In a previous post, I had promised to tell a story if anyone wanted to hear it about how cognitive overload can be detrimental to persuasion. As it happens, Sambaran Mitra and Sridhar Rao (see the comments to the post “How to Tell a Big Lie: Assertion, Repetition and Contagion“), and others emailed me to tell the story. So here it is.
The year was the Summer of 1998, if I recall correctly. The occasion was a hearing. It was at the student cooperative housing society called USCA — University Student Cooperative Association — where I lived at that time as an economics graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. I have written a brief post about the USCA back in January 2004. Now it is time to tell you the story that helped me clearly understand one important lesson.
The USCA is a student-run and student-operated housing cooperative. The organisational structure included a small full-time paid professional staff, headed by a general manager, which was what you may call the “executive” branch of the institution. The students formed the “legislative” branch and that comprised of a “Board of Representatives” or more simply the “Board.” Each house had representatives on the Board, the numbers dependent on the size of the house. A small house like the Convent (20 residents, where I lived for a year) had only one “board rep” but a large house like Cloyne Court with its 150 residents where I lived for also a year had I believe five board reps. In all there were around 40 board reps from the 20 or so houses that comprised the housing co-op. We housed about 2,000 students in a dozen houses and three large apartment complexes. The annual operating budget was around $7 million.
We don’t need to go into the details but the USCA was like a miniature country which was “democratically” run. The Board members were elected by direct votes from each of the houses every academic year. These board reps met every week (in different houses by rotation) to discuss matters of importance. Motions were made, debated, and then voted upon. All meetings were conducted under Robert’s Rules of Order.
One of the features of living in this co-op was “workshift”. Every resident houses of the co-op had to work five hours a week on various tasks such as cooking, cleaning, housekeeping and maintenance. Being a board rep counted as full workshift. As it happened, I was elected board rep for the Convent, and after a term I was elected by the Board as the VP of Finance. After a couple of terms of being VP finance, I was elected president of the USCA for a term.
Among the board’s duties was handling dispute resolution cases, which was done by a sub-committee of six board reps. The particular case of interest to us here involved a resident’s case against the office. All the details are fuzzy but the broad story was that the student (let’s call him Wayne) had been fined for some infraction of the rules and he was contesting the office’s decision.
The office presented their side of the story briefly. They pointed a few facts, made reference to some rule, and then quickly concluded their case. Wayne contested some of the sequence of events and contradicted the office’s interpretation. He went into a lengthy explanation of why the office’s interpretation of the rule was wrong and presented the facts in excruciating details of the case. Just keeping all the details in mind was a struggle.
Wayne is one of the smartest people I have ever met when it comes to mathematics. His maths PhD thesis was on algebraic geometry, a subject that very few people ever tackle. He can do complex mathematical manipulations in his head what others would struggle to do on paper. He is brilliant. And also a perfectionist nutcase, if there ever was one.
I felt that the office had misinterpreted the rule and Wayne was probably right. I would have given him the benefit of the doubt had I voted. But I only had a tie-breaking vote as I was presiding over the meeting, and there was no tie to break. The committee voted in favor of the office.
In the end, I think what went against Wayne was that he explained too much, gave too many details, made a complex argument and ended up confusing the jury. The office’s case was much easier to follow and the panel decided to vote for the side that they understood without much trouble.
Anyway, let me conclude the story. That was the first time that I met Wayne. Next term he was looking for someone to share a co-op apartment with and approached me. We ended up bidding for a nice two-bedroom apartment on the south-side of the campus. We were roommates for the next four years until we both finished our PhD degrees. After that, he bought a house in Berkeley which he has been renovating for all these years. A math PhD who is now an expert on how to build a house from the foundation up. He can put together a computer in one afternoon from parts, and he can put in a new bathroom in his house, replace the entire kitchen, refurbish the basement, etc — and take 10 years doing it. He had worked as a mathematician for a hedge fund while a grad student and had made enough that he does not plan to work for pay ever. We keep in touch.
Fenwick and Rochdale
The USCA apartment I shared with Wayne was in the complex called Fenwick, which was next to another complex called Rochdale. The full names are Fenwick Weavers’ Village and Rochdale Village. The Fenwick complex at Berkeley is named after “Fenwick Weavers’ Society” which is considered the world’s first cooperative formed in 1761 in England.
For many Fenwick is the first ‘proper’ co-operative in the world, beating Rochdale by 80 years. The self-employed weavers of this small town near Kilmarnock bought a sack of oatmeal and started selling it at a discount. A formal agreement was written and signed between the original 15 members, and soon the society was lending money and selling other goods, with a shop opening in 1769. eventually profits were shared among members. There was even a library and the ‘Fenwick parliament’, a place for villagers to debate issues. [Source.]
Rochdale Village is named after the Rochdale Principles:
The Rochdale Principles are a set of ideals for the operation of cooperatives. They were first set out by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Rochdale, United Kingdom, in 1844, and have formed the basis for the principles on which co-operatives around the world operate to this day. The implications of the Rochdale Principles are a focus of study in co-operative economics. The original Rochdale Principles were officially adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) in 1937 as the Rochdale Principles of Co-operation.
Lessons I Learned
It is hard for me to overestimate how much my living at the co-op affected my worldview and how much I learned about the real world. I think I have a deeper understanding of what democracy means. I understand why communism and socialism fail. I understand that the balance of power between the state and the citizenry fundamentally determines economic prosperity. I understand the importance of the rule of law, of a constitution and the need to shield the function of governance from arbitrary power exercised by those who control the system.
It is one thing to read a paper on the tragedy of commons; it is quite another thing to see it happening almost daily in the house.
Cloyne Court had 150 residents. We all shared a common kitchen and a common pantry. I estimate around 40 percent of the food that came into the pantry ended up in the garbage without passing through the usual route. In contrast, at the Convent, with only 20 residents, the amount of food wastage was practically negligible. Cloyne Court had the look of a disaster zone frequently but the Convent was almost as clean and orderly as a convent (which it used to be before the USCA bought that property.)
Over the years that I lived in the USCA, I saw how the “executive” kept on attempting to increase spending, and to pay for that, seek to raise “taxes” (which in our case was the rent.) I developed a healthy aversion and fear of the state and the government.
But it was not all bad. I am certain that thousands of students learned how to manage a fairly complex organization by participating in the operations of the co-op. The benefits of cooperation can only be fully comprehended by living in a cooperative. An enduring lesson must have been about participative governance and democracy. Decisions that impacted all concerned were democratically arrived at but circumscribed by rules. The importance of rules was hard to ignore. Even in what appears to be trivial (although actually not being trivial) such as running meetings, rules were involved. Every board meeting was attended by a large number of residents — not just the board members. They all became familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order. In time, I knew what it meant to “call the question,” “move the question,” etc.
Sometimes when I am in Berkeley, I drive by Fenwick apartments and I am overcome with nostalgia and gratitude that I had the opportunity to live and learn a bit about the world there.