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.The original blog post has some problems, like comparing adjuncting to McDonald’s, to which I would suggest that the author try working at McDonald’s for a bit. He will then see a sharp distinction between adjunction and working at McDonald’s, even if adjunction is very hard, poorly compensated work, indeed. But not harder or less well-compensated than hours on your feet selling horrible food to poor people while wearing a humiliating uniform and, btw, being used the apotheosis of a crap job in blog posts about the academy.

The whole question, however, brings me to a point that my Rude Shithead Uncle-In-Law loved to bring up, cribbed (he thought) from Henry Kissinger:


Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.

Cha! Those ego-maniacal proffies feeling up and otherwise exploiting their grad students get into pitched battles over their little egos, fools! But actually, Kissinger cribbed, this idea, too, and it was old hat and probably wrong when he said it. But it does help us get to a conundrum: Afonso and Kissinger can’t both be right. Either the stakes are large and people are running in risky labor market, or the stakes are small. Which is it?

(It’s the former. University politics, like all politics, has to do with how we govern institutions and ideas, and thus, how we treat people. No, there aren’t any tanks or machine guns, but how we treat people still matters.)

I’ll write more about this tomorrow when I look at the “some proffie wrote a snotty email and now that’s evidence of something” piece from the Nation.