Saturday, November 27, 2010

Do the Elites Avoid Numbers?

I wrote a post over on moneylaw about the way law professors handle empirical work. Basically, if it supports their political instincts, is is acceptable no matter how poorly done and, if it does not, it is poorly done no matter how well done. Especially, it is suggests any form or racism, sexism or homophobia it cannot even be examined closely. But now I am thinking there is a class angle on this. It is linked to my idea a few posts below that elitists do not like procedure. To put that idea in a nutshell, elitists are in a far better position to work the system than non elitists and rules just get in the way.

The same may be true of numbers or the quantification of virtually anything. For example, I feel sure that if I could produce an empirical study showing elitists are no more productive than non elitists as law professors, those in charge of hiring would ignore it. (I once did such a study and it showed no difference but once the school rank was above about 30 I could not find enough non elitist law professors for the study to be valid.) In effect, numbers can play the role of rules -- they make it harder to use connections, appeals to institutional authority and class as a way to prevail. At least they raise the cost of doing since they may need to be explained away.

The problem is that numbers can lie or can be used to support a lie as most of us know. So, they are not like procedural rules that can have a "veil of ignorance" appeal about them. Still, my sense is that, on balance, the elites would prefer not to be bothered with empirical evidence at all because, from time to time, a number may be produced that they cannot fully control.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Are the Elites Better Cheaters

I had seen this article a few days ago. Its title tells you the topic: The Shadow Scholar: The Man Who Writes Your Students' Papers Tells His Story. I had not read it all the way through and missed this excerpt which was brought to my attention by one of my favorite colleagues.

"From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the
English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and
the lazy rich kid.

"For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground‹they are built to
reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let's be honest: The
successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly
not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited
supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to
see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know
how to ask for what he wants until he doesn't get it, the lazy rich student
will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others
and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs
to stay on top."

As far as I know, law professors do not hire others to write their articles. But what if you could write a paper and it got a good grade whether it was deserved it or not. It's kind of the same thing. How does that work with law professors? There are four versions. The first three deal with the outside review of articles. In the worse cases, I know about the referee and the candidate work together to craft a good review. Then there are cases in which the subject matter is as much a political movement as it is an area of scholarly research. In these case the experts share the same political inclinations and the possibility of getting an honest review is close to zero. Once in awhile one of these articles will work its way into an honest reviewer and there are some concerns about what is written. If the candidate is liked enough, the negative comments are ignored. Finally, most reviewers do not say negative things. Why? There are may reasons but one is that it is rarely in the self interest of an elite to put anything negative in writing. After all, if the rational self-interest label ever fit anyone it is elite law professors. The last reason is the symposium matter. That is, you are asked -- usually by a buddy -- to write something for a collection. It is accepted without any review at all. (Even the student review process is better than this but not by much.)

The privileged will always find a way to work the system. After all, they created it and they own it!

P.S. After writing this another colleague read it and suggested that law professor do have others write their articles. They lift straight from the work product of their RA's. He also indicated that the bogus review letter problem extends to reviews of teaching.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Is it Stuck to Your Wall?

Your diploma I mean. Let's think about why someone frames and attaches or her diploma to the wall. Unless you just like to look at it yourself in case you forget you actually graduated, it's a form of advertising. Advertising can be good. It may provide useful information and lower the search costs of people who are buying what you are selling. A yellow page add that says "board certified" or even a framed certificate on an office wall may do that.

On the other hand, if you are a law professor, most people will assume you are qualified to be a law professor or that at least a small group of people in charge of hiring thought so. Your advertising falls into the category of an appeal to institutional authority. That is, if the institution from which you graduated has a good reputation -- an elite ivy league school, for example -- then you must be of similar ilk. The same is true if you feel compelled to name drop the name of your school whenever possible. (I have been told that a survey of Harvard grads in conversation found that on average "Harvard" is mentioned within the first minute.)

The problem is that this does not lower search costs but actually raises them. What we know is that some elite school grads are terrific law professors and some are awful. The same is true for non elite grads. Hanging the diploma on the wall can and often is misleading. It's a practice for those who are afraid to be identified by what they actually do.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Paying the Bill for Obama's Elitism

I do not know if it would have made a different in the elections. I doubt it but at the margin there is no doubt that Obama's elitism hurts. It was displayed most prominently during the BP disaster. For me, though, the biggest missed opportunity was the Kagan appointment. Just think what a difference it would have made if he appointed an equally qualified southerner mid-westerner or rust belter . Maybe someone with an actual drawl! Just the photo ops would have been worth votes at least in the appointee's home state. Instead we get a privileged ex-Harvard dean. This Times article covers some of the problem. As it notes, Obama was not raised to be an elitist. Instead it was an acquired characteristic.

In some ways, everything works against him. I've know some pretty unpleasant people who get away with it because of a perpetual smile, an aw shucks manner or a boyish or girlish facial structure. And then there are people like Obama who seem stuck with a stern look, seem always stiff, and are so careful in their wording that it becomes excruciating to listen to. It's so bad that even the imagery of just having a beer does not work. These things he cannot control and it is ashamed. Somewhere in there there may be a non elitist who is afraid to show it because he has invested so much in getting the role right.

Unfortunately, now others pay the price.