios that competitive businesses can't), the value of knowledge and education (Guardian-provided activities) or national security (Guardian activity).  This doesn't change the fact that most science graduates go out and work in the Commercial realm.

3) Education fads, which drive me up the wall, have been pushed into the scientific community in large part through the efforts of the National Science Foundation and its "Broader Impact" criterion for grants.  The purpose of Broader Impact is service to the wider society, not the efficient advancement of the specific project in play.  It is the yoking of a community adhering (mostly) to Commercial values into Guardian endeavors.  And it sucks, just as the mixing of the two Syndromes so often sucks.

Yes, yes, edufads get some scientific respectability lacquered onto them, but it's mostly BS.  Education, with its focus on tradition and respect for the authority figure, is Guardian all the way.  Universities have always been subsidized by largesse.  Education is as Guardian as it gets. It's practically a priesthood, and it's about inculcation of social values as much as the sharing of knowledge.  And that's great, within its proper scope and place.  The practice of science should be Commercial and the education of people should be Guardian.  Hence we make teaching and research separate criteria for performance evaluation, and hence we have separate physical space, separate funds, etc. for those activities.  Indeed, graduate school is about transitioning from one to the other.  To the extent that it's inefficient, well, what did you expect when you transition between realms?

And the priorities and motives driving edufads and Broader Impact are all about national competitiveness and the moral legitimacy of the social order.  That is a thoroughly Guardian pair of priorities.  Eminently defensible priorities, but a poor match for Commercial activity.

Academic scientists are not the only people who have to straddle worlds, and to the extent that we are attempting a hybrid activity we should expect scandal and inefficiency.  But not all Syndrome-straddling activities are like the Mafia.  Jacobs notes that lawyers have to straddle the Syndromes, working in private firms and generally in support of commercial interests (law is far more about property and contracts than it is about criminal trials) but interacting with the government.  To the extent that they do it well it is by clearly understanding which duties apply to which parts of the job and to what types of activities.  We would do well in academia to think about which duties apply to which parts of the job.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


I don't have much to say about it, but this post from education policy blogger Robert Kelchen is well worth reading.  As long as education policy discussions are dominated by people who treat college as a given and state flagships as "backup" schools, we're doomed to insanity.