“Yay, College!”

In Epsilon Theory lingo, yay-something in quotation marks and with an exclamation mark is a Narrative that has been said so loudly and for so long by the Nudging State or the Nudging Oligarchy that it has become Common Knowledge – something we all know that we all know – and as a result is not just accepted but embraced by we-the-people.

Now to be clear, the something in yay-something is always a good thing in its non-capitalized, non-sloganeered form. It’s something like patriotism or capitalism or going to college, all very good things indeed. But in its yay-form these very good things become narrative cover for the Nudging State or the Nudging Oligarchy to gather up more of what they can’t get enough – power and money.

  • “Yay, Patriotism!” becomes narrative cover for a ginormous surveillance and military-industrial complex grown far beyond what is required to defend the United States, gorging itself on an annual budget of three-quarters of a TRILLION dollars.

  • “Yay, Capitalism!” becomes narrative cover for a financialized economy in service to the increasingly disconnected interests of an increasingly narrow managerial class, supported by more than a decade of government-directed interest-free financing to the richest corporations and households, alongside TRILLIONS of dollars in direct asset purchases by the US government.

  • “Yay, College!” becomes narrative cover for an academic-industrial complex that rivals the medieval Catholic Church not only in its sheer size and societal reach, but also in its cultural self-righteousness, intellectual rot and economic rapaciousness, all fueled by TRILLIONS of dollars in tax-deductible donations, tax-free investment portfolios and unlimited government-provided debt financing for its starry-eyed customers.

Once you start looking for the yay-form of society-supportive, human-uplifting concepts like patriotism and capitalism and education and healthcare and sport and art and public works and banking and philanthropy and religion and science, now perverted into self-aggrandizing, self-enriching Schemes of Enormous Proportion!, you’ll see them everywhere.

But you can’t say anything bad about them.

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  1. The note and WSJ article about university cost explosions reminds me of a sad lesson I learned working at a large state school math department as an undergrad. I’m sure this is familiar to anyone in the military, government, or any organization large enough to have a weighty budgeting process.

    I was the main computer guy for the math department. I think it was end of summer and everyone was gone and the chairman of the department came to me and said “quick, I need to spend $50k!“. He knew I would be the right person to go to because of how well I’d helped them develop a plan to shovel over a magnificent $600k grant to NeXT and Sun earlier in the year to get workstations on all the profs’ desks.

    The tech committee profs who supervised me were all unreachable for the next several days at least, so I told him he should buy a few NeXTStations for the computer lab and this ridiculous $30k color NeXT cube to go on my desk. When the committee returned to campus, I did get scolded a bit for getting the color one, but they let me keep it on my desk as long as I didn’t complain about them running remote Mathematica kernels on it (dual monitors too!).

    I was shocked to learn later that it was just about not getting the budget cut (and by such a piddling amount!) It was common practice there to just buy a bunch of crap you don’t need to exhaust your budget just to make sure you didn’t have it reduced in the following year. :nauseated_face: There was absolutely no incentive to save state/student money, only an incentive to protect your turf and avoid the trouble of having to ask for more down the road.

    Play this scene in every department of every school every year for a while and it might add up to a decent chunk of the bloat we are seeing.

  2. If one’s budget isn’t growing YoY by at least a reasonable amount then obviously this is a sign of failure! Budget as progress metric because, if you can’t find progress in some numbers then surely there is no progress to be found. I’ve seen exactly this in academic, gov’t, and corporate settings.

    I believe it was after part 1 of this was published last year that there was some discussion of credentialism. It still seems like this is a linchpin of the common knowledge structure in the Yay College case. What unique value are universities providing today beyond credentials? I think it is quite close to zero since it is easy to imagine alternative institutions that provide the other purported values (education, research, social development/network). The credentialing problem is more difficult. Like many of our other discussions I can envision alternative systems that I think could be very interesting but they will struggle with scale and will be much more frictional than current systems, at least to start.

    I think one challenge to Ben’s conclusion in this note is whether this occurrence has truly broken common knowledge as described. Several real world conversations I’ve had on this have still shown highly autotuned responses in favor of the university presidents…i.e. that all of this is simply furtherance of the longstanding far-right & racist scheme to undermine ‘higher education’ (as it will inevitably be called in such statements!). Many people simply never see any narrative that contradict their priors.

  3. [quote=“Rech, post:3, topic:3080, username:rechraum”]
    that all of this is simply furtherance of the longstanding far-right & racist scheme to undermine ‘higher education’ (as it will inevitably be called in such statements!).



  4. This topic came up in OH a few weeks ago also and some discussion was around research funding. Obviously the ivy league scandal is mostly around soft science where I don’t have any personal experience. But I gather that it may not be common knowledge how funding works, at least in much of the university hard science world, and I thought maybe a quick synopsis might be useful.

    There are two key details in my mind. The first is that professors obviously are incentivized to build a suitably large research program, especially at large universities, to accomplish both scientific and career goals. What this often means is a group of 5, 10, 20, perhaps 30 or more of graduate students, post-docs, and other associated researchers who become dependent on the program for the success of their careers. Graduate students are there for 5+ years without much recourse if things go south (i.e. the lab’s funding decreases over time and is no longer capable of financially supporting as large of a group). Obviously this creates a situation where there is a huge amount of pressure on the PI (primary investigator i.e. professor(s) who run the show) to maintain consistent funding.

    The 2nd key detail is that the funding situation was majorly altered during the great recession and the systemic changes wrought have not really reverted to my knowledge (caveat here that my personal experience ends some years ago now so perhaps things have improved). Other trends are certainly at work here too like overproduction of PhDs, aging professors systematically granting more funding to their aging peers instead of younger professors, etc, all issues that clearly line up with Yay College in their own right. Anyway, prior to the financial crisis I think it was typical that a professor could expect to write 5-10 grant applications in a year and have maybe 2 or 3 granted, enough to support the program for a few more years on a rolling basis. But post GFC this ratio skyrocketed to 20, 30, even more grant applications every single year in order to have a chance at achieving the necessary 2 or 3 successes.

    These are such basic and fundamental changes to the nature of these institutions which I think have had major repercussions. I suppose my thinking along these lines is in regards to an attitude of ‘cut the funding’. I was negative about budgeting in line with Chris’s comment above, but as always there is another side of the coin and I just wanted to point out that often there are many, many less visible people, a lot of them young and relatively powerless, behind the professors who get the attention and scorn in situations like these.

  5. Thank you Ben, yet again, for identifying another converging singularity of obfuscated truth. So with clarity and purpose, may we begin the strenuous task of separating university and state.

  6. I can speak to this as an Assoc Prof in a Dept of Med. NIH funding has ~7-10% fund rate for grant applications at the R01 level (the gold standard $2.5m-3.5m/5year grant, also the Unviersity gets 50% of this, with the remaining going for research and salaries). While you can get some bonus points for being a “young investigator”, there is such few funds to go around, only 1-2% of PhDs end up as research professors. The costs have exploded so even getting 1 R01, which used to be enough, is not enough to hire more than 1 person besides the main Professor. Better be careful who you hire.

    Most of the smart people dont go into academia (I must be dumb) and so the talent pool you can rely on small at best. What are the implications? I dont want to spend a ton of money on a subpar post-doc who is going to leave right after i train them, maybe i can get them on a T32 for 2 years which pays their salary, but that is not a given. The play is to hire full time research staff at $50-60k/year, and plug into the growing consulting/outsourcing science network. This allows for cost control, I get cutting edge research data, and with a few other PI collaborators we can publish high impact.

    Interesting to see how the space evolves here. Many Profs in the biomedical space also have side companies since the $150-200k salary cap range is not going to cut it long term. This assumes you dont play politics and try to do the dean/dept chair route.

  7. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Really interesting, Colin! Thank you for posting this.

  8. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Spot on! The political autotuning into “Republicans pounce!” is the single biggest defense mechanism of all the yay-something constructions today.

  9. This was almost word for word an episode of The Office and it was quite hilarious. The real joke was most people watching didn’t know how common this practice is.

  10. Avatar for rwgood rwgood says:

    A group of old high school friends met for dinner in Dec. and by old, I mean early 60s. A mix of careers from finance to veterinarian to law enforcement to marine biologist. The marine biologist mentioned that professors don’t make diddly but that he’d finally gotten to be an administrator of something or other and thus obtained a higher salary. Apparently, the value of teaching and doing genuine research is lower than the value of moving sheets of paper from one side of the desk to another. Amid this sclerotic bureaucracy is it any wonder that a group of people who do not believe in objective truth and who have a "will to power’ could obtain that power while everyone else was focused on appeasing the local commissar and protecting their turf?

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