Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Same Answer for Every Problem: Idees Fixes in Sports, Teaching, and Social Security

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

[Note to Readers: My new Verdict column was published this morning: "One Wrong Answer to Some Very Important Questions: Understanding Why Cash Payments to College Athletes is a Bad Idea."  I discuss that column in the latter part of the post below.]

According to an old adage, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.  There are actually two ways to understand that adage, one innocent and one cynical.  The innocent interpretation simply says that a well-meaning person would make the best use of whatever tools are currently available.  Although there might exist more appropriate tools for a particular job, sometimes a hammer is the only tool at hand.  Therefore, if you have to drive a screw into a block of wood, you look at the screw as if it were a nail, and make the best of a bad situation.

In the cynical view, a person with a hammer starts to think the hammer is the only useful tool on earth.  Therefore, even when there really is no good way to put the hammer to use on the problem at hand, the person convinces himself that the problem will be solved by hammering everything in sight.  Every problem becomes an excuse to use the hammer.

But the cynical view can have a quasi-innocent twist.  During the Cold War, some journalists interviewed scientists at one or more U.S. nuclear weapons facilities (Los Alamos, I think, and maybe others).  Some of the scientists were asked to react to news items that suggested that the Soviet threat was receding (rumors of arms agreements, reports that Soviet technology was not as advanced as had been assumed, and so on), while other scientists were given bits of information that made things look more threatening.  In every case, both groups of scientists responded to the information by saying, in essence, "This proves that what we do here is more important than ever."

Unlike the purely innocent view, this line of thinking really does require imagining that one tool solves all problems, and to think of even apparent non-problems as even more serious problems.  However, one could easily imagine good-hearted people falling into this "innocent-cynical" mode of thinking.  In addition to being self-validating, it is simply a matter of thinking about problems through the most familiar lens: "How can I help?  By doing what I do best."  It is ultimately self-serving, but it can be unconscious

And then there is the cynical-cynical version, which we see in Republican politics all the time (and sometimes elsewhere).  One of the most damaging idees fixes of the past generation was the thought that the answer to our foreign policy problems was to invade Iraq.  Some Republicans started to think about every issue as an excuse to "take out Saddam," and it did not matter what the excuse was, nor did it matter when those excuses were debunked.  The world is still seeing the disastrous effects of that obsession.

More generally, Republicans believe that every economic problem will be solved by cutting taxes, especially the taxes that rich people and businesses pay.  The economy is strong?  Tax cuts.  The economy is weak?  Tax cuts.  There might be a bubble?  Tax cuts.  The bubble might have burst?  Tax cuts.  Combining these two obsessions, one former Republican House leader once said that the most important thing to do after we invaded Iraq was to cut capital gains taxes.

I have been mulling over this phenomenon recently because I began to notice that three of the issues on which I have written most recently -- college sports, public school teaching, and Social Security -- all show signs of being dominated by cynical-cynical solutions, perhaps with some assistance from innocent-cynical people.

Put simply, I have begun to notice how many times I have recently written something along the following lines: "But if that is really the problem, how is this a solution?"  The most recent example is in discussing the problems facing big-time college sports.  The "hammer" -- that is, the all-purpose answer to every question -- is to pay cash salaries to college athletes.  Coaches are being overpaid?  Give cash to the players.  Universities are not properly controlling athletic departments?  Give cash to the players.  Universities should arguably be paying the Unrelated Business Income Tax?  Give cash to the players.  The players are not really receiving college educations?  Cash!

I acknowledge that there are people who feel, at a deep level, that college sports should simply be treated as a for-profit business, and thus that universities should be subject to all of the rules that would apply to any other industry.  In that case, any agreement among competitors is collusive.  I fundamentally disagree with that view, because I believe that college sports can and should be used to support the educational mission of nonprofit institutions, for the benefit of the athletes and other students.  And as I explain in today's Verdict column, that can only be accomplished by cooperation that, like plenty of other nonprofit activity, is properly exempted from certain laws (antitrust in particular) that would apply to profit-seeking businesses.

But I do think that the "let 'em compete by the normal rules of capitalism" view at least has the virtue of being clear in its principles.  Although it is an idee fixe of a different sort, it is not a view that requires anyone to use every other complaint about college sports as a justification for the preferred solution.  One can quite easily think that colleges are providing a fine education to their athletes, that injuries are simply part of the game (and an assumed risk on the part of players), that coaches are not too powerful, and so on, yet still simply think that this is not nonprofit activity.  I disagree, but I appreciate the non-opportunistic nature of that argument.

Even so, most of the so-called debate about college athletics leaves one asking the question that I noted above: "But if that is really the problem, how is this a solution?"  Similarly, when I recently dug into the debates about schoolteachers (Dorf on Law posts here and here), it was amazing to see how a very well-funded, bipartisan consensus has emerged in which tenure for teachers is thought to be the root of all evil.

Teachers do not volunteer to teach in poor schools?  End tenure!  Student test scores have gone down, even while tenure has been eroded?  End tenure!  We have a hard time keeping good teachers in the profession?  End tenure!  It is all more than a bit bizarre, but it continues because advocates are too often allowed to simply invoke a problem and then sell their all-purpose snake oil.

Finally, in all of my writing about Social Security (most recent Dorf on Law post here), the "moderate" view (as opposed to the radical effort to privatize the system) is to cut benefits a few decades from now.  It does not seem to matter that Social Security is not necessarily in trouble, because we have an answer: Cut benefits in a few decades.  It does not matter that, if Social Security does ultimately face some financing difficulties, it will be because of wage stagnation during people's working lives.  People earned too little while they worked?  Cut their benefits after they retire!

Most importantly, consider the loudest complaint, that Social Security is supposedly coddling current retirees and cheating current younger workers.  The solution?  Cut Social Security benefits when those younger workers retire!  "Hey, young people.  Because our long-term forecasts indicate that there might not be adequate funding to pay 100% of statutory benefits when you get older, we are going to put cuts in place now, so that you will definitely be entitled to smaller payments when you retire.  Generational justice!"

As I noted, some innocent-cynical thinking surely supports all of these misunderstandings.  But it is mostly, I think, cynical-cynical thinking, an opportunistic hijacking of various debates to achieve goals that have little or nothing to do with the purported problems.  Is it really too much to ask that proposed solutions actually solve the problem at hand?  That is not what is really going on.