Signal/No Signal


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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125 Responses

  1. Avatar Chris says:

    Noah Smith has had it up to here with economists and pseudo-economists calling everything “signalling“:

    Someone said that in comments here just the other day. 😉

    I think part of the problem with the concept is that its model of what signalling is, what is signaled, and how those two things relate to the larger field of preference and social behavior is, well, impoverished. “Signalling” seems to mean, for most of the people who use it, something that is almost never true.

    (I actually have a post on this very thing that is cooking very, very slowly, and may end up all burnt and worthless, but we’ll see.)Report

  2. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    I have nothing to say to this and similar “debates”, since no one has made a falsifiable claim.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      That’s about where I am as well, but I do think that the concept (ie, signalling behavior) isn’t entirely useless. It strikes me as a sorta trivially observable that people engage in certain behaviors or express certain beliefs purely because they want to be identified as a certain type of person. On the other hand, if I donate cash to the humane society and make the mistake of telling someone I did so, is it possible that I only donated for signalling purposes?

      Of course it is. That doesn’t make it an instance of mere signalling.

      I tend to think that reducing vast swaths of human behavior to mere signalling is itself a signal, tho.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        But it’s even more banal than “people engage in certain behaviors or express certain beliefs purely because they want to be identified as a certain type of person.”

        It’s, “people engage in certain behaviors or express certain beliefs at least in part because they want to be identified as a certain type of person convey a message of some kind that is not explicitly stated in the behavior to the world in general or some subset of persons in it (and since most or a great deal of behavior doesn’t have explicit semantic content, this in practice means any way in which you mean for your actions to represent ideas about you rather than just having their immediate, brute physical (or semantic) effects.”

        Colloquially the term can used so broadly that that’s really as general as a faithful and accurate definition of the term as used needs to be. On those terms, I find myself at a loss as to why people spend any time making that banal observation (which is not to say there wasn’t god reason for the phenomenon to be closely studied and theorized by economists and other social scientists).

        But of course, the “real” meaning of the use of the term in practice (on the political internet) is actually more circumscribed than that, and that meaning is itself conveyed through signaling. It’s understood, just as an example, among those aware of internet traditions that going to college (partly) in order to become more attractive to future employers (which is actually the classic economic use of the term) is to be called signaling while working hard in a paying job (partly) in order to become more attractive to future employers is not. Even though if you push you might get a concession that the latter has a signaling component exactly like, if not identical in proportion, to the other, in practice, you don’t as an initial matter see people spontaneously calling working hard in a job rather than just getting by in order to send signals to future employers.

        When you consider the way this narrowing of the use of the term is deployed as a signaling mechanism among internet denizens of a certain mindset or worldview, the reason that the idea is given so much time and attention becomes more clear.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          Michael Drew,

          I agree Michael, especially the parts about how folks demonstrating a work ethic as a form of signalling to their employer isn’t called “signalling” by advocates of the signalling theory. At some point, the whole thing reduces to absurdity, seems to me. Which isn’t to say that the concept is absurd, acourse. Just that the explanatory power of the concept isn’t nearly what its biggest advocates seem to think it is.Report

  3. Avatar Glyph says:

    I was into signalling, then complaining about signalling, then complaining about baseless complaints of signalling, before it was cool.Report

  4. Avatar zic says:

    I prefer smoke signals, myself.

    We all depend on signal processing, which is how we’re communicating without being in the same room.

    I’d be interested to find if anyone has applied the math of signal processing to social herding, however.Report

  5. Avatar Kim says:

    Oh, yes, the Mormons.
    “So you’ve spent years learning how to be submissive and getting raped repeatedly?”
    “Let’s have you lead tour groups! You’ll help convert tons of people!”Report

  6. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    It’s entirely possible to go to college and become a human being who can think better, has been exposed to a wider range of philosophical and aesthetic knowledge, and has a better understanding of their place in the world and the breadth of human experience.

    The kind of people who say “you should go to college so you can get a good job!” aren’t talking about that, though.Report

    • Avatar Damon says:

      Most of my exposure was to leftist least in the social sciences…Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      It is also entirely possible to go to college and spend four years drinking and fornicating, doing just enough academic work to avoid getting kicked out.

      I suspect that it would be possible to correlate this with major. And I don’t mean (at least not only) STEM vs. non-STEM.Report

  7. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    The issue with signalling is the issue with most other words in our never-ending political debates. There is a technical and precise definition and then there is the definition used by the rest of us. The layperson’s use means all things to all people.

    Basically everything and anything can be signalling. I have very different politics from Bryan Caplan. I can easily accuse his attitude of “college is merely signalling” as being a form of signalling itself. We are always signalling to our allies and tribes. Santorum did this when he called Obama a snob over an educational proposal.

    So yes, there is almost certainly signalling aspects to when I am proud of my education and the institutions that I attended especially my undergrad. There is a signalling aspect to the fact that I like that I have an M.F.A. There is a signalling aspect to all the things I like and aspire to like wanting to live in Brownstone Brooklyn or Mill Valley or SF or any other city that is considered “coastal elite.”

    But does the presence of signalling indicate that these things are not important at all?

    In the end, I think that even though Americans like to talk about free choice a lot, we are ultimately very insecure people and take it as existential threats when people make different lifestyle choices than we would make. I’ve seen this debate over almost everything.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      The issue with signalling is the issue with most other words in our never-ending political debates. There is a technical and precise definition and then there is the definition used by the rest of us. The layperson’s use means all things to all people.

      Oh my, yes.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      “College is merely signalling” is a strawman. First of all, the debate is about the college wage premium, not the reasons people choose to go to college or the sum total of everything they get about it.

      Second, I don’t think anyone’s saying the college wage premium is purely due to signalling. That would be ridiculous, particularly when it comes to curricula that explicitly teach necessary job skills. Anyone who tells you that the college wage premium is 100% signalling, 100% ability bias, or 100% human capital is full of it.

      The debate is over how much of a role each of those factors play. And there’s not even one answer to that question, as it’s likely to depend on all kinds of things (e.g. an electrical engineering degree may be weighed more towards human capital than a comparative literature degree, and a degree from Harvard might skew more towards ability bias and signalling than a degree from a directional state university).Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I agree with this assessment of the situation but I do think the word signalling is often used as a bit of a dig and usually against the arts and humanities type of student but my views could be causing me to read a bit too much. Obviously Caplan and I have very different politics. I generally have very different politics than most people who use the term signalling.

        As far as I can tell, the data does show that going to college is still largely worth it but it is becoming more precariously so. That said I do believe in education for the sake of education but not for the sake of going into massive debt.Report

  8. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I think the word singaling falls into what DeBoer called the problem with “Magic Words” rhetoric. People seemingly assume this is going to happen:

    X: Going to college/university especially an elite one is merely “signalling”.

    Y: “You are right. I am going to drop out and become a lumberjack, commercial fisherman, or what ever career is non-signalling.”

    I went to college at 18 because I grew up in a town where almost everyone does this. My parents went to college because they were part of the Boomer generation and they were second generation Jewish-Americans and going to university meant being part of the American mainstream and opportunity. Plus it was more likely that your college degree would equal a solid career back in the 1960s. I majored in drama because I really wanted to be a theatre director.

    Another way I see this come out is in debates in the Art World. I have a lot of friends who are into comics and comic book art or the fan art scene. They dislike artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Prince for their appropriation of stuff from Instagram or Comic Books because they dislike how Prince and Lichtenstein get rich while the Comic Book artists or Instragram artists often go unrecognized. Stuff like this:

    Now I am a strong Lichtenstein fan and apologist but he did transform the original comic by changing the medium and making it big. He was also working for a completely different market than Russ Heath was. Now I don’t think old-age should equal living in poverty but there seems to be a message from the comic fans that they want their idols to be the ones who make megabucks and not the artists that the art world favors. They want Jack Kirby in MOMA, not Richard Prince or Roy Lichtenstein.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Surprised you aren’t referencing Outsider Art. It would seem a bit more of a parallel.

      Scalping other people’s ideas is as timeless as Shakespeare, after all.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        There is a strong collector’s market for Outside Art or some Outsider Art like Harvey Darger speaking of someone who made art via assemblage. The New Yorker ran an article a year or two ago about a collector who was trying to start a Museum for Outsider Art.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      “…and going to university meant being part of the American mainstream…”

      But is going to university part of the American mainstream? And, more importantly, was it then? What percentage of your parents’ generation went to university? What percentage of our generation did? What does it mean for something to be mainstream? Have we been mislead about what the American mainstream entails?

      These are questions anyone can offer responses to, mind you. I was just riffing off Saul’s initial comment.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Well that depends on where you live probably and your background.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:


          Well, how is that the American mainstream? Maybe it is the NYC Metro Area mainstream? Or the white upper-middle class mainstream? But if something is regional in nature, it is hard to call it “American”, no?Report

          • Avatar David says:

            That’s an interesting question, actually, and spurs some tricky musings for me (please forgive my unclarity). In large parts of the country, baseball is around the 3rd-4th most popular sport at best (both playing and watching), and you could probably make a case that peaches are as widespread as apples, but then you start to run out of things you can label as American beyond “mom”. Is it fair to say that the aspiration to attend college was/is an American mainstream norm, even if not everyone did it? Something like having a car in every driveway and a chicken in every pot? Was driving a car mainstream in the 1940s, or seeing a new Hollywood movie in the 1950s? Listening to Elvis? These are all things that lots of Americans never did, but we have largely collectively agreed that these are central to the American experience – maybe going to college was not an aspiration for most Americans over the last 50 years, I don’t know, but I suspect most would have liked to even if most didn’t get to.

            I’m just not sure ubiquity of opportunity to do thing X, or actually doing it, is a good basis to judge whether it is “mainstream American” because I don’t quite understand that concept as a remark on reality. The idea of America as an imagined community has always been more as an aspiration than a reality; I have no problem with folks pointing out that the reality often is much more exclusive or that these baseball-and-apple-pie focused on certain individuals’ experiences; it adds a richness to absorb other viewpoints and examine the underlying ideas critically. But if the critique doesn’t include a desire to maintain some imagined community of America – which will require some elisions and reductions because that’s what imagined communities are – or if the imagined community is supposed to only be based on fact patterns that actually apply to most people who live in America, with nothing aspirational in it, it really starts to erode at the idea that “American” is a useful identity term.

            So I guess I’m throwing it back – what is “mainstream America” or what does that term stand for? And are we at a point where we can’t agree on much beyond living in a certain geography under a certain legal framework, in which case, is there even an imagined community of Americans?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Going to college and graduating is mainstream for those who have a voice. The majority that don’t graduate college are treated as a problem to be fixed.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          Better than the other way ’round, as I’m sure you know well.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          Well there is some signalling in your phrasing 😉

          I wonder if Deseret as you call it can choose to ignore the college degree thing because of how homogeneous Deseret is as compared to the rest of the country. What if that is the trade-off: college for all white-collar jobs or homogeneous societies.

          There was a time when Jews were excluded from the top Wall Street banks and Law Firms and they started their own counterpoints. The WASPS had JP Morgan, the Jews had Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. The WASPS had Cadwalader. The Jews had Proskauser Rose. Maybe it was sharing a similar cultural background that let someone rise from mailroom to board room?Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            Given their predilection for adopting washed up sex slaves, you might find the Mormons a little more diverse than you think.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            It wasn’t specifically limited to Mormons, though. I mean, there was definitely some discrimination going on, but gentiles were given opportunities as well.

            Some of it was by necessity. I mean, in small cities your options are different. you can’t look to college degrees because those that have them are more likely to have left the area, and those that haven’t gravitate towards government jobs. So you’re looking for differentiators.

            This is all true regardless of the level of Mormonism. The difference is that the Mormons positively embraced this and they were (and are) the guardians of the local culture. I didn’t get the same vibe in Arapaho. I did see a culture that accepted a lack of college degrees, though mostly for the reasons in the preceding paragraph.Report

            • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

              I can see how small cities would need to be more open than larger ones but it could still only be true in certain industries. Would someone be trained to be a financial advisor/planner after two years in a call-center?Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                A financial advisor is one of the easiest jobs to train for, actually. It’s all just telling people what they want to hear.

                When someone’s drowning in bad ideas, there’s little one guy can do to make them see reason.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Did moving the goalposts like that hurt your back? Who said anything about being a financial advisor/planner? There were advancement opportunities, though, if that’s what you’re asking. People from our team made it into account management, software testing, and even software development.

                That was my first experience in the world of quality assurance. I didn’t even make it to software testing, but I did become team lead (college degree helped, but my successor didn’t have one) which laid the foundation from my career shift away from database work and into Software Quality Assurance.Report

            • Avatar Kim says:

              Accepting people without college degrees: Laudable.
              Actively promulgating victimware: Despicable.

              I don’t think the sides even themselves out.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            Interesting, Deseret has a fairly high rate of educational attainment. It’s not like they have to consider non-graduates because there’s a huge shortage of college graduates.

            I wonder if it’s specific to the software industry, which isn’t very credentialist in general, compared to other jobs in that pay range. I knew a guy in high school who went straight to Microsoft after high school, and I had several co-workers with no degrees, including one of my first managers.

            Also, doesn’t the software industry in Deseret pay very poorly by national standards? Maybe they have a lot of brain drain with software workers in general.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              @brandon-berg Well, the part of Deseret where I was, despite being near two colleges, was pretty short on college degrees. The public sector* soaks them up, and others migrate to the capital, its suburbs, or out of the state. So brain drain and necessity are a part of it. But, like I said to Saul, it wasn’t just that. The cultural guardians value work, and so the culture does.

              * – A real head-turner when I moved out there was the different approach to public vs private sector. In Colosse, if you went into the public sector, it meant that you wanted something safe and were likely not very ambituous. In Deseret, the public sector was what people ambituously worked to enter, if they could. This was true of Arapaho, as well, so not a Mormon thing.Report

              • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


                I would say that in NY and SF, public sector is where you want something safe and/or you are politically ambitious in someway.

                There are certainly attorneys who like working for the government because it usually means a pretty high salary on 9 to 5 hours and with pretty generous benefits. I have not seen a government lawyer job that paid less than 80,000 in SF even if you work for housing. They will not make as much as their private sector colleagues (unless said private sector colleagues work for non-profits). People also set out pretty specifically to be ADAs or Public Defenders.

                Though this probably depends on college or not college. Being a MUNI driver has a lot of benefits for people without college degrees.

                I suppose this all means by what we mean by government work. I don’t think anyone would accuse a government lawyer of being unambitious if he or she were a DA or worked for the Justice Department or other big name Federal Agencies. They might accuse public defenders and other government lawyers of being unambitious though.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          Here is something that comes up on LGM a lot but they frequently decry how it is fairly uncommon for someone with white-collar professional parents and middle-class or above upbringings to take on blue-collar jobs/careers. This is not always true, there are always exceptions but it is probably more true than not.

          The issue is that no one has a solution for how to change this. I have some theories about why it doesn’t happen.

          1. Ideas about job v. career. I grew up hearing people talk about careers. Careers have aspects of psychological satisfaction and improvement and promotion plus something that you might not want to retire from too early. Associate-Partner-Managing Partner or something like that. Road Scholar mentioned that his parents stressed jobs a lot and a job was merely something that paid the bills.

          2. You can theoretically do white-collar work for longer than blue-collar work, we have discussed this before. And for better or for worse, I don’t desire to retire in my 50s and move to a sprawling but low-cost place in the Sun Belt or Florida.

          3. Maybe there are perceptions of cultural affinities. My upbringing and nature caused me to be arts mad and to love places like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Film Forum. Is it possible to have a blue-collar job and spend your free time with season tickets to BAM? Absolutely! Is it common? I don’t know. Are you going to be relating to your co-workers at the construction site or whatever by talking about seeing a Polish theatre company do a deconstructed Hamlet? Maybe to probably not. Though many professional types would find this just as incomprehensive, they might not call it out as bullshit or whatnot.

          What is the solution to all this and whether it is signaling or not? I don’t think anyone has a clue? Does Caplan think he is going to destroy all upper-middle class liberal culture?Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            “Is it common? I don’t know.”
            How the hell do you NOT KNOW? The very point of going to see a Ton of Arts in NYC is the mingling… (and no, I’m not sorry that the Hoity Toity is paying for things they really don’t care about).Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            There is no solution for the desire to better paying, more pleasant work. I don’t even think we particularly want a solution to that. But to the extent that it is a solution, I don’t think the solution is sending more and more kids to college. It just isn’t. Not so long as there are more graduates than opportunities that a college degree is required for.

            The arms-race is a problem. How do we fix that? Well, not a whole lot of good options, but again, sending more and more kids to college isn’t it and it’s a very, very expensive non-solution.

            My own preference, mostly to just minimize the fallout, is to try to contain costs and make alternatives as attractive as possible. That still wouldn’t solve the arms-race problem – for better or worse, we’re not willing to do what that would take – but would nonetheless be preferable to me. But there are other non-solution solutions that make more sense to me than the trajectory of the status quo.Report

    • Avatar Autolukos says:

      I don’t think that exchange is the expected behavior at all, mainly because “college gets people better jobs because it signals something about that person” isn’t about individual behavior. The question is, can we find a way of allowing people who just want a good job to signal that they’re decently smart, hardworking, and whatever else without spending (and frequently borrowing) $100k+ (not to mention several years of their lives) to do it. I’m also mildly hopeful that changing this would decrease the pressure to just let people through college courses regardless of their ability to master the material.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        1. I dispute the idea that going to college/university is wasting several years of your life. I find the very suggestion that going to college is wasting a few years of your life to be crude, vulgar, and anti-intellectual. Most people in the U.S. will live to be in their 70s or 80s and have forty or fifty years of working, why is it wasting time to get a degree from 18-22? I do admit that I really, really like school and went to an undergrad of people who really, really liked school. My undergrad had plenty of science majors but we did not have practical majors like engineering, business, accounting, etc. There is still the part of me that sees myself as a somewhat failed academic who saw the writing on the wall. But if you gave me career genie, I could very will pick being a tenured professor even in a fairly ruralish environment like Western Mass or Oberlin, Ohio. It is really the high likelihood of adjuncting that took me away from academia.

        2. I think the best we can do is make college/university affordable over gutting it as a requirement completely because we are a diverse and heterogeneous nation. The college degree makes it more likely to higher people who are different than you.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          Yeah, I don’t think you’re the type quite cut out for blackmail.

          Learning is valuable for its own sake, but I constantly see deficits, rather than strengths, emerge out of a college education. Our world is so vast, and yet college ill prepares us for most of it.Report

        • Avatar Autolukos says:

          I didn’t say anything about “wasting” four years, you did. So keep it out of my mouth.

          Personally, I got a lot out of both college and grad school, and both were quite enjoyable. That doesn’t mean that everyone who wants a decent white-collar job necessarily needs to have gone to college.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        What I do agree with is that we are seeing a lot of fights over balancing the needs and wants of different groups. We also see this with the so-called gig/sharing economy.

        The Pro-Sharing Economy side will claim that people want to be Independent Contractors and this might be true for many but for an equal amount of people they might be choosing to be Independent Contractors because it is an option between that and not working. So how do we balance the needs of those who want to be I.C.s and those who don’t want to be I.C.s?

        • Avatar Kim says:

          Driverless cars.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          Seems you would look at employment numbers. I hear tell that there are jobs out there going unfilled, and unemployment is getting lower (I think it’s at 5.5% right now).

          So if there are still ICs out there, then most of them they want to be, either because the employment prospects do not fit their preferences*, or because they are employed but like making extra money/find the work interesting/what-have-you. I’m sure some of them are unemployed because they aren’t getting hired for anything, but probably not all of them.

          *e.g. the actor who is waiting tables between gigs.Report

  9. Avatar veronica d says:

    I get the impression that people here have strong opinions about college!

    Anyway, so signaling, yeah it’s become one of those totalizing concepts among the “amateur social scientist” crowd, alongside the word “status” — which actually they get used together a lot: “status signaling.”

    There is probably some truth to it. I don’t deny that I dyed my hair purple partly to send a message about my cultural affiliations. In fact, I openly call it a “social hack.”

    And it works, cuz I’m shy but having cool hair and cool clothes kinda marks me as a certain kind of approachable person, at least approachable by certain kinds of people. It’s really cool.

    Thus my “social justice hair” (and social justice pillow cases and social justice shower curtain and social justice towels and …)

    Anyway yeah, signaling — when someone says I’m doing that, I say, “Yep.”

    I also think it looks pretty cool.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      I have stronger opinions about letting 13 year old kids get burned while working in a glass shop.
      But you know, that’s life.

      In College News, apparently 20% of college students have paid attention to all the caterwauling, and have decided to find more reasonable college choices.

      Doubt it’ll help much, honestly.

      I’d rather talk about how to improve education more broadly, but I’m not the one writing the Cellphone IQ Tests.Report

    • Avatar veronica d says:

      As an aside, here is Katherine Cross with a feminist take on fashion signaling:

      “We are born,” author Siri Hustvedt writes, “with the ability to imitate the expressions of others, but we also become creatures of our culture with its countless images of what is chic and beautiful.” We seek to touch the stars of fashion because we want to express our allegiance to archetypes and ideas in our culture — some of us may want to look “classy,” how ever our culture or subculture defines that, and the judgements of others play a role in triangulating the pathways of our desire. The desire may originate from within us, or it may not (perhaps one wishes to be classy for instrumental reasons — i.e. to get a job), but we measure our success by the opinions of others, the mirror of recognition that reaffirms or challenges the self we are constructing. For people of all genders, we may present ourselves in a given way for others in order to feel more like ourselves. Our sense of identity is reinforced collectively. —

      Golly she’s just the best.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Wow, @veronica-d that’s a great quote.

        I don’t think that there is anything wrong with signalling (nor, for that matter, do I consider all fashion/grooming/etc to be signalling). I think it gets troublesome when you start attaching moral or grand value to it and/or pretend that it is an aesthetic decision in a vacuum.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      Shoot, when my hair was briefly that color, it had nothing to do with “social justice”. I just liked to match the color of my Dinosaur “Cow” T-shirt.

      (Alas, if you have dark hair, your hair doesn’t STAY that color very long, unless you bleach it first and/or use a more permanent dye than Manic Panic…actually, now that my hair is going gray, maybe it will become feasible again).Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I have twice worn hair coloring. Once gray hair coloring, and once dark brown. This signals quite a bit about myself.Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          I did do gray once for a Halloween costume, it was a sort of hairspray thingy.

          I never bleached my hair though, which means that purple dye was pretty temporary on my dark hair.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            The gray dye was costume-related.

            The brown was oddly an effort to please an employer. Said employer was upset about the unevenness of the color of my facial hair (blond-red-brown, in that color). The hope was that by dying everything brown, I wouldn’t have to shave off my facial hair.

            In the end, I had to shave off my facial hair.Report

            • Avatar Glyph says:

              That’s…a weird employer complaint.

              I mean, it’s weird to complain about facial hair anyway, unless it is like a Hitler mustache or just completely out-of-control scruffy/unruly or something; but the coloration?!Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                They said it made it look like the beard was not properly groomed and uneven, because the blond blended with my skin.

                This was the same employer that monitored the frequency and duration of rest room breaks. The one where, when my roommate at the time quit, had my superior’s superior’s superior stop by and ask me about the nature of my lease and whether or not it would be possible for me to find other living arrangements.

                Man, what a place that was.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:


                That makes me wonder about a dress code that forbids the Hitler ‘stache (either by name or description)…Report

        • Avatar North says:

          I bleached my hair last year for a white tiger costume. Then turned out the costume included a hood. I was vexed. All that bleaching and striping for nada. Won second place for the costume tho.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        @glyph — For the record, I strongly approve of dyed hair for the purpose of fashion coordination.

        The “social justice hair” is a #gamergate thing. I assure you, I am saying it ironically.

        I bleach. It helps a lot.

        (According to my hair dresser, it can still be a good idea to bleach, even with gray, as gray is surprisingly hard to dye. Evidently the gray hairs are “closed off” and less porous — or something like that. Anyway, bleaching opens them up to better receive the dye.)

        If you’re gonna do a purple or pink or something, get it professionally done. It makes a difference.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          I have the sudden compulsion to ask a troll how many of his alter-egos have dyed hair.
          (He has to know! Some of them show up to conventions and get interviewed, and all that!).Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          I strongly approve of dyed hair for the purpose of fashion coordination.

          I have told this story I think, but I was dismayed in college to learn that some of the girls there thought I might be gay – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t interested in them when I really, really (REALLY) was.

          Anyway, I asked a girl (that I am still friends with to this day) why she’d thought that, and she said, “Well, you can dance…and your clothes match!”Report

          • No wonder no one ever thought that about me.Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            My husband often gets the “you’re gay”… or worse “you’re gay, you just don’t know it yet.”Report

            • Avatar veronica d says:

              @kim — Well, you know…

              I mean, I haven’t met either of you, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if you were somewhat on the trans spectrum — not that I’m saying you should go transition or anything. Whatever pronouns you want is fine with me. It’s just —

              well, uh. stuff. a sense.

              Anyway, I know a ton of couples who got married as M/F, and then within a few years they find themselves F/F or M/M or F/M. That last one is the most adorable. The thing is, I know two couples — like just in my immediate face-to-face social circles — who tell that story, and who all insist they didn’t know the other was trans when they got married. Like, it’s really super common.

              I had one friend’s wife who basically said, “Well, actually I’ve been really feeling more like a lesbian anyway, but I love you and was afraid to tell you, so actually, this is really good.”

              Last week I met another couple, trans gal/cis gal, with that same story. I mean, it’s common to the point of banality.

              (I cannot keep track of the relationships of all my online friends, so I’m not going to guess how many fit this. But really, it’s alarmingly common.)

              (Oddly, it only seems to happen among my nerd trans friends. Among my non-nerd trans friends, the “I transitioned and they left me” is the more common story. Which is actually quite interesting — and sad for them. Nerd power!)

              So anyway, yeah.Report

          • Avatar veronica d says:

            @glyph — See the thing is, that is the sort of thing a guy could really make work, but only if he’s super self-confident, and with a good sense of when to push (to get to the cool sex part) and when to back off (to not get a rep as a creepo). So basically, I’m saying you had this amazing opportunity to be a SEX GOD and you let it slip away.

            Come on man! You had one job!


            The sad part is, I bet half those girls wanted to shag you and were waiting for you to make a move. I mean, you could dance! And dress yourself! Total win!

            (And trust me, I feel your pain.)

            Anyway, let us all take a moment of silence and ponder what could have been.Report

            • Avatar Glyph says:

              Oh, I muddled through. Eventually.

              I actually was surprised to find at a later point that I briefly had the reputation of “player” – despite the fact that from my POV, I had no idea what was going on and was actually in way over my head.

              But yes, there were certainly some missed opportunities.

              Still, had I capitalized on all of them, I almost certainly wouldn’t have the friends I do today – as I said, I remain close with a lot of these women, and I probably wouldn’t, had I been more, uh…”successful” back then.Report

  10. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    This quote, from a book I am reading seems appropriate here in terms of people like Caplan:

    “Keep in mind that no academic rationalist practices what he preaches. If he did, he would take no wages from his university or his thankful corporation, and merely give lectures for which the public would buy tickets to attend-or not buy tickets to attend. He would subject himself to market forces, and, if his lectures were boring, go broke.”

    -Bob Ellis (from First Abolish the Customer: 202 Arguments against economic rationalism)Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      If you advocate ending subsidies for other people, you’re FYIGMing. If you advocate ending subsidies for yourself, you’re a hypocrite. Ergo no one can legitimately advocate cutting subsidies. Checkmate, libertarians!

      How do you feel about Warren Buffett and other rich people who advocate higher taxes on the rich not unilaterally sending extra money to the IRS?

      This is a terrible argument. Caplan advocates a policy change that would cost him his job. If you agreed with him, I suspect that you’d consider that a sign of sincerity. That job is going to be filled whether Caplan takes it or not. From a libertarian perspective, it’s much better that it be filled by someone who uses the position to call for its abolition than someone who would use to argue for preserving his privilege.Report

  11. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I am stuck on a bad job track at the moment. My janitor job allows me to work an “eight-hour” schedule that I can complete in two or three and spend five or six in a closet reading free books and writing. Shoot, if the PhD can’t get me even a decent substitute teaching position, the hell with being a productive part of the economy. I am hung up on the thought that nobody gives a damn if William Faulkner was a good night watchman.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      My career trajectory took a downward turn due to my marriage. Moving around a lot is not conducive to advancement, unless you’re moving around to advance. Things took a turn for the well in the Pacific Northwest, and then we had to move again and there was just not much in Arapaho. I find myself worrying about what happens if something happens to Clancy. Especially now that the Last Ditch North Dakota Option is likely out. I basically figure I will email everyone I know and say “Whatever you’ve got, as long as there is advancement opportunity. Where do you need me to move?” and start from scratch.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Even Brooklyn?


      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Especially now that the Last Ditch North Dakota Option is likely out.

        I assume you mean because the Bakken activity is declining precipitously? Well, as Steve Kopits remarked over at Econbrowser this AM, Nebraska seems to be doing almost as well and they don’t have any oil. Friends there keep sending me articles about things in Lincoln and Omaha.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

          Yes, the Silicon Prairie!Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          Yeah. Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota in particular are likely to get a look.Report

          • Avatar Road Scholar says:

            Kansas is starting to seriously suck due to Brownback and company. And it’s not just me saying that as a liberal. The legislature is in overtime and they can’t create a balanced budget (constitutionally required) despite both houses and the governor all being from the same party. Some school districts closed early for the summer due to budget cuts and now state workers are being furloughed.

            Seriously, the school thing has me thinking seriously about moving to another state if we could sell the house. I can live literally anywhere in the lower 48 without changing jobs so I’m just about the polar opposite of geographically locked in.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        I find myself worrying about what happens if something happens to Clancy.

        You do have insurance, don’t you?Report

  12. Avatar Mr. Blue says:

    @will-truman says in the OP: “Because of the credentialing effect, college is a good investment.”

    @saul-degraw replies: “No, no, college is a good investment.”

    @will-truman replies: “Actually, you don’t need to go to college, and here’s why…”


    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      Hey now, I’ve always conceded that for the individual college is usually the better bet. It’s just that that’s a bad state of affairs, for multiple reasons, and there are alternatives. At least in Deseret.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      And I always said that it was morally untenable to require people to go into debt for the chance of a decent salary. Yet a college degree still acts as disaster insurance. Also the idea of “there are alternatives in X” is not always true. How much is X welcoming to outsiders? This could be true in Deseret or in Montana.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I didn’t say anything about moving to Deseret. Just that in Deseret there are opportunities. And for what it’s worth, one of us has been an outsider in Deseret and one of us hasn’t.

        I’m not saying someone who lives in NYC should have to move to Deseret to have an opportunity, but there are limits to the degree I want the government to pay for a college education so that they don’t have to. Especially since…

        The problem with what you’re saying is the limited chances at opportunity you refer to are not a product of whether college is paid for, but of the limited number of opportunities out there, which doesn’t change with more people getting college degrees unless there are jobs going unfilled (or maybe if being taken by underqualified people). It just changes how much they spend to get the job, and gives people who are classroom-oriented an advantage over people that aren’t.Report

  13. Avatar Saul Degraw says:


    You might find this interesting. Norway Universities are free but you are still more likely to attend university if your parents did. This means there is a cultural issue:

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      That seems pretty obvious. The Smithsonians are free, but I bet attendance isn’t equally distributed across income brackets. Conversely, the internet is free at most libraries and I bet the numbers on use there are also disproportionate.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        The Carnegie Museums become a zoo whenever it’s a “free day”. My experience is that most parents see such things as a good idea, and also as cheap babysitting.

        Art Museum definitely has a different metric, though.Report

  14. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I went to college because, well, that is just what you did. Or at least, I was raised to think such. The question was never, “Are you going to college?” but, “Where are you going to college?” I assumed this was fairly universal. Then my first summer home from college I went down to the basketball courts and re-connected with a group of kids I hadn’t really hung with since middle school. They were all Black or Hispanic and my high school had a weird filtering effect wherein previously heterogenous groups were largely separated out into more homogenous groups… which sucked. And one of the reasons it sucked was it reinforced some different cultural expectations. Most kids in my classes and social groups similarly grew up with the, “Where are you going to college?” question. Hanging out with these kids, many of whom were not only shocked to learn that I was in college but that I went away — out of state — to college told me that my experience was far from universal, even amongst my neighbors and schoolmates. It was pretty eye opening.

    So I wouldn’t say that signaling was an intentional factor in my college attendance, but it no doubt was factor in the culture that helped lead me to go to college. Why was I expected to, and thus expected myself to, go to college? Because that’s what you did. Meeting that social norm was part of the culture.

    I was fortunate that my college experience — both undergrad and graduate school — was anything but a waste. As an education major at a liberal arts school, I got both vocational training that directly contributed to my professional success AND got to inhabit the sort of personally challenging academic realm that can contribute to real growth AND I was well suited to the environment. Add in that I was fortunate to have all my expenses covered and I was in the cat bird’s seat. My graduate degree has paid for itself many times over and in the geographic area where I am from, is more or less required to attain the position I now hold. More importantly, it actually made me better at what I do and given that I consider my career as much a passion as a profession, this was both deeply important to me and deeply fulfilling.

    However, I’ve come to realize that my experience is atypical. Or, at the very least, is not true for everyone. When I encounter young people in their last years of high school, I avoid saying, “So where are you going to college?” This can lead to very awkward moments. Instead, I say, “What do you plan to do after high school?” Because everyone should have a plan for after high school. And maybe that is the tact we need to adopt. “What is your plan?”

    We tend to stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up after elementary school, if not earlier. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should ask them that every year. And have them write an essay on the topic. And as they grow older, we should ask them questions about their choice that demand further investigation of it and critical thinking. “Why do you want to be a firefighter? Do you also plan to have a family? Many fire departments require 24-hour shifts; will such a work schedule be conducive to the sort of family life you hope to have?” Not to steer kids away from or towards any particular plan… but simply to encourage them to think critically about it. And when they are older still, we can start to say, “Okay, you want to be a mechanic. Let’s figure out what skills are required to be a mechanic and become a mechanic*. Let’s see how interested you are in attaining those skills and, to the extent possible, how easy/hard it will be for you to.” And probably concurrent with that conversation will be the formal plan setting. “Here are some different routes to becoming an accountant. Let’s figure out the pros and cons of each and identify which one makes sense for you.”

    To me, this is highly preferable to our current plan. Of course, it requires personnel in school or other social institutions who can successfully have these conversations with kids and their families. And it is imperative that these folks be able to gain the trust of these kids and families. If we hire people who tend to put all of these sorts of kids on one type of path and all of those sorts of kids on another type of path — regardless of the kids’ specific fit for those paths — we’re going to have real problems.

    The last thing I’ll say is that signaling can work in some weird ways. A few summers ago — when the question of, “Should everyone go to college?” first became evident to me**, I happened to be working at a summer camp with a number of high school juniors and seniors under my tutelage. I remember thinking, “Should I talk to these kids about how college might not be right for them?” One girl struck me as incredibly savvy and ‘street smart’ but not quite the sharpest knife in the drawer in terms of formal academics. She was the daughter of immigrants who actually spent much of her childhood in her parents’ native Chile and had much extended family in the states. I remember her saying, “I’ll be the first person in my family to go to college.” This was a big deal to her and her family. It felt cruel to say, “Well, are you sure you want to? I mean, college ain’t all it’s cracked up to be for some people.” She and her family bought into the idea that going to college was part of “making it”. And, furthermore, as a young brown girl from the Bronx with a slight accent and a Hispanic name — which fair or not all serve as signals to the outside world — that degree would mean something different to her than it would her fellow counselors who grew up in Westchester and attended private schools. I was really at a loss as to if/how to advise her and simply opted to ask her questions about her plan. And, to her credit, she had a pretty well thought out one (she had identified a specific career she was interested in that seemed reasonably within her grasp and some different options for getting there). Still… there seems something perverse about a well-to-do white guy with two degrees telling a young Hispanic girl who is itching to be the first college attendee in her family that not everyone should go to college… even if that is totally true.

    * As evidenced by some of the conversation here, some professions will have a disconnect between the skills required by the position itself and the skills required to get the job in the first place.
    ** Even though I recognized far earlier, per my above story, that not everyone did go to college, I still assumed everyone was better off going to college.Report

    • That’s an excellent comment, @kazzy .

      I grew up in an environment that mostly was “are you going to go to college,” although maybe a few teachers in high school asked the “which college are you going to” question. But even they–if I recall correctly–were quick to emphasize that there were cheap, public local options.

      I do agree it would be awkward to advise someone like the person you mentioned not to go to college. I personally wouldn’t want to be that guy, unless I knew for sure going to college was a bad thing for that person AND that person explicitly asked my opinion or I had the standing to offer it. For the record, I think many people probably benefit from going to college because it is expected, or at least seems to be more expected than before, in order to have certain opportunities. I wish that weren’t the case, but it seems to be.

      But here’s one point from your comment that I think I disagree with partially, at least if I take it in a direction you probably did not intend:

      When I encounter young people in their last years of high school, I avoid saying, “So where are you going to college?” This can lead to very awkward moments. Instead, I say, “What do you plan to do after high school?” Because everyone should have a plan for after high school. And maybe that is the tact we need to adopt. “What is your plan?”

      I think asking any of those questions is usually presumptuous. Maybe it’s a little different if you’re that person’s parent or their teacher, but if you’re a random relative or acquaintance, I see it as nosy and meddling. I’ve graduated a lot of times, and I remember, right after graduation, I’d get that “what are you going to do?” question and not have an answer. And that question is usually followed by, “you studied history, maybe you could work at a museum,” as if I had never heard of museums before. (Notably, the asker of such questions usually doesn’t know which museums if any are hiring, or what it takes to work in one.)

      On the other hand, you did say, “their last years” of high school. So that shows a certain investment in the person’s progress, or at least more investment than the idle questions asked of the post-grad person. So perhaps I’m overinterpretting what you said, or mis-characterizing it. If so, my apologies.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        Thanks. I wrote that comment at 4am while feeding Little Marcus Allen so I didn’t know if it was coherent or too rambley. I agree that such questions can be presumptuous so they should generally be asked in the proper context.

        I know a number of charter schools are trying to set the “Where are you going to college?” expectation for communities that don’t typically have that. They name their classes based on their expected graduation year and with the teacher’s alma mater. So my class wouldn’t be “Mr. Kazzy’s class” or “PreK 4/5” but “Boston College 2033” or whatever. This seems like a good thing but I don’t know. Are we doing these kids a service or disservice by creating the expectation that college is for them when we are thinking of them as a collective group (as opposed to individuals getting tailored advice)?

        That is why I like the idea of having a plan. EVERYONE should have a plan. Even if there plan is, “I’m going to travel,” or “I’m going to try out a few jobs.” Acting intentionally, demonstrating agency, being the master of your own domain, going to the world as opposed to having the world come to you… I’m pretty confident that those are fairly universally good values.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:


      Still… there seems something perverse about a well-to-do white guy with two degrees telling a young Hispanic girl who is itching to be the first college attendee in her family that not everyone should go to college… even if that is totally true.

      I don’t disagree. But could the reason we think it’s perverse be that we view it as negative signalling? I mean, by hypothesis, it’s the truth, dammit!Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      @kazzy I am of the mind that we don’t really need to worry about the question of whether people should be actively dissuaded from going to college. We can approach that question after we’re no longer telling people that they have to go to college or they’re setting themselves up for abject failure.

      (Also, that she has a specific idea of what she wants and it seems within her grasp changes the calculation, in my view. If I were to try to dissuade anybody – and again, we’re not really close to being in a place where that notion should be in play – it would be those who are going to go to college they guess and major in either the liberal arts because it’s interesting, general studies because it’s there, or business cause that seems like the smart play for getting a very generic “good job.”. And even then, it wouldn’t be a matter of trying to talk them out of college – unless their grades contraindicated – so much as trying to stress other options that are out there.)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        But some people are more likely to fail without a degree than with. I don’t think there is one-size-fits-all advice.

        For certain folks, pursuing college seems high risk high reward; for others low risk low reward. And possibly other permutations.Report