Assume a can opener…

2 09 2009

Marc Bousquet deservedly beats up on the economist Don Boudreaux in this post at How the University Works. While the takedown is most enjoyable, I think Bousquet and the folks making fun of Boudreaux that Bousquet quotes have missed something. Boudreaux’s analysis is also terrible economics.

Boudreaux’s argument, if you haven’t clicked the above link yet, is that if the AAUP wins the fight to make adjuncts harder to fire, they’ll become more expensive to keep. Therefore, universities will supposedly hire less of them. Who will take their places? Full-time faculty. This is Boudreaux:

Because adjuncts compete with full-time faculty, making adjuncts more costly to hire will raise the salaries of full-time faculty and prompt colleges to hire greater numbers of full-time faculty.

How much more does it cost to hire a full-time, tenure track faculty member than an adjunct? 5 times? I bet it’s 10 times if you include benefits. Why on earth then would any university replace cheap workers with more expensive ones?

And let’s suppose Boudreaux’s free market planet actually exists somewhere in our solar system. Where would universities get these additional full-time faculty? From the ranks of the adjuncts (or potential adjuncts), of course. Therefore, this conclusion is completely wacko:

[I]t’s doubtful that your efforts [meaning the AAUP] will help the very persons whose well-being you claim to champion.

While I’m not an economist and I don’t play one on TV, that sentence sounds to me like the typical argument against raising the minimum wage. Increase the cost of labor, employers hire fewer people. You can plot it out really pretty on a two-dimensional graph, so how can anyone argue against it? But while this may make sense in theory, Alan Krueger and David Card actually looked at real, living breathing workers and found no loss of jobs.

I think the same thing has happened here. Boudreaux’s faith in his libertarian, free-market model is probably why he looks like an idiot here or maybe he doesn’t know that adjuncts make substantially less than tenure-track faculty, but I prefer to assume that people like this are deluded rather than just plain stupid. Either way, it’s clear that Boudreaux doesn’t understand the basic dynamics of the labor market upon which he is pontificating. The AAUP, on the other hand, deals with the realities of academic labor every single day.

Do you know the old joke about the economist on a desert island? The punchline is “Assume a can opener…”. I can’t remember the rest of the joke, but people like Boudreaux are why just the punchline always makes me smile.


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