Monday, November 07, 2005

For Loyalty, for Irrationality, and for Yale

As I reported two weeks ago, Ben Stein is experiencing cognitive dissonance. He knows he should not give to Yale. He knows his beneficence is better channeled to more worthy and needy causes. Two weeks ago he had the temerity to note that since it was virtually meaningless to give to Yale, why bother? Better, he concluded, to give to other charities where his gifts do far more good.

Well, Stein continues to experience cognitive dissonance, but now he has concluded that he just has to give to Yale. He can't helpful himself. In a follow-up article in the New York Times, he writes:
“They were good to me. They were a family to me. They let me take a film class from Stanley Kauffmann, the great film critic, that changed my life and set my trajectory for eventual Hollywood landing. They went far, far beyond what I could have expected. I shed bitter tears when I left the Sterling Law Buildings. So here's my point, if I may: It is probably not an economically rational act for me to give my few shekels to mighty, multibillionaire Yale. It would be far more rational for me to … give them to smaller charities. But not all decisions are rational. Yale went far beyond the rational to offer me a place back when I dropped out. Yale went far beyond the rational to be as generous with financial aid as it was. … I owe Yale for what it did, and what it let me do. There are ties that are more than rational, more than sensible. They are the mystic chords of memory to which Lincoln referred. I feel them about Yale, just as I feel them about many people and places I remember in my life. (As one might say, in my life, I've loved them all. ). So, God bless Mr. Swensen. God bless all those who wrote to me agreeing with me about Yale and its endowments, but there are some ties that even economic theory cannot break. I'll keep giving to Yale… Not everything is about reason.”
So Stein now accepts that he should not give to Yale Law School as a purely rational act, but that he has a sense of deep loyalty to the institution, and he just can't help it. They were good to him, so he feels duty-bound to return the favor.

Fair enough. Loyalty is a powerful and worthy motive. It causes us to serve those institutions near and dear to us, and neglect the rest. A member gives to his or her local church or synagogue knowing that it sustains the institution while also providing an important source of help and hope to those who come to it in desperate need. For such a member that gift is a loyal and rational act.

If Yale has already won Ben Stein's money, what are Richard Levin and Harold Koh to do to save Ben Stein from himself? Their endowment is growing by $6 million per day, so how can they in good conscience ask for money from the likes of Ben Stein? The answer is simple: Make his gifts rational. He knows he should be giving to more worthy causes, but he has this irrational need to give to Yale. If Yale Law School is so deeply committed to the cause of liberty and justice, it can redirect his irrational gifts to further human rights and civil liberties in the world. Yale Law School should earmark alumni gifts in such a way that donors can feel that giving to it is an act that is both loyal and rational.

This past week President Levin displayed particular sensitivity in making alumni giving more rational when he convinced a donor to give $100 million to make tuition free for music students, rather than steer the funds to less needy causes in the sciences or medicine.

So if Ben Stein is taking leave of his faculties, must human rights scholar and advocate Harold Koh do likewise? If it is irrational to give to such an unneedy cause, is it not moreso to ask and to take? It would be odd indeed for Yale Law School to fully embrace rational choice and human rights ... except when it comes to alumni giving.

Or perhaps Koh is at peace with himself thinking, "God bless Mr. Stein. I'll keep asking for Yale. Not everything is about reason."

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Blogger t'su said...

Personally, I'm annoyed by the time and attention our society focuses on celebrities and "elite" institutions.

Of course Stein could've made more effective use of his donation, but he chose instead to perpetuate his class and toss his money into the mouth of the fat cat blue-blood institution.

No matter the fact that state institutions like my alma maters have cut programs and aid monies to smart students from poor backgrounds. To say nothing of the public school systems so starved for cash that all but the bare necessities are cut.

But I choose not to dwell on this misappropriation of philanthropy. Stein's donation is just another example of how the rich benefit the rich.

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