Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Canavan’s Razor – 2

with 3 comments

A system whose behavior appears to be irrational is simply serving some purpose other than the one you think. See, for instance, the war on drugs, the war on immigrants, the U.S. military, the New Jersey Turnpike, the academic job market.

There was a request in the comments of the first Canavan’s Razor post to elaborate on my examples. Sure, why not?

* My understanding is that the tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike don’t even pay for the cost of their own collection. To the extent that they’re not just a ditch-digging-style make-work initiative, and (increasingly) a scheme to funnel public money to EZ-Pass, they exist for the purposes of political patronage.

* The war on drugs works much the same way. Spending all that money to lock up pot smokers is obviously nuts! But it exists and persists because public money can be funneled to private interests through building tons of prisons and militarizing police, and because there has to be some excuse for elites to declare war on poor people.

* I don’t know the last war America fought that made rational sense to pursue given its stated objectives. World War II?

* Anti-immigrant laws are deliberately crafted to be both draconian and ineffective in order to create a terrorized and immiserated population of workers with no standing to combat their illegal exploitation, while simultaneously appealing to aging white voters who feel threatened by the country’s changing demographics. They’re diabolically effective at both.

And Bousquet’s got the academic job market covered already. The short version is that graduate programs generally exist not to produce future professors, as they claim, but cheap, flexible labor…

3 Responses

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  1. canavan’s razor really should go in some sort of official reference.


    December 2, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    • At some point over Thanksgiving I convinced myself that this was really the key to everything. So many political debates hinge on anecdotes about “stupidity” and “incompetence,” when in fact bureaucratic systems are robust and adaptative and very good at achieving their actual goals.


      December 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm

  2. […] Despite its claimed goals, most of which are perfectly laudable in the abstract, this is the purpose to which the proposal actually directs itself: not the production of fewer Ph.D.s, but a mechanism to get rid of the “used-up” Ph.D. […]

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