Thursday, September 27, 2012

Inequality in the Ivory Tower: The 1% Are Better Than the Rest of Us There Too!

For good reasons, there has been a resurgence in the discussion about the causes and consequences of growing income inequality in the US. And this is definitely for the better. It has revealed some group's inherent biases and perceptions of other groups. Faced with these facts, some people have resorted to the belief that rising inequality in the US since the 1950s is the result of "natural" forces--i.e., not political ones. It's the result of the growing premium on a college education, for example, which more US workers do not have and, thus, earn less. Or the 1% are just better than everyone else, i.e. more talented, smarter, etc. And for some reason, talent and smartness has become more unequal over time in the US. I remember hearing this during a Planet Money podcast/This American Life episode some time ago espoused by some Wall Streeters even though they got a bailout. They deserved their high salaries because they're better than everyone else. I nearly puked and punched out the radio. And no better example of contempt for the lower 47% of the US than Romney's infamous comments made at a fundraiser lately; the bottom 47% are just dependent, lazy freeloaders.

But one neoliberal meme out there is that inequality is necessary for growth. See this book recently published by one of Romney's Bain Capital friends. In fact, the author argues that more inequality is needed to increase economic growth and reduce unemployment in the US. And any system that fosters more income equality or egalitarianism must be severely flawed and unsustainable.

Now this meme has hit academia. In a recent article in Scientific American, Paula Stephan, an economist from Georgia State, argues that the reason the US leads the world in science is because we reward productive scholars more than others and that leads to more inequality. Stephan argues that the US has the "best scientists" [see article for measurement] because we reward higher levels of productivity with higher salaries, which means there's more inequality (I leave it to you to connect the dots between X and Y up there--I can't). Across different professorial rankings (from assistant to associate to full), there are increasing levels of inequality. That's what gets the best scientists over here to the US and why science is so unproductive in those socialist utopias over in Europe. The figure at the side is intended to say it all.

Now, I understand you have to write something insightful in less than 2 magazine pages, and not every argument has space to be conditioned and fully explained, but this one is ridiculous on its face. There are so many flaws that this article burned inside of me for quite awhile, until I wrote this blog post [Letter to the editor forthcoming.]

Here are the flaws as I see them:

1. The figure doesn't even show what the author argues! Nowhere does she even present a graph that tracks levels of inequality across COUNTRIES against levels of scientific production. The figure above only looks at THE US! Are we are just supposed to believe her that she's right?! And how does inequality within a professorial rank demonstrate that higher salaries for more productive people is at work? Given the statistics and spread in salary among teachers in the same rank, she argues, "It's a pretty safe bet that high salaries and a system that rewards productivity play important role in the US's science ranking" Really?! How could that be when the data presented don't even show that?! Or have any relationship to her argument? I'm willing to take that bet against her! And who says that there is perfect inequality in academia in Europe?!

2.  Isn't it weird that inequality is INCREASING as you move up the rankings, but, hypothetically, the way to get to each ranking is constant--i.e., promotion is only based more productivity. How could inequality be increasing, if the ones be rewarded with higher salaries are the most productive?! Inequality should be SHRINKING as you move up the professional ladder because only the productive ones in each discipline are being rewarded with higher rankings--i.e., they should all have high salaries, but LESS income dispersion! What is accounting for more unequal incomes among full professors who should ALL be at the top of their game? Or is it because some institutions can just afford to pay their full professors more than others, and this pattern has only gotten worse over time, which is independent of productivity! I bet that this is a private vs. public institution phenomenon, or liberal arts college vs. research university! She says it could be because wealthier universities are recruiting the best and brightest in the world of free agency academia. While true, that's only the creme dela creme. Too few to matter for her outcome.

3. The author ignores something very glaring in the figure. Inequality across all academic rankings and disciplines has increased tremendously across the years in the US, mirroring what's happening in the US in general. Why does Stephan completely ignore this?! And at least she could try to show us that scientific production increased in the US BY A LOT between 1973 and 2006 as inequality increased! At least that would help her case somewhat. And has she thought of where many full professors are working that DON'T pay very much and why?

4. Let's just spend a moment on the causal logic here. Foreigners (never discussed in the article) are coming here because productivity is rewarded "more" than in stagnant, egalitarian Europe. So scientists across Europe are saying to themselves, "No, I won't publish more and won't do more science because everyone is getting paid the same if I work or not (which is untrue), unlike the wonderful inequality that exists in the US." Or they come to the US because, "I know the losers will be paid a lot less than the winners (like me)." Let's put aside, for a moment, the fact that many STEM scientists coming to the US of late, who are the most productive, are coming from relatively POOR countries, like China and India. Moreover, they come from countries that are MORE unequal than the US! And I would argue that they are a greater proportion of the newly minted PhDs than stellar Europeans coming over because of higher salaries.

More foreigners are coming over because salaries are simply absolutely higher in the US simply, which is because the US has more economic resources to pay higher salaries, which she kind of admits. Think of all of those endowed chairs by major corporations! It also mirrors the conservative trope that people in more equal societies don't work as hard as they do in the US. Then why are productivity levels so much higher there and people are happier? Yes, the US has a higher GDP and is wealthier on a GDP per capita basis, but we're damn more unequal and haven't performed any better economically, if not worse, than more egalitarian countries in Europe. And we're more stressed. Look, I would be among the first to admit that European academia needs significant reform, but to attribute its problems to too much egalitarianism is ridiculous.

This goes to the heart of some neoliberal critiques of teacher tenure. "How can you get good teachers if you can't fire the bad ones and reward the good ones with higher salaries?" Well, I don't want to get into the weeds of measuring teacher performance, but this assumes that teacher performance would improve if there was more financial motivation to do so. But some people are good teachers and do it because they simply enjoy it, no matter the money. Matt Damon put it pretty well in a great video.

So where could this inequality within each professorial rank be coming from? Stephan does acknowledge that total resources for public institutions are declining, while endowments at elite colleges and universities, like Harvard and Yale are increasing, and supposedly salaries there along with them. By the way, salaries and compensation have increased somewhat over the years, but NOT in line with tuition! Where is all of that money going?!!

I think when others see and discuss this article, please share with others, you will have the same reaction I did. Outrage mixed with disgust. Here's someone who has appropriated the neoliberal of discourse of "inequality good!" for the world of academia. And this is dangerous. It leads to the conclusion of a typical university finance officer (and, sadly, some tenured faculty): "You adjuncts, living at the poverty level, without benefits and no job security, just increase your productivity if you want more money! It's your fault you're just adjuncts anyway. No, it has nothing to do with the fucked-up employment system where too many PhDs are being produced for too few full-time tenure-track jobs, while you get exploited by large research universities to teach multiple courses to our 10,000 undergrads and prevent you from becoming more productive in first place [or unionizing] because you're weighted down by grading and other commitments. Anyway, you would have a higher position if you were just better. It's a meritocracy, damn it!" Sounds dangerously close to that asshole banker at the bar who got his big bailout in 2008.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Just what are YOU, Scott Brown?

Time for another rant? Yes. And, as usual, it refers not just to a controversy, but how that controversy is broadly framed in the media.

For months, Elizabeth Warren has been accused of taking advantage of the "affirmative action" system at Harvard by lying about her Native American heritage. She only got her job as a professor of bankruptcy, so she is accused of, because she claimed to be a member of a disadvantaged minority group.

Republican Senator Scott Brown, in a tough reelection fight [that he'll probably lose, if there is good Democratic turnout this fall], accuses Warren of misleading Harvard to get some "special advantage." He repeated these accusations in last week's debate [a must-watch for any political junkie and fan of Warren as I am]. Warren defended herself by saying that she was referring only to family lore when making claims about her heritage. Inevitably, the attention that this issue received evolved into crass, racist displays of offensive chants and sloganeering by the mobs, as shown here. It seems Brown is getting a bit desperate in his attempt for re-election, and tapping into the latent racism of many working-class whites in MA to show that the "Professor" is an "outsider" and not "one of us." Sound familiar?

What I find most offensive is what Brown said during the debate and how the media choose to report the story so far. Brown brought it up during the debate by suggesting it is a character issue. By claiming she's Native American, when she's not. And the proof? Well..."Just look at her! Clearly she's not!"

Really, Scott Brown? And what is the test that she must pass? Her skin is not "red" enough for you? Her hair too blonde? Let us know what the standard is for you, and we'll see if she meets it. My guess is that standard is so full of racist imagery that I don't even want to begin to unpack it.

What really gets my goat is the fact that her identity has to pass some "test" determined by him. Whether you're Native American, Jewish, white, or black is not exclusively up to others, especially not Scott Brown. Everyone has the privilege and ability, although difficult, to construct their own identity. You always have to make some room for your own conscious perception and self-construction. This is topic that I myself have dealt with a long time. People could say I'm not Jewish because my mother is not (and I satisfied their Jewish legal doctrinalism by undergoing "re-circumcision). I'm not German, because I grew up in the States, even though I have a German passport through my "mother's blood." Maybe I'm not gay, because I don't listen to enough showtunes (see Halperin's How to Be Gay).

I always retort that no one else is charge of my identity or how I choose to express it. And no one else has any right to set up some test for me personally. But I don't want to sound naive. Do rabbis in Israel, the Catholic Church, or, in the case of tribal identity, determine who is a member or not? Sure, all the time. Membership in their organizations is always a privilege. And is Barack Obama black, even tough he has a white mother? Of course, because that is how others have identified and treated him, not really because of anything he's done (although he struggled as well with his racial identity and came to accept society's dictates, probably because it's just so hard to ignore them when you're trying to get a taxi).

As most of us know in the social sciences, social institutions are extremely powerful and almost wipe out diversity and outliers as part of their raison d'ĂȘtre. And it's difficult to maintain a sense of independence in the wake of such powerful forces. And usually one's identity becomes an amalgam of sorts when it has such a complex background. But that doesn't mean one should give up and leave it to racists like Scott Brown and others to define our ethnic identities for us. Or say they are lies (see this stupid Slate piece).

Of course, the media have covered this story poorly. Basically, it's a blend of "how well does she 'deal' with this issue" or "is she on the defensive still; can she get on offense?" And, to fully confess, I don't think she has responded as aggressively as she could, which would simply be asking, "Who are you, Scott Brown, to say I'm not?! And just what are you anyway?" But this misses the main point; that Brown seems to be the judge and jury about what is truly Native American or not. Wow, another job for the white man to do.

While a bit of a pipe-dream, the media should be focusing instead on the underlying assumptions instead; that Scott Brown thinks Warren is "too white" to be "red," according to him. And that's what so infuriating about this little, stupid kerfuffle in this exciting election year.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Romney, Benghazi and Subtextual Islamophobia

Sorry for not posting in a while. But, as usual, this blog is meant to respond to certain events or writings that just get my goat! And today is a day to vent (with very hot steam) at the Romney campaign.

We all know he's a fool when it comes to foreign policy. But this fuck up is intolerable and inexcusable. Everyone is condemning Romney for condemning Obama for "apologizing" for American foreign policy. Everything his campaign has issued has been full of factual errors. He's also committed several original sins of being a presidential candidate. He didn't wait to get all of the details before responding. He's violated superficial norms about not criticizing the President during a foreign policy crisis. Did not show a proper unified American stance. He politicized a tragic event.  "How dare he violate decorum?!" is the general critique so far. He violated procedures and protocol.

But let's look at the substance!
Romney accuses Obama of "apologizing" for America. Let's set aside the giant argument whether the US should apologize for its actions in the Middle East over the past 80 years. After all, the list is very long. And let's put aside the immediate issue of determining even if that statement is factually accurate. I've looked over the suspected messages on twitter and see no such thing that comes close.
Assuming the campaign is rational, I know, difficult to do...I see four possible explanations.

1. They really believe that this argument about Obama apologizing for America is a strong sell. Even though we all know it to be wrong, it resonates with the right-wing base. You all know why. But, in a nutshell, it goes like this: "This strange foreign man that illegitimately won the presidency, who wasn't even born here, doesn't like America and 'what it stands for' and is selling America out." Add additional obvious stuff here. In short, Romney is going to his base.
----Side note: if this was the strategy, then why backpedal on your desire to repeal all of Obamacare recently?

2a. There's something more craven here...tring to take advantage of a crisis to demonstrate your bona fides of "strength" and "resoluteness" when the president is trying to figure things out. No...not too convincing.

2b. Incompetence. Convincing, but not entirely rational.

3. Let's get to the "subtext" of the Romney's critique. Yes, Reason #1 holds. But it's built on a foundation of intolerance for Islam. Start: why would it be wrong for the US embassy to condemn the video that instigated the violence? Any rational person would condemn the video as a horrible case of bigotry, prejudice and full of hate (although I'm sure Bill Maher will have no problem with the video, unfortunately, because it will only justify his contempt for organized religion). And the condemnation of these videos is the apology that Romney is referring to? So, apologizing for hate speech is wrong? The fact that Rumfeld agrees who adds fuel to the argument that these neocons have something more sinister lurking in the minds than just an erroneous view of foreign policy and how the world works..namely, some latent and not so implicit Islamophobia. This would be a rational response given their ideology.

Of course, the media won't latch on to this as an explanation for a while, until they try to understand what Romney meant and connect it to actual words. Anyway, don't hold your breath for them to do that all. They're more obsessed about how this affects the drama on the political stage, rather than what words mean and the arguments being articulated. And a new shiny object is distracting everyone (iPhone 5!!). But more needs to be written about not the procedures and protocols that Romney violated, but the norms of tolerance is violating and the intolerance he is defending.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Romney Campaign

Some time ago I wrote about the end of the Enlightenment in America. Well, at least in the Republican Party. Since then, we have had an acceleration of its pace. The list of lies about Obama's policies and statements is too long to bring up here. Paul Ryan has lied about running a sub-3-hour marathon. That last one has really gotten people's goat. It's fine to lie about policy and other politicians. But never lie about your physical performance. Not only does the powerful runners' lobby then get involved, people find it especially offensive if you have the gall to lie about how well you did in a race. Athletic contests should be one of the few places in this world where reality rules, where objectivity rules and we can come to a mutual agreement about the truth; did you run faster than another or not? Also, hundreds of thousands of people run marathons a year and know what it takes to run a below-3-hour marathon. Second, they find it pretty offensive that you need to lie to show how much better you are than everyone else who've worked so hard to just complete one (who knows why they would want to do that). That's why Ryan's lie about his marathon runtime has gained particular traction and a flimsy retraction so quickly. [And let's not forget our dear leading Harvard liar, Niall Ferguson].

The fact that so many giant fibs have been uttered and repeated so often has gained special attention of late by the news media. Even FOX NEWS thinks Ryan is lying. But why now? Politicians have always lied. That's what they do. If they weren't, what would they say? And why is the collective media wringing their hands now? Why didn't they start pointing out all of the lies starting with the Bush Administration in 2000 with its tax policies being deficit neutral, possible preventive warnings about the 9/11 attacks, and, of course, Iraq and WMD? Now, in 2012, the media are all concerned about falsehoods and mistruths? Is it because the attacks on the quality of the media--and politicians--by Jon Stewart are starting to take a real toll on their psyches, consciousnesses and notions of professionalism?  It could also be because the Romney campaign has just reached such a high level of mendacity, have bothered so little to dress them up, and impervious to criticism that both the Obama campaign and the media can hardly tolerate it any longer.

Whatever the cause, we need to move beyond the useless question of if and why there is so much lying in politics and start asking a more important question. Namely, what is its impact? Tell a lie big enough, often enough, people start to believe it. No, Goebbels did not say that. Instead, it's a variation of Adolph Hitler's statement about one of the conditions for propaganda to succeed. But that is a hint to what I think are the nefarious effects of these lies. They're not just there to whip up sentiment and get votes. Blatant lies, repeated often, poison the democratic process. Assuming that democracy involves deliberation as much as bargaining and compromising over areas of self-interest, then the more people deceive each other, the worse is our governance. Lying means you do not have the courage to argue with another over the interpretation of the facts, which means we cannot come to better mutual understandings of the truth. We could not convince each other of the better argument. Not only does truth not matter, but the degree to which the other person matters diminishes as well. You may be lying to persuade her to do something against her interests. They have less worth as human beings. But you are also probably trying to deceive someone to harm them in some way. You're using your lying to assert your will over another, because if your words were based on truth, they would be ineffective. So far, we can be thankful that the lies that the Romney campaign so mendaciously commits itself to repeating are relatively innocuous. At least compared to the bigger lies that have been told in the 20th century, which at least partially contributed to the death of millions.

What can we do? Well, the people at Slate discussed it and basically they had the right response. The media, as our main information providers, just have to keep trying and keep getting better. It's an uphill battle. But seeing what's down below if we don't push back on these giants balls of lies, our democracy just becomes more and more threatened as a result.
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