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October 21, 2007



I remember when it was considered really embarrassing for a scholar to quote another scholar exactly backwards from the original intention of the statement.

But then, economists have rather a lot to feel embarrassed about nowadays, don't they, after their abandonment of history and their passionate embrace of mathematics and simplemindedness helped lead us into -- or at least, provided little but loud cheering as we fell into -- our current predicament?

Moreover, while (some?) economists may have the good sense to loosen that embrace and take a deep breath of the complexity of reality, not only the malign inclination to assume only laissez-faire principles, but also the deeper epistemological fallacy that only the measurable is meaningful, stays with us. Here at the lovely University of California (and not only here), we continue to deal with administrators who would rather make decisions by measuring something badly and using such measurements as their grounds, than to admit that some important things are difficult to measure.

In addition to the weirdness of "learning outcomes assessment" (pretending [and pretending badly] to measure something complex and hard to measure, and then pretending that anyone cares about the resulting data), we have a "Commission on the Future" whose website asks questions such as: "Should the size of undergraduate programs be reduced, especially for programs that are not cost effective?" (http://ucfuture.universityofcalifornia.edu/sizeofuc.html)

Could someone please explain to me how one determines whether a major is "cost effective"? I was under the impression that assessing cost-effectiveness required measuring two things: the cost of a good or policy, and the value of the benefits it provided.

Now, I can see that it's not hard to measure the cost of, say, a Philosophy or a Studio Art major, or for that matter of a Biochemistry major.

But can anyone tell me how to measure -- and measure well, not badly! -- the value of the benefits that a Philosophy, or a Studio Art, or a Biochemistry department provides? Please, enlighten me!

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