Tuesday, May 03, 2011


The park across the street is full of the weeds. They've reached the stage where they spread their seed. My nose itches and my eyes tear, a physical reminder of their power. I suppose we should admire them, their heartiness, how rapidly they can spread, that they require no tending. If only that were the case for things we value more. My wife loves her garden. The rabbits have been biting the heads off the flowers. And the dandelions invade our lawn. Perhaps if there were a bed just of the weeds that might be beautiful. Interspersed in the grass and other growth, they seem ugly to me.

Yesterday in class we discussed Akerlof's Gift Exchange paper. Employees produce more than is required, the increment a gift to the employer. That employer pays more than it must and treats the workers fairly, a gift back to the employees, yet a quid pro quo. After our brief discussion of this in the labor market I talked about economic exchange on Campus, how much of it seemed like an unending sequence of favors, with no quid pro quo. The donors are "good citizens." They want a collegial environment. Their efforts aim to promote that, rather than to necessarily receive equally in return. I argued that quid pro quos can be too limited because they require a double coincidence of wants. Often that may be lacking. The contrivance of money solves the double coincidence of wants problem in the case of exchange goods. I argued that collegiality plays the analogous role when what is being exchange is gifts. It is an elegant argument, likely too elegant.

I made sure to point out that many do want to be good citizens, but not everyone does. The point must have been obvious to the students in attendance. Their classmates who were no-shows outnumbered them. It's not truancy, for attendance isn't mandatory. But for those who've missed regularly during the semester their absence conveys a lack of collegiality. And for those who've mainly come but are missing now to finish up work in other classes or write the paper due in mine, it is a reminder that maybe we are not too collegial to them forcing them to cram and pull all nighters as the semester closes. The lack of collegiality grows like weeds. The world inhabited by good citizens seems increasingly fragile.

My reflection on this semester that has not yet completed but is winding down indicate to me that individual efforts can't stop the weeds from spreading. But maybe a determined group can, at least in their little patch that they choose to maintain. My next hope is to find such a group and be part of it. I do not want the dandelion to become the de facto state flower.

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