Seminar discussion recap, session 3

how do we use the terms institution and rationality?

Previously, we have discussed two paradoxes. One is that we are surrounded by technological intelligence and yet deluged with human stupidity. A second is that we are becoming fragmented culturally and yet the elites seem to have congealed into a monoculture.

This week, we worked on a third paradox. That is, the term “institution” is both too narrow and too broad. For example, suppose that we want to talk about journalism. The term “the institution of journalism” risks being vague. Where are the boundaries? Who is a member of this institution? Who is not? Can we talk about this institution as having goals?

We could try working with a narrow definition. We can talk about the NYT or other media organizations as institutions. Then it is easier to articulate boundaries and goals.

But we seemed to end up wanting to apply the term “institution” more broadly, because we have a sense that such broader institutions matter. If we are not making good use of technology to enable us to behave more intelligently, then it is these broader institutions that are failing us.

Given this broader definition of institutions, are expectations for institutions determined internally or externally? By supply or by demand? Does the behavior of journalists come from the way that they are trained and molded, or does it come from what consumers desire?

Jonathan Rauch would say that institutions work as a Constitution of Knowledge. They treat ideas as contestable and they provide arenas in which better ideas out-compete weaker ones.

In Julia Galef’s terms, good institutions operate in scout mindset, seeking out truth in a detached manner, approaching different ideas with curiosity. This is although individuals instinctively operate in soldier mindset, defending your preferred beliefs and approaching different ideas with hostility.

But operating in scout mindset requires sticking to some principles. So people within institutions have to fight for those principles. Are people unwilling to stick with principles like objectivity and free speech because of personal weakness?

Steven Pinker defines rationality as the use of knowledge to pursue a goal. For institutions, it might be better to talk about a mission. The mission may be a mix of ideals (“all the news that’s fit to print,” “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”).

The culture of the institution is what enables it to pursue its goals. One form of institutional irrationality is when the desired outcome does not result from the output. This could be due to principal-agent problems, in which the interests of those who work within an institution do not align with the overall goal.

Another form is when there are multiple goals that conflict with one another, and the conflict is not resolved through arguing, bargaining, and negotiating. This can be exacerbated by “mission creep.” Universities adding “social justice” to their existing mission, which already involves competing goals of research and teaching. The Fed adding “climate change” to its mission, which already involves competing goals of full employment and price stability.

Note that “mission creep” or having an unattainable mission ensures failure. But it also in a way helps to perpetuate the institution. Mission creep could be a factor that causes the rationality of institutions to decay over time.

Suppose that competitive pressure is what creates the evolution of better institutions. This would suggest that government might deteriorate but journalism ought to become better. Why instead do we seem to see many institutions declining at the same time in similar ways?

Perhaps journalism is responding to pressure, and we should be optimistic about it. The NYT has recently featured opinions from John McWhorter, who presumably annoys many readers. But is the NYT quarantining him in the opinion section, while still suppressing news stories that would bother its readers? Or is the NYT actually providing balanced coverage if you read it, and it only appears biased to those of us who hear about it from media outlets on the right, which highlight the NYT stories that bother us the most?

Journalism traditionally tried to present stories with only facts. Analysis was put in separate columns, and opinion in yet other columns. Now, all stories have narratives. But perhaps facts are hard to establish. Photos from Kenosha show different things to different people.

It seems that the Internet has increased the transparency of institutions. That is, we can see more clearly what reporters, academics, and public officials are doing, and we can see when they go wrong. Perhaps this is what is fostering a sense of institutional failure. Is journalism any more aggressively biased today than it was in 1898? Is the CIA any more flawed today than it was prior to 9/11 or the Bay of Pigs invasion?

But why don’t elites respond to transparency by expressing more humility? Why doesn’t the head of the CDC say, “Look we know some things about the virus. But there is a lot we don’t know. Our best advice as of now is to do X.” Instead, they are very assertive and seemingly confident.

We seem to select for confident-sounding leaders. Is that from the demand side (the public wants a one-handed economist, or an authoritative public health official) or the supply side (people who have a high opinion of themselves fight harder to get to the top)? Perhaps males get to the top in organizations because the people who exude the most extreme confidence tend to be male.

Next week: case studies of institutional failures. Forensic autopsies of examples such as the Vietnam War.