A fellow investor friend of mine sent me an e-mail today 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. Nevermind people tried to buy Hitler off and he just asked for more until he went to war. And nevermind 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.
(I apparently became so frustrated writing this post originally that I never finished it and can not, at the present time, remember the other two episodes I intended to use to illustrate my point.)