Quotulatiousness

January 30, 2015

QotD: The dangers of clear language

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

It’s understood that governments have an inherently antagonistic relationship with the English language. Generations of grammarians and school masters strove diligently to teach their young wards the importance of clear and logical communication. A strong grasp of English allowed students to think and understand at a sophisticated level. We don’t want any of that stuff now. People who think and talk clearly are a threat to governments the world over.

The art of government, to some extent, is the combined art of order and bullshit. There is a genuine need for the political-bureaucratic class to maintain peace, order and something resembling good government. But beyond the meat and potato stuff there is also the temptation to use government as a tool of enrichment. Since outright thievery is criticized by most people, excepting the thieves of course, an elaborate excuse is needed to distract the electorate from what is being done.

Richard Anderson, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Pork”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-05-28.

January 27, 2015

How to think like a government bureaucrat

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Robert Tracinski on the essential core of a control freak’s very being:

Here’s one of my favorite stories about how the mind of a government official works.

A few years ago, I was in a grocery store in Charlottesville when I overheard a conversation between two shoppers, one of whom was clearly in some position of authority (the City Council, I believe). This was right after the financial crisis. The real estate market had just collapsed, a whole bunch of local development project had just been canceled, and my wife was telling me about all the guys she knew in construction who were desperate for work. Yet here was this lady arguing for why the local government should not approve any new commercial building permits. The danger, she explained, was the prospect of “economic ghost towns,” retail areas where several shops had closed, hurting business for the others. Until these “economic ghost towns” were filled back up — whether anybody wanted them or not — there was no good reason to approve permits for new commercial construction.

I just couldn’t keep quiet and had to interrupt: Only in Charlottesville — a left-leaning university town — could an economic downturn be used as a reason to block new economic activity.

But you have to understand the outlook of those whose faith is the creed of government. Everything is proof of the need for more government power and control. The local economy is booming? Let’s hold back on building permits because we don’t want to grow “too fast.” The local economy is tanking? Let’s hold back on building permits because we don’t want “economic ghost towns,” or whatever. On the national level, in an economic collapse the government needs more money for “stimulus.” But if the economy is booming, that means we can afford higher taxes, right?

January 24, 2015

Problems besetting the British health system

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Health — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Samizdata, Natalie Solent shares a post written by “ARC” discussing why the National Health Service seems to be under such pressure lately:

1) Flow-though is crucial to A&E: you must get people out the back-end of the process to maintain your rate of input to the front-end. However ever-increasing regulations mean a patient without family cannot be released until a boat-load of checks have been done. This is clogging up the back end. It may be preventing the release of a few who had better not be sent home yet (not much and not often, is the general suspicion) but it is definitely delaying hugely processing the release of all others who could be. All this admin takes time and effort — delaying release and also using up time of staff in non-health work — and costs money.

This effect needs to be understood in the context of the 15-years-older story of the destruction of many non-NHS nursing homes by galloping regulation. These homes were mostly owned and operated by senior ex-NHS nurses and provided low-grade post-operative care. The NHS relied on them as half-way houses to get patients out of NHS hospitals when they no longer needed intensive care but were not yet recovered enough to go home. These nurses did not want to spend time form-filling instead of caring for patients, and for each home there was always one of the 1000+ rules that was particularly hard for that given home to meet without vast expense or complication. So they died one by one. The ‘waiting times have increased’ story of Tony Blair’s early-2000 years — “If the NHS were a patient, she’d be on the critical list” — was caused by this and the resultant bed-blocking more than any other one cause.

The problem with waving the regulatory wand to “solve” a problem like this is that it tends to create perverse incentives so that the artificial target can be achieved — like this post from a couple of years back where the regulators dictated a maximum time a patient could be kept waiting for admission to A&E. The reaction of the people running the system was to change the definition of “admission” so that now patients’ timers don’t start running until they’re unloaded from the ambulance … so the end result is people are spending more time in the back of ambulances waiting outside the hospital until there’s an open slot. This meets the artificial target, but creates a worse situation because patients are still waiting as long (or longer), but now they’re also tying up ambulances from attending other emergency situations.

Back to ARC’s list of NHS problems:

2) The new 111 service is sending many more patients to A&E.

2.1) The service’s advice is very risk averse. The people who set up the process were afraid of the consequences of the statistical 1-in-a-million time when anything other than mega-risk-averse advice would see some consequence that would become a major news story blaming them.

2.2) Thanks to the post-1997 reforms, GPs work less hours on-call but the doctors are not just slacking off and doing nothing. The huge growth in regulation means they are in effect putting in as many hours as before, but on form-filling and admin to provide all the info the NHS and other government demand, to ensure they tick every box, etc. The out-of-hours on-call time they used to have is now swallowed by this work. So they are not in fact working less; it is the balance of what they are working on that has changed: less on healthcare, more on admin. Thus 111 must send people to A&E, not an on-call GP (and, of course, fewer on-call GPs mean more people phone 111).

From context, I assume the 111 service is a telephone health advisory service like Telehealth Ontario.

January 22, 2015

Rumours of privatization in Ontario’s liquor control monopoly?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Government, Law, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:57

In the latest issue of Michael Pinkus Wine Review, Michael talks about the hints and portents (dealing with the Ontario government requires a certain amount of Kremlinological observation skills) that a tiny measure of privatization may be coming:

There’s a rumour in the wind that a certain amount of privatization is coming to Ontario (wouldn’t that be nice), but I wouldn’t get my hopes up about it just yet – no time line has been given and I am sure that ‘more study’ is necessary … and of course, if track record is any indication, this government will find some way to either screw it up or make it such a complicated piece of legislation that it’ll take years to get through all the red tape behind it. I once heard Jerry Agar, of NewsTalk 1010 fame, say (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘if you want something screwed up get government involved’; he’s a proponent of the private sector because they can do it more efficiently than government if only ‘the man’ would just get outta the way … I would have to agree with him here. So far the government has made a mess of our liquor system that even repressed, despotic and 3rd world countries have better access to alcohol then we do.

Sadly, I believe it might be too little too late for some of Ontario wineries who have suffered this long, but might not be around to see the light at the end of the tunnel (if and/or when it comes). Yes, this might be the end of the line for a number of our precious wineries and we only have ourselves to blame for their demise. They have been as vocal as any sector, crying for help, not necessarily a hand out (which the grape growers seem to get) as much as a hand up – basically they’ve been pleading with each government: “please give us access to (our own) market (at the very least) and we’ll show you what we can do”, all to no avail.

Why the pessimistic attitude? Let’s look at the facts. It takes some rather deep pockets to own a winery in Ontario, that or a good credit rating, because money is the number one thing required to open the doors. But making it is more of an uphill battles then in any other business I this province. Post-1993, when the majority of the wineries around today opened their doors, your cellar door is the only place you can sell your wine – sure you could tap into the LCBO and the restaurant market, but that’s it. And although recent federal regulations have been lifted regarding the selling and especially shipping of wine across the country, many provinces have yet to enact their own legislation governing the practice, hence leaving the entire topic, not to mention hundreds of wineries, in limbo, unable to tap the rest of the country as a market for fear of breaking the law. With so few avenues to sell home-grown wine the government has basically handcuffed the industry – let alone the number of asinine rules that govern the industry from within (more on that next time) – it has all been put in place it would seem, so that wineries are destined to fail; that they remain open is a testament to their resolve and passion.

January 10, 2015

The four kinds of healthcare spending

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Economics, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Megan McArdle explains why healthcare costs more than you think it should:

Milton Friedman famously divided spending into four kinds, which P.J. O’Rourke once summarized as follows:

  1. You spend your money on yourself. You’re motivated to get the thing you want most at the best price. This is the way middle-aged men haggle with Porsche dealers.
  2. You spend your money on other people. You still want a bargain, but you’re less interested in pleasing the recipient of your largesse. This is why children get underwear at Christmas.
  3. You spend other people’s money on yourself. You get what you want but price no longer matters. The second wives who ride around with the middle-aged men in the Porsches do this kind of spending at Neiman Marcus.
  4. You spend other people’s money on other people. And in this case, who gives a [damn]?

Most health-care spending in the U.S. falls into category three. In theory, the people who are funding our expenses — the proverbial middle-aged men in Porsches, except that they’re actually insurance executives and government bureaucrats — have every incentive to step in, cut up the charge cards, and substitute a gift-wrapped box of Hanes briefs with the comfort-soft waistband. In practice, legislators frequently intervene to stop them from exercising much cost-control. The managed care revolution of the 1990s died when patients complained to their representatives, and the representatives ran down to their offices to pass laws making it very hard to deny coverage for anything anyone wanted. Medicare cost-controls, such as the famed Sustainable Growth Rate, fell prey to similar maneuvers. The only system that exhibits sustained cost control is Medicaid, because poor people don’t vote, or exit the system for better insurance.

The result is a system where everyone complains that we spend much too much on health care — and the very same people get indignant if anyone suggests that they, personally, should maybe spend a little bit less. Everyone wants to go to heaven — but nobody wants to die.

Unfortunately, this is what cost-control actually looks like, which is to say, like people not being able to spend as much on health care. Oh, to be sure, we could achieve this end differently — instead of asking patients to pay a modest share of their own costs (the article suggests that this amount is less than 10 percent, in the case of Harvard professors) — we could simply set a schedule of covered treatment, and deny patients access to off-schedule treatments, or even better, not even tell them that those treatments exist. But people don’t like that solution either, which is why medical dramas are filled with rants about insurers who won’t cover procedures, and the law books are filled with regulations that sharply curtail the ability of insurers to ration care. And the third option, refusing to pay top-dollar for care, would be a bit tricky for Harvard to implement, given that they run exactly the sort of high-cost research facilities that help drive health-care costs skyward. Nor do I really think that the angry professors would be mollified by being given a cheap insurance package that wouldn’t let them go see the top-flight specialists their elite status now entitles them to access.

Instead, they persist in our mass delusion: that there is some magic pot of money in the health-care system, which can be painlessly tapped to provide universal coverage without dislocating any of the generous arrangements that insured people currently enjoy. Just as there are no leprechauns, there is no free money at the end of the rainbow; there are patients demanding services, and health-care workers making comfortable livings, who have built their financial lives around the expectation that those incomes will continue. Until we shed this delusion, you can expect a lot of ranting and raving about the hard truths of the real world.

January 6, 2015

Logjam at the top of Canadian academia

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Another example of unexpected consequences, this time from Frances Woolley at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, who says we need to beware of middle-aged men waving feminist flags:

On December 12, 2006, Ontario ended “mandatory retirement.” As of that date, employers could no longer base termination decisions on an employee’s age. Ontario was following the lead of Quebec and Manitoba, which stopped having a standard retirement age in the early 1980s. Within a couple of years, mandatory retirement had effectively ended right across the country.

Fast forward to 2014. The first Ontario professors to elude retirement are now collecting their pensions. Yup, Canada Revenue Agency requires people to begin drawing their pensions at age 71, regardless of employment status. The average salary of a full professor in Ontario is around $150,000 per year […], and university pension plans are generally fairly generous. So a typical professor working full-time into his 70s will have a combined pension plus salary income of at least $200,000 a year, often more. No wonder professors 65 and older outnumber the under 35s […]. Who would willingly give up a nice office, the freedoms of academia, and a quarter million dollars or so a year?

Now if the professors fighting to eliminate the standard retirement age had said, “we have a very pleasant lifestyle and we’d like to hang onto it, thank you very much,” I could have respected their honesty, if nothing else. But instead, they draped themselves in the feminist flag. A standard retirement age of 65 was wrong because it hurt women. Thomas Klassen and David Macgregor, writing in the CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) Bulletin, challenged ageism in academy on the grounds that “Mandatory retirement at an arbitrary age is devastating for female faculty who often began their careers later than males and may have had interruptions to raise children.”

[…]

Two thirds of university teachers between 65 and 69 are men […], as are three quarters of those over the age of 70. This is not simply a reflection of an academy that, 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, when these folks were hired, favoured men over women. Let’s rewind five years, to when the people who are now 65 to 69 were 60 to 64. This is more or less the same group of people, just at two different points in time.

In 2005-6, just before the standard retirement age ended, 65 percent of academics aged 60 to 64 were male […].

In 2010-11, when that same cohort of people were 65-69, 68 percent of those working as university teachers were male. There is hardly any hiring of individuals into university teaching in that age group. The only plausible explanation of the three percentage point increase in the proportion of men in the academia is that more women than men retired in that cohort.

[…]

The PhD students in the pipeline are 47 percent female […], as are 46 percent of Canadian assistant professors […]. Just 23 percent of full professors, however, are women. Replacing over 65 full professors with PhD students would result in a more gender-balanced academy.

I’m not trying to argue that we should reintroduce mandatory retirement in order to achieve greater gender balance. I am merely pointing out that who thought the end of mandatory retirement would disproportionately benefit women and promote gender equity were mistaken.

December 29, 2014

Reason.tv Nanny of the Year for 2014

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:08

Published on 29 Dec 2014

Our nation’s control freaks got even freakier in 2014 – from jetpacks to parking apps, eco-ATMs and powdered alcohol, they were determined to kill anything cutting edge.

They targeted everything from dogs in parks to births at home, and they’ll sic cops on you for hoarding or smelling bad. You might even get busted for doing things that are legal–like vaping while driving, warning motorists about speed traps, or putting up Christmas lights.

And whether it’s yanking chocolate milk, boogie boards, homemade libraries or sunscreen(?!), the control freaks are (all together now!): Doing it for the children.

It’s fitting, then, that 2014’s Nanny of the Year recipients justified their power grab on the same grounds (although the real reason may have more to do with protecting city officials from future caught-on-tape embarrassments).

Check out how one cop’s rant (“Obama has decimated the friggin’ Constitution”) embarrassed a city council into taking home this year’s top dishonors!

December 27, 2014

Regulatory costs don’t scale to smaller businesses

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Warren Meyer writes a letter to the dean of Harvard Business School after reading the story of a professor at HBS harassing a mom’n’pop restaurant over a $4 overcharge on a meal order:

… I was horrified to see an HBS professor (prof Edelman) in the news harassing a small business over a small mistake on its web site. I don’t typically get worked up about Harvard grads acting out, but in this particular case his actions are absolutely at the core of what is making the operation of a small business increasingly impossible in this country.

Small businesses face huge and growing compliance risks from almost every direction — labor law, safety rules, environmental rules, consumer protection laws, bounty programs like California prop 65, etc. What all these have in common is that they impose huge penalties for tiny mistakes, mistakes that can be avoided only by the application of enormous numbers of labor hours in compliance activities. These compliance costs are relatively easy for large companies to bear, but back-breaking for small companies.

So it is infuriating to see an HBS professor attempting to impose yet another large cost on a small business for a tiny mistake, particularly when the proprietor’s response was handled so well. Seriously, as an aside, I took service management from Ben Shapiro back in the day and I could easily see the restaurateur involved being featured positively in a case study. He does all the same things I learned at HBS — reading every customer comment personally, responding personally to complaints, bending over backwards to offer more than needed in order to save the relationship with the customer.

As for the restaurateur’s web site mistake — even in a larger, multi-site company, I as owner do all my own web work. Just as I do a million other things to keep things running. And it is hard, in fact virtually impossible, to keep all of our web sites up to date. Which is why Professor Edelman’s response just demonstrates to me that for all HBS talks about entrepreneurship, the faculty at HBS is still more attuned to large corporations and how they operate with their enormous staff resources rather than to small businesses.

Large corporations are crushing smaller ones in industry after industry because of the economy of scale they have in managing such compliance issues. If the HBS faculty were truly committed to entrepreneurship, it should be thinking about how technology and process can be harnessed by smaller businesses to reduce the relative costs of these activities. How, for example, can I keep up with 150+ locations that each need a web presence when my sales per site are so much less than that of a larger corporation? This is not impossible — I have learned some tools and techniques over time — and we should be teaching and expanding these, rather than spending time raising the cost of compliance for small business.

December 24, 2014

Repost – Hey Kids! Did you get your paperwork in on time?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:03

If you hurry, you can just get your Santa’s Visit Application in before the deadline tonight!

December 22, 2014

Repost – Happy Holiday Travels!

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

H/T to Economicrot. Many many more at the link.

December 6, 2014

Everyday life in “The Ghetto Archipelago”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Law, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

At Reason, J.D. Tuccille reviews On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman:

The police presence in 6th Street is pervasive. Residents, young black men in particular, can expect to be frequently stopped, questioned, and searched. Many initial arrests are for drugs, often possession of marijuana. After that, as Goffman records, the system takes on a horrible logic of its own. Criminal records make employment hard to find, and recurring court dates devour time that might be devoted to work, job searches, or family responsibilities. Without regular income, court fees add up and may prove unpayable. Many of the people Goffman writes about are essentially constant low-level fugitives, hunted by police for missed appointments. Some end up committing additional crimes to pay their accumulating debts to the courts.

People living on the wrong side of the law are both dependent on and vulnerable to those around them. Goffman documents how chronic legal problems prevent young men from attending the births of their children or the funerals of their friends, since the authorities often monitor those occasions looking to make arrests. Those legal problems also provide opportunities for angry girlfriends and other acquaintances to avenge perceived wrongs with a simple phone call to the cops.

Neighborhoods heavily populated by young men on the run (usually in the most figurative sense, since their lives become circumscribed by familiar people and streets) also create business opportunities for those willing to serve their idiosyncratic needs. One memorable character in On the Run is Jevon, whose memory and ability at mimicry allow him to earn money impersonating men to their parole officers for curfew-checking phone calls. Another, Rakim, augments income from his passport photo business selling clean urine to men facing drug tests. Many local businesses-such as rental car lots and motels-have two price sheets, one for mainstream customers and one for those who have no credit cards or ID.

Identification itself is a commodity, with employees inside the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation selling drivers licenses-basically, new identities — for a substantial fee. (Other public employees, from court clerks to prison guards, also find it lucrative to sell favors and services.) “The level of social control that tough-on-crime policy envisions-particularly in a liberal state-is so extreme and difficult to implement,” Goffman writes, “that it has led to a flourishing black market to ease the pains of supervision.”

H/T to ESR who wrote:

Linked article explains why, though I’ve defended the shooting of Michael Brown as a prudent and ethical response to an imminent threat of deadly force, I’ve had little patience with those defending the Ferguson police in general either before or after the shooting.

Yes, the system oppresses people like the blacks in Ferguson, in a way that has little to do with “institutional racism” but everything to do with a vicious cycle of deteriorating ghetto culture coupled with perverse incentives on the police created by “tough on crime” laws.

How do I know? I’ve never been to Ferguson…but Philadelphia is my city. I used to live there, mere blocks from the ghetto archipelago. I’ve seen some of the overspill from what Goffman is writing about. She speaks truth, and we would do well to heed her.

QotD: Wartime failures of the peacetime army

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Military operations are, arguably, especially mistake-prone, because militaries aren’t like other organizations. A normal bureaucracy has a job, and it does that job all the time. Militaries, on the other hand, tend to spend most of their time not really engaged in their main purpose: fighting wars.

Teles noted James Q. Wilson’s observation about the fundamental difference between a peacetime army and a wartime army. In peacetime, it’s easy to observe inputs but impossible to observe the output — which is to say, how ready your troops are to go out and kick some enemy butt on the battlefield. When you get into a war, this completely reverses. In the chaos of battle, it’s very difficult to know exactly what your people are doing. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to observe whether they killed the people they were supposed to kill and took the territory they were supposed to take.

That means that the people who advance in a peacetime army are, unfortunately, not necessarily the same people you want around when the shooting breaks out. Virtually every major war I can think of has had a few well publicized firings early on of senior people who had done very well in the peacetime army but turned out not to be ready to lead their men into a fight. The most famous of these is probably George McClellan, who led the Union Army early in the Civil War. He was everything you could want in a soldier — second in his class at West Point, author of several training manuals, beloved of his men and his fellow officers. There was just one thing he wasn’t good at: winning battles. He was passive in the face of Confederate advances, and he didn’t want to attack until he had absolutely overwhelming force, by which he seemed to mean a huge chunk of the adult male population of the Union. You can argue that this was out of totally admirable concern for his men, but it still let the Confederates push uncomfortably close to Washington.

Ulysses S. Grant, the man who ultimately led the Union forces to victory, was a middling student at West Point and eventually left the army because it didn’t pay him enough to support a family. When the Civil War started, Grant was working for a harness company and not really excelling at it, either. But in some ways, having failed in the peacetime army made him more successful in the wartime version: He was not afraid to take risks, because he’d already tasted failure.

Megan McArdle, “Why Militaries Mess up So Often”, Bloomberg View, 2014-04-24

December 2, 2014

QotD: Bureaucratic job satisfaction

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

I realized a long time ago that a very large number of people in a modern economy are paid to do things that not only fail to add to the economic product of the country, but on the contrary reduce it, insofar as they obstruct others from producing as much as they otherwise might.

There is, as every petty official knows, a great deal of pleasure to be had from the obstruction of others, especially if they appear to be more fortunate, better placed, richer, or more intelligent than oneself. There is a pleasure in naysaying, all the greater if the naysayer is able to disguise from the victim the fact that he is not only doing his duty but gratifying himself. Indeed, there are many jobs, meaningless in themselves, in which the power to say no is the only non-monetary reward.

Theodore Dalrymple, “The Gross Domestic Pissants”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-04-20

December 1, 2014

Baylen Linnekin on the FDA’s latest bad idea

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

In Reason, Baylen Linnekin looks at the FDA’s soon-to-be-implemented rules on menu labelling:

Earlier this week, the FDA released rules that will force food sellers around the country to provide point-of-sale calorie information to consumers. The rules cover chain restaurants, vending machines, “movie theaters, sports stadiums, amusement parks, bowling alleys and miniature golf courses that serve prepared foods.” The rules apply to foods and beverages — including beer, wine, and spirits — sold at these places.

[…]

Farley’s enthusiasm might have been tempered by research showing mandatory menu-labeling doesn’t work — and may even be counterproductive.

Because the new rules will cost more than a billion dollars not to stop the obesity epidemic and maybe make it better, some who have to spend that money aren’t pleased.

For example, that potato salad you buy at your grocery deli counter will fall under the new rules. That doesn’t sit well with grocery store owners.

“Grocery stores are not chain restaurants, which is why Congress did not initially include them in the law,” said National Grocers Association president and CEO, Peter J. Larkin in a statement. “We are disappointed that the FDA’s final rules will capture grocery stores, and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members.”

[…]

As I wrote last year, the NRA, which represents restaurant chains across the country, supported the national menu-labeling rule as a shield against a growing, costly, and unworkable patchwork of different state and local menu-labeling laws.

It’s the same reason that food manufacturers, facing mandatory GMO-labeling pressure in dozens of states, counties, and cities around the country, are pushing for Congress to pass a uniform national GMO-labeling law.

Do I understand why the restaurant industry and food manufacturers are pushing for one bad federal law instead of hundreds or thousands of worse laws at the state and local level? Absolutely. Do I support such laws? Not at all.

November 25, 2014

The rise of the Stepford Students

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:22

Brendan O’Neill is disturbed that the very people who should be most welcoming of intellectual challenge and alternative points of view are the very ones who are most militant about “safe spaces” and allowing no platform to dissenting views:

Have you met the Stepford students? They’re everywhere. On campuses across the land. Sitting stony-eyed in lecture halls or surreptitiously policing beer-fuelled banter in the uni bar. They look like students, dress like students, smell like students. But their student brains have been replaced by brains bereft of critical faculties and programmed to conform. To the untrained eye, they seem like your average book-devouring, ideas-discussing, H&M-adorned youth, but anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in their company will know that these students are far more interested in shutting debate down than opening it up.

[…]

If your go-to image of a student is someone who’s free-spirited and open-minded, who loves having a pop at orthodoxies, then you urgently need to update your mind’s picture bank. Students are now pretty much the opposite of that. It’s hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have. From freewheelin’ to ban-happy, from askers of awkward questions to suppressors of offensive speech, in the space of a generation. My showdown with the debate-banning Stepfords at Oxford and the pre-crime promoters at Cambridge echoed other recent run-ins I’ve had with the intolerant students of the 21st century. I’ve been jeered at by students at the University of Cork for criticising gay marriage; cornered and branded a ‘denier’ by students at University College London for suggesting industrial development in Africa should take precedence over combating climate change; lambasted by students at Cambridge (again) for saying it’s bad to boycott Israeli goods. In each case, it wasn’t the fact the students disagreed with me that I found alarming — disagreement is great! — it was that they were so plainly shocked that I could have uttered such things, that I had failed to conform to what they assume to be right, that I had sought to contaminate their campuses and their fragile grey matter with offensive ideas.

Where once students might have allowed their eyes and ears to be bombarded by everything from risqué political propaganda to raunchy rock, now they insulate themselves from anything that might dent their self-esteem and, crime of crimes, make them feel ‘uncomfortable’. Student groups insist that online articles should have ‘trigger warnings’ in case their subject matter might cause offence.

[…]

Stepford concerns are over-amplified on social media. No sooner is a contentious subject raised than a university ‘campaign’ group appears on Facebook, or a hashtag on Twitter, demanding that the debate is shut down. Technology means that it has never been easier to whip up a false sense of mass outrage — and target that synthetic anger at those in charge. The authorities on the receiving end feel so besieged that they succumb to the demands and threats.

Heaven help any student who doesn’t bow before the Stepford mentality. The students’ union at Edinburgh recently passed a motion to ‘End lad banter’ on campus. Laddish students are being forced to recant their bantering ways. Last month, the rugby club at the London School of Economics was disbanded for a year after its members handed out leaflets advising rugby lads to avoid ‘mingers’ (ugly girls) and ‘homosexual debauchery’. Under pressure from LSE bigwigs, the club publicly recanted its ‘inexcusably offensive’ behaviour and declared that its members have ‘a lot to learn about the pernicious effects of banter’. They’re being made to take part in equality and diversity training. At British unis in 2014, you don’t just get education — you also get re-education, Soviet style.

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