David Rubinstein’s “cushy” job and how he squandered it

Peter Gordon, one of my wonderful colleagues, sent me a link to Andrew Gellman’s blog where he discuss this Op-Ed, from David Rubenstein: “Thank you, Taxpayers, For My Cushy Life.”

What we are supposed to take away from Rubinstein’s essay is that professors are milking “the system” and “the taxpayers” just like he did. There may be a need for pension reform-I don’t know. I’m not an expert in that policy field, other than the basic desire I have to keep elderly people from having to eat cat food to survive.

But on Rubinstein’s exaggerations about how easy the job is…I have a problem. And so do a bunch of Gellman’s commentators.

1) No wonder economists mock sociologists* if a guy with this level of reasoning can get tenure at UIC. Let’s hope he’s a odd exemplar of the species. UIC is no Harvard, but it’s not a bad university. But his arguments boil down to “these are my experiences and because I experienced them, they must hold valuable lessons for the world at large” and “I’ve never met anybody who left the academy for the private sector, so nobody must ever do it.” Those are nothing more than simple anecdotes.

We can swap anecdotes all day.

Most of my PhD students are from computer science or other programs in the College of Engineering at USC. I’d say one in five stays in the academy–the rest all race to the private sector, and this isn’t leaving-after-years-of-hanging-on-in-adjuncting-misery leaving. This is prior-to-graduation-never-seriously-considered-the-academy- “buh bye, I get a 40 hour work week, a lab of my own, and $70K more a year” leaving the academy for the private sector kind of leaving.

So is his experience the relevant, truthy one, or is mine? Or is there a lesson in there about why your personal anecdotes don’t prove diddlysquat about anything, other than your hubris of generalizing from biased sample of one?

Was his research like this? A quick check on Google Scholar suggests…yes. Anybody know any more about this guy’s contributions?

*Some of the brightest, most gifted, and most well-trained scholars I know are sociologists, and I respect them tremendously, so I suspect Rubinstein is an outlier. Or this personal essay of his was just slop?

2) So Rubinstein receives the privilege of tenure, and he proceeds–like many people who have privilege–to squander it on himself. And then he wants to shift the blame for his own juvenile unwillingness to contribute on a system too dumb/wired/elitist to stop him from taking advantage.

He writes on in smugness designed to raise taxpayer ire. I am sure he’ll have accomplished that, and yet all I can think of is: you poor, old dummy.

Instead of using his time to do more than the bare minimum, Rubinstein glows about how he sloughed along. Nothing–nothing other than himself and his own impoverished world view –prevented him from using that time to learn new educational tools (they are myriad), or developing more, better, and updated classes.He could have spent more time serving students in groups or committees. Nothing stopped him from doing that. He wasn’t strapped for cash or time, as he brags. He wasn’t loaded down with service.

He just didn’t.

Somehow, that’s the system’s fault instead of his own lack of character.

So while I am supposed to be outraged–either as a taxpayer or as a professor because Rubinstein betrayed the tribe–I just feel sad for him. He was given a great privilege-with a much lower standard than I was held to in order to get tenure–the gift of time, the freedom to reflect–and he didn’t use it for anything. Not his students. He didn’t use it to add to the human endeavor through his research. He obviously did nothing with that gift to make himself really proud, other than whatever happiness he gets out of his five minutes of fame here and the feeling that he milked the system.

My older colleagues are, for the most part, working damn hard. But even the ones who are coasting a bit still have books and students they can look back on with pride. It wasn’t a cushy job for them–but it was a great job–as it could have been for Rubinstein if he’d had the guts and character to make it great.

But he chose not to. And for some reason, he thinks that we’re all like him.

If that’s so, why do I have three new, wonderful classes cooking? Classes that I really, really shouldn’t even be considering teaching if, as Rubinstein suggests, we’re all just doing the bare minimum? Why do I have more projects and work than I know what to do with?

Auto recycling, Africa Style

The LA Times yesterday ran an interesting story on auto recycling in Ghana. When there is a crash, no matter how badly the cars are damaged, these workers bring the cars back to life. There are occupational and environmental health issues with the workshop, but it serves as compelling contrast to the scrappage program announced for the UK in the past week to save the auto industry. David Levinson over at the Transportationist discusses the latter scheme.

Solar and Coal in the LA Times

One of my excellent students from USC, David Hale Feinberg, brought this story from the LA Times to my attention. The story concerns a partnership between SolarReserve and Rocketdyne–shuttle engine manufacturers. The technology uses heliostat mirrors to heat up molten salt. I’m still learning about energy technologies, so this is pretty interesting stuff.

Contrast this with the lead story in this morning’s LA Times on mountain top removal. The contrast helps us understand three major lessons about energy and renewables.

First, if the history of the energy industry is any lesson, the Barstow plant is where the future resides: high capital requirements favor existing corporate actors over small-scale, local producers, no matter how much some environmental advocates believe that local businesses are the key to sustainability. If you want faster implementation of petroleum substitutes, energy creation won’t be small-scale production.

Second–again from history–the renewables coming online will be substituted for future energy demand, not replacements for existing energy sources, at least in the short term. New energy supply is not a conservation strategy in the same way that unplugging your electronics is. New supply means that new demand is met via cleaner sources, not that old sources necessarily diminish in productivity.

Third, the mountaintop removal story brings home, at least to me, how our failures in social policy contribute to environmental loss. At a time when everybody is lecturing me on the importance of ‘green jobs’ we don’t have the policy language to talk about transitioning miners from their current livelihood to different employment. This is very sticky problem; these areas of West Virginia are both gloriously beautiful and deeply impoverished, and there are few ready substitute employers. Think about the losses that accrued to tobacco farmers as Americans moved away from smoking in the mainstream.

Americans don’t have the cultural capacity to think about that type of assistance as anything other than “welfare”–a shaming word. And yet, Coase applies here: to those of us who want to stop mountaintop removal, financially supporting their transition to new work can be both efficient and socially desirable even if it takes some time. Moreover, it isn’t as though the activity isn’t valuable: we would need to think about ways to change feedstocks for electricity generation to reduce the demand for coal. In other words, it’s not enough to just want an activity to stop because it is unsightly or environmentally bad.