Saturday, August 18, 2007

B & S on Market wages for government employees.

"To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Hi folks,

Owen Robinson over at Boots and Sabers(BS) took exception to my observation that lawyers working for Governor Thompson's regime got pay increases significantly higher than UW faculty during the same era. I made the comment to demonstrate that the increasing disappearance of our tax dollars cannot be blamed solely on the educational system.

Glenn Grothman and Pat Strachota haven't yet been able to tell me where all the money is going. Hey you two, I'm still waiting.

Anyway, it all got started here.

Owen excerpted some of comments and off we went. It continued here under the heading of "Market Wages for Government Employees".

Yadda yadda yadda.

He and I don't disagree on the key point that a market level wage is appropriate for faculty -- but everything he said was based on a deeply flawed assumption . Specifically that:
Markets always work the same - even in labor wages for government employees.
This comment reveals an increasingly common misunderstanding of universities and the people who work in them.

I have a rant I'd like to share and I didn't want to burden B&S with more... well, more B&S. So I put it here instead.

Those readers familiar with the difference between "the value of a dollar" and "the value of a good life" may skip the rest of this note.


The notion of using "business models" (as if anyone can actually define this beyond "give me more money") to help 'fix' education, is circulating in State legislatures like chlamydia. They've all caught it, and we all know why: convenience.

"Business" assumptions about 'value' are based on the idea that all values are economic values. They don't work in all contexts because economic values are only one part of being human and not, as this assumption would have it, the whole of being human. More simply: money isn't everything. Most of us, having been dirt poor graduate students for so long, never bought into the idea that money can make us happy. Money merely improves the quality of your circumstances, not the quality of your life.

Aristotle dismissed the business model for determining when life is good with hardly a sidelong glance:
The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion [literally, violence], and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else. [Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics I.5.viii]
Not, that is, for the sake of our selves.

So, using market value is tricky with academics. I wish I could get market value for my skill set, by the way, but if the state had to pay market value for philosophers the university couldn't afford us.

Friends in the discipline working outside the academy earn salaries, on average, in the 6 figure range. People are usually surprised to hear this but you have to remember that PhD's in philosophy really only know about: 1) logic and 2) how to work through impossibly difficult problems. That skill set opens doors to all sorts of weird places. One of my college chums spent most of the 1990's overseeing the development of the next generation of long distance switching software for Bell Northern. Two more, until they retired at age 40 to teach, were the top 2 traders on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

All three eventually traded in big salaries for the higher pleasure of teaching and the satisfactions of a life, rather than the satisfactions of a career.

Owen also raised the issues of job security and the benefits that go along with working for the university. He's right. It does give one peace of mind. We have the kind of job security most people don't -- but tenure really means I don't have to smile and nod when the boss (or the governor or president or even Senator Grothman) does something stupid or immoral.

But we don't just give tenure away -- it's a 7 year testing procedure. We evaluate our prospective colleagues on their competence and enthusiasm in the classroom, on how well they teach their students, on how well they meet their governance responsibilities (faculty oversee all aspects of running the UW from curricular decisions to allocation of funding for computer access), and on whether they actually demonstrate intellectual curiosity and growth. After annual evaluations by students and faculty colleagues over that time, people either earn tenure or get dumped. In terms of performance tests, it's pretty brutal. Much worse than anything I saw in management consulting or tourism (two early career possibilities).

Alas, it is possible that some idiot can fool his or her department for 7 years and slide in.... take Ward Churchill. He wasn't fired for what he said about 9/11 but for plagiarism as was appropriate. There are idiots, liars, and cheats in business too. I suspect Ken Lay hurt a lot more people than Ward Churchill ever did. But stuff happens. For us there are difficult but clear protocols to get rid of what the policies call "non-performing faculty."

Our job is to teach students how to examine their own assumptions to see whether what they believe is true. To do this, you have to ask a lot of unpopular and annoying questions, especially questions about society's assumptions. Nobody enjoys having their assumptions questions so, for that you need tenure and academic freedom. The first people killed by Hitler, Lenin (even before Stalin got warmed up), and Mao were university faculty. Those guys knew what they were doing. They had an ideological commitment that determined their actions.

Our society has an ideological commitment too: the belief in a "free market." Market economics is the current big hammer, so it's no wonder that to the people swinging it everything looks like a nail.... even those of us who think the hammer is a narrow, limited, and simplistic approach to understanding the world.


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