How the internet ruined Christmas

Attention Conservation Notice: the Internet makes it impossible for us to pretend to know that we don’t secretly hate each other.

In the department of theories entirely uninformed by empirical work, I has a theory.

The Internet has actually ruined the world, I’ve decided, not just Christmas, but here’s how this works: there were racists and leeeebeeeerals and conservatives and people who do things you hate all prior to the internet. But prior to the Internet, and Rush Limbaugh, you could hate the other in the privacy of your own home, never realizing that you, yourself, were the object of somebody else’s hate. You could jibber jabber about the other’s badness among those who thought like you and acted like you and had the same values as you, and there was no record of the conversation expect in the memory of speakers–no transcript or log of internet comments and tweets that could be debated and hashed and rehashed endlessly among the unsympathetic. We could then put on a pretty, hypocritical face at work or at schools in the name of living together in some semblance of peace and quiet. Not perfect peace and quiet. But some, in following the rule of “don’t discuss politics or religion.”

The internet, except for shopping and pictures of cute animals and kids, is like a giant conversation about politics and religion that never shuts up. And in that conversation, it is inevitable that, no matter who you are, you will discover that there is a group of people–a not inconsequentially large group of people, who hate you. The values you were raised with. The positions you hold now. Your atheism. Your religion. Your face. Your weight. Your anything. I guarantee there is somebody who hates it, and that person can’t shut up about it, and the internet gives them an archived platform. At the outset of the digital age, we worried that we would lose content. Now we know we can’t lose content, even when we’d be better off doing so.

And you hate back because that’s a pretty natural response, and if it isn’t, it is after you’ve read the 1000000th comment about how fat bitch feminists should be raped for daring to suggest that human trafficking in unacceptable.

It’s hard to be civil when you know somebody actually hates you.

Rush Limbaugh was the first time I really understood that, no, my Republican relatives (on Andy’s side) weren’t passionate about their views and that’s why they never left me alone during holidays. I was brought up with the don’t discuss politics idea, at least not until it was a safe topic. But no, these folks, like Rush Limbaugh, actually hated my guts. It was personal. I sat through this nonsense for several years until I was trapped with a limo driver listening to Rush Limbaugh, and I finally got a clue: Rush Limbaugh and the people who listen to him actually hate me, and the rest of my family, including my sweet dad, who was a Democratic politician (and community servant) for many years. So Andy’s tireless uncle wanted to discuss politics to bully, badger, and diminish me. He didn’t care if he ruined my Thanksgiving; in fact, he probably enjoyed it. After all, I and people “like me” had ruined his country. So. I stopped going. It’s easy to do in a world where we are flung far and wide and our material security depends on corporate salaries and not family cohesion. And, besides, that’s what he wanted, anyway, except that it probably takes away from his bloodsport.

Before the various universes of the user-created content on the inter web, we would have just celebrated Christmas, discussing our plans with people whose plans and values were likely to be similar. Person X could have his big religious hoo-ha, I could have my quiet secular meal with a few friends, and X could look down on me (in non-recorded comments with those who were like-minded) how people like me were going to hell. X would think that my refusal of his religion was a snub and an implicit judgment of X and his religion, which it is–after all, we all think our choices are better or else we would make the choices we do–and I would think X and people like X are sanctimonious and rather silly. But the evidence of those attitudes would be fleeting, instead of shoved in our respective faces via internet memes 100 times an hour and on our radios and televisions from people who generate opinions as content.

We’ve created in the internet an echo chamber for our differences with no way of reconciling them.

A snob’s response to anti-book snobs

Attention conservation notice: If there is anything that has become more irritating than actual book snobs, it’s anti-book snobs who want to police snobbery using online shadowboxing and demanding that the rest of us–I dunno–worship? respect? what?–their desire to read books about spanky millionaires, boy wizards, and teenage girls in love with vampires old enough to be their grandfathers. How about you read what you want, and I’ll read what I want? Ok?

(I will get around to reading the Hunger Games at some point. I haven’t yet. I have stuff to do, you know!)

This one, from Buzzfeed, crossed my desk yesterday, and for shadowboxing, it’s actually pretty good. It probably helps that I agree with his #1 pick—the gross Brett Easton Ellis types who want to tell me about what great artistes they are, and how I’m a frigid, politically correct feminazi for not appreciating their grand art because they have fully captured, in detail, the horrors of skull rape. This other piece from Book Riot set my teeth on edge because it screamed insecurity, like we all need to walk on eggshells lest its straining-to-be-populist author get her feelers hurt that I’m not reading/watching/doing what she’s doing and my failure to do those things or talk about those things somehow judges her. Do the rest of us really need to affirm what you are reading/watching/doing? It’s so exhausting.

So here’s my list of responses to both:

1. Yes, DFW worshippers are irritating, but I’m sorry, the DFW biopic will likely be horrible. Horrible.

David Foster Wallace strikes me as a wonderful writer who gave us some terrific books and an awfully nice commencement speech, and his post-mortem cult-of-personality feels to me like it’s gotten far out of control. Infinite Jest is a fine book; it wasn’t life-changing for me, but I do see the greatness in it, just like I see the greatness in Ulysses even though I’m glad I shan’t have to read it ever again. On the whole, I wouldn’t complain if a movie brought Infinite Jest to a broader audience.

And yet, I think the biopic is likely to be terrible. Not because of Jason Segel. If anything, somebody like Segel might save it because the one adventurous thing DFW likely did turns out to be pretty comedic: his time on a cruise. That won’t be easy to do well.

Writer (and academic) biopics tend to be horrible simply because what makes us interesting (our writing) is the product of a process that looks like this:

and there isn’t much in movie history that is going to top this, which is pretty much the writing life:

That’s it. After doing that for a long time, you have…a book.

Writers’ biopics that do work tend to be about relationships with some writing thrown in. Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia has many charms, including a wonderful cast and lovely locations, but it works to the degree it works, because Ephron realized that the books weren’t the story. You leave A Beautiful Mind knowing that John Nash was a really smart guy who discovered something smart–they rather screw up the explanation of the Nash Equilibrium. Think about this: Hemingway and Gellhorn from HBO. It was horrible. Horrible. Blood, gore, sex and typing. Eyugh. DFW was kid from the midwest who was a fairly good, but not good enough, tennis player, a mean, belittling brother to his sister, and a writer who experimented with form and depressed in his personal life. This does not promise much. A bit like a Foucault biopic. (If it exists, please don’t tell me about it.)

2. Does commercial fiction really need to you to defend it?

Standing up for commercial fiction sounds a lot like arguing that we all need to like the Homecoming Queen and King to me. JK Rowling and Dan Brown will be fine with or without me. Must I buy them and read them to make you feel better about buying and reading them? The hive mind can’t stand my not being in it? What? Rowling’s books are fun and did a lot to get young people reading. I am grateful to her for that, and I think she sounds like a cool person.Read More »

Alec MacGillis’ two implied critiques of Richard Florida in the New Republic

Attention Conservation Notice: It takes two to tango.

The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis has a piece up on what Richard Florida is up to now that he’s been proven wrong…which makes me wonder, why, exactly, this type of stuff is New Republic worthy, and what do we mean by wrong. The piece has a “this is what happens to celebrity superstars” tone to it, while I have often been critical of Richard Florida, I do have to ask whether any of this “oh he was so wrong about cities” stuff really matters in the way that MacGillis thinks it does. Florida proposed a theory that, when you read the books, really didn’t hold up for anywhere other than particular places. In this, he joins myriad other examples from economic development and planning, where many many particular ideas that have functioned well in particular places fail to generalize other contexts. Florida’s major problem has always been trying to make things straightforward when, in fact, stuff like cities and growth and quality of life is difficult to understand, let alone manufacture. Over the years as I have gritted my teeth as Florida produced book after book–with all the cringe-worthy name dropping–I also have spent a good deal of time wishing that Florida was right about cities and knowing full well he wasn’t. I sometimes wonder how many people who lined up behind Florida knew full well it was way more complicated than Florida made it, but who wanted answers anyway, the easier the better, and thought that partial, implementable measures might be better than the status quo.

The critique from the New Republic centers on two things, one that strikes me as somewhat fair and another that I don’t think is fair at all.

Let’s cover the first, somewhat fair critique: that Florida (and the New Urbanists–I say this, not MacGillis) contributed intellectual fuel for the ever-present and insatiable desire that affluent (and white) people have to congratulate themselves for being the center of urban life and urban economies, and to exclude from their urban spaces people who aren’t like them, like people who actually get dirty when they work for a living, or anybody poor, or who hasn’t gone to college. Hello, Mayor, you now how have the intellectual justification you need to explain why you are going to have your BID folks harass homeless people out of downtown areas–because “creatives”, including finance types, think those others are unsightly, and those creatives are the most important class of people in your city. You have a reason to pass that no-lying-down ordinance, San Francisco, because your economic health hinges on the keeping those people away so that the creatives have a nice hygienic playspace. BTW, Richard Florida’s creative class mantra is joined by myriad other social forces in creating an environment where nobody but the shoppers, sippers, and spenders are allowed: 9/11 brought us a whole host of security rationales, appealing to the right the way Florida has appeals to the left, for why ‘those people’ shouldn’t be allowed to loiter in front of my restaurant or smell up “my train.” Particularly sad, however, is the way that Florida’s followers appeared to buy into the implied idea that creative class benefits trickle down. Trickle down. What a hateful metaphor, anyway. Making cities fortresses for capitalists and affluent professionals, it’s good for everybody, as those folks drive growth, which lifts all boats, and trickle trickle trickle trickle. It turns out that like wealth in general, wealthy enclaves are mostly beneficial to the people who get to inhabit them.

Thus, it is not fair to lay gentrification or Brooklynization at Florida’s feet. The problems with academic celebrity is that academics should be able to try out and reject ideas rather than become poster boys with $40,000 workshop fees because of a static set of ideas–that much is clear from MacGillis’ essay, and he’s right about that. There’s much to deplore there, but I doubt many people would turn down the money if it were on offer to them, particularly in the chance to go out and talk about their ideas, which academics love to do. But the Florida phenomenon is a lot like the Rogoff and Reinhart deal: their paper, not peer-reviewed, and their book (lightly peer-reviewed, likely) became cited and famous not because of the inherent power of their ideas, but because they said things that many, many people wanted to hear. So maybe there is lots of fault to go around for the Brooklynization of our neighborhoods.

The second implied critique strikes me as not fair at all, and that is the idea that Florida’s ideas about growth in the city would have informed us much about the recent recession, or what the recent recession proves or disproves anything about Florida’s ideas. Urbanists far and wide tend to think very little about business cycles or macro phenomena in general. There is so much sugar water in pretty bottles sold in urbanist thought that every model that gets out there promises us that if we only follow, we will be thin, sustainable, and wonderful in every way. Extending that to mean economically resilient isn’t much of a stretch, but I don’t think Florida made the claims that the creative class drives the macroeconomy, nor that they would bulletproof the macroeconomy–he just said they were good for urban and regional economies. As we know, scaling up from individuals to who economies is a problem, and the problem doesn’t go away when you try to scale from individual neighborhoods to regional economies (which Florida does try to do) or from regional economies on up, either.

All that said, apparently, Richard Florida is now writing a book about inequality. Sigh.

Santa, Krampus, and Social Symbols

My favorite tweet on SantaGate was:

Stephen King @StephenKing 17 Dec
Does it matter if Santa is white or black or green, as long as he brings the presents? Come on, guys, get a life.

Yes, get a life, indeed, and by all means, let’s focus on my presents! However, contesting social symbols for political ends is a pretty long tradition, as this entry on the Krampus from National Geographic indicates:

Krampus’s frightening presence was suppressed for many years—the Catholic Church forbade the raucous celebrations, and fascists in World War II Europe found Krampus despicable because it was considered a creation of the Social Democrats.

…not because he is a demon that beats kids or anything. Yosh.

Noble lies and transit

Attention Conservation Notice: I may have just come up with a rationale for overly optimistic ridership and cost forecasts, and having sprouted horns and a tail, may need to go bathe in holy water or visit an exorcist. Crimony.

In the how-on-earth-did-the-argument-wind-up-here department, I am beavering away on Chapter 3 on public transit. It’s a tricky chapter because it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book. The major thrust of the book concerns the virtues that urbanists should embrace in order to foster Jane Jacobs’ style urbanism. The transit chapter digresses a bit from that theme, as most of the chapter develops an argument for why cities as a political community have the duty to supply transit (I am then going on to write about whether people have a duty to take transit.) Through many twists and turns, I have come to the topic of bad transit forecasting and whether these might be covered under the rubric of the ‘noble lie’ in politics.

Plato, in Book III of the Republic, has Socrates verbally sparring with Glaucon, Plato’s brother. Glaucon, as we discover, is no slouch when it comes to debate. He also has the will to power, and Socrates often toys with Glaucon, talking about what extremes a society would have to go in order to achieve social harmony. The noble lie is no exception. There are two parts of the lie: the first lie concerns the idea that a society can be, somehow, autochthonous, without politics, or history, or established systems of relationships. That is the pseudoi. The second part is described as a myth, one that would need to be believed by all classes of workers in a utopian political community. Socrates’ myth consists of convincing the members of the polis that each is born with different metals at his core: the rulers infused with gold, their experts and helpers have silver, and the common men made of brass or iron. Leo Strauss noted that Socrates’ description of the ‘noble lie’ captures the idea that leadership is selective, and that society requires these types of myths about social order in order to achieve social cohesion.

Political theorist Kateri Carmola made a somewhat different argument I favor, largely because it ties into its interpretation the positions that Glaucon has taken in favor of seizing power and imposing justice, the context, and the dramatic gestures Socrates makes. It also ties in all those long digressions about genealogy that many take as simple eugenics, though they don’t hold together as simple eugenics because of the way Socrates keeps pointing out that fine breeding only leads to exceptional specimens every so often, and in some cases, leads to some real duds. Carmola’s approach also explains Plato’s focus on cosmogony: the focus on making and breeding is a metaphor for making society, from one generation to the next. Carmola also links the idea of the noble lie to Socrates’ reference to Cadmus and the House of Thebes, one of the most violent intergenerational myths available to him. In the case of the cosmogony, the tales of the origins contained in Hesiod contain a great deal of intergenerational violence and familial abuse. The preconditions of political and social life are bloody and unjust.

Carmola suggests that Plato uses the noble lie to smooth over, and yet highlight, the “incompatibility between historical reality and absolute justice.” (p. 51). The lie is a children’s story, in Socrates’ manner of educating children, that helps them transition to the necessity of a politically established conception of justice, and away from an individual, idealized right order of justice. It concerns the political act of founding, or transforming, a political community. The dialogue in Book III is a means for helping Glaucon, and those like him, to see the problems inherent in believing that justice may be imposed, even as one stretches out and seeks to influence the course of human affairs. Carmola’s paper is delightful, and I highly recommend it.

Applied to transit politics, the idea that public agencies like transit companies might engage in myth making in their future visioning comes out most strongly in Jonathan Richmond’s Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles . Richmond traces the development of Los Angeles’s new rail construction, highlighting the manner of myth making that occurred between the region’s transit providers and the public it serves. Richmond is critical, not unlike Glaucon when he tells Socrates that he should be ashamed of such lies within a political community, deluding people with promises of something that isn’t simply because of the outcomes the vision offers. Plans and visions are in many ways, lies; leaders and the forecasters they employ can not guarantee all the outcomes. They can offer visions and paths, through a glass darkly as Paul warned us. What rail advocates throughout the 1980s, 1990s,2000s and today offered to Los Angeles is a vision of what isn’t–yet. Actualities may or may not follow; shouldn’t adult citizens be capable of understanding that in the dialogic, deliberative venue that is contemporary democracy? As Socrates helps Glaucon see in Book III to Book VII, there are no bright lines and transparent, easy-to-read boundaries in leading for justice. Is it really so wrong for mission-oriented public agencies, founded because somebody had a vision for what they might do, describe their visions in dream states on the one hand, and nightmare states on the other? The rest of us are not bound to subscribe unless we see ourselves as enthralled by ‘what the experts say’ about what cities should build and how–hardly true in planning now, if it ever was true (which I doubt; I think it was more to do with lack of constitutional protections for individuals vis-a-vis state decisions). If most of us know forecasts are diddled, and I think it’s fair to say that secret is out, and yet voters continue to vote for projects, anyway, it is probably fair to say that voters are voter for the grand vision and not the details.

Even if the lines are not bright, there is still a line, as Socrates’ use of the word “lie” indicates, between the poetic license of agencies and advocates seeking to lead through rainbows-and-sunshine visions and the propaganda and overreach of despots, not to mention the political penalties that ensue from such such disastrous-if-one-gets-caught misinformation as Obama’s reassurances about keeping your plan (no matter how crappy), reading lips about “no new taxes, and California’s High Speed Rail Agency strategic distortions of their cost estimates early on.

Carmola, Kateri. “Noble Lying: Justice and Intergenerational Tension in Plato’s “Republic”.” Political Theory 31, no. 1 (2003): doi:10.2307/3595658.

Richmond, Jonathan. Transport of Delight : The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2005

The real problems of policy schools

Attention Conservation Notice: Policy schools have a bunch of problems, but the WashPo writers missed or mischaracterized most of them.

Additional note: for some reason, my ability to proofread today appears to be more in the toilet than usual. A thousand apologies. I’ll keep editing for clarity.

So this op-ed from the Washington Post has been making the rounds, and it’s irritating me a great deal, largely because one of the authors, Naomi Schaefer Riley, just bothers me. Everything she ever published in the WSJ set my teeth on edge, so I am hardly an unbiased reader–my fault, not hers. This piece is a larger echo of her other complaints about universities writ large, except she’s not complaining about tenure (which, as I explained yesterday, is a bit like worrying about Bigfoot at this point; tenure has eroded, and it’s about a millionth as important as people like Riley like to make it.) Their critique comes down to:

1. An overemphasis on global and national problems rather than state and local;

2. Academic research has little to say about day-to-day management problems of government (I’m going to have to break this gently to my public management colleagues, as they spend all their time worrying about the institutional problems that lead to and/or resolve day-to-day management problems), particularly in the over-emphasis on economics.

3. These schools aren’t training people to go into government (only a small percentage of Kennedy school grads go to state and local government), etc:

4. And these schools are a mishmash of home disciplines which causes an identity crisis:

Many schools have begun to look like a mishmash of the academic departments from which their faculty members hail — such as political science, economics and sociology. But those people may have no more or less interest than colleagues from their home departments in shaping actual policy. Of course, many of these schools draw at least some faculty members from politicians who have lost elections or wonks whose parties are out of power in Washington. But such celebrity instructors are short-timers and do little to draw the academic faculty — which dominate the schools — out of their bubbles.

Easiest potshot in the world: those academics and their bubbles.

There are shades of truth in all these, but these are problems to be found just about everywhere in governance and politics. There is an overemphasis, for example, on national and global issues in the media. Universities emphasize scholars that can demonstrate “high impact” and that means attaining federal grants, getting hits in the highest impact journals, getting picked up by national media. “I helped make main street in Schlubbville more vibrant and walkable” is nice, but it is not going to get you promoted in most major research universities.

And that is actually the problem with this op-ed. They are far too focussed on treating the east coast schools like the Kennedy School and Woodrow Wilson as what’s out there for policy schools. So, in no particular order, here are the first few reasons why this emphasis leads them astray:

1. They conflate public policy and public management, and while these topics are related, they are not the same thing. Public policy tends to be general and focussed on content areas, public management tends to focus on institutions and individuals who enact policy (and my field, planning).

2. The highest ranked public policy schools are not always the highest ranked public management schools. USC has hired on a bunch of folks who study the federal bureaucracy, but plenty study state and city management as well. But they are not likely to be found in the brand name policy schools like Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson or even Taubmann.

3. Public policy and public management graduates often do not end up in the same jobs, though sometimes they do, and training public managers is a different smoke than the 1970s version these folks seem to think it is. Even though we are all supposed to lay awake nights worrying about gummint employees, the number of people in the federal bureaucracy has remained largely the same since 1962, and is smaller now than it was then. Managerial jobs at the state and local level, which is what these writers seem to be worried about–employs a much larger percentage of people, but the actual numbers of ranked positions open has gone down even as employment in the sector has gone up–many are field positions rather than managerial positions: Driving snow plows, walking a beat, teaching 3rd graders. In the mean time, nongovernmental employment for many policy grads (and for many public management grads) has emerged as an important part of the labor force: with the push to privatization, many managers in state and local governments are basically contract managers for experts housed in private consulting firms. Or, alternatively, many have moved into the nonprofit sector. So that idea that policy and management schools should be producing experts for government is not necessarily correct–it’s only a part of the labor market. Many of our policy grads go work for politicians; they are staffers for particular people rather than managers for public institutions.

So that’s the problem with their assumptions in my read.

My problems with policy schools in no particular order:

1. They are housed in very expensive, very exclusive, very elite private schools. This is not, as I said, true of public management programs, where places like Virginia Tech, Texas A & M, and Indiana have shined. But it policy schools are in the expensive privates, which reinforces a cycle of affluent families sending students to Ivies where they then funnel into positions of influence in politics and public policy. The authors of the op-ed lump Brandeis, Wilson, and Dewey together, but these men held very different views on how to manage complex problems. In Dewey’s case, it wasn’t to set up elite teams of experts; Dewey treated democracy as a method in epistemology that could and should be used to inform policy in the public interest.

2. This problem means that policy schools are not intellectually diverse, nor are they likely to be socio-demographically diverse, and those two problems commingle. You can’t swing a shovel without hitting a million old white dudes who want to tell you all about their public policy expertise. And it’s fine to have them represented, but they don’t need to be the only people in Congress, in the bureaucracy, on the TV and on book covers.

This isn’t some politically correct plea for diversity for its own sake, though I do think diversity for its own sake has a great deal to recommend it. Instead, it’s a Deweyan imperative for governing cosmopolitan cities, states, and nations via democracy.

I’m not likely to cry too many tears over conservatives who complain that there aren’t enough conservative proffies in policy schools (see the straight line between and elite university and the American Enterprise Institute noted in the op-ed). There are plenty of cozy relationships between universities and both right and left wing think tanks (a growing labor market for our graduates) even if the average professor is likely to be Democrat. But ones that espouse particular conservative ideologies hit the lottery: Condoleeza Rice, Greg Mankiw, Milton Friedmann, etc etc. The reality is, there are few true radicals in either direction on most policy school faculties because social science doesn’t lend itself to radical or reactionary positions (one of the advantages of the social sciences, actually).

3. But that’s a problem, too: these programs are completely dominated by social scientists and lawyers who act like social scientists, and in particular, economists. The infighting between economists and political scientists and sociologists is entertaining to those of us who actually hold policy-related, multidisciplinary PhDs, but it’s less interesting that the larger problem of: don’t the humanities and sciences also inform policy? And they do; they just do so from departments rather than policy schools. Bioethics is a big deal for public policy, but few policy schools have bioethicists. Med schools do. So do philosophy departments. So do religion departments. The attempts among social scientists to exclude such explicitly normative considerations from public policy schools leads to inherent dysfunction and arbitrary limits because of the nature of the beast–public policy and its roots in the ‘public interest’–are inherently normative. The tendency to draw a strict line between public policy and things like bioethics seems founded more in disciplinary allegiances than defensible in terms of relevance to public policy.

Which gets me to a much more serious identity problem for policy schools; the line between what is and what is not public policy. If we do take Dewey seriously, we must get to a point of believing that the entire university is called to the betterment of human society in such a way that the arts and sciences inform public as well as individual life within that public. There is also a less abstract problem: technology, commerce, and cultural questions tends to get less attention in public policy schools than their actual importance to public policy would merit as technology is viewed as the purview of the sciences and engineering, commerce the purview of business schools, and culture the purview of the liberal arts.

Leo Strauss noted that political science has not done much to stop political conflict. Whenever I read op-eds like this one and get me to thinking about where policy belongs in intellectual life, I always go back to John Henry Newman:

Reflect, Gentlemen, how many disputes you must have listened to, which were interminable, because neither party understood either his opponent or himself. Consider the fortunes of an argument in a debating society, and the need there so frequently is, not simply of some clear thinker to disentangle the perplexities of thought, but of capacity in the combatants to do justice to the clearest explanations which are set before them,—so much so, that the luminous arbitration only gives rise, perhaps, to more hopeless altercation.

Writing as Not knowing

Flavorwire has a list: 10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written: One that comes to my attention comes from the wonderful Donald Barthelme. His essay on “Not Knowing” includes this bit:

“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

The remaining essays are all wonderful, too, but I had read most of those before. Other picks: Lethem, Vonnegut, Didion, and Orwell.

Grad student unions, Rick Perlstein, and the Lawrence Welk Show

Attention Conservation Notice: If academic labor wants to unionize, it is probably better to do so across institutions rather than one-by-one, if the outcomes for so-called “winners in the game” (tenured professors) are any indicator.

Rick Perlstein has been writing about higher education and organizing over at the Nation.

There’s a reason why Perlstein is on a crusade about the academy and is notably silent on his own industry’s exploitation of young writers. The former sells and gets eyes on the page, and the latter would bite the hand that feeds him and possibly irritate an editor. Just as there are hundreds and hundreds of applications for every single tenure track job, there are plenty of young writers lined up to freelance for The Nation. Doctor, heal thyself.

I don’t say that just to throw some shade at Perlstein. It’s more along the lines of: yeah, contemporary capitalism, where all labor is two seconds away from being under the bus.

Perlstein wants to take down the math professor who told students to cross a picket line of adjuncts to get to class, and he wants to castigate a professor for writing an email to his graduate students telling them that their open letter to the department for why they were organizing is a risky career move.

Yes, some misguided souls might note that when a student pays what they do for tuition, offering class despite the picket line can be defended on moral grounds, too, though I personally would not have had students cross the picket line. And still other misguided souls might think that it’s entirely possible to support and organize a grad student union without writing your faculty to rub their noses in it. But, hey, I’m just a patronizing anti-union proffie.

Perlstein’s column includes this bit:

And their dominant tone was that same clueless arrogance we see above. One, a philosophy professor at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, allowed that while things could be improved, and “I would like to see more tenure-track jobs and fewer adjuncts,” academia was still after all a meritocracy. He argued that “[f]riends like your autodidact”—he was referring to the example I gave of a recent PhD from one of the greatest universities in the world, who wrote brilliantly and insightfully, was a natural-born teacher and applied to a hundred jobs to no avail before realizing “tenured employment is almost unimaginable” because of his undeveloped suck-up skills—“ will slip through the cracks if, despite actual excellence, they can’t muster what the academy considers evidence of excellence…. I think of a tenure-track job like an actor getting a job at a repertory company, or a baseball player being hired to play baseball full-time—there are just too many people lining up to do such jobs to give them to everyone.”

This was supposed to be a defense of the system.

A person more interested in journalism and less interested in scoring points and calling people names would probably get that the original statement was hardly supposed to be a defenseof the system, ours or any other. It was meant to be a description of the cut-throat job market professors live in:

1. Yes, even very talented people do not get the jobs their talents merit.

2. Yes, sucking up is a skill in the academy–the way it is *everywhere*, in every institution;

3. But even if you are talented at both research AND sucking up, it’s entirely possible a person won’t get a tenure-track job which is, apparently, what Perlstein thinks his buddy is entitled to (since when?); and

4. In order to get a tenure-track job, you will have to be extremely lucky; probably move to a highly undesirable location; eat crap during job interviews; and if you are fortunate enough to get a job, you will have to eat crap for many more years as a probationary faculty member.

And, alas,crap-eating doesn’t end with tenure. I’m sorry, but that’s true. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world. Universities can and do punish unproductive scholars after tenure. Even well-renumerated deans spend all their time sucking up to donors.

Tenure track jobs are not the cushy realm of reflective scholars who stroll with students across the quad pretending to be Aristotle. We are branded, careful to build to and maintain that brand. We divvy out minutes spent with graduate students (and other students) in 15 minute intervals because we are on a production line, and the hour of my time you want means an hour less with my family because if I try to take that hour out of my research time, I will a) get fired if I am assistant professor and b) get unbelievably shitty raises if I am a tenured associate.

We have spent years and years listening to people claim that universities need to be more like businesses, and I just roll my eyes when I hear this. Are you kidding me? Universities are businesses now. Tenure track faculty have watched tenure erode in a matter of about 15 years. It’s over. So all of you who think tenure is the root of all evil can just relax and move on. So calling for an end to tenure is like calling for an end to showing reruns of the Lawrence Welk show on PBS. Eventually, enough of us will die off, replaced by people without tenure, and by people who have no interest in polkas.

Professor’s wages, too, have fallen in real terms, or in some segments of the markets, grown very slowly.

The demands for getting, and keeping, a full-time faculty job go up, up, up, every single year.

And all the above happened…with unions for faculty in many institutions. Now, maybe it would all be so much worse without unions. But…solidarity means what, exactly, in a world where companies like Microsoft openly say they won’t hire fresh-outs, and half or more of our professional school graduates work in free internships for multiple years?

All that said, fine. I’ll honor the picket line. If there’s a chance unions help get benefits, wages, and limits on working conditions, I’m in. But I doubt it. But I’d also sure be happy to be wrong. I strongly suspect that adjuncts in some markets fare way better than adjuncts in oversupplied urban markets, and so organizing across institutions might actually be a better strategy than organizing at individual institutions, so that the leverage in one location could help at others.

Proffies as drug lords versus the small stakes

Attention conservation notice: Dual labor markets are interesting, but why it took people this long to notice it in the academy is a bit beyond me.

A blog post that has gotten a lot of play comes from Alexandre Afonso: How Academia Resembles A Drug Gang. The original post is intelligent and insightful, and actually captures the intellectual basis of the Leavitt and Venkatesh paper about drug lords: a dual labor market with very high risks and high rewards–but only for a select few. The point of Leavitt and Venkatesh’s original paper was economic theory; you could show that members who entered drug gangs were operating according to predictable rules of micro theory and agents in labor markets with imperfect information. The problem concerned information about future states and desert. Since a great deal depends on luck and hitting the right connections, many people in both academic and drug gang labor markets wind up not achieving desert, where their marginal productivity is reflected in wages, working conditions, or other compensation. Instead, many wind up earning much less than their talents and effort suggest they should.Read More »