Saturday, June 1, 2013

Unbelievable Chutzpah: Game Over!

Professor Ed Kleinbard was recently quoted in the New York Times, referring the Apple's tax strategies:

“There is a technical term economists like to use for behavior like this,” said Kleinbard. “Unbelievable chutzpah.”

Given a set of rules, one tries to game the system, namely one is apparently following the rules but goes quite close to the line (of rule-breaking) or just over, and one's defense is twofold: I followed the rules, and their interpretation is subject to question. And, our job is to maximize (returns, rewards, rank,...) and so we go for the  gold.  It would seem there was a time when people did not game the system so much, maybe it was white shoe law firms on Wall Street, maybe it was professors, maybe it was physicians, maybe it was students.  There was a notion of professional integrity, that one not followed the rules, in practice and in their intent.

Now, it would seem that most who game the system would not want their neurosurgeon to do so. Nor their babysitter. Nor their spouse. Nor their secretary, if they have one. Perhaps it is a Hobbesian/Milton-Friedman world, but it would seem that most of those players do not want to be subject to the consequences of others' gaming the system. They want reliable professional ethical high-integrity behavior. Perhaps I am wrong, and they find the response to others' gaming the system through litigation and counter-strategies.

So when a student quotes back to the professor what the professor said, as a defense of what the student did, as often happens, rarely do teachers find themselves convinced by their argument. Let us say that their quote-back is accurate. The best response is, "I was wrong."  Here is a Feynman story:

This second error [in his Lectures] was pointed out to Feynman by a number of readers, including Beulah Elizabeth Cox, a student at The College of William and Mary, who had relied on Feynman’s erroneous passage in an exam.  To Ms. Cox, Feynman wrote in 1975,  “Your instructor was right not to give you any points, for your answer was wrong, as he demonstrated using Gauss’s law.  You should, in science, believe logic and arguments, carefully drawn, and not authorities.  You also read the book correctly and understood it.  I made a mistake, so the book is wrong.  I probably was thinking of a grounded conducting sphere, or else of the fact that moving the charges around in different places inside does not affect things on the outside.  I am not sure how I did it, but I goofed.  And you goofed, too, for believing me.”

Second best, "You misunderstood what I said." Now the student might go to a university committee and win on the technicality (perfectly OK by me). But that won't make them better thinkers or scholars. It won't get them the kindness of strangers in the future, who being aware of the student's strategy leave no room for any recourse on the student's part. What happens is a legalistic and defensive posture.

If someone has been excessively formal and legalistic, wise souls are very careful in dealing with them. Usually, they are in fact warned ahead of time, "Don't even talk to him!" Hence, at best all communication is in writing, and very carefully composed to be Teflon; or if need be in person with another person present as a witness. You will not answer their indicting questions, but ask similar ones of them. Hence, a dean might respond to, "Why did I not receive tenure?", with "Do you believe that three articles in those journals is sufficient to demonstrate your research contribution?" or more aggressively and less kindly, "How did your book show critical thinking and scholarly context?"

By the way, Sherry Turkle has pointed out, that we are often better off responding in person, even by telephone, to those who are formal and legalistics. That breaks down the abstraction and formality. Email is especially dangerous since we SEND and then have regrets. On the other hand, just as a salesman will make it impossible for you to close the door on him, there are well known devices (evangelists specialize in these) for insisting on continuing a conversation even if one is told there is no more. It is like the child's "Why?", succeeded by tower of why's.

I imagine that the gamer still wants scrupulous and professional behavior on the part of others. There is lots of discretion in these interactions, and what you give is more or less what you are likely to receive. If not now, in the future. Not always, not even often, but....