Whiskey and Car Keys

While you're visiting Timothy Burke's blog, be sure to also read his thoughts from a few months ago on trade-offs and feel-good social programs:

I get fairly annoyed when either students or even sometimes colleagues call for some major new program without telling me what they intend to take away in return, or if not, where they intend to get new monies. I don’t care what the program or idea is—I may agree it’s a great idea or initiative—without some responsible and bold attention to the institution’s resources and their current distribution, it’s a non-starter. A few years back, some students wanted an ethnic studies program. Ok, might be an idea worth talking about. What program are we going to get rid of? We could take existing programs that seem to overlap that project and collapse them into one, or eliminate one outright in favor of the new idea. The students weren’t willing to talk about that: they just wanted more: more faculty, more resources, more courses. Where’s it going to come from? Oh, the college is rich, it’ll find a way, there’s money somewhere. Sure there is: it’s just that it’s already being spent. Tell me whose ox is going to get gored: I might even be willing to join in the goring. Just don't sit around waiting for Tinkerbell to sprinkle the proposal with magic fairy dust.

Burke then moves on to similar proposals for a living wage:

What has frustrated me the most, however, is that the main proponents of the initiative have consistently refused to talk about where to get the money, and for much of the lifespan of the living wage campaign, even refused to talk about how much their proposals would cost. That, they have said, is the job of the administration. Their position—even today, after much discussion—is that we should first declare that the proposal, including a specified minimum wage figure of $10.72/hr, is a transcendant moral obligation—and then, only then, decide how to fund it.

There is nothing that this institution or any institution does which is so morally or even practically necessary that we don’t need to talk concretely about what it costs. Cost-benefit analysis is a basic part of ethics, not a technical appendix to it.

...If you can’t tell me where you want to make sacrifices—or you only have feeble, painless, and inadequate suggestions designed to deflect the political burden of making hard choices—then your proposals aren’t something I can take terribly seriously. These are dilemmas we face at the small scale of institutional life as well as the grand stage of national politics... It ought to be easier still in our everyday sociopolitical worlds, but it rarely is: ducking the hard questions is a common political art.

Here's something the Swarthmore administration might want to do before funding all of the various other proposals Burke mentions: require every student, as a condition of graduation, to take a course in microeconomics, and don't let them pass until they can demonstrate an adequate understanding of scarcity, trade-offs, opportunity costs, cost-benefit analysis, and marginalism. That should significantly reduce future calls for pie-in-the-sky spending programs. Letting them graduate without this knowledge is, to parapharase P.J. O'Rourke, worse than giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

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