Attention GMU students

Blog Overkill – The danger of hyping a good thing into the ground. By Jack Shafer

If you’re in Steve Klein’s class, where I’ll be appearing in 10 days or so, you might want to give this one a read. Shafer’s point: Blogs are great, but they’re not the revolutionary force some want to claim they are.

The comments at the bottom are interesting, but it’s easy to get distracted from any reasonable point and get drawn into a convoluted argument about what was actually said at the conference in question. I’ve read through several of the discussions, and I’m inclined to think that Shafer didn’t jump to any irrational conclusions. You may disagree, depending on which posts you read and which posts you believe.

As I said, though, that’s not the point worth discussing. For a good discussion on the future of blogs, check this post from former Spinsanity co-editor Brendan Nyhan.

And on a side note, what does it tell you that reasonable discussions are so easily sidetracked into “he said, she said” arguments?


Those wild Dukies …

Just when I think Duke has turned too serious, I find this little tale of an off-campus bikini wrestling party.

Not to condone such things, but who showed less respect for the women involved — the men watching the bikini-wrestling, or the cops who sent them home IN their bikinis on a cold night in Durham?

One inaccuracy in that story — Duke doesn’t have frat houses. The fraternities live together in sections of regular dorms.


Guilt — is it good?

The Economist takes what it calls a “sceptical look at corporate social responsibility” in this editorial (subscribers only) and a survey that is guaranteed to induce dizziness and nausea.

The Economist is usually a good bit better than this, but these two items and a couple of other recent weak entries make me wonder if they’ve hired some inebriated college libertarians as interns.

As with most self-consciously “politically incorrect” writing, these pieces are laced with smugness. Economics geeks love to think they’ve one-upped the do-gooders. But in this case, the ethics aren’t the problem. It’s the logic.

A sampling of logical problems:

  • The survey outlines four types of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and notes the existence of “win-win” situations. Mysteriously, that segment concludes that CSR “invariably” leads to harm.

    The claim that reserves for oil and other commodities have increased despite high usage is intriguing. But it defies all reasoning to think that these reserves are going to keep going up. Economists love to look at an upward line on a graph and assume they’ve discovered a pattern that must continue. Life doesn’t work that way, especially when we’re talking about finite resources. (You simply can’t use supply-and-demand charts to guess future supply when that “supply” isn’t produced or restored by humans!)

  • The survey glosses over the point that economists could easily use to justify most CSR activity — it’s good advertising. In fact, several ads in that issue of The Economist tout companies as good international citizens. Consumers have responded to companies with good public profiles. It’s strange to see the free-market Economist trying to tell consumers not to reward this sort of behavior. You’d think they’d be happy that consumers, not governments, are driving good works.
  • The whole argument is based on the premise that businesses are spending money that should rightfully go to the stockholders (apparently, ignorant stockholders who don’t realize the company is spending all this cash). By that reasoning, anything a company does to improve its own image — advertising, glossy showrooms, good customer service, etc. — is a waste of stockholders’ money.

That should be enough to smash The Economist’s argument. But there’s a related issue worth considering — is guilt a good thing?

I was raised to be skeptical (back to U.S. spelling) of guilt as a motivator. On the other hand, I was raised in a strict church and sent to YMCA camps, so I was raised to feel guilt.

I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. Guilt inspires many good works, especially among great philanthropists. It makes our own malfeasance difficult to accept.

All things in moderation, of course, but if you compare guilt to shame — the other motivator some folks in the current culture war want to employ — I think guilt is far better. Shame simply inspires us to find fault in others. Guilt inspires us to push ourselves to do better.


Why it’s so hard to take snowboarding seriously

Bear in mind — I DO take snowboarding seriously. It’s an Olympic sport with solid credentials. The halfpipe doesn’t have murky points for artistic impression, so one could easily argue that it’s more legit than figure skating. Snowboardcross is as exciting as short-track skating and considerably less messy, with fewer impossible decisions for the referees. So yes, I’m on board. (Awful pun, sorry.)

So why would I have any trouble with the sport? Blame the self-indulgent coverage.

Also, the turf wars are pretty silly. On the TV broadcasts, Lindsey Jacobellis and Seth Wescott were introduced by the number of X-Games medals they’d won in the past. OK. They’re also the current world champions. Isn’t that worth at least a little mention?