Monday, May 30, 2011

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

This nifty best seller called Influence was penned by Arizona State psychologist Robert Cialdini. When I purchased the book from Amazon my intention was to learn more about rhetoric and why people are persuaded by some arguments but not others (my interest in rhetoric started last year when reading this). In reading the book this question was somewhat answered ---indeed, language is important---yet, there were large amounts written about how people are persuaded by actions or social cues rather than words. Overall the book was fascinating and I learned a lot.

The book begins by pointing out that thinking is tough work. Because we don't like to strain our brain we often use "rules of thumb" or make decisions in an almost automatic fashion. There are several tactics that can be employed to take advantage of our mental shortcuts. And, while these tactics do not twist our arms into compliance the author's research points out that they are extremely persuasive. These tactics form the basis of the chapters in the book and Cialdini provides numerous examples of these tactics in several contexts. Note, he does not investigate how economic incentives persuade people to action, but, that's mainly because that fruit hangs too low on the tree.

Cialdini first presents the reciprocity principle. This principle is extremely powerful and pervasive. Upon reading the chapter I began to see many examples of this principle at work. Essentially, Person A would like Person B to do some action. In order to induce Person B to do that action Person A provides a gift to Person B. Then, person B will feel obligated to do that action. Real world examples exist in politics (think log rolling and campaign finance), business (free samples or week trials), and with charitable giving (St. Judes Hospital for example provided my wife and I with address labels). Specifically, with charitable giving Cialdini spoke of his observation of the Hare Krishna society and their approach of handing out flowers to a passerby and then asking for money. My own personal observations included an environmental sustainability group on campus that provided free cookies but also sought signatures for a petition. Also, I recalled in both Atlanta and Chicago that homeless people would offer directions to different destinations. Upon finishing directions they would ask for money. There are some subtleties to this reciprocity principle but Cialdini notes it is very powerful because we can sense the asymmetry and want to act to make the interaction more symmetric.

The second persuasive technique presented is called commitment. When people are on the fence they do not feel a strong affinity for one product/person/idea, etc. more than another. However, once people take sides there is a strong connection to the choice which shapes our perception of the choice as "good" or "bad". In other words, we become more certain of something immediately after we choose it. To be uncertain means we chose wrongly. This chapter is chalk full of examples of commitment from POW camps and communist indoctrination to romantic relationships, charitable donations, and promises of toys to our children. In a myriad of contexts the simple statement of "Yes," is meaningful and seems to commit us to a particular course of action. For example, I utilized the commitment technique a couple weeks ago at the laundry mat. Cialdini cites a study showing that people are far more vigilant in guarding other people's possessions when someone asks, "Will you watch my stuff?" whereas when this simple question is not asked people are highly unlikely to intervene if somebody tried to steal another person's possessions. The simple response, "Yes,", even to a small commitment opens up the door to larger commitments. This chapter was very interesting and I couldn't possibly discuss it all here in this summary.

The third persuasive technique is "social proof". Initially I thought, "What is social proof?"; however, it is pretty straightforward. Social proof simply says that we are likely to "see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it". This principle is especially true in uncertain or ambiguous situations. Should we laugh at that joke? What kind of clothing should we wear to that event? Basically, what is appropriate? This technique can be more severe. Cialdini utilizes social proof to explain the Jonestown deaths and the well publicized death of Katherine Genovese. When Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple Cult, was certain to be under investigation for the murders of four people he called all of the believers to a mission of self-destruction: drink the strawberry poison. Cialdini reports, "The survivors claim that the great majority of the 910 people who died did so in an orderly, willful fashion." Why? Cialdini believes "social proof" helps clear up this mystery. Living in the strange country of Guyana (the cult had recently moved there from San Francisco) there was high uncertainty. Combine that uncertainty with some ultra compliant cult members and others followed suit. The Katherine Genovese story is one example in which many people witnessed a murder taking place but did not help. The common explanation was apathy amongst the citizenry (which I think could be quite valid). On the other hand, Cialdini notes that because nobody did anything everyone was uncertain about what to do. In uncertain situations we act based on the actions of those around us. I think more probable is that each person thought, "Someone else will call the police."

The fourth technique is immediately obvious: liking. We are persuaded to compliance by people we like. Moreover, we tend to like people who are attractive, people who flatter us, and people we view as being similar to ourselves. Cialdini discusses ways in which "liking" can be produced which include positive association. We have all heard the aphorism, "We are known by the company we keep" which was usually from our parents telling us about negative association. Cialdini writes, "As for positive associations, it is the compliance professionals that teach that lesson." Advertisers frequently use pretty girls or certain words that have nothing to do with their product but create a positive association. Anything to induce "liking".

Authority is the fifth technique which states that we are influenced by authority. The famous Milgram experiments are up close and personal in this regard (you can see a video about the Milgram experiments here). The Milgram experiments are one huge reason we have a Human Subjects Committee to protect people from research that can be psychologically harmful. But, they reveal something important: People respond to authority. We learn obedience to authority at an early age with parents, teachers, pastors, doctors, etc. guiding us or providing advice. Since they have been correct in the past we confer authority to the position.  We should respect these types of people and Cialdini claims that we often carry out their requests in an unthinking fashion. Besides providing a plethora of examples Cialdini also notes that: Titles, Clothes, and Trappings all act as signals to people about how to value someone else even in situations where they would seem to have no special expertise. For example, Cialdini reported a psychological study that showed people were 3.5 times more likely to jay walk when a man with a suit crossed than when the same man crossed in ordinary dress. Another example, researchers in San Francisco found that people are far less likely to honk at luxury cars than economy cars when they are slow to pull away from a green light.

The final so-called "weapon of influence" is scarcity. Cialdini begins this chapter with a quote from G.K. Chesterton, "The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost." When we are told we cannot have something (parental restriction, legal ban, etc.), or told "limited time only", or told to disregard certain information (jurors in a trial for example) our freedoms are being restricted. For example, star crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet may have had such heightened love because of the forbidden-ness of their courtship. Or, we want those things which seem scarce because we feel they must be of higher quality. If people generate a feeling of scarcity or restrict our choice set we are inclined to believe the thing we cannot have is a better choice. This has all kinds of implications for how we parent or what kinds of laws we make. To be honest, this is a difficult chapter that I am still digesting.  

Now, I will close this review and reveal my nerdiness. These weapons of influence remind me of an exchange from Star Wars. Before Obi Wan and Luke leave Tatooine and team up with Han Solo they must bypass Storm Troopers searching for the lost droids.

Stormtrooper: Let me see your identification. 
Obi-Wan: [with a small wave of his hand] You don't need to see his identification. 
Stormtrooper: We don't need to see his identification. 
Obi-Wan: These aren't the droids you're looking for. 
Stormtrooper: These aren't the droids we're looking for. 
Obi-Wan: He can go about his business. 
Stormtrooper: You can go about your business. 
Obi-Wan: Move along. 
Stormtrooper: Move along... move along. 

The weapons of influence are designed to elicit a "yes" response and work best when we are not paying attention. Cialdini closes each chapter with a section entitled "How to Say No". The key to saying "no" in most of these contexts is to understand why you feel compelled to say "yes". For example, the reciprocity principle illustrates that when we are given a gift we feel compelled to reciprocate. Yet, we must think about the purpose of the gift. Then, we may realize that it wasn't a "gift" at all. Or, in the case of authority we must ask whether they are a relevant authority or not. Also, we must ask whether they are acting out of their personal benefit. But, mainly the advice of these sections is simple: pay attention. Because people often function on a "click-whir" level we can be bypassed or conned like Storm Troopers. Our awareness is important.

There is no problem in studying compliance. However, this information can obviously be abused and utilized to manipulate people. In fact, because much of the discourse were studies motivated by real world examples these weapons of influence are already being used. When is it ethical to use such influencers (for example I think my use of the commitment principle was fine at the laundry mat)?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday Thought

A very good sermon from Rev. Bill Bess today. His central point was the following:

When Jesus says, in John 14:15

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

It is not a directive, it is a promise.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

William Parker and the LAPD, Part I

So how corrupt was the LAPD in the 20s, 30s, and 40s? Let's look at some popular culture references.

In the movie Changeling, one [in fact, two] courageous pastors use a religious radio broadcasts to expose the LAPD incarcerating in a mental hospital an "inconvenient" woman who was making charges against the department. Numerous accounts that Doug and I accessed confirm that the basic underlying story is TRUE.

In the novels of Raymond Chandler, the LAPD of the late '30s and early 40's is depicted as a mixture of some good cops and some that are lazy, incompetent, and on the take from various corrupt activities. In fact, more than one of the historical accounts claim that the LAPD of the period was, if anything, worse than Chandler depicted (certainly worse than the version depicted in the movies made from his novels). In the late 1930's, a crusading group of civic reformers, again with strong ties to local religious leaders, gained power on the county grand jury and began exposing civic corruption. The local news media, especially the vibrant competition between the Times and the Examiner, kept the story before the public. Representatives of the reform group were subject to violent attacks. Eventually, Mayor Shaw was recalled and his brother indicted over a scheme to sell police and fire commissions. (The, um, checkered history of the LA County District Attorney is another movie waiting to be made. ) The recall of Shaw installed reform-minded Fletcher Bowron.

The movie L A Confidential (based on the novel by James Ellroy) shifts in time some important events that occurred in the 1940s while Bowron was mayor. The police, under new leadership, put intense pressure on leaders of organized crime to leave Los Angeles. Many left for Las Vegas. Mickey Cohen was indeed the face of the mob to most citizens of Los Angeles. But, in 1949, the news broke that a prostitution ring was being run with assistance from inside the LAPD. As far as we could tell, LAC's depiction of the plastic surgery to create prostitutes who resembled famous movie stars is fiction, but the Brenda Allen prostitution scandal and other concurrently revealed events were the reason that the LAPD needed a new police chief, and with a one vote majority on the Police Commission, that chief was William Parker.

Finally, here are the answers to our previous questions about famous fictional photos. Parker helped to make the honest, tough, hard working officer Joe Friday of "Dragnet" the face of the LAPD. At some point, Parker needed some help writing speeches, and the job went to an officer with writing talents named Gene Roddenberry. Two of our sources state that Roddenberry modeled the character Spock after his former boss, William Parker. And while the movie L A Confidential has a new, reform minded chief in the script, many of the personal characteristics of Ed Exley suggest the younger William Parker (right down to the glasses).

One of our best sources for the paper is the history L A Noir by John Buntin. And if you want to see how Joe Friday became a cultural icon, this clip is not to be missed.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Links 5/27

Like the Florida ground my blogging activities have run into a dry spell; however, like the Florida weather, the forecast is looking much better. In the next couple of weeks I should have a blog post regarding minimum wage v. the earned income tax credit as well as a few book reviews and some other misc. material. For now, the Friday Links should suffice.

On May 19th one of my favorite blogs, Aid Watch, penned its swan song. The posts were frequently insightful, sometimes sarcastic, but most of all, they were never dull. The blog achieved its objective of bringing more attention to the economics of development and whether our various attempts to help those in less developed countries really worked. For interested people, the search function on the blog will allow you to cull the archives for some very thoughtful material.

An article about an economist, Tyler Cowen, who writes for another one of my favorite blogs Marginal Revolution. He's very interesting, just read it.

This article appeared in the Boston Globe some time ago; however, I just discovered it. This article makes me proud that economists can help solve such problems as matching medical residents to residencies, children to particular schools, or kidneys to in-need medical patients. However, the crown of "society's mechanics" is not one we should bear without a nod to humility and our own limitations. (Also, the article mentions FSU professor David Cooper)


Friday, May 20, 2011

The Reform of Corruption: The Case of the LAPD

In the 1930, Los Angeles was an extraordinarily corrupt city. A columnist in TIME referred to the city as the slobbering civic idiot of American municipalities. Police and fire commissions were being sold. Author Raymond Chandler artfully depicted a police force riddled with sloth and bribery, only slightly less bad than the hideous "Bay City" police in his Philip Marlowe novels. A serious reform movement in the late 1930s seemed to bring things under control, then just as TIME appeared to revise its view of LA in 1949, a scandal involving a prostitution ring operating inside of the LAPD threatened to revive the image of the LAPD of Raymond Chandler. (The picture above is a depiction of an LAPD interrogation in the movie Murder My Sweet appearing on the website

In this sordid environment, the Los Angeles Police Commission appointed William H. Parker as it's Chief. And something remarkable happened. Within a handful of years, Parker had cleaned up the LAPD, so that by the mid 1950s it was being looked to as a model of police professionalism. The picture above right is Parker, as taken from the official LAPD website.

How did this happen? How was Parker able to steward such a remarkable and rapid turnaround? What are the implications for the elimination of corruption in the developing world. Doug and I have a new paper: "Just the Facts Ma'Am: A case Study of the Reversal of Corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department," looking at these questions.

Background reading is tedious, but background watching can be fun. So the question is: what do these fictional characters have in common? (Sgt. Friday is from the official LAPD website, Mr. Spock is from Wikipedia, Ed Exley is from this review of L.A. Confidential in

Friday Links May 20, 2011

Social norms: voluntary or enforced. Do private norms drive the de jure rules, or do we need the de jure rules to support private norms? (NRO)

For no particular reason: original names of famous bands. (Debby Witt on NRO).

A book I must read this summer: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.

While I'm at it: Bonhoeffer and Tobacco.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Randomized Controlled Trials Part II: The Scientific Method

Remember the science projects of your childhood? Thinking about wielding the bi-fold boards onto the kitchen table, cutting colored paper, and pasting the various hypotheses, data, and results make me nostalgic. This trip down memory lane occurs whenever I consider the scientific method because these memories are familiar. My science fair projects were never anything special; however, even now they seem illustrative. For example, do plants grow better in the presence of classical music, rock music, or no music? So, my dependent variable was plant growth. The plants were identical in every respect. Same bag of seeds. Same soil. Same sunlight. Same watering. The only difference was the exposure to different music. My control group was "no music". My treatment groups were "rock music" and "classical music". Perhaps the question was juvenile and the sample size small, but, when you think about it, this is the scientific method at its best.

For a moment, consider a question that personally interests you. Will school uniforms improve educational outcomes? Does religious proscription improve generosity? Does merit-based teacher pay improve student educational outcomes? What will the impact of a different tax structure do to labor supply? What is the impact of job training programs on ex-convicts? Does marriage make people happier? And, the list could go on, and on, and on.

The scientific gold standard is a "randomized controlled trial" with a large sample size. The term "randomized controlled trial" is borrowed from the medical and clinical fields and is quite descriptive. Randomization matters because it reduces self-selection bias.

For example, imagine that we were studying the impact of a government sponsored job training programs for ex-convicts. The before-and-after study may show tremendous success in transitioning ex-convicts into the workforce; however, substantial information would be missing. If the job training program is voluntary there could be differences in motivation, education, etc. amongst some of the ex-convicts compared to their counterparts that did not sign up. Therefore, the question would be, "How much is the job training helping, or, would these people have found work regardless of the program simply because they are highly motivated to turn their life around?" 

Randomization can help overcome the selection bias. Randomization would assign people into job training programs and thus weed out any underlying differences between the two sets of populations (those who would sign up and those who would not sign up).

Controlled implies that the only difference on average between people in the sample will be whether or not they received job training. Like my flowers example where the only difference was exposure to different music, the only difference, on average, among those being released from jail was whether they received job training or not. Certainly there will still be differences between people released who receive job training and those who do not; however, those differences will be balanced.

Obviously there are some questions that cannot be answered by randomized controlled trials. For example, the Human Subjects Committee wouldn't allow me to randomly assign people to religions in order to observe how certain religious teachings alter generosity. Also, they would likely disallow random assignment of people into marriages to figure out whether marriage causes them to become happier. These are good things! But, there are a number of really interesting questions that can be answered with randomized controlled trials. In my next post I will discuss some of the interesting "field experiments" (equivalent term for RCT) that have been conducted in the past and more recently.

By the way, the plants grew better under classical music. Though this is far from an iron-clad empirical reality.

A Modest Proposal

In this article, legal superstar Richard Epstein walks the reader through the logic of the National Football League Players' Association decertification and the so-called "Tom Brady" lawsuit. Through much of the analysis, Epstein appears to be making recommendations that favor the owners rather than the players. But then, near the end of his analysis, he drops the following idea into the mix. I can't believe that it will ever happen, but I believe that it would be a great public policy compromise (and, yes, the public is involved because we have written the labor negotiation and antitrust laws that are constraining and driving the current unhappy state of affairs):

"Nor is there, I might add, any chance of forcing a split up of the NFL’s two conferences, the AFC and the NFC , which would lead to the best of all worlds: measures to assure parity within leagues, and competition between leagues. The players give up their unions in favor of a choice between teams in two leagues. The management gives up its solid front in favor of labor peace. The rest of us can still watch a Super Bowl at the end of the season, with a special antitrust exemption. It may be too much to ask in the current milieu, which prefers the use of what the late John Kenneth Galbraith used to call countervailing powers."

A radical idea? Obviously. But often we need people like Epstein to toss a few crazy ideas over the castle wall to see that institutions can be changed. Which leads, oddly enough, to a topic for some new posts: the radical and crazy idea of one man, William H. Parker, that in 1949 corruption could be driven from the Los Angeles Police Department. Within a few years, the LAPD had become the model of "police professionalism." Who was William H. Parker, and how did he pull off this model of reform? More to come.

Thanks to NRO for the tip to the Epstein article.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

What do we know about Heaven?

People looked to Heaven for their sustenance (manna), cried out towards Heaven in times of pain, and celebrated towards Heaven in times of joy. We are called to first seek the Kingdom of God and are told by Jesus that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. One of my favorite lines in all of scripture is,"Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done, On Earth as it is in Heaven". But, honesty compels me to admit, I do not know much about heaven (other than various verses in Revelation).

A long time has passed since I asked a question of the readers of our blog: How much do we know about Heaven? And, what is the source of our knowledge? Do we need to know what Heaven looks like, or, do we need to better understand Jesus (because he is the visible image of the invisible God)?


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Quite a Leaky Bucket; In Fact My Feet are Soaking Wet

In one of our research projects, Doug and I created an environment in which individuals could endogenously choose not only personal decisions leading to voluntarily provided public goods, but they also had the power to vote to tax their group for the same purpose. In the enforced taxation option, we wanted to capture what Arthur Okun had famously called "the leaky bucket," namely, the idea that government transfer programs designed to help the poor suffer a loss of efficiency. We chose a parameter of 20 percent loss of efficiency largely for reasons specifically relating to the experiment, not because we thought that 20 percent (as opposed to 10 percent or 30 percent) was the actual level of the leaky bucket.

Nevertheless, we've had a fair number of people conjecture about this extrapolation: was 20 percent "too big," or "about right" when one is talking about actual governments. This article in the Washington Post is a great illustration of the problem of the leaky bucket, and why we were justified in wanting to incorporate it at some level in our experiments.

Thanks to Instapundit for the tip to the link.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Presbyterians for Spiking the Football?

Here is an interesting figure and I really don’t know what to think about it. I often conceive of the remnant in America of what used to be called “Mainline Protestantism” (Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Mainline Lutherans, United Methodists, Presbyterians (USA), United Church of Christ) as more liberal than so-called Evangelical Christians. Most of these denominations’ institutional faces support very liberal economic policies, several of these denominations allow for practicing gay clergy and even gay marriage, and most of the anti-war sentiment has been focused within these denominations (at least while Republicans are President, but that’s an issue I’ve addressed in other posts). But this report from the Public Religion Research Institute really surprised me. It asks a simple question:

***Does the Scripture Passage “Do Not Rejoice When Your Enemies Fall” apply to Bin Laden?***

The full NIV citation is:

Proverbs 24: 17 – 18

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls;

When he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice

Or the Lord will see and disapprove

And turn his wrath away from him.”

Among all the groups surveyed (Minority/Christian, White Evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Unaffiliated, and Mainline Protestant) it was the Mainline Protestants who were the least supportive of this Biblical wisdom. White Evangelicals accepted the scripture as applicable by 66-24; mainline Protestants by only 53-32. What’s up with this?

(Thanks to for the tip to the link).

What Will It Take to Make Christians Finally Pay Attention?

Once again, our remarkable former colleague (FSU's loss was very much Trinity's gain) David Macpherson looks at the critical issue of who gains and who loses from increases in the minimum wage in this new report co-authored with William Even of Miami University. Using careful econometric techniques, they conclude (again) that the job-loss effects of the minimum wage fall disproportionately on young black Americans. What is new here is their finding that increases in the minimum wage raised unemployment for African Americans by a stunning 40 percent more than would have occurred merely from the Great Recession. Christians interested in social issues: is anyone listening? Does anyone care about what's actually going on out there?

(Thanks to NCPA for the tip about the study).

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Randomized Controlled Trials: Part 1

For social scientists the whole world is a laboratory. Also, the materials/substances we analyze (humans in our case) hold a complex array of motivations.  This lack of control makes causality messy business. But, we are frequently called to pin-point solutions about what will work for, say, global poverty.  One promising method for determining what kinds of interventions have significant impact on reducing poverty are called "randomized controlled trials" (long ago these were simply known as "field experiments"). Below is John Bates Clark Medal winner Esther Duflo talking about randomized controlled trials.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Speenhamland System

The Speenhamland System was one of a number of Poor Laws in England in the late 18th and early 19th century. The background is complex. Here is a short description.

It appears that real wages for farm laborers were falling, especially in the South and East of England, but migration opportunities to London were growing. There were several types of poor laws, but the Speenhamland System was interesting in that it appears that local governments and churches (it's not exactly clear to me where the lines of authority were drawn in the "parish") agreed upon what we might call a “living wage,” with the parishes paying for the gap between actual wages and the living wage. Several great economists including Mark Blaug and D. McCloskey have reconsidered the 19th century view that lax administration made the system a failure. Most of what I’m writing from here is based upon George R. Boyer, “The Old Poor Law and the Agricultural Labor Market in Southern England: An Empirical Analysis,” Journal of Economic History 46:113-135 (1986).

Apparently, that a rapid rise in relief payments burdened the parishes is taken as a given by just about everyone, even among economists on opposite sides of other issues regarding the laws. One of the intense debates over the past several decades is whether it was the Speenhamland System that caused this increase either through an increase in voluntary unemployment and/or a reduction in wages. McCloskey argued that economic theory would support the former conclusion but not the latter. Boyer quotes McCloskey (Explorations in Economic History [1973]) as saying that the system “was generally administered as an income subsidy ‘with a 100 percent marginal tax rate on earned income below the minimum’.” Boyer appears to argue a public choice view of the system. In areas with concentrated political power for landowners the Speenhamland system shifted the expense of paying wages that were high enough to keep laborers from moving to London from the farmers to everyone else in the parish.

What do Boyer’s numbers tell us? There is strong support for his public choice argument about the powerful landowners. But, the results on the issue as the whether the Speenhamland System created voluntary unemployment are irritatingly mixed. Per capita relief expenditures had a small but statistically significant negative effect on laborers’ income. On the other hand, the Speenhamland system of wage supplements was indeed measured to increase unemployment, but the result was not statistically significantly different from zero. (British analysts contemporary to the period believed that the system did lead to voluntary unemployment.)

What is most interesting to me in Boyer’s analysis is his reaction to the somewhat muddy results of the relationship between the Speenhamland System and the idea of voluntary unemployment. Boyer says that the results “provide tentative support for the revisionist hypothesis that rural parishes were selective in their granting of relief to able-bodied laborers.” (My emphasis.) The idea that decentralized religious institutions in the 19th century could minimize unhelpful effects of compassionate relief by being selective and discerning in their application has been a central argument of Marvin Olasky for years.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Faculty Union

The internet is wall papered with rallying cries from pro-union faculty and union employees. In particular one article employs over-the-top and urgent rhetoric "Organize or Die". Before writing this  post my goal was to find one unbiased and well-written piece explaining the United Faculty of Florida (UFF hereafter) saga. No luck. Thus, this abbreviated posting will try to present another side (hopefully in a measured manner). In the past couple weeks FSU faculty have received a flurry of letters, emails, office visits and telephone calls promoting UFF. The reason? House Bill 1023. If UFF does not reach 50% membership among the FSU faculty by July 1, 2011 the UFF-FSU chapter will dissolve.  

The lobbying and promotion have been non-stop ---though the man tonight on the phone indicated UFF would have no problem reaching 50%. The most recent percent membership of UFF-FSU is uncertain although I've heard the numbers are somewhere around 35%. The hustle of the union employees signals a cause for concern. For example, why did the man call me if membership was already certain to exceed 50%. Moreover, why did he insist on debating my reasons for not joining the union? Another signal for concern is that UFF offered to waive all dues for joining faculty (and even made a point to tell people they could retroactively withdraw after July 1, 2011 with no monetary obligation). The hustle and the special offer smack of desperation. But, the union purports to offer a good product:
[We are working] to improve state funding for increased faculty salaries and benefits, working to improve the faculty's role in decision-making on campus, assisting in negotiation of collective bargaining contracts for over 18,000 professionals, protecting academic freedom and tenure, defending faculty rights, influencing the formulation of policy by the governing boards, working for legislation to improve the quality of education in our colleges and universities, and advancing academic excellence. Class load, equipment, salaries, professional advancement, instructional resources---ultimately every decision that affects higher education faculty is either a bargaining issue or a political decision and involves UFF.

With such self-evident benefits people should be lavishing UFF with gratitude. Yet, this union seems to have difficulty achieving membership for half the faculty at left-leaning Florida State University. Odd. 

Before delving into the details of UFF-FSU it will be useful to take a step back and ask about the role of unions in general. The intuition of labor unions is simple: Because no single employee wields significant bargaining power all the decentralized employees become one centralized bargaining agent. Then, that agent essentially acts as a monopoly on the labor supplied in an industry. As mentioned in the block quote, unions usually bargain for pay increases and benefits for their employees (historically in the unions bargained for improved safety regulations ---though not all improvements in safety came at the hands of the union).

The UFF-FSU lobbied contract has several benefits (which the union happily celebrates) but the contract also has costs (which the union is conspicuously silent on). And, I should mention that like most bureaucracies that attempt to convince people of their necessity they sometimes exaggerate their benefits and really diminish their harmfulness. One example of an exaggerated benefit is the UFF claim to "protect tenure". In fact, the UFF-FSU chapter did fight on behalf of some faculty positions that were cut at FSU during the last round of budget cuts. But, this is the exception. In general the protection of tenure does not require a union ---it is the free market and the legal system that protect tenure. Imagine for a moment that FSU decided that it would not honor the hard-earned tenure of many of its faculty. This could seem plausible in a tumultuous budgetary climate; however, FSU will have difficulty attracting and maintaining good professors in the future if tenure is not honored. Also, if a professor is wrongfully terminated they can appeal their case before a judge.

Another exaggerated claim is that funding would disappear without the union. But, with alumni seated in the State House and Senate it is legitimate to ask the question of how much benefit UFF curries FSU with respect to appropriations. But, these kinds of arguments weaken the case for UFF. Thus, they do not appear on their website.

The benefits of the union largely consist in its ability to establish a centralized agent for bargaining and protect faculty members without a valuable outside option. We have already discussed the idea that a centralized agent wields more bargaining power, but, the second part of that statement answers the question, "for whom"? The faculty that most need a centralized bargaining agent are those faculty that do not have many well-paying prospects in the private sector. Economists, for example, have many well-paying prospects consulting for firms or working as an in-house analyst. But, generally speaking, any professor from the Humanities does not have a high-paying outside option. The reason this outside option is important is because it gives the individual more bargaining power. Anytime someone can come to the bargaining table and say, "You need me more than I need you", they are in better position to obtain benefits.

The costs of UFF are concentrated on our best and brightest faculty. The economics department will be losing two of our faculty in the fall to other universities. Also, the business school will lose five faculty. One negotiated "work rule" is instrumental here. FSU is unable to give a faculty member a higher salary (beyond standard pay increases to keep up with inflation or for promotion) unless they have an offer letter from another school. In many cases it would be beneficial to provide a preemptive pay increase. Once people have toured another college/school, talked to their spouse, and imagined themselves in another locale they are half way out the door. We have less flexibility to retain our good faculty because of such a work rule. Another cost to our best and brightest faculty occur when the union attempts to inject different "fairness" criteria into processes (previous post about this here).

Other costs associated with UFF are ideology and inefficiency. Because UFF is affiliated with national union organizations that contribute money to the Democratic party that imbues them with an ideological flavor. While the union cannot (by law) directly support candidates with dues the fact that money is fungible means they can legally donate money to causes that are largely democratic (this article talks about how the NEA is in the pocket of the democratic party. Incidentally, you can see in the next link that the NEA and AFT receive 29% of UFF dues); moreover, the unions can endorse candidates. Finally, the union employs out-of-town salaried employees who are a staple on campus for the next two months calling folks, visiting offices, and drinking coffee with professors all the while giving them a slanted sales pitch about exaggerated importance (Here is the break down of union expenditures). This is essentially the public choice argument about bureaucracies (see post here)

In fact someone could spread these benefits and costs like papers on a table. Stand back, look, and then say, "On balance the union seems like a good deal because I value protecting the faculty with low outside options." But, like I mentioned in a previous post economists will look at the unseen (in this case the opportunity cost). Put another way, any good economist will ask the question, "Compared to what?" Certainly there are some benefits to unionization (for some people), but, compared to what? Other options include a strong faculty senate or an independent faculty association. Both of these options could wield bargaining power without the unwieldy expenses of a large-scale union operation. The point is there are other institutional arrangements besides the Union that retain some of the benefits without some of the costs. Even in the case of the Union saving some faculty positions, this could have been accomplished at less expense. If each faculty member who were part of the Union were paying 1% (the amount of union dues) into a general account at the University there would be more than enough money in such a general account to hire back all the faculty who were losing their jobs.

In writing this post it did occur to me, "Will anyone really care to read about UFF-FSU?" It really does seem hum-drum and monotonous and hardly contributes to the overall theme of the Wise as Serpents mission. What are the key lessons: 1)  People can choose to organize into one centralized negotiating agent which gives them more leverage at the bargaining table, 2)When faced with claims of benefit we good economists ask the question, "Compared to what?" , and finally 3) Soak in the lessons of public choice. These unions and other bureaucracies have an incentive to make exaggerated claims about their importance.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Seeds, Seeds, Everywhere

There are many agricultural parables in the Bible, but, my favorite comes from Luke Chapter 8 "Parable of the Farmer Scattering Seed":

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.' 
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

One reason for my affinity goes back to when my Christian faith was new. In reading Donald Miller's phenomenal book Blue Like Jazz there was a portion of the book that sticks with me because of its tenderness and honesty. Miller is describing a conversation he had with a woman named Penny about her conversion story (centered around the parable in the same parable as it is written in Matthew):

There is a part in Matthew where Jesus talks about soil, and He is going to throw some seed on the soil, and some of the seed is going to grow because the soil is good, and some of the seed isn't because it feel on rock or the soil that wasn't as good. And when I heard that, Don, everything in me leaped up, and I wanted so bad to be the good soil. That is all I wanted, to be the good soil! I was like, Jesus, please let me be the good soil! 

Her whole story is great (the whole book is really good too). But, that part stuck out to me because I want to be the good soil too. This is important: We have some control over our own soil. And, we can impact the soil others have too. Through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, reading our bible, studying, fasting, and other disciplines that act as vehicles into God's transforming love our soil will be altered. When our soil is good we can help others have good soil.

Notice that the farmer does not strategically set a seed into the ground. Instead, the word of God is lavished indiscriminately to all people. When the seed lands what kind of soil will it find?  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Justice Vs. Revenge

Here is another excellent piece, this one by Ramesh Ponnuru, about Christians and the killing of Bin Laden. For a deep and extended spiritual workout on this topic, I also recommend any reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's personal anguish over the decision to join in the conspiracy to kill (not capture) Hitler.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Topic for investigation tomorrow regarding Protestantism and Capitalism: what was the Speenhamland Law? More to follow.

Dancing in the Streets

Here is a very thoughtful piece from the Huffington Post on the question "How Should Religious People Respond to Bin Laden's Death." I always appreciate the thoughts of Albert Mohler, and I think that his comments, near the end of the article, do a better job than I could of marking my own thoughts.

Those Inconvenient Tradeoffs

I have to start by admitting my personal bias. When wind turbines were first proposed as an alternative energy source in the 1970s, I thought that they destroyed some of the most beautiful scenery in California. The small picture at the center right is of the San Gorgonio Pass between the Mojave desert and the Los Angeles basin. Apparently, the same debate is occurring elsewhere. The John Muir Trust is one of the leading environmental organizations in the U.K., and apparently they are concerned about the effect of wind farms on scenic vistas, especially in Scotland, as can be seen in a picture from the Daily Mail just above. The Muir Trust has recently released a statistical study arguing that wind farms are much less efficient than their supporters in the wind turbine industry and certain governments claim. The Muir Trust report claims that, at least in Scotland, they operate at lower overall levels of output, and with longer periods of "low wind events" than supporters of wind energy admit. The full report from the Muir Trust, together with complete links to their data, can be found here. A BBC report on the political debate on the report between the Muir Trust and advocates of wind farms in the U.K. can be found here. (Thanks to NCPA for the tip about the controversy).