I’ve been reading a bunch of official reports about prescription drug abuse, a very serious problem with a great dearth of good ideas for what to do about it. The reports consist of the usual mix of truth, falsehood, and bullsh*t, in the technical sense defined by Harry Frankfurt. Much of the last is of the “that-there-is-a-nail-therefore-this-here-a-hammer” variety: in polite company, you really can’t point to “prevention” as an answer without some indication that there is at least a mildly effective prevention program available, or that one could be developed. But the prevention providers are influential, and would have their feelings hurt if their idol doesn’t get its ration of incense, so in the “prevention” language goes.
Congress insists that policies have numerical goals. But since no one understands the problem, there’s no way to compute the likely consequences of any given set of programs, even if you could specify resource levels. So why not put in a goal of a 15% reduction? Like chicken soup, it can’t do any harm, since no one is accountable for meeting it or not meeting it.
This stuff is enormously depressing to consume, in part because you often can’t tell whether the people who wrote it (1) are dumb enough to believe it (2) think you’re dumb enough to believe it or (3) are just engaging in the b.s. ritual, in which both sides understand that no cognitive content is intended.
But – having been on the other side of the process – I can tell you that it’s infinitely more depressing to produce, especially because the rubric of the production ritual bans calling out the taurine waste product for what it is: call that “second-order b.s.”
B.s. presents problems in both public management and public ethics.
On the management side, it’s one reason people whose intellectual integrity is strong and whose stomachs are week flee public service. And precisely because b.s. isn’t clearly distinguished from actual content, its presence reduces the value of policy documents to coordinate and focus efforts: no one can tell whether a given program or goal is genuine or not, and therefore no one can tell how much work deserves to be put into mounting the program or meeting the goal.
The “we-have-the-finest-X-in-the-world” b.s. can be harmless flattery directed at some agency whose help you need, but it also creates a barrier to criticizing the performance of X.
On the ethical side, some of the ordinary folks who read the documents will surely be taken in, and systematic deception of the citizens by the government is a terrible practice.
But b.s. isn’t easy to root out, for some of the same reasons Glenn Loury lays out in his analysis of political correctness: omitting the proper b.s. will get you labeled as an unbeliever. And b.s. is one way of expressing values: an especially important way if there’s nothing actually useful to do to implement those values. And of course diplomatic ritual has a very high b.s. content, but omitting a reference to “the great friendship between the people of the United States and the people of [wherever]” would be understood as a deliberate insult.
So far as I know, this problem isn’t covered in courses on public ethics (at least, it wasn’t when I was part of the teaching team for that course at the Kennedy School) or public management. Should it be? Should students be asked to think hard about when they should produce b.s. to order and when they should protest? When they should require others to produce b.s. and when they should refrain? When they should let b.s. pass and when they should call it out?
12 thoughts on “Bullsh*t as a problem in public ethics”
This is such an excellent post Mark.
One egregious example that I am not sure you are aware of: Office of Inspector Generals. They produce b.s. all the time. False monetary benefits, waste, and abuse are identified and magnified multiple orders of the reality.
The tragedy is that some OIGs are so busy producing false monetary benefits and identifications of waste, that they do not investigate accusations of fraud. Why investigate a $500,000 fraud when you have millions in waste to falsely exaggerate.
I think this is tempered by OMB, which from what I gather is not a huge fan of increasing OIG budgets, perhaps for the reason I outlined above.
If you can illuminate the above Mark, please let me know.
As a longtime student of bullsh*t (and occasional producer of it, mostly in academic administration contexts) all I can say is that it’s a huge problem. The problem is at least as bad in electoral politics as in public admin (probably worse). In both spheres, I strongly doubt there’s an internal solution. The need to bring everyone along, always an acute need in government when today’s enemy will be around in forty years, will require piling it on high and deep. I won’t teach my students about the problem because I’d be afraid they might make their jobs impossible by solving it. (To switch metaphors, “hypocrisy is a lubricant of social intercourse.” Read Shklar on hypocrisy as a chaser to your Frankfurt.)
The solution must be external. There are, or should be, all kinds of people who have an interest in ferreting out bullsh*t justifications for government programs and who in fact find it rather fun. (The antonym of bullsh*t isn’t perfume, and isn’t even Herakles. It’s satire.) In politics, that’s of course true as well, except that in this case everyone assumes that the satirists are also partisan bullsh*t artists. In other words, things aren’t as bleak in public admin as they are in politics.
And they’re probably bleakest of all in the corporate world, where competitors have every incentive to make fun of competitors’ products and services but no incentive at all to satirize the ridiculous language of corporate “communication” and every incentive to compete by practicing it themselves. If, the dog forbid, I were ever to end up in a corporation, I’d want to work for someone like Steve Jobs, or in fact in Silicon Valley generally. (Another antonym of bullshit is “despotism,” which is one reason Shklar forgave hypocrisy so readily. A third antonym, probably, is “Asperger’s.”)
Yeah, well the Asperger’s solution kind of sucks for the guy that administers it. Trust me on this one.
Yeah, I know. I probably have a very slight touch of the spectrum myself (well hidden–most of the time) and my son is the real thing. Lack of social awareness is not something one cultivates voluntarily.
Still, you don’t know how many times, listening to a presentation by an academic functionary, I long to be told “that idea is just dumb” instead of “that’s an excellent idea but we in this [insert administrative unit] have decided to take things in a slightly different direction.” Social niceties are great, but under administrative pressures they can start to expand to fill more space than any sane person would allot them given a choice in the matter (which we never are). The point of social skills should be to show respect for the listener and to allow productive social interaction. But there are many instances in which neither happens (or the second happens but not the first, which is the situation Mark is talking about I think).
Adolescents can often get under one’s skin. But they have two great virtues: a capacity for instant intimacy, and a merciless attitude to bullshit. The thing I’ve found weird is that adults often lose the fine bullshit detectors they had as adolescents. Sad to say, the producers of some of the world’s finest bullshit have no idea of their own artistry. This is especially prevalent among HR and “communications” folk, but can also be found throughout any organization composed of grownups.
I think I’ve found the costs of reacting with blunt honesty to BS rising to increasingly taxing levels as I get older. I still get overtly…..upset when faced with patent level excrement; what was tolerable within the flexible strength of early adulthood, however, now just wears me out. Anger is an excellent indicator that one is dealing with the useless, senseless garbage that so often passes for human thought and endeavor, but pretty quick you’re just ‘the angry guy’ and plumb wore out. Oh well. Someone’s gotta do it.
Blunt honesty can be bullsh*t too. Quite often, when someone “restates” an issue sans nuance, they’re just doing their own version of derailing discussion.
“But â€“ having been on the other side of the process â€“ I can tell you that itâ€™s infinitely more depressing to produce, especially because the rubric of the production ritual bans calling out the taurine waste product for what it is: call that â€œsecond-order b.s.â€”
I didn’t follow this part. Taurine has to do with bile, or with processing fats? Are you just saying that you aren’t socially allowed to call bullsh*t on other people’s bullsh*t?
So, if no one yet understands the problem, maybe someone should just write about that fact? Or is that not allowed either?
“This stuff is enormously depressing to consume, in part because you often canâ€™t tell whether the people who wrote it (1) are dumb enough to believe it (2) think youâ€™re dumb enough to believe it or (3) are just engaging in the b.s. ritual, in which both sides understand that no cognitive content is intended.”
As a public school teacher, I was profoundly unprepared for the amount of district-level BS I would be forced to eat/regurgitate as a requirement of the job. Graver still, neither was I prepared for the quantity of BS at the public policy level on a largely bipartisan basis. Given the stakes everyone recognizes as so profound, the stench is only so much worse.
Are you the regular Eli, or a different Eli? I’m just curious.
I am just an observer of current “reform” efforts. I find that if I reject out of hand all policies that are premised solely upon the movement of scores on standardized tests, it is all much less confusing. I hate those darned bubbles, and it is just not a nice way to treat children. We should measure how many books they choose to read by themselves, and how well they explain why they did or didn’t get the right math answer. And why not, do they like school? When someone starts talking about these things, I will start listening. Right now I’m pretty much checked out, and I’m THIS close to saying we should just pull the plug on the whole charter thing. There is no silver bullet, and every politician who attacks teachers loses my support.
By coincidence, I printed out Loury’s excellent essay and read it at a City Council meeting where a proposal for my pretty well broke city to help underwrite a new veterans museum was discussed.
It was like his thoughts were playing out in front of me.
“Should students be asked to think hard about when they should produce b.s. to order and when they should protest? When they should require others to produce b.s. and when they should refrain? When they should let b.s. pass and when they should call it out?”
I refer you to your recent “varieties of rape” post for guidance. There are varieties of BS.
There’s BS in the yard that is unpleasant to look at but really does no harm. The rain will take care of that BS nicely.
There’s BS on your shoes that must be removed at some point but could be left in the garage to dry before cleaning.
Then there’s the BS you slip and fall into and get in your hair, on your clothes and hands, etc. Then it’s time to burn the clothes and take a really, really hot shower.
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