Friday, July 09, 2010

Governments, Private Organizations, and Sunk Costs

Over the last few days, I have become embroiled in a controversy within the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation group of which I have been a reasonably active part for about forty years; an earlier post mentioned it. The people running the SCA's largest event, a two week camping event with about ten thousand participants, announced without prior discussion a new rule for the event that many active participants, myself among them, saw as catastrophically bad. In response to an extensive online outcry they somewhat modified the rule, while making it clear that they were not willing either to explain and discuss their reasons or to suspend the rule for this year—the event starts in a few weeks—and discuss it for next. The controversy is still ongoing, and what the final outcome will be is as yet unclear.

Reading the news today, I noticed a story on the outcome of a similar case in a different context—one I am also involved in. Blizzard, which runs (among other things) World of Warcraft, had announced that in the future people posting to its online forums would have to provide their real names. That too set off a firestorm of negative reaction. In that case, it worked—Blizzard has just announced that it is canceling the change.

In each of these cases, one group of people—Pennsic staff or Blizzard—is making a decision which will have a large effect, arguably negative, on a very large number of other people. In each case, those affected have no formal right to a say in the decision. But in each case, the people affected have informal ways of both expressing their views and putting some pressure on those making the decision. Blizzard does not want to lose customers, and the people running Pennsic are long term SCA members who, if nothing else, do not want to be viewed by their fellow hobbyists as arrogant and incompetent. As one person in the discussion put it:
... in the Society, real wealth is the ability to say "I have an idea" and have people agree to work to support it. The rarest coin of the realm is when other people give you chunks of their leisure time.

...

Losing the confidence that others have in you, that you can make things fun for them, is SCA Bankruptcy.
The obvious analogy is to governments, which make decisions for other people on a much larger scale. In theory, democracy lets the people affected control things, but it is a very imperfect form of control for familiar reasons. Governments are in that position because they can use force to make people obey them. Blizzard and the Pennsic staff are in that position because the affected people have spent a lot of time and effort doing things within the framework of the game or the Society, and so cannot vote with their feet without, in effect, throwing away much of what that time and effort has bought them. In the jargon of economics, they have large sunk costs.

The analogy raises an obvious question. Would it be better if Blizzard and the SCA followed the democratic model, with participants voting to decide who was in a position to make decisions? It is an option that some people have proposed, and argued for, in both contexts.

On the whole, it does not strike me as a good idea. For a polity with a substantial population—tens of thousands for the SCA, millions for Blizzard—democracy works poorly, for reasons familiar in public choice theory. The alternative, a mix of social pressure and market pressure, is probably a less bad solution, even though the market pressure is seriously weakened by the sunk cost problem. One piece of evidence that it is a better solution in the view of those directly affected is that Blizzard does not have a successful competitor that attracts customers by giving them a vote over how the game is run.

In both cases there is a third alternative—moving the relevant parts of what people are doing out of the control of those who, in many people's view, are controlling them badly. Players of World of Warcraft can, and do, set up their own web sites with their own forums. If Blizzard had maintained its policy, more, perhaps in time most, of the online discussions would have moved to such forums. The Pennsic staff controls the classes they run. But if my objection to the new rule is sufficiently strong, I have the option of cancelling the classes I had planned to teach within the Pennsic University and reconstituting them elsewhere, ideally in a private encampment near the places where they were originally scheduled. It is an option that, at this point, I am seriously considering.

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P.S. The Pennsic staff, under pressure, withdrew the controversial rule, explaining that other SCA people had volunteered solutions to the problems that had required to it. The statement contained no suggestion that the rule had been a mistake. The policies that were supposed to substitute for it included one that had been effect for years, another targeted at a problem that had little to do with the original rule, and a third dealing with a rare problem for which there were easier solutions.

The classic definition of chutzpah is the man who, after killing his mother and father, asks the court for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. Publicly thanking people for offering solutions to a problem after publicly announcing your unwillingness to tell them what the problem is comes close.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

Breaking the Walled Garden of Childhood

A very long time ago, I attended a conference at which one of the other participants was the late John Holt, a prominent and unconventional writer on education. The part of his talk I still remember was his description of the Victorian ideal of the walled garden of childhood—that children needed to have their innocence preserved by being walled away from the corrupting influence of the real world. As he put it then, some children want nothing more than to climb over that damned wall.

It is an attitude that is all too common in the modern world. The Internet is a wonderful educational tool—but a lot of parents assume that their children must be protected, by monitoring or filtering, from seeing too much of it. What psychological damage would be done to a six year old from seeing a picture of two humans engaged in sexual intercourse that was not done, over the centuries, to six year old farm children observing cattle engaged in the same activity for real has never been explained to me.

It goes along with the hostility to children working. The image of the boy with a newspaper route has been largely supplanted by Dickensian fantasies of juvenile slave labor in dark satanic mills. The prejudice is not even limited to paid employment. Libraries, at least the one my daughter briefly volunteered at, take it for granted that any teenager who volunteers is doing so to fulfill a requirement or get a box checked in a college application, and should be let go as soon as that objective is fulfilled. The idea that someone younger than eighteen might want to actually do something useful is ruled out ab initio.

Discussing this with my daughter, she mentioned how surprised she was as a young teenager to discover that something she did—playing harp—could actually be of use to people as an accompaniment to dancing. Later, as a college student, one of her complaints was that she was writing papers that nobody, aside from the professor who graded them, would ever read. Given the opportunity to do a winter term project of her own design, she chose to translate a renaissance Italian cookbook, a translation that is now up on my web page to be used by people interested in historical cooking. The walled garden is for playing in—what she wanted was to do things.

One exception used to be the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation organization that I have been involved with for a very long time. I was taught to use a sewing machine by a twelve year old girl; a few years later she was the moving spirit behind a puppet theater. But that has gradually changed. More and more over the years, children who come to SCA events are expected, not to help set up the hall or cook the dinner or run the event, but to attend "children's activities."

What set off this post was the discovery that at the Pennsic War, the SCA's largest gathering, a two week long camping event with something over ten thousand people and a Pennsic University with about a thousand classes (some of which I teach), there is now a new rule. Nobody under eighteen can attend a class unless accompanied by parent or legal guardian. When I complained to one of the people responsible, I was assured that they had made special provision to allow children to attend children's classes.

I have long held that there are two fundamental views of children: That they are pets who can talk, or that they are small people who do not yet know very much. The wrong one is winning.

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