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Queuing for the Queen and the Moral Limits of Markets

photograph of queue in front of Buckingham Palace

In the days before her funeral last week, more than 250,000 former subjects joined the 10-mile queue (line) to see Queen Elizabeth II lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. Some queued for 24 hours. Many slept on the street. More than 400 fainted. All this led The Economist to ask, “is queuing the best way to do things?” The problem, the magazine claims, is how to allocate scarce resources (limited slots to walk by the coffin). “An ideal system,” they write, “would give spots to those who value them the most.”

The free-for-all queue falls short by this metric. Why? It “effectively rations out the spots to those who turn up first—and who are willing to wait.” In other words, it allocates the scarce resource to those with more time, rather than those who value it the most. A devoted royalist with an inflexible job to go to is less likely to see the Queen than a tourist who feels like taking part in the experience. It also led to a lot of wasted time that could be better used. This is, in economic terms, an inefficient system.

So what other options are there, besides the mega-queue? The Economist article suggests a couple, including “some kind of market, with prices for each time slot set high enough to balance supply and demand.” They note that there is some precedence: “To visit Buckingham Palace,” for example, “one must buy a ticket.” Now, this system would also, admittedly, have disadvantages. It obviously benefits those with more ability to pay. And those who can pay most aren’t necessarily the same people who would value the experience most. In any case, the reporter’s suggestion of market allocation of tickets went down pretty poorly in the queue. Of course, there may be a selection effect at play. You wouldn’t expect to find people who dislike the queue system in a 10-mile queue.

But I think there are some reasons besides economic inefficiency to think that a market-based allocation would be a bad idea. “Suppose, on your wedding day,” writes the philosopher Michael Sandel, “your best man delivers a heartwarming toast, a speech so moving it brings tears to your eyes. You later learn that he bought it online. Would you care? Would the toast mean less than it did at first, before you knew it was written by a paid professional? For most of us, it probably would.” For some goods, their being bought or sold seems to affect their value to us.

Or take gifts. Economists have long railed against the economic inefficiency of gift-giving. In Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, economist Joel Waldfogel writes:

The bottom line is that when other people do our shopping, for clothes or music or whatever, it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll choose as well as we would have chosen for ourselves… Relative to how much satisfaction their expenditures could have given us, their choices destroy value.

Waldfogel acknowledges that cash is generally seen as a bad gift. But why is it? Are we simply being irrational, or is the narrow economic lens of analysis missing something important about gift-giving? Sandel suspects the latter. “Gifts aren’t only about utility,” he writes. “Some gifts are expressive of relationships that engage, challenge, and reinterpret our identities.” In other words, going out and choosing a gift that you think will be meaningful to the recipient says something about how you understand them. It can also say something about your relationship.

A scene from Seinfeld illustrates Sandel’s point. Jerry, not knowing where his relationship stands with Elaine now that they are sleeping together but not in a relationship, is struggling to choose a birthday present that sends the appropriate message. A music box is “too relationshippy,” candleholders “too romantic,” lingerie “too sexual,” waffle-maker “too domestic.” Jerry’s ultimate choice is revealed as Elaine opens her present.

Elaine: Cash?!

Jerry: What do you think?

Elaine: You got me cash?!

Jerry: Well this way I figured you could go out and get yourself whatever you want. No good?

Elaine: What are you, my uncle?

Elaine’s complaint is that the gift fails to reflect what is meaningful in their relationship. It may be economically efficient, as Jerry protests, but it is impersonal — something a distant relative would give. Despite the efficiency of cash as a gift, it has less value to her.

There is a similar case to be made for the rituals surrounding death, and, in the case of the British monarchy, political rituals. We may not always want the most efficient, market-based solution. Introducing market norms to some areas of life seems to devalue the very things we find precious and meaningful. So what, to put it in Sandel’s terms, does the inefficient queue “express?” How does it “engage” or “reinterpret” our identities?

In a deeply wealth-divided society (and perhaps somewhat ironically for a monarchical event) a queue, open to all and free for all, embodies a sense of moral equality. Theoretically, everybody has twenty-four hours in a day, even if practically, the demands on that time vary greatly from person to person. The queue does a better job of expressing this equality, the sense that we’re all in this together, than a system of paid time slots, even if it does benefit the time-rich.

Part of what many found moving about the queue was the degree of personal sacrifice it involved, of both time and comfort. Of course, a market-based system would also involve sacrifice — the money for the tickets. But spending money communicates less personal investment than spending one’s time, or enduring discomfort. Perhaps this communicates something: respect for the Queen, for the dead, or simply the historical significance of the moment.

Finally, we also can’t ignore that there is something very British about this way of mourning a monarch. Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist, writes in The Guardian that:

Time and again, queues, and this one in particular, have been described as quintessentially and uniquely British: polite, restrained and orderly, reflecting the timeless characteristics of our national identity. 

For a nation just stripped of its most powerful symbol of continuity, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, perhaps the familiar inefficiency of a long queue is precisely what we needed.

Do Grades Make Our Lives Worse?

photograph of old-fashioned elementary report card

It’s nearing the end of the semester, and many students will be waiting on the edge of their seats to receive their final grades. For those who seek higher education, their GPA will matter for their applications to med school, law school, and other graduate schools. This numerical representation of a student’s academic achievement allows institutions, like universities and medical schools, to have some objective measure by which to discriminate between applicants. And perceptive students can figure out ways to maximize their GPA.

A numerical representation of academic performance is a good thing, right? It is both legible and achievable. However, if we look at contemporary philosopher C. Thi Nguyen’s work on value capture, the answer might not be so clear. According to Nguyen, “value capture occurs when: 1. Our values are, at first, rich and subtle. 2. We encounter simplified (often quantified) versions of those values. 3. Those simplified versions take the place of our richer values in our reasoning and motivation. 4. Our lives get worse.”

To see how this process works, take Nguyen’s example of the Fitbit. Say that I’m trying to start off the year healthier and increase my exercise. My thoughtful mother buys me a Fitbit so that I can track my steps and try to meet a goal of 10,000 steps a day. After a while, I find myself motivated to get 10,000 steps in a day, but that motivation has now replaced my earlier motivation to be healthier and get more exercise. I may be walking more, but I might be neglecting other forms of movement and a more holistic practice of promoting health to meet the clear and concrete goal of meeting my step count. Depending on how obsessed I am with the 10,000 steps number, my life has probably gotten worse. This is the process of value capture.

Are grades subject to value capture? Let’s start with the first step. What are the prior values we are trying to measure with grades? At the broadest level, it seems that grades are meant to capture how well a student is performing given the standards of the class, which are subsequently determined by the standards of the discipline. Given the complexity of any given subject and the many ways that subject could be broken down into a class, it’s very difficult to give a clear and easy explanation of what any given grade is trying to capture. And the same grade could mean different things — two students could be performing equally well in a class but each have different strengths. The values that grading tries to capture are evidently rich and subtle values. Step 1 is complete.

Do grades represent simpler (and sometimes quantified) versions of these rich values? Yes. Grades capture student performance into a number that can be bureaucratically sorted through at an institutional level. This has certain benefits — a law school can quickly do an initial sift through applicants to ensure that they have a sufficiently high GPA and LSAT score. But it also has its drawbacks. It doesn’t capture, for instance, that a slightly lower grade in a very hard class represents better student performance than a higher grade in an easier class. Given the standardized format of grades, a student’s scores may also do a poor job at representing personal growth and achievement that may vary based on the social and educational starting points of different students. Steps 1 and 2 are complete.

What about step 3? Do grades take the place of our richer values in our reasoning and motivation? It seems that often they do. This is in part because of external motivations, such as the importance of grades for employment or getting into a certain program. But it is also in part because of the ways in which we tend to start valuing the grade for its own sake. Think about, for instance, the parent who wants their child to succeed. Instead of focusing on the actual progress their child is making given the challenges their classes present, that parent can easily be seduced by the clarity and seeming objectivity of their child’s grades. The goalposts can quickly shift from “being a good student” to “making good grades.”

This shift can happen for students as well. Grades are often the most tangible feedback they get from their instructors, even though they may sometimes receive qualitative assessments. Grades may feel like a more real and concrete measure of academic performance, especially because they are the record that remains after the course. Students who start off valuing education may easily get sucked into primarily working to maximize their grades rather than to maximize their learning. It is worth noting that Nguyen himself thinks that this motivational shift happens with grades, noting that “students go to school for the sake of gaining knowledge, and come out focused on maximizing their GPA.” Steps 1, 2, and 3 are all complete.

What about step 4? Do grades make our lives worse? This is a hard question to answer, as it’s an empirical question that depends on a myriad of different personal experiences. In my own experience, focusing on getting a higher grade has often interfered with my ability to learn in a course. Instead of diving into the material itself, I often got stuck at the level of trying to figure out how to make sure that I got that A. In harder courses, this would make me very stressed as I worked exceptionally hard to meet the requirements. In easier courses, this would mean that I often slacked off and did not perform as well as I could have, since it was an easy A. And, as much as I tried to shake the motivational pull of grades, it was always there. Grades made my educational experience worse.

What should we do with this problem? Given the potential for value capture, grades are a powerful tool, and teachers should be careful to create an assessment structure that more closely incentivizes an engagement with the rich, pluralistic values that students should come to appreciate. This is a difficult task, as often those values cannot be easily translated into a grading system that is legible to the institution (and to other people across institutions). Because grades provide an easy way to communicate information, it’s unlikely that getting rid of them would make things better, at least in the short-term.

One solution might be to retain the current numerical/letter grade assignments but to add on a short paragraph qualitatively assessing the student’s performance throughout the course. This could be fraught for a number of reasons (including implicit bias, the bureaucratic logistics of tracking of such information, and the additional work for teachers), but that extra information would help to contextualize the numbers on the page and provide a richer understanding of a student’s performance, both for that student and for those assessing the student as an applicant. This solution is far from perfect, but it might provide one step towards recapturing our motivation to track the rich values we started with.

Why Give $75 Million to Philosophy?

Image of Johns Hopkins University's Main Campus

When Bill Miller, a wealthy businessman, recently made a $75 million donation to the philosophy profession—specifically, to the Johns Hopkins philosophy department—philosophers rejoiced in unison, right? Not exactly. Some rejoiced while others engaged in a debate. Mike Huemer, a philosopher at the University of Colorado, kicked it off in a Facebook post, which was reposted at the What’s Wrong? blog.

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