The Open, Free Intellectual Environment Of The American University (#academia, #education, #honesty)

A fellow investor friend of mine sent me an e-mail and suggested I read “What’s the point?” by UK fund manager Terry Smith. We were originally talking about Michael Burry’s commencement speech at UCLA [PDF] and the idea that one of the things that was so extraordinary about it is the way he unmasked the villains and the corruption and spoke the truth unapologetically in such a public forum. I had also, in an earlier e-mail, complained about my lack of interest in blogging, feeling frustrated lately at the nearly overwhelming volume of fallacious bullshit floating around the net that seems to deserve a response yet leaves me tired and bored out of my mind every time I attempt another mud wrestling fiasco.

I don’t know if my frustration inspired the link to Terry Smith or if it was simply the next step in the theme of telling it like it is or what, but that blog post got me thinking. I’ve long thought about giving it one last hurrah and then hanging up my hat. Because, seriously, what is the point? You can tell the truth a million times but if your opponent is bent on lies and deceit, nothing can be done. (Of course, Mises adopted the slogan, from Virgil, of “Tu ne cede malis”, but he’s a smarter man than I, with more energy, apparently.)

In light of this, I wanted to share three critical experiences I had in college during my sophomore, junior and senior years, respectively, which have stuck with me to this day and serve, subtlety and fundamentally, to color my view of the intellectual Opposition. I believe my experiences are not unique, although few people besides me may have had the required awareness to realize it, and as such where I went to school back then is not important to the story. This is not about an institution but rather the institution of the American academic system and its culture as it exists today, and likely has existed for awhile before now and probably longer still in the future.

I want to give some insight into why I find it hard not to be dismissive of many people who claim to think differently than me on various philosophical subjects.

I first became suspicious of my academic curriculum when I learned that microeconomics was not a prerequisite for macroeconomics. Rather than being treated as fundamental knowledge built upon and reexamined from a more global standpoint in macroeconomics, microeconomics was treated as a separate discipline entirely, which could be studied before, during, or after macroeconomics or even not at all (at least, if you weren’t concerned about getting an economics degree). Of course, numerous macroeconomic theories contradicted accepted wisdom taught in the microeconomics course, but no explanation was given as to the nature and source of these apparent contradictions, nor where it was in the economic causal chain that things stopped making micro-sense and started making macro-sense. There was simply a dichotomy in place and you were expected to accept it and move on.

In my second year I was excited to take a class with a professor teaching “international trade” (you know, the separate set of economic principles and rules that apply when two people exchange goods across imaginary political boundaries). Everyone I knew who had taken the class spoke highly of this professor as a competent and entertaining lecturer and said the material itself was quite fun. We spent a lot of time in that class studying the roles of quotas, tariffs and other government interference in the economy. It was really about political economy, not economics, because economics doesn’t change when you move stuff over imaginary lines.

But what rubbed me kind of raw in the class was when this beloved professor spoke quite approvingly of the idea, built into his theoretical examples in class, of providing “transfer payments” (read: violent redistributive extortion for special interest groups carried out by the government) to currently privileged groups who would be “hurt” by “free trade”. This professor advocated that paying these highwaymen off and reaping the benefits of freer trade was a good idea in the long run.

“Uh, question, professor– wouldn’t it be best to just have free trade, without a complicated system of quotas, tariffs and transfer payments to interest groups? Isn’t that most economically efficient? Why don’t we learn about that?” This question got a knowing smirk and a request to meet the good professor privately during office hours to discuss, as there simply wasn’t enough time in lecture to discuss such twaddle.

Dutifully, I scheduled some office hours time to meet with the beloved professor and discuss. Again, I posed the question to him, why are we paying these people off? Isn’t it better to let them figure out their own way to survive a competitive market place without getting welfare from everyone else? After all, they have no right to a certain income or position within the market place. Again, a knowing smirk as the professor launched into a short anecdote about how he once was full of piss and vinegar like I about these subjects. But the truth of the matter, he told me, was more complicated.

And then he, in so many words, spilled the beans– if “we” don’t bribe these special interest groups with redistributive social justice, they’ll get their pitchforks and their torches and elect another Hitler. That was it. That was why he doesn’t teach actual free trade economics in his course. That’s why he thinks transfer payments are good. That’s why he was for FDR’s New Deal and the Social Security scam. He saw it as the only thing standing between us, and Hitler.

I tried to make the point that if you fear totalitarianism, transfer payments are actually a step toward totalitarianism, not a step away. He responded by suggesting that granting these dictator-electors-in-the-wings a little welfare would create some kind of social anchor where we’d go no further toward socialism past that point, having bought the evildoers off. Never mind people tried to buy Hitler off and he just asked for more until he went to war. And never mind that the US government has had to move far, far beyond the New Deal since then to keep neo-Hitler at bay, according to his logic.

At this point, having no response to my observation of yet another contradiction, I was informed that office hours had suddenly come to an end (I’d only been there for thirty minutes and had scheduled an hour and I didn’t see anyone waiting in the hall for an audience) and that although he really enjoyed our conversation, he was going to have to ask me to come visit with him during the summer to continue the conversation. Of course he knew I was an out of state student who would be returning home during the summer so he was actually dodging his responsibility to make sense of his intellectual positions.

I left his office reeling in confusion and frustration. Here is a guy that my peers think is one of the best instructors the university has to offer, he is considered to be a thoughtful and intellectual person, etc. Yet, I come to find out he is teaching disingenuously. He is guilty of the “smuggled premise”, that is, his economic values taught in his class have nothing to do with sound economic reasoning but rather a personal, political belief that is never named nor mentioned which is thereby “smuggled” into the lessons. Instead of being honest and telling his students “I am teaching you a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make economic sense, because I think it makes political sense”, he carries out his pedagogical mission in such a way that he exploits his students ignorance and credulity.

Why can’t this professor just tell everyone what he really believes? Are we not old enough for the truth? Did we not pay for the truth? Do we not expect the truth?

To say I was disappointed by this experience would be an understatement. But I tried to put it behind me as I continued my economic studies.

During my third year, I had another run in with an economics professor, this time one teaching a “money and banking” course who had done some consulting for the Fed and who used as a textbook in his class the work of the notorious intellectual bungler, Frederic Mishkin. I raised a lot of challenges to the material which were poorly handled by the professor, but there is one in particular that will always stand out to me because of its zaniness. We were discussing the “money multiplier” of fractional reserve banking and how with a tiny base of reserves banks could pyramid large amounts of credit on top and lever up their balance sheets. I raised my hand and asked, “Doesn’t levering the balance sheet increase the risk of crisis for the bank and for the banking system?”

The professor acknowledged that, well, yes, it does, but it’s all done within the proscription of the FDIC guaranteeing everyone’s deposits and the Fed serving as lender of last resort to prevent a total collapse. Then I asked, “Well isn’t that crisis kind of inevitable when you create duration mismatch between funds that are borrowed short and lent long like this?” And the professor acknowledged, well, yes, it does, but again it’s all done under the keen watch of the overseer regulatory bodies, this time a little bit more apprehensive. And then I went for the F-word. I raised my hand, “But professor, isn’t it fraud to lend out people’s money that they think is being held for safe-keeping at the bank? Why not have the bank separate the two activities, safe-keeping and loan-brokering?”

There was a pause and he looked kind of startled. His skin color rose and his face contorted into a mixture of anger and glee, because now he had “figured me out” and knew my true motive. He exploded: “So I guess if it were up to you the banks wouldn’t make any money, huh?!”

A little shocked at his outburst, I stammered, “Well, no, of course not, I don’t really see what their profitability has to do with my question…” but he cut me off. “Yeah, I see what you’re trying to do. You don’t want the banks to make any money, do ya?! Well, it’s a nice ideal but it doesn’t work in the real world and if banks didn’t make any money, we wouldn’t have any banks and you wouldn’t want to live in a world without banks!” he growled, signalling that question time was over and it was time to get back to his brilliant lecture on fraud-based banking economics.

The episode was so instructive for me. So THAT’S what he’s about– shilling for fraudulent reserve banking, not trying to explore the truth of the matter. He neatly dodged my very simple, very honest inquiry of how we might live in a world without systemic banking risk, a world which would still allow profit opportunities for banking operations. Instead, he constructed a false dichotomy — systemic risk due to fraud, and profit; or no profit and no banks — and then browbeat me and anyone else in the class who was listening to avoid serious discussion of the principle. It suddenly put things into perspective for me. He wasn’t there to impart any real knowledge about the economy to me, he was there to be a hatchet man and paid minion for the banking establishment as it stands today. Wouldn’t want any bright-eyed college kids getting uppity and questioning the scam now, would we?

I really thought that would be the tops. But then I got to my Labor Economics class in my fourth year.

You might be wondering at this point, “Labor economics? Are you mad? Why did you take that course as an elective?” It would be a reasonable question, but the truth is that it was the least horrible option amongst what I had to choose from at the time. To say I went into it with low expectations is an understatement.

Those low expectations were met admirably on two separate occasions, which were not the only examples to choose from but simply the most illustrative.

My professorista had spent her entire life after high school in academia and government bureaucracies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I would be surprised if she ever held a part time job as a youngster in the private sector. She demonstrated zero familiarity with the reality of markets. One day she provided the class her argument for government intervention in the economy, which was based on the “paradox of capitalism”, this being that capitalism is SO efficient and SO productive, that it drives things down to the cost of “near 0” (not actually zero, because that’d obviously imply superabundance and the end of scarcity for that good or service) and therefore these things become “uneconomic” to produce and won’t be provided for under the profit system, which means if we want them government must provide them as a public good.

One example she gave of this was childcare services. Now, let’s ignore the “empirical” fact that there are numerous for-profit childcare services out there, right here and now, which would seem to undermine her argument completely. Let’s just think about this logically for a second.

So long as a given good does not have a cost of 0, it is not superabundant and it is an economizable resource. For example, air is not an economic good because it is superabundant. You can breathe as much air as you need and don’t have to think about what you’d give up to ensure your supply of air, it’s just there. It has a cost of 0. But if it has a cost above 0, it must be economized, something must be given up to get it. And if at a particular point in time firms are so numerous and efficient at supplying a good, such as childcare services, that they can’t make a profit, what will happen is that the least efficient firms of the bunch will consume their capital (by earning losses over and over again) and exit the marketplace. And when they do this, the level of profitability for remaining firms will rise because the lowered supply will result in the ability to charge higher prices.

And this dynamic will play out forever over the life of the industry so long as people value childcare services. There will be a constant competitive dynamic tending toward the “right” supply of childcare services because the least efficient providers will exit with losses. And this is “good” from the standpoint of anyone interested in participating in the economy because it means that those extraneous resources will flood into other, underserved industries where profitability is much higher, indicating a relatively more important use for the resources versus childcare. At no point will the market stop providing childcare services entirely, requiring a timely government intervention and provision of this service to correct a “market failure.”

Well, recognizing that as the hogwash it was, I raised my hand and began disputing the logic just as I did above. She was so dumbfounded that I had the temerity to question her transparently flawed reasoning that she began what could best be called “sputtering”, rolling her eyes and trying to form even one word in response as if she were having a seizure. Finally, she gave up and said, “Would anyone like to respond to that and explain why he is wrong?” About ten different hands shot up, eagerly, and she called on a young man who halfway turned around in his chair to straddle his view between me in the back and her approving glances in the front. He began, “Governments can and should correct market failures, which happen frequently. For example, while I was studying abroad in Ghana, the government provided public bus service to the village I was staying at because it wasn’t profitable for private businessmen…”

I stopped him right there and pointed out that the lack of profitability is part of the phenomenon I just described, and it suggests the wastefulness of bus service to a small African village. The class erupted with anger and indignation. This was so not politically correct to suggest some poor villagers in Africa didn’t merit a dedicated bus service just because it wasn’t profitable to provide it! This lecture hall had about one hundred students in it. Suddenly, they were a-chatter, half of them noisily discussing how outrageous my view was amongst themselves, the other half turned and shouting/arguing with me simultaneously while the young man with the bus service anecdote continued droning on. This went on for several minutes before the professorista tried to get control back over the class and insisted we finish up the lesson, but by then it was too late as class was over and everyone made for the exits.

It was at this point that as people filtered out a guy sitting a little in front and to the right of me turned around and said, “For what it’s worth, I agree with you,” and then grabbed his bag and walked out. I guess it was better than thinking the entire class was ready to lynch me, but he certainly didn’t feel the need to come to my rescue in the heat of the argument!

The other memorable moment from that class came right near the end of the semester. The Wall Street investment banks were beginning their meltdown and that particular morning Bear Stearns had failed, which was all over the news and which had greatly agitated the students as several had received offers of employment there at the conclusion of the semester which were now in jeopardy. The professorista sought to calm everyone’s nerves by saying that this was a limited event, contained to a specific firm with poor risk controls and the Fed and the regulatory agencies were all over it.

I raised my hand and pointed out that this was indicative of a systematic impending crisis, that the authorities were NOT in control as evidenced by the fact that it had happened, and that it would get a lot worse before it got any better. I suggested that this was the first of many failures to come.

“Would you like to bet on that?” she said, mischievously, expecting me to back down with the bravado.

“I already have!” I exclaimed, as I had taken a few minor positions in my brokerage account at the time (don’t worry, I didn’t make out like John Paulson).

“Well, we’ll see…” she said, trying to quiet me down.

Yes, we did, didn’t we? I never followed up with her to see what she thought of giving me a hard time about my prediction in class, or whether she was willing to confess she had had it all wrong, but I think it demonstrates again a clear blind spot in the mindset of mainstream academics who are responsible for instructing this country’s (and the world’s) future leaders and productive people about intellectual curiosity, academic honesty and the nature of reality.

How many parents are aware of this when they insist their children must go to college? How many have audited the value of their kid’s higher education and determined that the small fortune it takes to get them through a “better” private institution is worth it in the face of antics like what I’ve described above?