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This Week's Finds in Planning is the blog of Martin Krieger, Professor of Planning at the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

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Unbelievable Chutzpah: Going Over the Line

I have reblogged this post from my other blog, The Scholar's Survival Manual.

Professor Ed Kleinbard was recently quoted in the New York Times, referring the Apple's tax strategies:

"There is a technical term economists like to use for behavior like this," said Kleinbard. "Unbelievable chutzpah."

Given a set of rules, one tries to game the system, namely one is apparently following the rules but goes quite close to the line (of rule-breaking) or just over, and one's defense is twofold: I followed the rules, and their interpretation is subject to question. And, our job is to maximize (returns, rewards, rank,...) and so we go for the gold. It would seem there was a time when people did not game the system so much, maybe it was white shoe law firms on Wall Street, maybe it was professors, maybe it was physicians, maybe it was students. There was a notion of professional integrity, that one not followed the rules, in practice and in their intent.

Now, it would seem that most who game the system would not want their neurosurgeon to do so. Nor their babysitter. Nor their spouse. Nor their secretary, if they have one. Perhaps it is a Hobbesian/Milton-Friedman world, but it would seem that most of those players do not want to be subject to the consequences of others' gaming the system. They want reliable professional ethical high-integrity behavior. Perhaps I am wrong, and they find the response in litigation and counter-strategies.

So when a students quotes back to the professor what the professor said, as a defense of what they did, as often happens, rarely do teachers find themselves convinced by their argument. Let us say that their quote-back is accurate. The best response is, "I was wrong." Second best, "You misunderstood what I said." Now the student might go to a university committee and win on the technicality (perfectly OK by me). But that won't make them better thinkers or scholars. It won't get them the kindness of strangers in the future, who being aware of the student's strategy leave no room for any recourse on the student's part. What happens is a legalistic and defensive posture.

If someone has been excessively formal and legalistic, wise souls are very careful in dealing with them. Usually, they are in fact warned ahead of time, "Don't even talk to him!" Hence, at best all communication is in writing, and very carefully composed to be Teflon; or if need be in person with another person present as a witness. You will not answer their indicting questions, but ask similar ones of them. Hence, a dean might respond to, "Why did I not receive tenure?", with "Do you believe that three articles in those journals is sufficient to demonstrate your research contribution?" or more aggressively and less kindly, "How did your book show critical thinking and scholarly context?"

I imagine that the gamer still wants scrupulous and professional behavior on the part of others. There is lots of discretion in these interactions, and what you give is more or less what you are likely to receive. If not now, in the future. Not always, not even often, but....