Exactly how many sexual predators is UC Berkeley protecting?

Last week, the internet briefly paid attention to the issue of sexual harassment in academia when Buzzfeed published a story about Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who had been accused of “inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.”

Despite having been found guilty by Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), Marcy received what amounted to a stern talking to. Marcy gave a non-apology apology in the form of an open letter,  and he was put on some sort of double-secret probation, amounting to zero tolerance for future infractions, a set of “consequences” that the university described this way: “We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action.”

And that probably would have been the end of it, had the OPHD’s findings not made their way into the hands of Buzzfeed reporter Azeen Ghorayshi, and subsequently been picked up by others, including Berkeley Professor Michael Eisen and Jezebel.

But the story went viral, 22 of the 30 non-Geoff-Marcy faculty in the Berkeley astronomy department signed a letter calling for Marcy’s resignation, and an online petition started among the broader academic community. Shortly thereafter, Marcy resigned.

Marcy’s resignation was greeted with enthusiasm from most quarters, including Berkeley’s Chancellor and Provost. It is tempting, then, to think of this as a victory, and it absolutely was. But the saga exposes just how pathological and corrupt the system is.

There are a few things to keep in mind here.

  1. The system did NOT work. Some small piece of justice was meted out because a reporter got hold of the results of the OPHD investigation, which were not intended to be made public. If the system had worked as intended, the world at large would never have known about Marcy’s behavior.
  2. This went beyond sexual harassment. The fact that the media is referring to this as “sexual harassment”, rather than “sexual assault”, is disturbing, and seems to misrepresent the details of the allegations (of which Marcy was found guilty).
  3. UC Berkeley never did the right thing. Unless you count accepting Marcy’s resignation letter, or the person who leaked the investigation documents to Buzzfeed.
  4. This went on, and was covered up, for years. There are reports of harassment on the part of Geoff Marcy dating back at least to 1995, and clear evidence that Marcy’s behavior was brought to the attention of both the department and the university at least ten years ago. And, as is so often the case, Marcy’s behavior seems to have been an open secret in the astronomy community.
  5. The astronomy department stepped up, sort of. Although the current chair of the astronomy department signed the letter calling for Marcy’s resignation, his initial response (in an e-mail sent out to the faculty) was to urge the other faculty members to support Marcy in this difficult time. Plus, note that there are eight faculty members in the department who did not sign the letter. Some are adjuncts, and some are dual appointments with other departments, and they may simply not have had the opportunity to sign. But if I were considering becoming a student in that department,  I would certainly want to ask some questions before committing to work for or with any of those eight.
  6. Berkeley’s hands were tied, and that’s not a good thing. Even as the UC Berkeley top brass were celebrating Marcy’s resignation, they were defending their initial inaction, citing the lengthy and expensive process required to actually punish a tenured professor. First of all, “We could have done more, but it was too much work” is a terrible excuse. Second, UC Berkeley, the institution, is responsible for the policies that made actually dealing with Marcy difficult or undesirable.

All of this brings be back to the original question. Exactly how many professors are there at Berkeley (and every other university, for that matter) are being protected by the system? How many engaged, and continue to engage, in abusive, predatory behaviors and were given a light slap on the wrist behind closed doors? How many were not even given that, because the victims were discouraged, implicitly or overtly, from filing a formal complaint?

This one goes in the win column for justice, but not because the system worked. Geoff Marcy is leaving Berkeley because the system was circumvented. And that’s not a solution. The internet can not be responsible for shaming universities into doing the right thing.

And while this Geoff Marcy may be gone (although he may well land on his feet elsewhere), it is important to remember that he represents just the tip of a huge back-rubbing, kissing, groping iceberg of Geoff Marcys — and that if the system had worked as intended, we might never even have known about him.

H & R Block Stans are the Worst

A year and a half ago, I posted a rant about the H & R Block ad claiming that Americans who prepare their own taxes overpay by a billion dollars, and that this is a reason to use H & R Block. To summarize, my complaint was this: That billion dollars amounts to an average of about $21 per return. And, by H & R Block’s own numbers, they charge an average of $77 per return.

So, if you go to H & R Block, you will pay on average $56 more (collectively to H & R Block and the IRS) than if you do your own taxes.

Since then, this has become the most commented-on post on my blog, with the overwhelming majority of comments coming from people who work for H & R Block coming to defend their honor (or something). When these comments first started showing up, I thought it might be an astroturfing campaign my H & R Block, which would be sort of a mark of honor, in a way. However, I think that these are genuine, organic comments, which makes me sort of sad.

I always find slavish jingoism depressing, whether in the context of nationalism, or sports, or college loyalty. But in the context of your employer — an employer that does not actually treat the people who work for it all that well, based on many of the comments — is some serious Stockholm Syndrome shit.

Many of the comments cover the same ground. So, rather than responding in the comment thread, I thought I would address things raised in the comments here. Note that these are not actual comments, but paraphrases of whole classes of comments.

Comment: But tax professionals have to study hard every year to keep up with the changes in the tax code!

Fine, I believe that’s true. I fully believe that you have skills and knowledge that I don’t have. It’s just that if the cost to me of using those skills is $77, and the cost of not using them is $21, that’s not a strong incentive to use them. Plus, as I noted in the original post, part of the reason why you need to study so hard each year is because of lobbying done by H & R Block and others to keep the tax code complicated. So yes, you are a hard-working cog in a well-oiled extortion racket. Who’s a hard-working cog? You are!

Comment: I’m not ripping anyone off. In fact, I only get paid a small fraction of the customer fees.

I am perfectly happy to assume no ill will on the part of any of the tax preparers themselves. It’s an annoying ad campaign is all. So the post was really aimed at the marketing department. Also, based on the numbers getting thrown around in the comments, you should all become freelance tax professionals. You could charge half of what H & R Block does and take home more money.

Comment: What about the time it takes to prepare your return? Isn’t that worth something?

Yes. In fact, I made exactly this point in the original post. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to pay someone to do your taxes. Top of the list is that you don’t enjoy doing it, and would rather spend your time doing something else. A+ on basic economics. C– on reading comprehension.

Comment: Aren’t you actually a rival company trying to take down H & R Block, or an ex-employee with a grudge?

No. I’m just a guy who sat through that damn “Get your billion back, America!” ad one too many times.

Comment: If you underpay your taxes, you’ll have interest and penalties.

This is a good point — in fact the only sensible point that came up in the comments that was not addressed in the original post. It’s not just a question of maximizing your deductions. If you make a mistake and underpay, you could wind up owing a lot more. One could do a similar calculation. If, on average, it costs you an extra $56 to have H & R Block do your return, how does this compare with the average penalty size? I don’t know the answer, but your taxes are at all complicated, it’s something to factor in.

Comment: Actually, we’re tax professionals, not CPAs!

Um, okay. I don’t even know where this is coming from. Maybe the fact that I cited statistics from the National Society of Accountants? Maybe one of the other commenters erroneously referred to the tax preparers working for H & R Block as “accountants” or “CPAs”? In any event, I apologize for any confusion, and for inadvertently overrepresenting the credentials required to work for H & R Block, I guess?

Comment: If you don’t like the price, you don’t have to pay.

This I did not know. It would take a special kind of asshole to come in, let someone work through their taxes and fill out the forms, and then take it home without paying. However, if you are comfortable with this, I guess you should definitely take your taxes to H & R Block!

Comment: Something something averages don’t matter every return is different blah blah.

Yes, some people will come out ahead, when the tax preparer finds a huge deduction they were unaware of. Other people will come out worse than the average. That’s how averages work. If you have good reason to know which group you would be in as a customer, that should inform your decision. If you don’t, then the average is useful.

Note that it still may be worth it to pay someone to do your taxes, as it will reduce your variance. In much the same way, you will, on average, pay more for your insurance than you’ll get back. The reason you buy insurance is to hedge against the big losses. Similarly, if there is a possibility of a big error in your taxes, hedging may be the right thing, even if it costs you more on average. However, if we’re talking numbers in the tens or hundreds of dollars, you’re better off playing to the average — over the course of several years, you might expect things to, you know, average out.

When I wrote the original post, I had no opinion one way or the other on the competence of the people who actually do your taxes at H & R Block. However, the nature of many of these comments does give me pause. If the lack of attention to detail and incoherent innumeracy on display here is typical of the people who work for H & R Block, you might look elsewhere.