Friday, November 18, 2011

Tales From the Front: Exchange is Immoral!

Step 1: Duke kids are smart, and care about their living arrangements.
Step 2: Duke administrators care about a concept that they made up, though it has no actual meaning. And that concept is "fairness."
Step 3: Duke administrators keep making up new rules and than are appalled, aghast, agonized (and other words starting with letters of the alphabet) Duke students will try to game the system to compete for better room arrangements.
Step 4: Duke administrators then try to change the rules, punish those who follow the rules, etc. If "fair" has ANY meaning, it must surely be "do not constantly change the rules" and "do not punish people who follow the rules, just because you don't like the outcome."

Now, Duke is going to change the rules, to make things more fair. Really.

Some background. Some more background. For years, Duke has allowed groups or blocks to have priority in room selection. The reason is that it is easier to fit in small groups and individuals once the larger groups have been placed. This year the admins decided that it would be better to make it effectively impossible for any except large groups to have any choice whatsoever in room selection. And they wanted to limit the choice even the big groups got, so they instituted a lottery.

One of the features of a lottery, of course, is that the assignment of a group to a space allocation has zero, zilch, bagel, nada to do with how much that group VALUES that location. And since a number of the groups are more or less the same size (and since size is variable, and growth or shrinkage might change allocations in the future), some groups thought about what we economists call "side payments."

For example, suppose one group, an ad hoc group based on some shared interest or goal (the "Baseball Stats Study Group") gets assigned prime dorm space on the main quad on west campus. This is pretty noisy space for an intellectual group, but would be perfect for a group that is a frat.

And suppose a frat, Iota Tappa Kegga, about the same size, gets assigned a space way off the main quad, in a queit corner of the dorms.

Now, the BSSG likes the main quad space, because it is convenient for classes. But it is noisy, and the BSSG-ers value the space only slightly. But the ITKs really value that spot. The ITKs take up a collection, and are willing to offer a payment of $5,000 to make the change.

The result is that BSSG gets the $5,000, which they value much more than the space. The ITKs get the prime space, which they value much more than $5,000. And no one else is harmed, or even effected. (If anything, the noise externality is reduced, since moving ITK to the main quad means nobody will notice their noise over the bedlam already there, whereas if ITK had stayed in the back corner their noise would have bothered the neighbors.)

Here's the cool part. When the crack Duke admins learned of the plans to exchange, that was fine. No objection, the rules allowed for groups to trade, all it took was a majority of each group.

But THEN the staff learned of the plans to offer side payments! Outrage! The Dukites were immediately ill-tempered, impassioned, incensed, indignant, inflamed, infuriated, irascible, irate, ireful, irritable, irritated (and other words starting with letters of the alphabet). This email was sent out (I am totally NOT making this up):

Oct 28, 2011

Unfortunately, some behaviors have been brought to our attention that are deeply disturbing. Apparently some groups, very few I am convinced, have included offers of rather large sums of funds to encourage another group to trade houses with them.

To be clear, any exchange of houses found to have involved money as part of the agreement will not be approved. If approval is granted and the exchange of funding comes to light at some point in the future, the approval will be rescinded. Other referrals deemed appropriate for this behavior will be made.

This behavior contradicts the intent and spirit of the opportunity the Duke Houses committee offered groups at this point of the process, an opportunity only considered because several student voices advocated for this chance. Eliminating the opportunity for a trade was considered, but we hate to punish all involved for the actions of a very few. This may change however if this behavior does not cease immediately.

I have head from a number of groups already and there is such excitement out there for what lies ahead in fall, 2012. Let us make that the defining theme of what is happening right now, and not these other actions.

Associate Dean for Residence Life
Co-Chair, Duke Houses

There is just so much to like here. "Behaviors"? You mean like making offers that make two parties better, and no one worse, off? "Referrals"? To the police? To Santa Claus? To the kids' priest/rabbi/vicar/imam/sociology professor (depending on their religion)? "Eliminating the opportunity for a trade was considered..." Wow! Trade is fine. Exchange is illegal. (The actual max offered, btw? $15,000!) These Jesuitical distinctions would have had ol' Thomas A himself scratching his Aristotelian head and thinking, "WTF? I mean, WTFingF?"

UPDATE: I am SO happy. This is exactly the sort of thing I had hoped this blog would encourage. Well done, lad. A good analysis, and good questions.

UPDATE 2: Another student works on the problem. This is what the blog is for, folks!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds right. I mean, seriously, what political persuasion do you think the administration is? Everyone knows the left think profitable exchange is unethical and barter is the only ethical form of exchange. They are primitive that way.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?