Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Symbolic Thrift

American law schools, including the one I teach at, currently face serious budget problems due to declining enrollment. The obvious response is to try to cut expenditures. A particularly visible example, at least in our case, is abandoning the practice of serving catered food at faculty meetings and similar events. 

My guess is that the total amount saved is a tiny fraction of the budget, but I think that fraction understates the effectiveness of the change for two different reasons, both in some sense symbolic. The first is that it is hard to persuade other people that they should be careful to hold down expenditures if you are not doing so yourself. Catered meals are a visible extravagance provided mostly for the benefit of the faculty—who, to a considerable extent, run the school. Abandoning them is a way of signalling staff members that they too should be willing to make do on less money, even if it makes life a little harder and less pleasant for them.

The second reason is one that I intuit better than I can explain; it has something to do with the different feel of different human organizations. Consider at one extreme a loving family where every member takes it for granted that he ought to take account of the welfare of the other members in his decisions. Consider at the other extreme a bureaucratic organization, public or private, where the individual concern is not with the consequences of his acts but with the paper trail, his ability to prove to the satisfaction of his superiors that he has done what he should do, whether or not it is true.

Most organizations lie somewhere between those two extremes, depending in part on their size—it is easier to know and care about four other people than four thousand. Most organizations, however large and bureaucratic, make some attempt to take advantage of the family level feelings in order to motivate their members to act in the interest of the organization and the other members, but large formal organizations are less likely to succeed than small informal ones. How successful they are depends in part on how much the organization feels like a family, how much like a bureaucracy.

Which is one reason why, when my school stopped serving lunch at faculty meetings, I started bringing chocolate chip cookies.


Tibor said...

The first reason is why it is also a good idea for a libertarian politician (let's say he has enough power, however unlikely that is) to first cut down the wages of his fellow politicians (and himself) some percent and only then all the various welfare programs (while simultaneously decreasing taxes). The wages of the members of parliament or house of congress or whathever elected body are insignificant with comparison to other parts of the state budget, but they are very symbolic.

The second one is interesting. It seems to me, that welfare state causes in a sense a shift of a lot of things from the family level to the bureaucratic organization. When I get pension from the state, I have less incentive to actually take good care of my children...which, apart from the practical purposes of raising someone who can care after me when I'm old, brings people together, since they interact more closely.

lelnet said...

And thus is an altruistic end (COOKIES!!!!) served by the self-interest of one man, in maintaining a positive image of himself in the minds of his colleagues.

Adam Smith would be proud. :)

It remains to be seen, of course, whether this symbolic thrift (where it doesn't really matter enough to be worth worrying about) leads to increased tolerance for thrift in the areas where it actually has a chance to make a real difference.

I admit that I am skeptical. But as any true skeptic ought to be, I am open to persuasion by the evidence, once we have some.

Do please keep us, your readers, posted on the results of the experiment.

Bruce said...

How about a federal law mandating that people bring food to events where it is not otherwise served. That way, all organizations would feel like a family.

No doubt, there would be huge increases in national productivity from this simple law.

(Just kidding, in case the tone did not come across.)

David Friedman said...

I should probably mention that I also brought chocolate chip cookies to the final meeting of my IP Theory class. One of the subjects we discussed at some length was whether one needed patent and copyright protection to provide an incentive for innovation. I introduced the cookies as evidence—one of the greatest unpatented inventions of the early 20th century.

A cynic might almost suspect that my real motive is looking for an excuse to make, and eat, chocolate chip cookies.

Tibor said...

I left Prague to study my Ph.D. in Goettingen, but a friend of mine who was my peer during the MS studies and who is getting his Ph.D. in Prague now tells me that professor Seidler either brings or requires someone to bring a chocolate cake for every doctoral seminar (which he holds). If I knew that, I might have had reconsidered my choice of Goettingen over Prague...there has been no cake in Goettingen so far. However, we have been to a Christmas dinner with the staff of the mathematical stochastics institute and it was paid from the institute's funds, so it has its perks also :)