Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Institutional culture

Arnold Kling has an intriguing series of blog posts on the nature of universities and other institutions that are, as he says, cancel-bait. I removed the cancel-bait part and pass on his observation on the shift in institutional culture, visible in universities but also in corporate and nonprofit institutions and in our politics. 

1. The older culture saw differential rewards as just when based on performance. The newer culture sees differential rewards as unjust.

2. The older culture sought people who demonstrate the most competence. The newer culture seeks to nurture those who are at a disadvantage.

3. The older culture admires those who seek to stand out. The newer culture disdains such people.

4. The older culture uses proportional punishment that is predictable based on known rules. The newer culture suddenly turns against a target and permanently banishes the alleged violator, based on the latest moral fashions.

5. The older culture valued open debate. The newer culture seeks to curtail speech it regards as dangerous.

6. The older culture saw liberty as essential to a good society. The newer culture sees conformity as essential to a good society.

7. The older culture was oriented toward achievement. The newer culture is oriented toward safety. Hence, we cannot complete major construction projects, like bridges, as efficiently as we used to. 

Why? Well, he passes on a theory which I don't necessarily agree with, though I haven't read the cited book. The increasing politicization of all institutions of civil society is a different force that has a lot to do with the new culture. But the observations seem perceptive no matter what the reason. Academic economics certainly seems much more careerist than it used to be, more about who has what title and job than about who wrote what interesting new idea.  But maybe that perception is a sign of age. 


  1. "The older culture saw liberty as essential to a good society. The newer culture sees conformity as essential to a good society." I guess I am part of the older culture.

    William Apel
    Major (Ret), USAF

    PS I am 72

  2. Not too sure about the others, but I certainly agree with points 4 and 5, and probably 7, but I think I would agree with Bryan Caplan who would say that 7 is largely due to social desirability bias. "save the children/workers/consumers!!!" Sounds good, so we go with it in the abstract, and ignore the cost/benefit analysis.

    I would add I think the reason for point 5, is that "the other side" is perceived as being totally ignorant and pointless to listen to. And both young/old/left/right are right!!!

  3. To me at least only #5 is clear. Some of the others are arguably true, but I suspect depend in large part on one's perspective, vary greatly by context, etc.

    As for #5... I suspect much of it is a natural reaction to communications technology advancements, as opposed to something inherent. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and social media, we are now constantly bombarded by the viewpoints of anyone and everyone. While this is certainly a good thing overall, perhaps it's not so surprising that one unfortunate side effect is we've (collectively) become more intolerant of diverse viewpoints.

    1. Some of them are certainly incomplete. For example, 1 needs ", except when applied to themselves." tacked onto the end in order to be fully accurate. Ditto 3.

  4. People advance careers in universities and government jobs thought politics. Yes, papers are published based on "democracy", not on meritocracy. Just look at the fashionable topics in finance. It is about being cited by others, not about being right.
    These people, insulated from having to be really competent, push this type of movement.
    It seems that private companies pushing the same agenda would be a puzzle for the "market forces" argument. Until you remember that the corporations making this type of movement are exactly the large corporations with lots of contacts in Washington.

    Economics and self interest explains all that we are observing.

    1. Self-interest is not mindless emotionalism, acc/to Ayn Rand.

  5. Ahhh... It was so much better in the past. The Greeks already thought they lived in the age of iron. : )

  6. Lael Brainard presented a speech to the Instit. of International Finance today (2/18/2021). The speech can be found here:

    The Federal Reserve established the "Supervision Climate Committee" during the month of January this year. In addition, "The Federal Reserve is co-chairing the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision's Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Risks (TCFR)."

    And, as Governor Brainard notes, in her speech, The Federal Reserve has become "a full member of the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), a network of more than 80 central banks and supervisory authorities from around the world that focuses on sharing research and identifying best practices to ensure the financial system is resilient to climate-related risks."

    The purpose of this activity (committees, memberships, etc.) is to prepare the country's financial institutions to meet future 'climate change' related risks to avoid instability in the financial system underpinning today's economic activities.

    Governor Brainard asserts that although the path of 'global warming' is more or less predictable (a debatable topic), forecasting the ensuing financial fall-out is extremely complex and challenging. She concludes, therefore, that the financial system must start preparing now for potentially catastrophic events having the potential to imperial the economy at some indeterminable future point in time. This has now the full characteristic of 'received wisdom', and, from that perspective, one must conclude that the Federal Reserve will not brook naysayers as long as 'doom' is just over the foreseeable horizon.

    We've been here before, have we not? Remember the threat of global nuclear war, the construction of hardened underground shelters that we were expected to be ready to dash to in the event of an air-raid warning, the drills that we practiced without end, until the day came when it became apparent that the air-raid sirens were unnecessay, the underground shelters were a danger and had to be decommissioned and bricked up, and, ultimately, global nuclear war faded from consciousness.

    What can be expected today out of the Federal Reserve? We can anticipate whole industries being put on notice that they have become a clear and present danger to the financial system and therefore must either change their modus operandi or go out of business. Industries such as steel-making, cement- and lime-kilns, petro-chemicals, oil and natural gas production, even commercial airlines, are all soon to be seen as clear and present threats to the financial stability of the economy, on one dimension or another, and must change or be rendered un-financible in the future.

    An elite bunch have decided that this is what must be done. Trade analysis, risk-return propositions, and benefit-cost analysis, will be cited ad nauseum to arrive at one and only one conclusion: Change, or be put out of business for want of financing--financing that the regulators will not condone under any circumstance as long as the implicit threat of climate change on the financial health of the economy is deemed to be of utmost concern... to the regulators.

    Welcome to the brave new world of institutional financial regulation, gentlemen.

    1. That's what happens in a two party political system that is evenly divided. The fringe elements of each party have an overweight amount of influence in policy decisions.

      The moderating force on the two party system in the United States was once an independent central bank. And just remember, that independence was destroyed not by the Democrats, but instead by a Republican federal reserve chairman and a Republican Treasury Secretary.

      "Be careful what you sow, For seed will surely grow; Where it may fall, you cannot know, In sun or shade, 'twill surely grow."

    2. > independent central bank


  7. The older culture didn't listen to minorities or invite them into the upper reaches of corporate and academic life and so now the new culture either feels boxed out, making them angry and/or irrational (and anti-liberty & anti-meritocracy), or, if they made it into elite circles, are wielding their power dictatorially for mass payback effect.

    Kling's post obviously just reflects the views of the people he's spent time around his whole life aka white male economists, etc.

    I agree the new culture isn't ideal, but it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to understand the backlash.

  8. Counterfactual: Academic politics has always been vicious because the stakes are so low (The elite fight amongst the elite because you need something to do at the Palace of Versailles).

  9. I really disagree with point 3. I mean, you can't be a Republican or anything, but the old culture demanded plenty of conformity. Today for example, women are much less subject to a culture that demands conformity - get married, raise kids, that's it.

  10. John,

    Bernie Sanders (79 years old)
    Hank Paulson (74 years old)
    Joseph Biden (78 years old)
    Donald Trump (74 years old)
    Janet Yellen (74 years old)
    Jerome Powell (68 years old)

    If anything, I think this country suffers from Grandpaism.

    Teach discipline and self sacrifice to the immediate children and then spoil the grandchildren.

    It's not the younger generation's fault when grandma / grandpa gives that younger generation everything they want while asking for nothing in return.

  11. I don’t think the problems the US is facing are generational. We just need to follow what successful societies have done throughout the sands of time.

    We need to hold people responsible and accountable for their actions regardless of their race or gender.

    We need to improve our schools by having exit exams at every grade level and we need to strive for and maintain high standards for grades/work and for behavior.

    We should focus on learning, ingenuity, creativity, problem solving, hard work, etc., and we should applaud good grades and good behavior. We need to quit deifying athletes, actors, and musicians. We can enjoy sports, movies, and music, but they should not be the foundation and/or highest paid members of our society. Our children should be encouraged to become the next Jonas Salk or Elon Musk not the next Instagram/TikTok stars.

    We need to teach about the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Western Civilization, and we need to instill freedom of speech, property rights, and respect for the rule of law.

    We need to base jobs, rewards, and promotions on merit.

    We need to enforce our laws especially immigration laws and require legal immigrants to learn English and embrace our constitution.

    We need a fair and just legal system for everyone including our elected officials.

    We need to create a trustworthy voting system.

    We need to adopt Voltaire's stance concerning free speech and we need to listen to each other and not vilify people who do not agree with us.

    We need to end the COVID-19 mandates (especially for a virus less deadly than the flu for those under age 70), and we need to let businesses fully open, and get children back in school. And we need to learn from our response to COVID-19 and never mandate lockdowns and masks again especially for a virus less deadly than the flu for those under age 70. We need to seek the truth about complex issues and not politicize everything.

    We need to be kind, patient, respectful, helpful, and curious, and we need to be truth seekers.

    We need to make sure we are not a burden to others. Like Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

    We can turn this country around and end the polarization, but we have to quit the nonsense and cancel culture, bring back accountability and responsibility, teach good manners and respect for everyone, end schadenfreude, end bailouts, and we need term limits for our politicians.

    These ideas are just the first phase for getting our country back so future generations can enjoy the many wonderful benefits of a free society. - Yuri Bezmenov’s warning to America in 1984

    1. > require legal immigrants to learn English

      Speech Police should not need warrents to enter private residences. And they should be on every street intersection, with guns.

    2. Why in the world would you need to force immigrants to learn English in the United States? Anyone who does not speak English is at a major disadvantage in the United States, though you may win over some people if you argued instead that English lessons should be subsidized.

    3. I think you are terribly mistaken if you think people who do not learn English are at a disadvantage in the US. In many communities in the US, if you do not know Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, etc., then you are at a tremendous disadvantage.

      In my opinion, having a common language leads to a better functioning society. Part of the requirement for immigrating/receiving a Green Card from the US should be that you learn English.

      If someone is legally immigrating to the US then hopefully, they want to become a US citizen. You need a proficiency in the English language to become a US citizen and you need to be a US citizen to vote, therefore the US should not be spending millions of dollars in every election to translate the voter information and ballots into languages other than English. The money saved could be spent on health care, education, research, etc.

      The test to receive a driver’s license should only be in English. Requiring the driver’s license exams to be in English would lead to safer roads.

      Our K-12 schools spend a tremendous amount of money and resources educating non-English speaking immigrants. And government agencies, doctors, hospitals, schools should not be required pay for translators. This would not be necessary if immigrants were required to learn English, and this would also save taxpayers millions of dollars.

      We give enormous accommodations to immigrants who do not speak English and often there is little incentive for them to learn English.

  12. This is right before he writes that list:

    "This leads me to speculate on the consequences of adding a lot of women to formerly male domains."

    Once you know where he's coming from itt reads exactly like the white male grievance porn that it is.

    1. Stop with the "white male" grievance nonsense. The constant and endless focus on race and gender is tearing this country apart and has no bearing on reality. Focus on merit!

    2. The focus on that comes directly from the original article, so complain there.

  13. I don't know where Arnold King believes this "new culture" exists but it certainly is not anywhere I experience. The article and its list seems, rather, to be an exercise in misogyny.

  14. I believe you greatly improved his post by taking the "gender" angle out. It reads completely differently here. This is clearly onto something, which has nothing to do with women per se.
    Jeff R


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