Jacob Bacharach

Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

Mark Twain, like an twitter journalist claiming their child wondered how we could entrust the nuclear codes to a man who doesn’t understand the Triad, attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the now-famous saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But I tend to take a less charitable view of the misapplication of statistical evidence in the pursuit of Trend Journalism. I am in the Harry G. Frankfurt school on this; I consider it less a lie than a more pernicious type of bullshit. The liar uses untruth intentionally and instrumentally, but she recognizes the difference between the lie and the truth—in fact, a precise appreciation of truth is necessary for a good lie. But the bullshitter makes no categorical distinction; the bullshitter collapses the categories. The bullshitter is a sort of sub-Nietzschian superman, beyond truth or fiction.

So we find in this recent Times piece, where a few grumbling, mostly older male alumni of certain exceedingly selective and prestigious undergraduate institutions have told our reporter that they will no longer give generously to their alma maters where, as I’m sure you can already imagine, they are shocked and horrified by a benighted culture of political correctness.

Students are too wrapped up in racial and identity politics. They are allowed to take too many frivolous courses. They have repudiated the heroes and traditions of the past by judging them by today’s standards rather than in the context of their times. Fraternities are being unfairly maligned, and men are being demonized by sexual assault investigations. And university administrations have been too meek in addressing protesters whose messages have seemed to fly in the face of free speech.

College protest is as old as college, and whatever you think of the apparently extreme sensitivities of today’s students—I tend to be amused rather than threatened—by and large, it’s salutary for students to flex their new political muscles over topics that, while silly to us old folk, are deeply meaningful to them. Student housing, campus dining, the content and delivery of course material—these are at least as important, as fundamentally life-altering, to a third-year undergrad than, say, the carried interest tax exemption to a hedge fund manager. Speaking of which:

“I don’t think anything has damaged Yale’s brand quite like that,” said [Scott C.] Johnston, a founder of an internet start-up and a former hedge fund manager. “This is not your daddy’s liberalism.”

The that that Mr. Johnson is referring to here is the much-publicized and briefly infamous “Yale student who was videotaped screaming at a professor, Nicholas Christakis, that he had failed ‘to create a place of comfort and home’ for students in his capacity as the head of a residential college.” But I’m more interested in Your Daddy’s Liberalism. Mr. Johnson “graduated from Yale in 1982,” placing his birth date at roughly 1960, meaning that the Daddy Liberalism these-kids-today have viciously traduced with their signs and chants is no more or less than the precise political values of one Mr. Scott C. Johnson himself. What did we used to say at my prestigious, selective, not-at-all-representative-of-the-vast-majority-of-institutions-of-higher-learning institution of higher learning? The personal is the political? Huh.

Having discovered a small band of wandering anecdotes, the reporter must fence them in with empirical evidence, and this is where the 1-year variations in annual giving and participation are carefully deployed to suggest struggles where none really exist.

At Princeton, where protesters unsuccessfully demanded the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from university buildings and programs, undergraduate alumni donations dropped 6.6 percent from a record high the year before, and participation dropped 1.9 percentage points, according to the university’s website. A Princeton spokesman, John Cramer, said there was no evidence the drop was connected to campus protests.

So. A one-time drop from a “record high” with no prior period information to contextualize the multi-year and multi-decade trends is correlated by implication with a campus protest to which in the same paragraph we are told that there is no evidence of a connection. Oh by the way, in 2015, Princeton’s overall endowment earned 12.7% or $1.7 billion dollars, to reach an overall value of $22.7 billion. Yale, Mr. Johnson’s struggling little scrapper, runs what may be the world’s most successful venture capital fund and has an overall endowment of $25.57 billion.

Not every college is Yale, but even at poor, grotty little Amherst we find an almost identical story:

At Amherst, the amount of money given by alumni dropped 6.5 percent for the fiscal year that ended June 30, and participation in the alumni fund dropped 1.9 percentage points, to 50.6 percent, the lowest participation rate since 1975, when the college began admitting women, according to the college. The amount raised from big donors decreased significantly. Some of the decline was because of a falloff after two large reunion gifts last year, according to Pete Mackey, a spokesman for Amherst.

You do have to love an article that unironically notes that dudes once stopped giving because they let in the chicks and now will stop giving because “men are being demonized by sexual assault investigations.” But once again, I’m more focused on the figures. Once again, we see a sharp but single-year decline coming off a big reunion year: reunion-year giving always spikes high. What is the 10-year-trend? Who knows?

This story is bullshit in the true, philosophical sense of the term: utterly unconcerned with truth. There may or may not be an interesting story about alumni giving at elite institutions, but you couldn’t tell either way from this farrago of bad information and missing context. And as I’ve observed before and will surely observe again, there’s a small shame and a big shame here. The small shame is that some reporter wrote this. The larger shame is that an editorial staff approved it and permitted its publication.