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.

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