Kejda Gjermani her miscellaneous musings

22Feb/0711

The Passion of the FEDS

My previous post on Jonah Levine got some interesting secondhand comments from FEDS officials but you won’t find them on the blog. Apparently the content and language of my post have failed to meet the FEDS minimum standards of respectability so they will not even grace me with their official dissent. One of the comments was that mine was simply a rant serving no productive purpose, rather than an argument, and that I am as guilty of wasting everyone's time as the people I criticize. Serves me right.

The opinions in my blog are expressed for the sake of my entertainment only, and I apologize to nobody for the way they come across. However, the pleasure I derive from my work would be greatest if the ideas I articulate were conveyed fully and clearly to all of my readers. So if the FEDS claim—that my argument has no credibility due to the personal attacks and language used—is not just a preemptive pretext to evade the serious underlying critique, then I shall reformulate my position to cater to all parties, including the most sensitive ones, in anticipation of productive and purposeful discussion.

That comment about how I am as guilty of wasting everyone’s time as the people I criticize got me thinking: Perhaps I have been too harsh on the FEDS. Perhaps I have unjustly mistaken our young politicians’ utter obliviousness to social reality for utter corruption. Just what do I mean?

When anyone reads my blog, they are exercising their freedom of choice, to use their time as they see fit. They use the impression of the first few lines to determine whether reading my post is likely worth three minutes of their life, then act accordingly. There is no voting process over what to do, no ruling by majority, and I am certainly not forcing anyone—at the point of a gun—to keep reading.

If a reader is dissatisfied with the time investment in my blog, he has nothing to blame but his own judgment and cannot hold anyone guilty of wasting his time for him, certainly not the author. He can unsubscribe, block the page altogether, tell his friends just how awful this site is so they better watch out to never get stranded on it, but that’s about it. It is an individual choice, the consequences of which are contained within the agent who made the choice.

So I am not guilty of wasting anyone's time with my rants!

To draw a comparison between this situation and the condition of a student-citizen who is dissatisfied with her student government and is blaming her student politicians, might be just a sloppy simile, but I would be naïve to see it as simply that. What it reflects is this FEDS executive’s disturbing ignorance on the principles of Government.

If you think my blog sucks, x out of it in a heartbeat! No harm done... But if I believe my student government is wasting my time and money, how do I opt out? Which office do I file a claim through, so I can forfeit my privileges as a student citizen and in return get a full FEDS tax refund? What is my choice? The comparison doesn’t hold so well to scrutiny, does it?

But before anyone screams “Anarchy!” let me clarify a distinction between student government and real government. The government serves some essential functions such as national defense, domestic law and order, basic infrastructure maintenance, and the protection of individual rights in general, which for reasons outside of the scope of this post, require a legal monopoly over the use of force. If citizens opted out of this minimalist system, if people ceased to support it and to subordinate to it, the resulting chaos would pose a threat to the very foundations of our civilization.

Waterloo FEDSA student government serves no such essential functions. If it were to be dissolved tomorrow, academic life would go on as usual, administrative life at the university would be intact, our university degrees would be worth just as much, and each of us students would be $32 richer every term. Our student government is nothing but another student association in the purpose that it allegedly serves, so its alter-ego “Student Union” describes its true nature better than “Student Government”, or at least it would, if the word “Forced” were prefixed to it. FEDS is nothing but a forced union.

Freedom of association is ubiquitous in a liberal society, and it is in fact easily derived from a few fundamental individual rights, namely the right to property, liberty, and freedom of speech. Beautiful institutions capable of channeling and amplifying their individual members’ will are founded on this framework. Like the Corporation, and the Unions, let’s not forget!

University of WaterlooBut nowadays we have forced unions. And our student government is just an example of just that. Workers of a certain profession have little say on whether they want to join or not, students have no say on whether they want to be part of it or not. We all have to pay our compulsory fees, and our freedom is castrated: it is reduced to freedom to vote and have a diluted say over who shall rule over all of us, who shall decide for us how to spend our money, instead of the freedom to rule over ourselves, instead of the freedom to decide for ourselves how to spend our money.

The student government would fulfill a very legitimate and productive purpose if each student could voluntarily opt in and out of its jurisdiction. FEDS would have to offer genuine value: the kind of value all members would deem worthy of the membership fee. We would have virtually 100% turnout in elections: The students who chose to walk the walk by paying a fee for FEDS services would usually care to also talk the talk.

But what does it matter to me if Jonah Levine or his opponent wins, if I don’t want their services at all? ...If I don’t want their representation at all? With a 16% turnout, what can be inferred about the silent 84% of the student body? Are they indifferent between Jonah and the other guy because they are convinced that both are equally capable of doing a bang-up job so there’s no reason to worry about who ends up winning? Or are they indifferent between them because they don’t care either way since their services and representation aren’t really worth shit to them? (Here is South Park's perspective, which really nails it)

Deep hypothetical questions I am bringing up here, but finding out the answers is astonishingly simple: Make FEDS fees refundable next term, and for God’s sake, make the claiming procedure something a couple of notches short of excruciating, and let’s see how many people choose to renew their no longer forced membership. … … …

Dead silence...

Look everybody. I don’t have a specific problem with Jonah Levine, or anyone in particular. I know the platform of the VP Ed is basically the same across all candidates, with minor twitches here and there. I don’t have a problem with student politicians BECAUSE they are student politicians. But I do have a problem with the breed of student politicians we have recently been dealing with, and I don’t know there to have ever been any other kinds. People who ought to know how corrupt the system is because they are the ones who can see it from the inside, because they are the ones executing its functions: how is twists the notion of freedom of association and transforms it into a grotesque form of crypto-tyranny, perpetuated through apathy, indifference, and justified through a “democratic” process. If people who work with FEDS know it, then why don’t they talk about it, why don’t they work to change it, to make FEDS an open organization of voluntary membership? I think it is part corruption/opportunism, part ignorance of the ethical implications.

Michelle ZakrisonI met Michelle, our latest Lady of the Manor, on the last day she still hoped of being reelected. I was under a lot of pressure from schoolwork but I was excited to be talking to our president. I was asking questions, trying to further ideas, to get reactions: I have never in my life met someone so transparent, pretending to be so interested in ideas yet unwilling or unable to propose or discuss any of her own.

The friends I was with noticed it too, and they don’t even share most of my political leanings. Oh I am sure she has ideas! She just wouldn’t want to clash with mine in any way. She doesn’t want to be disagreeable; she wants me to believe she is on my side, no matter where I stand, and wants you and every student voter to believe just the same. She is not alone. Loose platforms painted with clichés, general feel-good slogans, but no actual substance, are purposefully engineered to be all things to all people. Is the word spinelessness being primed here for future use?

FEDS is part of a powerful plot of hypocrisy that extends beyond its institution. It is an all-pervasive yet underhanded ideological attack on our institutions of individual rights and liberties. It is a plot of the clan against the individual. This likely story suffices for illustration:

At some point during FEDS' history, some members got together, held some sort of referendum preceded and followed by some meetings, and granted themselves the right to represent every student, whether they liked it or not. Taxation with pseudo-representation aside, the real problem is the philosophical claim made and left unchallenged: that it is up to the group, the clan, to rule over the individuals. The pinnacle of freedom under this arrangement is democracy at every level, not adherence to individual rights.

It is the group, as defined by the majority, that dictates what everyone gets, what everyone will do, what everyone’s values are. No single individual can decide for himself what he gets, what he wants, what his conscience dictates. So the group is transcended from the sum of the individuals comprising it, to an entity of its own: the mother of all entities, outside of and aside from which, the individual is defunct and impotent. How else can it be if the only power I have left is to influence the group I belong to, instead of being able to make decisions for myself? Who holds the ultimate power in this headless system?

Statism is the new religion. And freedom of religion does not mean freedom to a religion, no matter how hard religious fundamentalists try to twist the meaning of this constitutional provision. It also, and most importantly, means freedom from religion at all! A forced union, a group we are forced to be represented and ruled by, is tyrannical no matter what anyone says. If we don’t have the freedom to join our hands together for a common purpose when we choose to, and take them apart and walk alone when we change our minds, then we are slaves.

Jonah and the new student executives will now lobby on our behalf about anything. I feel most strongly over the role of the VP Ed, because now Jonah will take that twisted representative power he acquired through the devious workings of a system that dilutes and castrates the freedoms of all students, and use it to lobby to dilute and castrate the freedoms of other people he doesn’t even represent on paper: the taxpayers.

Does it all even out in the end? Is it an authorless crime? Maybe, though I am not sure, but it is certainly not victimless.

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  1. One quick comment on the mandatory nature of Feds fees as regards libertarianism. It’s not the Feds that made the Feds fee mandatory – they don’t have the power. The body that did it is the UW Board of Governors, the highest financial body at UW. It’s not taxation then, and it isn’t forced upon you by the Feds itself, it’s a fee you have to pay in order to attend UW as an undergrad student. You’re not forced to attend UW, and thus libertarian arguments about the mandatory nature of the fee simply don’t apply.

  2. I didn\’t know that. I suppose it\’s a bit more justifiable, but not really at the core. Because UW is a heavily subsidized institution. If they were entirely private, I\’d have nothing to say, except for that it\’s a stupid decision on the Board of Governors\’ behalf. It\’s not profit maximizing, as it effectively raises the price of education for the consumer (student) but not the price received by the provider (the university management) since the FEDS funds are managed by the student government, not the administration.

    So it basically acts a deadweight loss tax. I doubt in a free market for education such inefficiencies would persist. But the administration wants to fund the FEDS, so the FEDS can lobby for higher subsidies to the university. It\’s a vicious cycle. The libertarian argument holds second handedly.

  3. UW’s goal isn’t profit maximization though, it’s to be a centre of learning and education. This is true of virtually all universities, even those that aren’t government funded. And even at those institutions, there’s no shortage of non-academic mandatory fees, be they athletic, medical, or for student government. Remember, the Feds isn’t just Bomber and the Used Bookstore, it’s also got a place on virtually every governing council at UW, from faculty course-review bodies all the way up to the Senate and the Board of Governors. UW cares about our imput as students, and having a body like Feds in place is actually a utility to them.

    Also, Feds provides a huge number of services that are of legitimate utility to students – clubs, services, a good pub, the Used Bookstore, the Fed Bus, concerts, speakers, the whole nine yards. Students like these things, generally far out of proportion to their actual cost to provide, and so having them in place raises the value of attending UW, probably by more than $30/term for the average student. Sure, the university never sees that cash, but they also don’t have to be bothered providing these things – and given that the Feds is about a million times better at using volunteer labour than UW is, it also gets done far more cheaply through the Feds.

    Of course, I doubt they’ll complain when we advocate for higher subsidies to the university, but that’s far from the only benefit they gain from our existance. It isn’t irrational just because a simple dollars and cents analysis sees it as a cost with no benefit – there’s a lot more to this process than just that.

  4. Utility can be a pedantic notion when used out of the classroom. In any way, it is only measured in ordinal, not cardinal terms. Choices reveal utilitiy. If students chose to keep their money rather than use it on FEDS, that would show that the utility they derive from those services is less than from the next best thing they can do with that money. I say put it to the test.

    As far as universities go, they are just another business enterprise. A lot of people like their jobs, and derive pleasure from being productive. This SHOULD indeed be the ideal case. Profit maximization and enjoyment are not conflicting internerts in this case, or mostly ever.

    A university’s goal, under a free enterprise system, is to maximize profits. The service it offers is just like any other. Being “a centre of learning and education” is the nature of that service.

    Progress in capitalism is furthered through suppliers riding the innovation curve, learning to cut corners on unproductive aspects of their ventures, and reallocating resources to more productive purposes. Forced unions are unproductive. At least ONE university in the network of education providers will cut those corners, and offer the same level of education, or better. They will gain market share immediately. And most others will follow suit.

    Wants might as well swing the way you propose. But there is this little kink that contrains them. It’s called REALITY. Students will go for the lower priced denominator for a specific level of quality. It’s called cost-minimization. The best universities able to deliver in every aspect will have to coincide in the long run, with the smartest administrations that don’t waste money.

    The free market does not afford players such bullshit!

    FEDS creates little value, if any. Value is subjective. You might see a lot of work getting done by them, but it’s work no one cares for. If people were willing to pay for it, they would not have to be forced to. Period. UW funds FEDS to further its own campaign of subsidy boosting. That’s a fact.

  5. I disagree entirely. Firstly, your argument that membership choices imply preferences about the existance of the Feds completely ignores the free-rider problem – not a small oversight. A sizable portion of the benefits that the average student receives from the existance of the Feds is completely unrelated to whrether or not they pay fees. A club brings in a speaker, and the student who goes doesn’t care whether the club is financed by Feds or not. Students get their voices heard on an academic issue at Senate, and students get to take that course whether they voted for the senator in question or not. There are some things that can be tied directly to membership – voting rights, member discounts, etc. – but for most students, and especially those less interested in the Feds, those are the aspects that they actually get the least utility from. You can’t say that just because a student is willing to forego 10% of the benefits to get out of 100% of the costs that they don’t want the organization to exist, or to even have mandatory fees.

    Also, the idea that the average university administration’s goal is or should be to maximize profits is complete garbage. As you said, choices indicate utility, and given that the bulk of private universities in the US(where the university system allows for private non-profits not to get competed out of the system as aggressively) are still non-profit seems to indicatre that they prefer running themselves for the purposes of research and education, not for the purpose of earning a profit. You’re suffering from tunnel vision on this – profits are great, and money is an astoundingly useful signalling mechanism, but they aren’t the only thing, or even close to it. Most businesses are set up for the basic purpose of earning money for their owners, and thus “profits = utility” is an eminently reasonable approximation – so reasonable, in fact, that it is often codified into law for the protection of minority shareholders. But a NFP organization is expressly set up for a purpose that is *not* simply the acquisition of money – whether it is the alleviation of poverty, helping to find a cure for diseases, or even educational goals, money is a means to an end and not an end in and of itself.

    As for your argument that killing a student union would result in an increase in market share, firstly I’ll say that I’m pretty sure there’s little, if any, evidence to support that hypothesis(use applicants or acceptance percentage, not attendees, to determine demand). Leaving even that aside, however, there’s still problems with your theory. Firstly, universities are relatively small in number and widely differentiated – not exactly circumstances where incremental gains can easily be parleyed into shifts in market share large enough to be worth the effort and risk inherent in changing the system.

    On top of that, you’re using the word “quality” like it exists in a vacuum and like non-academic factors have no bearing whatsoever on it. That is prima facie false – students are not merely choosing what the name on their degree will be when they choose a school, they are choosing a community where they will spend a sizable portion of their life. I don’t know about you, but for most people the quality of the community matters quite a lot when they’re trying to figure out where they’re going to spend the next four-ish years of their life. And given that campus life is almost invariably the responsibility of the student government – largely because they’re much better at it – a $32 per student per term expense is easily worth it for the university. Yes, there are a lot of schools that try for the cut-rate model, with none of the ancillary fees or big classrooms, but you and I are both at UW because we prefer the traditional system of having a big, vibrant campus with lots of non-academic activities. Just to test your preferences on this matter(once again, utility is ordinal), give me a list of universities you would have gone to other than UW if their fees were $32 per term lower than they are now, even without any corresponding decrease in quality, since we seem to disagree on the scale of that decrease. If the list is anything other than the null set, I’d be very curious as to why you’re here and not there.

    And yes, you’re right, value is subjective(which is why I find it so odd that you state so definatively that it creates “little value, if any”). For you, the sum total of the value of the Feds may well be less than the sum total of the value of that $32 per term. For me, and for most other students, it is, and thus it remains in the university’s best interests to make it mandatory, even if they were the cold-hearted Scrooge McDuck businessmen that they most certainly are not.

    Furthermore, if this is that important an issue to you, you aren’t without options. Pass a petition around to students worded as follows: “We, the undersigned, in accordance with section XIII of By-law 1 of the Federation of Students, hereby request that the following question be asked to the voting members of the Federation as a whole: ‘Shall the Federation of Students membership fee be made voluntary?'”. You need the signatures of 10% of undergrads(just over 2200), and then it’ll go to referendum. Get the referendum to pass, and you will successfully have forced the Feds to go voluntary. You can alternately try to get a sufficient numebr of votes at the General Meeting next month to do the same thing via bylaw amendment – you’ll want to alter the definition of membership in Bylaw 1, Section IV-A to exclude those who don’t pay, and to amend Bylaw 1, Section V to make it voluntary. Again, such an amendment is binding on the Feds, and they would thus have to offer refunds. You want it changed, go out there and change it – find 20 or 30 like-mided students and get full proxies, and you can probably carry the AGM with little difficulty, and the referendum requires more effort and some actual expense but much less organization. Both are, however, eminently attainable goals.

  6. Free Wii, would you care to expand on your comment a bit more?

    As for you, Alsadius, I truly appreciate your feedback. Thanks for letting me know about options. I will look into it. I don\’t want to keep this going back and forth about the same issue though, as it is clear we are not coming to an agreement. I am planning to write an actual essay on education, so I will be more thorough there.

    I am wondering though, what is there about your convictions that makes you right wing? I\’m serious, you sound more on the left side of the spectrum to me.

    Final thoughts though, so you can see where I am coming from: While there may be universities that CHOOSE to operate at a loss, and this is perfectly legitimate, they will simply not last under a free-market. The reason is that they would be competing with profitable universities. Any university would be profitable only if prospective students valued its education more than the tuition (there is also a feedback loop, because the better the education, the more financially prosperous the alumni on average; the better the perceived value, the higher the giving rate for alumni donations). By the way alumni donations are the main source of charity that would keep a university afloat if it chose to operate on a loss (excluding government subsidies). But there is a causal link there if you think about it.

    A profitable university is such because of the high perceived value of its education’s quality; hence the higher demand for enrollment relative to other universities, hence the higher tuition relative to cost, hence the higher profitability. It’s rational speculation though, like in the stock market, where the price of equity reflects the shareholders’ prediction of the company\’s future value. Simple capitalization. It’s got nothing to do with being frigid hearted Scrooge McDuck (you think the pursuit of profit is cold hearted?). You can only be profitable if your perceived value is high relative to your cost, so basically, only if you’re good. And don’t forget that once an institution learns to cut corners on bullshit, it can use that marginal cost saving to invest in improving its facilities, or attracting a more prestigious faculty body, further enhancing its appeal and gaining a competitive edge.

    The ones that are running at a loss reflect poor quality. No matter how you twist it. And no one will keep them alive forever. Alumni donations will be relatively low, because the richest alumni will have gone to the profitable ones, and they will be more satisfied with the value of their education relative to its cost. Even today, despite the subsidies which hide at just what loss public universities are running, state institutions receive MUCH less in alumni donations compared to semi-private institutions.

    Other contributors besides alumni are less significant, but whoever they are, they will not back up an unprofitable institution in the long run. General Motors might be coming around, but before, when it was bleeding really badly, would private donors charitably support it with their cash? I don’t think so. The automobile market is comparatively as niche as the market for education. So the analogy is appropriate. If anything, people would charitably support the students, who are on the receiving end, by giving them scholarships to use as they please. And if they wanted to support an institution directly, they would lean towards the ones that are doing well.

    Those are not just wishy washy hypotheses. I am not reinventing every case from scratch. It’s just how the market works. It’s consistent in every case. You might see education as something completely different but it’s not. It’s just another line of business. Charity exists but not on behalf of the university itself, but on behalf of potential donors. It\’s not up to the university to run at a loss or not. It\’s up to the donors to support it or not to do so. And no private donors would support a crippled inefficient institution in the long run.

    True the market is very fragmented. But competition still works, just in more subtle ways. Various universities are not perfect substitutes for one another but they all need to watch out from one another and try to get ahead. The FEDS fee is not just a wasted $32. It shows a culture of waste that would be much harder to justify if UW was not being heavily subsidized. You know the approximate rate is 80%, right? I know because I am paying international tuition.

  7. Professors want more money. Politicians do too.

  8. A few years ago, I was a doctinarire hard libertarian like you. Even then, I wasn’t quite as extreme(I was doing it based on utilitarian arguments, not based on freedom being even more important than quality of life like you seem to take as your philisophical primary), but I was pretty close on almost all the policy issues. I quit when it became clear to me that the utilitarian arguments for purist libertarianism simply weren’t there – there were too many holes and patches, so I dropped the edge of absolutism and went with soft libertarianism instead.

    That said, I’m far from a left-winger. On forign policy, I’m about as far right as anyone I’ve ever met, on social policy I still *am* a doctrinaire libertarian, and on fiscal policy I’m a blue conservative(voucher schools, two-tier healthcare, decreased regulation, balanced budgets, tax cuts). Even within the Conservatives, I’m still on the right side of the party by a good argin(unless you ask a socon what they think, of course). Just because I’m arguing a point that makes me sound more left-wing than I am on an issue where my beliefs are further to the left than they are in most other places doesn’t make me any type of actual lefty.

    As for the issue at hand, your entire argument is still being based on the assumption that a successful enterprise is, by definition, a profitable one. But a NFP university doesn’t operate on that principle, and so your claims based on it are simply invalid. They choose to run a potentially-profitable enterprise by pricing below market value, balancing out the excess demand with higher standards, and breaking even over the long run(i.e., avoiding both ruin and dividends).

    This is also why alumni donations exist in the first place – nobody subsidizes GM because it’s a for-profit busines, and I’ll bet that DeVry doesn’t even bother asking its alums for cash. But because they know that the donation is going to a NFP, they’re willing to help it out(since it will actually be reflected with a lower price, as opposed to just going straight to the bottom line). Remember, UW prices its services far below their marginal cost, let alone at a level that would cover their fixed costs, so it cannot possibly turn a profit from tuition alone whether it’s the best university in the world or the worst.

    As for the “culture of waste”, while I won’t argue that the Feds is far from efficient(it could probably drop its fee $10 without even trying), I still say that most of the “waste” you see is UW trying to provide a higher value to its students by offering more services than the bare minimum. It’s the university equivalent of cupholders in a car – it’s not necessary, and it costs a little extra, but everyone’s come to expect them, and so everyone provides them.

  9. Alsadius – there is a concept called opportunity cost. It is something you might do well to internalize. Each of your arguments ignores what might have been otherwise. It is the unforeseen consequences of the policies of our government geniuses that always bite you in the ass.

    Also, there is the notion of monopoly, granted and maintained by governments (via regulation, subsidies). The University falls into this category. The market for education is clearly distorted (hey, it comes back to opportunity cost again – give it a mental shot, eh?).

    I do not know everything – but I do know that you have much to learn yet. Keep at it. Read Mises. Maybe some Rand. Keep it loose, dude.

  10. Kejda,

    You are right!The cost of the membership itself (32 or 10$)is not as important as the principle of not being obliged to pay dues that are just forced on people. Even if universities are not typical for-profit organizations the requirement of efficiency does not make them different. I think it’s mostly for other students to accept or reject your views rather than the FEDS themselves. No one expects them to commit suicide.

  11. I’m an economics major, I’m quite familiar with opportunity cost. For that matter, I have Rand on my bookshelf at home(Atlas and Fountainhead both), though I haven’t gotten to Mises yet. For that matter, it’s not like I’m a person hellbent on defending government intervention in the economy – far from it.

    All I’m saying here is that:
    a) a student union that the university makes you join to be a student is immune to libertarian analysis, since it is an additional fee charged by a body you are voluntarily transacting with,
    b) universities can be not-for-profit(in the sense that they exist for a purpose other than providing income to shareholders) reasonably, so long as that NFP status doesn’t imply a lack of long-term planning or any other such oversight,
    and c), that any time you have a body that benefits everybody in a group more or less equally and let members of that group opt out of paying for the existance of that group, you have a massive free-rider problem that can only be solved by making the fee mandatory.

    I don’t think any of those points are unreasonable. Yes, the fact that UW is a government-mandated body changes many things, but I don’t think it actually has all that much bearing on what I’m actually trying to say.


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