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Last Collection Speaker -- Mark Kuperberg

29 May, 2005

First, I would like to thank the Seniors in the graduating class for voting me the honor of giving this last Collection Speech. And I would like to thank Chris Rose for engineering my electoral victory. If a future as Commissioner of the NBA does not work out for Chris, he definitely can take over Karl Rove's job. Chris took 4 credits worth of courses from me, which if not quite qualifying as a Minor, comes close. I assumed at the time that Chris just thought that I had a lot of interesting things to say, but I now realize that he was simply biding his time until he could give Me a homework assignment. Like all of you, I, of course, finished this assignment far in advance, left plenty of time for revisions, and got 8.5 hours sleep last night.

In the last month, I have in fact been a candidate in three elections, and I have won two of them. But, in typical Swattie fashion, instead of glorying in the two elections that I did win, I am going to obsess about the one election that I lost. To understand the circumstances, I need to explain more about how school board elections are run in the state of Pennsylvania than you probably want to know. The state of Pennsylvania has a peculiar rule in school board elections that allows a candidate, whether they are a Democrat or a Republican, to run in both primaries simultaneously. So, in my case, I and my opponent were both Democrats, but we ran in both the Democratic and Republican Primaries. I won the Democratic Primary, and my opponent won the Republican Primary.

As everywhere in America, Taxes were a central issue in the campaign. My platform was that the way to keep taxes manageable was to keep costs down, and the way to keep costs down was to think hard about what really matters in education and to direct our limited resources to that. Throughout the campaign, I never promised tax reduction; I just promised to do my best to keep taxes from going through the roof.

My opponent's platform, on the other hand, was, in a direct quote from her campaign literature: "Fresh ideas for Better Schools and Controlling Taxes... I will work to reduce our tax burden without hurting our children's education."

The Reality-Based Community

So, why do I bring this up now. This weekend, we are supposed to be celebrating your emergence from the cocoon of a Swarthmore eduction and your entry into the real world. But, the proposition that I want to put forth today is that while you may think that you are about to enter the real world, you may in fact be leaving it.

I have on my office door a sign that reads, "A proud member of the reality-based community." What does it mean to be a member of the reality-based community? Well, with respect to the election that I was just in, it means that you cannot run on a platform that says "Better Schools and Reduced Taxes." You cannot have all the school programs that you want and lower taxes, too. There is no tooth fairy who is going to leave millions of dollars under your pillow so that you can reduce your tax burden. If you want quality public schools, you are going to have to pay for them. There is no free lunch.

This is, of course, what we teach everyday in the Economics Dept. It is so commonplace to us that we tend to think that it is commonplace everywhere and to everyone. But that is not the case. In the so-called "real world," people vote for candidates who offer "Better Schools and Reduced Taxes." Propositions that would get you an F in an economics course, because of their unreality, become platforms for national parties.

A week ago last Friday, Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman independently wrote columns in The New York Times about America's addictions. In Friedman's case, he was talking about our addiction to foreign oil. In Krugman's case, he was talking about our addiction to foreign borrowing. If you have taken Macroeconomics, you know that these two addictions are not actually independent of one another. There is an identity which requires that a trade deficit (or more technically, a current account deficit) due in part to oil imports must be balanced in equal magnitude by foreign borrowing. So, if you are a member of the reality-based community, you cannot run on a platform that says "Bigger SUV's and Reduced Foreign Borrowing."

Being a member of the reality-based community, does not, of course, mean the you are always right, far from it. But at a minimum, it does mean that you never espouse a position that is logically impossible. Beyond that, it requires an appreciation for what knowledge is. According to the Wikipedia, "A common definition of knowledge is that it consists of justified true belief." This definition derives from Plato, so, of course, it must be right, but I have to say it really isn't very useful because we never know when an empirical (as opposed to a deductive) proposition is true or simply very likely. That is why I use the phrase "an appreciation for what knowledge is." An appreciation for what knowledge is entails an understanding that knowledge is the gradual accumulation of a complex interconnected system of propositions where the individual components of that system are falsifiable and have successfully withstood attempts at falsification.

Knowledge commands respect because it has withstood the test of time and falsification, and a member of the reality-based community accords it that respect. The interrelationships that constitute knowledge are not always intuitive — such as the fact that bigger sports-utility vehicles imply increasing our indebtedness to foreigners. The single most depressing thing about the current administration in Washington is its complete lack of respect for Knowledge, whether scientific or otherwise. For this Administration, knowledge, understood as "justified belief," is simply something that can get in the way of achieving its political ends.

The Collection Business

I got into this whole Collection Speech Business in 1994 when I gave the First Collection Speech to the entering Class of 1998. In that speech, I introduced the class to the concept of Opportunity Cost by comparing a Swarthmore education to an extended vacation to Disney World. Just so you and your parents know, at current prices, rather than having spent 4 years here at Swarthmore, you could have spent 8.4 solid years at Disney World (assuming that you bought 610 consecutive "5 Day Magic Your Way Tickets").

Comparing the two, I went on to say that "We have no scary rides at Swarthmore College (though I suppose that depends upon who is driving the College Van). What we have instead are scary ideas. Ideas that are scary because they are either:

  1. Difficult to acquire, or;
  2. unfamiliar, or;
  3. in conflict with familiar ideas.

I said that "The rides at Disney World disorient your inner ear; but here we bore deeper into the skull."

And I concluded by saying, "After all, what do we really have to teach you? We certainly have no particular expertise in preparing you for specific positions in the real world. The last time that I was in the real world, other than for summer vacation, was before I entered kindergarten. Like most of you (meaning the Class of 1998), I have spent my life since age 5 in educational institutions — the only difference is that I somehow got permanently stuck in them. What we have to teach is how to acquire and evaluate information. How to distinguish knowledge from rumor. In the process, I hope you gain some appreciation for how hard fought knowledge is and how fragile it is in the face of preconceived notions. I also hope that you gain some appreciation for the courage and integrity that is sometimes involved in facing the truth."

Where We Are

But, I now believe that the relationship between academia and the so-called "real world" has become more complex. It is not just that we are a training camp for truth seekers. Increasingly, we seem to be, not the isolated Ivory Tower of Utopian Daydreams, but the last refuge for people who are unwilling to succumb to convenient ideas or comforting beliefs. We seem to be the only people left who don't think that they are going to be "Touched by an Angel." It is the policy makers, who previously had been thought of as the hard-boiled realists, who seem increasingly to be the utopian dreamers, and it is the wooly-headed academics who are the "members of the reality-based community."

Since David Berger, a student who graduated last year, is back for the graduation of some of his friends, I promised that I would not mention the War in Iraq, because David thinks that I worry too much about it. So let me be clear, I am not mentioning the war in Iraq. But I didn't promise not to mention other wars. We fought the Spanish-American War in 1898, in part, to bring democracy to Cuba, and we can see how well that enterprise has worked out. Every 20 years for the last 100 years we have sent troops to bring democracy to Haiti, and we can see how well that enterprise has worked out. If you think about it, the only countries in the world that are still firmly Communist are the countries against whom we fought wars, or battles, to defeat Communism: China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam (the only exception is the Island of Granada — and I think that pretty much proves the rule). All of the Communist countries with which we never went to war, are now no longer officially Communist, though some are hardly democratic.

How We Got Here

I am not exactly sure how we got to this point where the wooly-headed academics are the hard-headed realists, but I think it has something to do with Faith, or more accurately misplaced Faith. I confess that I am not very good at balancing faith and reason: I am so far over at the reason end of the spectrum the I have essentially looped around and have a religious commitment to reason.

Marx famously said that "religion is the opium of the masses," but it now seems that it is the "opium of the ruling elite". But, this speech is not a rant against Faith, it is a rant against unquestioning acceptance of convenient beliefs such as "Tax Cuts can go with Budget Surpluses", "Gas Guzzling Cars can go with Energy Independence", "Unregulated Industry can go with a Clean Environment", and "Our troops can bring Democracy to anywhere in the World".

It is an argument against uncritical acceptance of any ideas, especially ones that you want to believe. To the extent that Faith causes people to question, as many times it does, then it is allied with the critical stance that I am advocating here.

Recently, there has been some journalistic discussion of a trend in Evangelical Christianity toward a progressive economic policy agenda. 800 students, faculty, and alumni of Calvin College, a Christian college in Michigan, protested the appearance of President Bush as their commencement speaker saying, "Your deeds, Mr. President — neglecting the needy to coddle the rich, desecrating the environment, and misleading the country into war — do not exemplify the Faith we live by." I do not mention this incident because 80 percent or more of the people in this amphitheater, myself included, may agree with these sentiments. That is NOT the point. I mention this incident because it is an example of individuals using their Faith to question preconceived notions of what kind of political beliefs an Evangelical Christian is supposed to have. I commend them in the same way that I commend the Swarthmore College Republicans for questioning the prevailing orthodoxy.

Progressive Economic Policy

And speaking of a progressive economic policy agenda, The New York Times is currently running an excellent series on Class in America. For Americans, class is an inconvenient fact that we would like to ignore. On a weekend like this, it might also be polite to ignore it, but that would be contrary to everything that I have been saying. Having been chosen for, and then having chosen, a Swarthmore education, instead of spending 8.4 years at Disney World, has put you, the Class of 2005, several additional rungs up the class ladder. To paraphrase Bob Gross , "no matter what anyone may say or do to you, in the current economy, you really are a valuable person" (or at least a valuable factor of production). The relative wage differential between a College and a High School degree is as high as it has ever been. And in your case, having gone to the "Tied for 2nd Best Liberal Arts College in the Country," the relative wage differential is even greater. The inequality in the distribution of income that this implies is, in fact, a serious social concern.

When we see unequal outcomes, we want simple explanations and we search for villains; but in complex systems, these outcomes can result from a myriad of tiny and, in and of themselves, innocent interactions. They include such unobjectionable things as parents reading to their children, such innocuous things as children taking joy in what they do well and practicing it, and such fortuitous things as encountering an inspiring teacher or role model. On the negative side, they include children being given, and developing, false expectations about the long run payoff to their sports abilities or good looks.

This is not to deny that there are some interactions, such as discrimination, which are not innocent and which do contribute to inequality.

You, of course, are the beneficiaries of these myriad interactions, and the question naturally arises as to whether you should feel guilty about your good fortune. I would say NO.

An example from the natural world may be instructive. Evolution is a complex system from which massive differences, or in our terms, degrees of inequality, emerge. If evolution had a strong affinity for equality, we would all still look like amebas. Now, biologists will tell you that amebas are perfectly well adapted to their environment and are doing quite nicely thank you; but it is hard to believe that when they look at us, they don't suffer from low self-esteem. Still, we wouldn't say that Bio-diversity is a form of injustice.

So, if you shouldn't feel guilty, how should you feel? Well, you certainly shouldn't feel that you deserved all this good fortune (which is not the same thing as saying that you deserved none of it). The belief, by individuals at the top of the Class distribution, that their good fortune is deserved is precisely the kind of convenient, comforting, and untrue belief that I have been cautioning against. As an economist in the New York Times series on Class said, "There is no reason to doubt the old saw that the most important decision you make is choosing your parents."

I am now going to interrupt my speech to do something that we will do again tomorrow. I would like you, the Class of 2005, to stand up and give "yourselves" a big round of applause for the brilliant decision you made in choosing your parents.

If you shouldn't feel guilty and you shouldn't be complacent, what should you do? As a citizen, I believe you should pay careful attention to the rules that society uses to distribute economic rewards. The rules do matter. For example, in football the rule that the team that scores a touchdown or a field goal has to kick the ball back to the other team is a rule the results in more equal scores; while the rule that the team that is forced into a safety has to kick the ball to the team that just scored the safety is a rule the results in less equal scores. One can imagine alternative rules. Some College All-Star games have, or at least used to have, a rule that a team which fell sufficiently far behind would have the ball kicked back to them even if they scored the touchdown. Such a rule results in more equal outcomes. If that rule were in general use, Swarthmore would probably still have a football team.

It seems to me that you have an obligation to support efforts to mitigate those interactions that foster inequality. You are NOT required to sacrifice your own advancement, which is what saints do, but you are required to recognize the complex forces that are responsible for your own good fortune. You are required to support institutions like the progressive income tax, equalization of expenditure capability, though not necessarily expenditure, across public school districts, social insurance programs like social security which have a progressive benefit formula, a formula which cannot be sustained if there were complete privatization, and affirmative action programs when they are properly instituted.

In Conclusion

My plea that you make an unwavering commitment to the truth, however inconvenient that may be, is obviously not a recipe for a quiet life. But, to me, it seems a small price to pay for initiation into the reality-based community. To some degree, you will always be an outsider in the "unreal world" outside these gates, where people hold beliefs simply because those beliefs make them feel good about themselves or about their actions or make their lives easier. But, before I came here, I Googled "reality-based community" and there were 304,000 entries — you will not be alone.

Thank you.