28.4.04

MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND THE MODEL. Henry at Crooked Timber attempts to link Calvinist theology and defense of markets for allocating resources in academic disciplines.
This is Max Weber’s thesis on the origins of capitalism replayed as farce. Weber argued that Calvinist theology provided capitalism’s tutelary spirit. Calvinist beliefs in predestination led believers to distinguish between the elect and the preterite - those who were destined to go to heaven, and those who were destined to go to hell. Because it was impossible to be sure whether they were going to ascend to paradise or to burn, Calvinists sought evidence that they were favoured by God through accumulating goods without consuming them. If you did well in worldly affairs, you could take this as a sign of God’s favour.
I've always preferred the Puritan formulation: God helps Thofe who Help Themfelves.

This may or may not be a good historical explanation. Still, it captures a set of attitudes expounded by some (although certainly not all) exponents of free markets. In many important respects, markets are political creations - they reflect differences in the bargaining power of different social groups. If you’re a freshly minted humanities Ph.D., even if you’re a wonderful humanities Ph.D., you’re going to have real trouble in finding a tenure track job because there are many, many others just like you. It’s easy for employers to exploit you - and you have relatively little recourse when they do. Some few get good jobs, but they’re lucky as well as talented. [1] It is almost certain that there are other, equally qualified individuals who don’t get jobs, simply because they didn’t get the lucky break (and lucky breaks are rare when you’re in a group with a systematically weak bargaining position).
The footnote [1] reads, "The centrality of luck to academic success - connecting with the right person at interview, getting friendly reviewers for an article in a good journal at the right stage of your career - is grossly underestimated," and there is truth in it. There is insufficient truth in it, however, to make a Calvinist theory of academic job markets that would withstand scrutiny.

As two competing theories, let me first propose a Stiglerian theory. Key bias: the persistence of an anomaly is evidence of an efficiency we haven't thought about carefully enough. Let us suppose that there is common knowledge on the part of aspiring Ph.D. students in some disciplines that they face a great risk of never landing a tenure-track job, let alone tenure, and those who do so succeed will still be paid much less than otherwise comparable people in other disciplines or in industry. Why, then, do so many people participate in that market? What other constraints are they operating under, or what objectives are they pursuing, that we don't fully understand?

Second, there is a Stiglitzian theory. Key bias: conditions conducive to allocative efficiency almost never hold in practice. Here, it might suffice to say that the relevant information is not quickly enough obtained and acted upon. The Chronicle of Higher Education visit with Invisible Adjunct introduces a different Stiglitzian theory, misleading signalling.
Her advice in a nutshell: Think long and hard before going to grad school in the humanities. Then think some more.

She believes that academe's cheerleaders should stop pretending that the Ph.D. is good preparation for other types of careers. It's not, she says. Being smart and stubborn enough to get through a Ph.D. program may mean you're smart and stubborn enough for lots of other things, but the actual Ph.D. is peculiar to an academic career. (She would, however, support redesigning master's programs to create practical graduate education for nonacademics.)

Speaking of programs, the Invisible Adjunct says there are simply way too many of them. Many graduate programs in many fields -- even beyond the humanities -- should be curtailed, and some should be eliminated entirely. "There's certainly a supply component to the problem," she says. "It's doing incredible damage to the profession. ... An undersupply of English literature Ph.D.'s would be the best thing to give them leverage."

She speaks passionately about the issues facing the academic profession, a profession she believes has allowed itself to fall into decline. Can't professors see that a system producing so many people who can't get jobs is not an indictment of the aspiring faculty members, but of the system itself? Or if you really think that these adjuncts aren't of high enough caliber to hire, then the graduate schools are failures, not the students.
What we are reading is standard supply-and-demand, something that Stiglerians and Stiglitzians probably generally agree upon. The solution to a market that generates inefficient results is a more efficient market, or perhaps a market that takes into account constraints not currently priced. And that would put a Brayden King post in a different perspective.
Being in the position of a graduate student about to embark into the waters of the job market, I’m not sure that I like Henry’s take on the randomness of acquiring job security. It’s easy to believe, and is perhaps benevolent to do so, that one’s success is really a matter of luck when you are one of the successful. However, for those of us seeking some sort of stability and navigability in that turbulent market, merit is an anchor. If the market really does produce random results (and hopefully this isn’t Henry’s true outlook), then we are all in a great deal of trouble. We’ve wasted all those years of training, hard work, and attempts at clever thinking. I might have been basking in the sun by my pool instead of running countless statistical models in the shadowy confines of my bedroom-office. Of course, I realize that Henry means that merit must be combined with some luck, but as a prospective job candidate, I’m never sure how much luck I have on my side and therefore I tend to begrudge the idea that much of my success will be due to pure chance.

I suppose one’s perspective has a lot to do with your current position in the social structure we call the market. If you are successful, you are likely to defend the market as an efficient tool for segregating the qualified from the rest. If you are a kind successful person, you are likely to emphasize the amount of luck that goes into getting a good job. And if you’re like me - a hopeful job candidate-to-be - you’re covering all your bases, hoping that folk wisdom about getting a job facilitates a smooth sailing voyage and a prosperous arrival at job security.

Markets exist to value risks, and there is likely a balance of luck and merit in a market outcome. Efficiency, on the other hand, depends on agents having the incentives to do efficient things. In the academy, nobody has spelled out what those efficient things are.

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