8 thoughts on “Bullshit Within the Limits of Bare Reason

  1. Pingback: Bullshit Within the Limits of Bare Reason | Austro-Athenian Empire

  2. I like it. I’m seeing an anti-left-conflationism theme emerge in your recent writing.

    I was curious about this parenthetical comment:

    (As an academic, I can testify to the relentless increase, within the academy, in both the numbers of administrative staff and the weight of bureaucratic burdens they place on faculty.)

    I don’t disagree. I’m probably more impatient with the phenomenon than you are, as the following item demonstrates (from today’s inbox; note the dates):

    Dear Irfan Khawaja,

    You have been assigned training by Ginny Topolski, Director, Human Resources.

    The required 2017-2018 Online Training Courses are now available for your review andcompletion.

    This is a reminder that both courses contain important information regarding our responsibilities as Felician University Employees to ensure a safe learning and working environment for students and employees. Please complete these courses as soon as possible.

    This is a reminder that the required 2017-2018 Online Training Courses are now available for your review and completion.

    Both courses contain important information regarding our responsibilities as Felician University Employees to ensure a safe learning and working environment for students and employees. Please complete these courses as soon as possible

    Training is self-paced. You can start and leave the course as often as you’d like. When you return, the course will open to the last page visited.

    Assigned Courses:
    Diversity: Inclusion in the Modern Workplace (EDU)
    Past Due: Not Started
    Due Date: August 27, 2018
    Intersections: Preventing Harassment & Sexual Violence (EDU)
    Past Due: 28% Done
    Due Date: November 30, 2017
    EDU: Clery Act Basics
    Past Due: Not Started
    Due Date: November 30, 2017
    If have questions about the assignment, contact:

    Ginny Topolski, Administrative Assistant, HRIS Systems

    But I wonder how you would respond to the following predictable statist left-progressive rejoinder.

    It’s inarguably true that a large part of the administrative overhead is driven by state-based regulation. And surely some part of the bureaucratic burdens may be bullshit, but left to pure market forces, we’d never have gotten things like the Americans for Disabilities Act. The ADA adds to costs and to bureaucratic burdens, but also improves conditions for the least fortunate, who’d otherwise not get the reasonable accommodations they now get, thanks to l’etat.

    I don’t know how much the ADA accounts for costs and bureaucratic burdens, but my point is, this is the pattern of argument you’d expect to get in defense of “administrative bloat.” The argument is going to be that market discipline would chase justice, care, or reasonable accommodations right out of the marketplace. Administrative bloat is expensive, but ensures that it’s there.

    How else to ensure a safe learning and working environment for students and employees? Are you telling me that you favor a rapacious desire for profit over a safe learning and working environment?

    Do I need to assign you training?


    • I think there are really two different questions here: a) how would we get accessible accommodations without government regulation, and b) how would we get accessible accommodations without the kind of administrative bloat I’m complaining about?

      I think (b) is fairly easy. Most of the administrative bloat, in my experience, doesn’t have much to do with stuff one can reasonably see the point of, like accessible accommodations; it concerns much more pointless bureaucratic requirements, assessment cycles, etc. This cartoon has become a favourite in our department:

      One of my favourite requirements, from a few years back, was that we were required to identify some change we needed to make, some unaddressed need, but we were NOT to then make any steps to address the problem, because then it would be an addressed rather than an unaddressed need. So we were literally told to find a problem that needed fixing, but then not fix it (until the following year, when we’d need to identify a different problem). There was also never any follow-up as to whether we’d addressed the problem once that cycle was over.

      So even if one assumes the ADA is justified, it’s hard to see why this sort of looniness would have to accompany it.

      Now (a) is a more complicated question, but my general answer would be that the freer the market is, the easier it becomes for people to coordinate the kind of organised social pressure that can achieve the sorts of results the ADA aims at, but without top-down government coercion. And I would point to the following pieces as examples of what I mean:




      Click to access women-and-the-invisible-fist-2013-0503-max.pdf

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for those links. I’ve only had time to read the first three, and only in a superficial way, but they’re helpful.

        I don’t disagree with what you say, but my experiences have clearly been different from yours–mostly, I suspect, because Felician is a very different sort of institution from Auburn. In my mind, your (b) raises the question of what in fact accounts for “administrative bloat” across the board (in higher education), assuming that an “across the board” answer is the right kind.

        Until maybe five years ago, assessment was a major headache for me: I was a department chair running a philosophy program in a Philosophy Department, so given the mania for assessment, the powers-that-be wanted programmatic assessments. The need for programmatic assessment was driven by the requirements of Middle States accreditation, and though the Middle States Commission is technically voluntary and itself a private non-profit organization, de facto it’s a government agency. So until maybe 2014, my experiences probably lined up with yours.

        In 2014, our philosophy program was eliminated, as was the position of department chair, as were all of the full time philosophy faculty but me. (This makes me either the most indispensable member of the faculty, or the most dispensable, depending on how one views things. So either I’m the John Galt of my institution or its James Taggart, I’m not sure which.) With no philosophy program, there was no need for programmatic assessment, so assessment ceased to be an issue, at least for me. But administrative burdens didn’t cease to be an issue. In my experience, the rule of thumb is: administrative burdens arise where the university faces threats to its reputation or threats of litigation or threats of some other kind of legal liability. In my case, that means that the university’s administration comes down on you in three sorts of cases: reputation-affecting speech, anti-discrimination issues, and ADA-like issues, whether or not the ADA is specifically involved.

        When it comes to reputational issues, the administrative burdens have less to do with “bloat” than to do with encroachments on academic freedom: I’ve repeatedly been called before HR and deans to answer for things I’ve said to students, whether in class or elsewhere, that are thought to reflect adversely on the university’s reputation. (And of course, on one occasion, I was arrested for an in-class remark.) But few accounts of “administrative bloat” are likely to say that we can eliminate HR, the core academic deans, or the local police department. (OK, well, C4SS’s account might eliminate the police.) This issue is a matter of local culture, and my view is that things like this can happen anywhere, with or without government regulation. Yes, the whole game is driven by reputational issues, which I regard as almost entirely bullshit, but that has little to do government regulation.

        The really burdensome administrative stuff I deal with has to do with regulatory compliance. I don’t know how to measure the burdens even in my own case, but I spend what strikes me as an inordinate amount of time being trained to comply with anti-discrimination and privacy statutes, and I face what strikes me as fairly crazy regulatory requirements driven either by the ADA or by local interpretations of what the ADA might be thought to require.

        I’ll skip the anti-discrimination and privacy stuff, because I can’t bear to think about it long enough even to bitch about it.

        As for the ADA-ish stuff, consider just one outlandish-sounding but (literally) par-for-the-course example: my university has recently adopted an administrative rule that prohibits the showing of any video in class that has not been submitted for official ADA-compliant closed captioning by a specific date before the semester begins. In other words, if you want to show videos in class, you’d better know, prior to the start of the semester, which videos they are and in which classes, and you’d better have submitted them for closed captioning before the due date–or else you won’t be able to show them at all. Pedagogical spontaneity is effectively illegal. So whether it actually violates the ADA or not, failure to comply with this rule is thought by our regulatory compliance people to violate the ADA, and is regarded as a major liability-producing infraction. Given that, compliance is mandatory, and regarded as a condition of employment (at a non-tenure-granting institution). Violate it often enough, and you create a paper trail that leads to termination for cause.

        It doesn’t matter whether or not anyone in the class claims to need ADA-compliant closed captioning, and it doesn’t matter that most You Tube videos have closed captioning at the click of a mouse. As far as our local regulatory apparatus is concerned, You Tube closed captioning is not ADA compliant, and non-ADA-compliant videos simply cannot be shown period, whether or not anyone claims to need closed captioning in a given case. Because what if someone needed closed captioning, and didn’t say that they did? The possibility that {someone needs closed captioning but didn’t speak up} trumps the possibility that {no one asked because no one needed it}. And the possibility that {someone needs it, and didn’t ask}, entails that {no one gets to see the video even if everyone asks to see it}. As we all know, only a monster of insensitivity to the needs of the disabled would show a video to a class of students all of whom could watch it–given the existence of a class in a nearby possible world containing a student who couldn’t watch, and didn’t say she couldn’t.

        This all strikes me as really fucking stupid. It sacrifices pedagogical spontaneity to a very quixotic conception of accommodation, and trust me, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of the phenomenon in question.

        But when all is said and done, I’m still left with two demoralizing thoughts: 1) Even if I stripped away the worst aspects of the regulatory compliance phenomenon, I’d probably be left with substantial administrative burdens, administered by a substantially large staff, at least some of whom could be described by someone as having “bullshit jobs,” and 2) If my (1) is correct, and your (a) is correct, there is no way of avoiding a fair bit of “administrative bloat” whether we operate under l’etat or under anarchy, as long as we hold current cultural-ethical attitudes constant.

        In other words, people have now come to believe–for better or worse–in the need for accommodations of many sorts for a lot of people. The regulatory state responds to that belief in one way, and you’re saying that a free market would respond to at least some of it in another. Either way, we get a regulatory apparatus of some sort, along with the “administrative bloat” that goes with it. A free market might respond to fewer of those demands, the regulatory state perhaps responds to more, but both arrangements are compatible with a situation in which universities have huge administrative staffs imposing heavy administrative burdens. Maybe this is despair talking, but I think the problem is essentially unsolvable.

        Now add the ADA-type phenomenon to the need for remedial education (tutoring services, non-faculty instructional staff teaching non-credit bearing courses, etc.) plus counseling services, plus health services, and it starts to become clear why universities have so much “administrative bloat.” I don’t know for sure that the preceding accounts for the bulk of “administrative bloat,” and I wouldn’t be too quick to describe these jobs as “bullshit.” But it’s clear that the things I’ve mentioned account for a lot of what we call “university administration,” and I’m skeptical that any easily imaginable institutional arrangement would either do away with it, or do away with the need for it.

        I’m tempted to kill myself at this point. But saying that would adversely affect the reputation of my university, and anyway, my university has ample resources to handle mental health crises, up to and including psychiatric emergencies. So, no worries.


        • Yeah, we definitely work at very different institutions. There’s very little administrative concern here over what we say in our classes. And we’re at the lamentably opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to accessibility issues; for example, our department’s lunches for prospective majors are held in a room reachable only by stairs! Yet administrative bloat continues; so the causes are no doubt multiple.

          Medieval universities are interesting to look at. Some of them, like the University of Paris, were top-down affairs run by church or state or both, with a micromanaging administration that tended to unite students and faculty together in opposition to it. But others, like the University of Bologna, were legally self-governing communities regulated by collective bargaining between the organised faculty and the organised student body (with students being the largely dominant side), and had no other “administration” beyond students and faculty thus organised. Still others, like the University of Salamanca, were a mix of the two models. All three types were pretty successful. I don’t think there’s any inherent inevitability about the present structure of the university.

          Re YouTube, a lot of YouTube CC captioning is done by a computer program rather than by a person, and so the results tend to be hilariously inaccurate.


          • I should add that the pleasantly anarchic University of Bologna was not without regulatory requirements. For example, there was a (student-run) Committee for the Denunciation of Professors. Its main focus was to penalise professors for not covering what they had promised to cover in their advertised syllabi.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I kept your last point in mind the other day when I showed this video in class. On the whole, the You Tube closed captioning was pretty accurate. The punctuation was off, but there was nothing that far off or difficult to figure out. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how long it would take, or how much it would cost, to transcribe a 36 minute video from scratch. I wonder if this effectively means that one can’t show videos like this in class any more, even if no one needs the accommodation in question. I’m not even sure I could assign it as “homework.” The bottom line, though, is that there’s a tension between ADA 504 accommodations as currently interpreted, and academic freedom as conventionally understood.


  3. Roderick, thanks for the look into this book. In my life of commercial work outside academia, I recall only one coworker who thought his current job was a useless one to the product of the firm. Sadly for me, there were some workers who could care less what if anything the firm was producing.

    Many workers, in small firms and in large, in manual labor and in paper/computer jobs, found their work meaningful only in the sense that it was a source of income. Among those workers, I think only those who had in mind some other projects more intriguing and meaningful for them to pursue (but for the drawback of risking fall in income) thought that income from the present job insufficiently meaningful.

    I gather there are people who seem to think that only moral meaning is really meaningful and see nothing of such meaning in commercial employment. But I don’t recall working with anyone like that. I worked for a fellow once, high up in this large firm, who was a Catholic deacon and was a left-socialist (and contra Rand), but he did not view our commercial enterprise as unimportant or meaningless.

    I found my commercial work meaningful in the income I derived from it, in the product that people wanted to buy, and in the working with others in that joint venture. The greater productivity achieved with more powerful information collection and processing and with advancing communication allowed running firms with fewer people. Getting myself further technical education allowed me to get better-paying jobs that required less overtime (eventually) to make a living and increased the time I could devote to projects I most treasured.

    There is often not enough market demand for work one would find most fine to do. The great thing for me in the strides of greater productivity (from taller capital structure and technological advances) is that, unlike my grandparents in early 20th Century, I did not begin life plowing with mules and cooking on the iron stove, but got to go to high school and college and earn all that money and knowledge beyond.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s