You are not special.

20 07 2014

“The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeois most strikingly in the changes of the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of its action it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom upstarts of the new, holy Prusso-German empire.”

– Karl Marx, Capital [Afterward to the Second German Edition], 1873.

“Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts?,” asks Lori Harrison Kahan in Vitae. “How are we to explain this silence?” Great questions, but if you really want to make this point stick in the minds of most tenured and tenure-track faculty, I’m not sure this line of argument is going to work. Instead, I’d explain how the adjunct problem really is every professor’s problem. Drum dialectics into the heads of these mushroom upstarts and we’ll all be better off together.

For this to happen, it’s essential to convince the people on the tenure track now that they aren’t as special as they think they are. The master at this line of argument is, of course, Rebecca Schuman. Unfortunately, king cannibal rats on a festering ghost ship are unlikely to lend a hand until the moment they realize that it’s time to swim to shore.

So now then is the time to point out that it might be time for all of us to paddle the burnt-out hulk that we all occupy a little closer to shore than we are right now. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. Here’s Reason 55 from 100 Reasons NOT to go to Grad School:

In November 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that 49,562 people earned doctorates in the United States in 2009. This was the highest number ever recorded. Most of the increase over the previous decade occurred in the sciences and engineering, but the NSF’s report noted a particularly grim statistic for those who completed a PhD in the humanities: only 62.6 percent had a “definite commitment” for any kind of employment whatsoever. Remember that this is what faces those who have already survived programs with very high attrition rates; more than half of those who start PhD programs in the humanities do not complete them (see Reason 46). The PhD has been cheapened by its ubiquity.

Every one of those disposable academics in your field would gladly fill your tenure track job at substantially less pay than you’re making right now. And why shouldn’t they? You probably aren’t doing very much to help them, so why should they help you? Moreover, plenty of administrators would gladly fire you and replace you with an adjunct if they thought they could get away with it.

What’s that, you say? You write articles, do you? Too bad only three people read half of all articles. And most of those university press books we all write aren’t exactly setting the world on fire either. Adjuncts and people fresh out of grad school can do the exact same things that existing tenured faculty can do. They even have books published at the same university presses that you do! They’re also likely to perform all the functions that you perform for much, much less money.

At the same time (and you knew I was going to get to this at some point), MOOCs (or as these guys stress, the technologies that enable MOOCs) can do the same job you do rather badly for a lot less money in the long run. Therefore, university bosses who couldn’t care less about what books you’ve published will replace you with pre-recorded lectures and an interactive web site without blinking an eye.

Anybody with a basic understanding of organized labor knows the solution to all these problems. Join together. Help the people willing to do your job for less get the opportunity to do the job you do with you (not instead of you) for the money they deserve. Don’t be a mushroom upstart. Be an organizer. Be a truth teller. Be a fighter. And if your own liberal ideals aren’t enough to motivate you to do such things, just remember that you’ll be better off in the long run too.

You are not special. Neither are your adjunct colleagues, but they live with that fact every day. The point is that you need to learn that too if we are ever all going to save higher education together.


The soft bigotry of low expectations.

25 11 2013

“We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.”

– Daphne Koller of Coursera, WSJ, November 24, 2013.

“Coursera founder speaks the truth,” is the way that Gianpiero Petriglieri described that quote on Twitter this morning, and of course that’s right. You can only get those deeper cognitive skills through face-to-face interaction, which means (by implication) you can’t get those skills through a MOOC. So why then is yet another MOOC maven acknowledging the inadequacy of their product?

To borrow a phrase from the Bush years, I think it’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. While that particular piece of education reform sloganeering arose as a racial argument, I use here to refer to class bias. All the worthy hard-working MOOC students who can’t afford real college can make a name for themselves in Coursera’s numerous lotteries of opportunities in search of a golden ticket. The rest of them will at least get to watch some interesting lectures as they go about their humdrum lives of quiet desperation.

To be fair, Koller isn’t the only person practicing this kind of class discrimination. It’s been part of the DNA of the MOOC Messiah Squad from the very beginning. The title of this post actually popped into my head last week when I read some poor MOOC-ophile argue in the Atlantic last week that MOOC pass rates are actually a lot better than the tiny fractions that even bother to participate at all in the easiest of MOOCs. He sees lots of other denominators with which we could judge success or failure of that particular educational spectacle.

But would any face-to-face or even online class associated with any university campus get to be judged by simpler standards like “took any quiz” or “watched any lecture?” Of course not. The implicit assumption is that MOOCs are so special that they deserve to judged by different criteria so that they can be allowed to innovate their way into acceptability.

Unfortunately, giving MOOCs a pass on retention rates is absolutely the worst thing that higher education could possibly do. As Christian and Calvin Exoo explained in Salon last month:

The crisis in U.S. higher education is not a crisis of access — it’s one of retention. More U.S. students than ever before are starting college. The problem is that our students aren’t finishing college. Six-year graduation rates vary from 51 percent at private institutions, all the way down to 21 percent at state schools. This is the real crisis, and it is one that MOOCs are singularly ill-equipped to address.

Want to know how ill-equipped MOOCs are to solve the crisis of retention? They’re so watered-down that course on great ideas of the Twentieth Century can be devoid of required reading and a Coursera class in World History can have no writing assignments or required reading, yet the completion rates of MOOCs like these remain anemic across the board.

Nevertheless, we are still talking about MOOCs because MOOC providers and the academic neoliberals running elite institutions of higher learning that keep them afloat are willing to deny working class students the professorial attention they deserve in the name of extending their university’s brands. MIT is at least willing to put its money where its mouth is and give its own students the same experience they’re marketing to others. Since MIT students smart and probably self-motivated, that school will undoubtedly survive this ill-advised fad. But what happens to college students outside of MIT who are drug along for the edX experiment? MIT doesn’t care.

Coursera has no such pretensions towards intellectual consistency. Today it appears that Daphne Koller knows what real education actually is, yet she’s still willing to provide a cheap and inadequate substitute to people who can’t afford the real thing. This is worse than tilting at windmills because it will make it much harder for real reformers to convince Americans to provide everyone the education they deserve at an affordable price.

So pardon me if I’m less than impressed by Koller’s new-found defense of face-to-face interaction between professors and students. Say what you will about Sebastian Thrun. At least his company will soon only be shortchanging customers who won’t be wiped out by the experience.

“‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

24 05 2013

Superprofessors are very happy about being superprofessors. And why shouldn’t they be? After all, they won’t have to repeat the same tired old lectures ever again, the students that do pay attention to them are highly motivated and most seem to have hundreds of (if not a few thousand) adoring fans. Sure, there’s all that work that goes into setting up a MOOC, but the point of a MOOC is to get it so that the machine can run itself. Once it’s perfected, any additional work is supposed be minimal.

So you can imagine that superprofessors might get a little testy when a MOOC backlash comes along and threatens their cushy new lives. “MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility for How Courses Are Used,” explained the Chronicle‘s Wired Campus blog a few days ago. The point guy in that story was Duke biology professor, Mohamed A. Noor:

Mr. Noor says he believes dismantling departments and replacing them with MOOCs would be “reckless.” But the Duke professor also believes that, in such a case, “the fault lies with the reckless administration,” and not the professor who furnished the MOOC to the vendor that furnished the MOOC to the administration.

“I don’t see it as particularly my business how people use the stuff once I put it out there,” Mr. Noor says—though he adds that if dismantling departments were all a MOOC was being used for, “then I’d stop.”

If you want to see some serious superprofessor-bashing, just read the comments to that Chronicle post. They may be the clearest indication of a MOOC backlash that I’ve ever seen. For now, the worst thing I’ll accuse Noor of being is tone deaf. While his system obviously works well for him, Noor appears to lack any understanding of how education works outside of biology and, perhaps more importantly, outside of places like Duke.

Noor is an advocate for the flipped classroom. He describes how he flipped it on his blog, but let’s get this straight from the beginning: Noor is both a MOOC producer and a MOOC consumer. He provides content on tape for Coursera, then teaches that content in his Duke course. That means that his job is not being unbundled. This fact is vital if you want to understand why superprofessors like Noor love MOOCs and ordinary professors are fighting back.

Whenever I hear somebody suggest that I flip my classroom, I always ask one thing: When are students going to have time to do the reading I assign? Noor describes how some of his Duke students protested the extra work associated with watching lectures in advance. How are professors with students who have two jobs or families to go home to going to solve that problem? They won’t. All students will have left is the MOOC, which almost certainly means that some administrations will wonder why they should pay for faculty to be in the room at all.

On Twitter a few days ago, Aaron Bady noted that any pro-MOOC argument must start with an attack on everybody else’s teaching. Noor offers a textbook case of this on his blog to justify what he’s doing and the way he’s doing it:

Our courses need to go beyond fact dissemination– we need to engage students both individually and in groups to assess how well they are interpreting and applying the concepts we’re presenting them. The flipped class is one means of achieving this goal– students get the primary content in some way outside the class period, and their understanding is assessed. This assessment step is critical– students learn what elements of the material they didn’t correctly interpret or apply the first time, and faculty receive feedback to correct frequent student misinterpretations and misapplications in their presentations. The faculty then spend the class period clarifying areas of confusion directly in response to the student feedback, and then reinforcing true understanding of the material with new problems, applications, and engaging discussions. The format forces faculty and students to interact bidirectionally in the learning process, and this bidirectionality has obvious benefits both to student understanding and faculty teaching strategies. It’s also personally satisfying for both parties, as faculty become less “lecturers” and more “facilitators” in the classroom, they work with the humanity of students rather than treating students as consumers of prepackaged products.

Speaking for myself, I go beyond fact dissemination in every single class I teach. It’s a little easier for me to do so because I haven’t had a course with over 40 students in it since I moved to Colorado. However, even unfortunate professors with hundreds of students in class can goose participation without flipping their classrooms. Nobody needs MOOCs in order to be bi-directional.

In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that MOOCs are going to make education worse for the vast majority of students in flipped classrooms. If you remember the whole San Jose State letter, the administration there moved Sandel’s justice MOOC out of philosophy and into the English Department. They could do this because the act of unbundling makes it possible to have in-class teachers who don’t really know the material. This, in turn, is an open invitation to pay them less or get rid of them altogether. Of course, as superprofessor and professor all in one, this is not a problem for Noor. And since Duke seems to have a pretty good shared governance structure, this problem is unlikely to arise for him at any time in the future.

The same can not be said for the rest of us. It’s clear from that Chronicle article that even Noor recognizes this fact:

“Ultimately, faculty at individual colleges need to be the driving force behind what students at their campuses are using,” he says.

“And if that’s not the case” at San Jose State, says Mr. Noor, then MOOCs are “the least of the faculty’s problems.”

Unfortunately, providing administrations with a tool they can use to beat shared governance to death isn’t going to help that situation.

Read those Chronicle comments and you can see that a bunch of people make an analogy between MOOCs and the atomic bomb. While that’s far-fetched in the sense that MOOCs will never kill tens of thousands of people, the ethics involved with how your creations are used are exactly the same. I think JeffRogers142 got this ethical problem absolutely right by quoting the great Tom Lehrer:

“‘Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?
‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

In this case, hundreds if not thousands of Noor’s colleagues all across academia care where and how those MOOCs come down. As long as superprofessors continue to show this kind of gross indifference to the welfare of nearly everyone else in their profession, they shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they’re no longer treated with much collegiality anymore.

“Teamsters in tweed?” I wish.

11 02 2013

Beating up on Clay Shirky is something of a sport amongst the people I follow on Twitter, and that sport was particularly popular last week when this article came out.  The line that got the most derision had nothing to do with MP3s or Napster or even MOOCs.  Instead it was this:

“But when someone threatens to lower the price [of education] then we start behaving like Teamsters in tweed.”

Now that sentence is freighted with an enormous number of assumptions (all of which are insulting to Teamsters), but Shirky’s real purpose here is to shame his fellow faculty members.  He seems to think that the proper response to MOOC-ification is for all of us to sit back and let “progress” run its course.  That’s easy for an Internet expert with a job at NYU to imply, but what’s a community college professor who’s about to become a glorified teaching assistant supposed to do when MOOCs threaten his or her ability to pay their bills?

I say they should behave more like Teamsters.

Perhaps Shirky picked the phrase “Teamsters in tweed” for alliterative purposes, but I think he deliberately wanted to invoke the violent reputation of that union as a means of creating enough guilt to stop faculty everywhere from sticking up for themselves.  Or maybe he’s arguing that resistance is simply futile.  Even if it is, that resistance is absolutely crucial if displaced faculty ever want to get anything in exchange for their displacement.  The only intelligent thing to do when someone wants to make your job obsolete is to organize.

Does this kind of talk make me sound like a Teamster?  Good.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in my fifteen-odd years of being a professor it’s that most administrators think that the class divide ends at the edge of campus.  It doesn’t.  [Go talk to an adjunct sometime if you don’t believe me.]  Yet the powers that be generally want to act as if every professor is part of a big, happy family even when they’re not.

Running a university during the age of permanent austerity means convincing faculty to put in the greatest amount of effort at the lowest possible cost.  Yelling “Think of the children!” every time people in power want to cut somebody’s salary (using technology to do so or not) is simply a business strategy.  What just kills me is how well this con works on most of my colleagues across academia.

As I’ve written over and over at this blog, the wonderful thing about the online education/MOOC debate is that by sticking up for ourselves we professors ARE thinking of the children since a lousy higher education for almost everyone is of no use to anyone, especially the students who pay for it.  That doesn’t mean my job is special.  It simply means that the quality of the service I provide is just as important as the price when determining its longterm value.

While this rant may seem a tad radical to some readers, all I’m really saying here is that labor and management need to sit down together and work out issues of mutual interest from a position of mutual respect and relative equality.  The Teamsters call this process “collective bargaining.”  In academia, unless we’re lucky enough to work in a union shop, we call it “shared governance.”

Shared governance?  Hasn’t the Internet made that obsolete?  Well, it will if we aren’t willing to fight for it.

Are college professors working class?

5 07 2012

Audrey Watters is my new hero. Considering the general subject of this blog of late, she should probably be my old hero. Nonetheless, considering her position as an ed tech journalist it took some guts to come out and write this about the controversy over those Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style Khan Academy parodies circulating out there on the Internet:

[T]his isn’t just a matter of highlighting pedagogical problems in the Khan Academy videos or with their usage in the classroom. This is about power: “arrogance” connotes superiority and power; “disparagement” seeks to displace or depreciate power. Who has the authority to speak about or dismiss pedagogy? Who gets to speak about math and science? These aren’t simply matters of education or expertise but rather of political power as it’s wielded within our current education reform narrative. And that is a narrative that’s painted Khan as a revolutionary hero, while painting teachers as reactionary villains.

[Emphasis in original]

What do most of the edtech startups of the world, the people who fund them and the university administrations that contract their services want to do with that power? Push teachers of all kinds off the shop floor so that they have to accept any terms of employment that they are offered if they want to teach again in the new tech-centered world of education that they are all trying to create. It reminds me of what happened to iron workers in America during the 1870s when the Bessemer steel process finally took off.

But college professors, you say, aren’t exactly blue collar. They don’t have to accept the same crap that “ordinary” workers do, as described brilliantly (with tons of links in the original post at Crooked Timber) by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch:

On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be. Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.

Do you really think higher education is any different? Do I have to remind you that three quarters of college professors in the United States are part-time or under limited term contracts? For them, often in need of reappointment semester after semester, the situation might actually be worse in some ways. Adjuncts have little choice but to endure a constant assault on their rights and prerogatives if they want to keep their job, just like other working class people do. The restructuring of power relationships in employment and in the classroom brought on by online education is just one aspect of this ongoing struggle.

What separates tenured and tenure-track professors from other working people is, of course, tenure itself. Even though anyone with tenure will be the first one to tell you that the idea that they can’t be fired is a joke, tenure is a lot more job protection than most workers get. That’s precisely why tenure has been under attack for years.

But the war on professors has a lot more fronts than just the battle over tenure. Like the math teachers who are told to show Khan Academy videos rather than actually teach math themselves, the very existence of teachers of any kind is being called into question by people who claim to serve the cause of education. As my intended audience for this blog is other college professors, I tend to stress the importance of self preservation in light of these kinds of attacks. However, teachers, students and the public at large that depends on both those groups should be concerned about the ways in which the very definition of learning itself is being changed.

If I watch videos about engineering, am I qualified to build a bridge in your town? If I watch videos about brain surgery am I qualified to probe around inside your skull? If I watch the History Channel a lot, does that make me an historian?

Like so many other occupations, college professors at all ranks are being de-professionalized because the forces of austerity have targeted labor costs of all kinds, whether the workers drawing the salary they want to cut provide essential value or not. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that learning from a real live teacher is worth the expense (and I’d say that even if I weren’t a teacher myself). If our now constant struggle against those forces of austerity doesn’t make people like me working class, then I don’t know what would.

There’s a class war going on out there, my dear colleagues, and you’re all in the thick of it. Whether academics are willing to recognize that fact, however, is another matter entirely. For the sake of education everywhere, I sincerely hope they are.

Will college professors go the way of the milkman?

19 09 2011

I have been a Natalie Merchant fan since I first saw 10,000 Maniacs in college. In the old days, when I still went to concerts, I saw them more often than I did any other band (even after their shows were overran by teenage girls in peasant dresses). I pre-ordered the first Natalie Merchant album in seven years before it came out last year (rather than download the tracks) so that I could read the liner notes, and have had it in my car ever since. It’s two discs of the work of mostly obscure poets put to music, so there is actually a lot of interesting stuff to learn there.

This is my favorite track on the album:

The poet is Eleanor Farjeon, well-known in English places, but not in America. As Merchant notes, poetry aside, perhaps the most endearing thing she ever did was to turn down the title Dame of the British Empire with the line, “I do not wish to become different from the milkman.” Words to live by if I’ve ever encountered them.

They seem particularly useful to us academics, as we (myself included, of course) tend to greatly overrate our own usefulness. So many of us assume that whatever we’re interested in will be interesting to others, even if it isn’t. [See here for an important variation on this phenomenon.] I’ve also seen far too many examples of academics who assume that they’re somehow different than other working people just because they have a Ph.D.

We had time, and somehow we found the resources to study something for seven-odd years. This does not make us immune to the same rules of employment that blue collar workers face, like technological unemployment or the inevitable class struggle between employer and employee. This post by Tenured Radical about her computer troubles from over the weekend reminded me of Henry George’s complaint that industrial workers had been reduced to “mere feeders of machines.”

At the same time, there’s one way that I really do hope to be different from the milkman. Unlike milkmen, I hope my chosen profession continues to be practiced beyond a boutique existence long after my career has ended. If anyone has studied the demise of milkmen in America, I’d be interested in reading their work. If I had to guess though, I’d say that milkmen were probably victims of better refrigerated transport. It became cheaper to make milk on vast dairy farms and keep it cold for hundreds of miles than to squeeze it fresh and send it down the street. Yes, I know milk delivery is still a boutique operation in some places, but most people aren’t willing to pay that much more for a better product.

Will the college students of the future be willing to pay more for a better education? Will they even be able to pay more for a better education? Earlier this summer I wrote:

Seriously, the primary reason that I don’t go totally Luddite on this entire profession is that if given the opportunity, I don’t think the average bean counter is going to remake the university very well at all.

I still believe that, but now I’m afraid that the vast majority of both administrators and college students couldn’t care less. If I’m right, that should be enough to make you empathize with working people of all kinds. Especially milkmen.

Perhaps we can all double as psychiatrists, just like this milkman did.

(Appalling) must see TV!!!

2 05 2011

While most people would categorize me as a labor historian, my real interest is in employee/management relations. I study how both sides of that equation negotiate the constant tension that their separate interests create.*

That’s why I have a soft spot for the TV show Undercover Boss. Dressing up as a working man and doing blue collar jobs has a long history in this country. Whenever managers do this, they invariably learn things that they wouldn’t have known otherwise. While this show is obviously corporate propaganda, I always liked watching it as proof of how out of touch management always is. However, because formulaic corporate propaganda can get tiring, I stopped watching it this season. [Besides, my wife needed more space on the DVR.]

Tipped off by Entertainment Weekly, however, I just finished watching the second season finale. Why subject myself to this? The “boss” in question is the Chancellor of the University of California – Riverside.

The show includes all the normal executive self-abasement that you’d expect from an Undercover Boss episode. Ridiculously bad fake mustache. Physical trials that he’s too out of shape to master. It doesn’t help that the guy seems like a goof ball to begin with. Nonetheless, there’s something about this particular episode that just sent the guy from EW on the reality TV beat over the edge:

Believe me, White’s acts of kindness are heartwarming. It’s nice to see a university chancellor take the time to identify with his students and faculty as individuals. But its presentation here essentially proves that that’s the exception, not the rule. After all, the gods rarely come down from Olympus. The mortals the Undercover Bosses encounter don’t challenge executive authority but accept their subservience, showing appreciation for the tiny acts of munificence from their betters, who are proven to be just that because of their charity.

I suppose Americans struggling to make ends meet don’t revolt against this plutocratic propaganda because even the poor among us seem to believe they are just millionaires going through a rough patch. However, the particular gratefulness with which Undercover Boss’s charity cases receive their temporary financial Band-Aids suggests a depressing new acceptance of social immobility. It seems we’ve gone from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to Who Wants to Meet a Millionaire.

Jimmy Hoffa is rolling over in his cement-covered grave.

If I had to guess why this episode was particularly appalling (as opposed to all other episodes of Undercover Boss), for me it would have to be the knowledge that a public university is not a business. It’s not supposed to be operated at a profit; it’s a public service, for Pete’s sake. Therefore, when this guy described himself as a “CEO,” I knew right then that there was something horribly wrong with his management style.

Despite the help he offers up to a couple of students, as well as the track team, the guy can’t fix Riverside’s problems because he doesn’t control the revenue stream there. That’s why all the money he uses to make everyone happy at the end of the show comes from donors.

Worse still, despite the attempts to pull at the heartstrings of viewers, the whole show serves as a scathing indictment of the State of California to adequately fund its university systems. Seriously, other than name recognition, I can’t see an upside to this at all.

I could go on, but I really do have to go back to grading. If you have a strong stomach, I hope you’ll watch the whole show so that we can discuss other appalling moments in the comments below.

* By the way, a belief in this dialectic does not necessarily make me a Marxist. Just saying.

The misuse of progress.

30 01 2009

It’s rare to see any economist get this philosophical, but it is an essay by Brad DeLong:

Our goods are not only plentiful but cheap. I am a book addict. Yet even I am fighting hard to spend as great a share of my income on books as Adam Smith did in his day. Back on March 9, 1776 Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations went on sale for the price of 1.8 pounds sterling at a time when the median family made perhaps 30 pounds a year. That one book (admittedly a big book and an expensive one) cost six percent of the median family’s annual income. In the United States today, median family income is $50,000 a year and Smith’s Wealth of Nations costs $7.95 at Amazon (in the Bantam Classics edition). The 18th Century British family could buy 17 copies of the Wealth of Nations out of its annual income. The American family in 2009 can buy 6,000 copies: a multiplication factor of 350.

No wonder Thomas Jefferson died essentially bankrupt.

Books are not an exceptional category. Today, buttermilk-fried petrale sole with pickled vegetables and parsley mayonnaise, served at Chez Panisse Café, costs the same share of a day-laborer’s earnings as the raw ingredients for two big bowls of oatmeal did in the 18th Century. Then there are all the commodities we consume that were essentially priceless in the past. If in 1786 you had wanted to listen to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in your house, you probably had to be the Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, with a theater in your house—the Palace of Laxenberg. Today, the DVD costs $17.99 at (The multiplication factor for enjoying The Marriage of Figaro in your home is effectively infinite for those not named Josef von Habsburg.)

Today we still spend about one dollar in five on food—down from the half of income that Americans spent in 1776. The share hasn’t fallen more because some of us buy buttermilk-fried petrale sole with pickled vegetables and parsley mayonnaise cooked, served, and cleaned up by others rather than (or in addition to) oats in the gunnysack. One reason is that the oats-for-five-meals-out-of-six-diet of 18th Century Scots was monotonous, and we are glad to escape it. Another is we play status games: oats taste worse when you know somebody else is tasting petrale sole and, conversely, the fish tastes better to those of us with money and luck enough to dine at Chez Panisse.

Ultimately, I agree with DeLong’s point in all this:

We are simply not built to ever say “enough!” to stuff in general.

My fear is, however, that the extent of progress over the centuries can be used as a means to deny economic justice.* Can’t you just hear it now?:

“At least the poor don’t have to eat oats every day!”

“Poor people are much better off than they were 100 years ago!”

Of course they were, but that’s no excuse for letting the distribution of wealth revert to eighteenth century levels. Or to put it another way, everyone in America is not middle class (no matter how much we think otherwise).

* DeLong’s not doing this, but we all know what happens when good arguments get in the hands of the wrong people.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it doesn’t hurt either.

7 08 2008

US News and World Report has posted an interview with psychology professor Tim Kasser, author of the book The High Price of Materialism. Apparently, the book recommends adopting a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, which means (among other things) buy less stuff. While I’m completely sympathetic to this point of view, and just put the book on my Amazon Wish List, I still think he’s missing something: Money can buy you other things besides stuff.

The easiest place to see this lapse is when Kasser discusses his own lifestyle:

Our lifestyle is something that my wife and I have developed over the last 15 years. We live on 10 acres of land about 8 miles south of the small liberal arts college where I teach and where she works as a psychotherapist. We are vegetarian and have a big garden, a fruit orchard, and several animals for eggs and milk. We both work at reduced loads at the college so we can be at home more for our two sons, and so we can be involved in different community and activist groups. We don’t watch television but find plenty of other things to keep us amused and occupied and interested. Neither of us grew up this way, and our lifestyle has really evolved over the years. The way we live has its challenges, but it works for us.

Sounds lovely. I wish I could do it myself, but I have two kids I want to put through the college of their choice and large sections of the world I want to take the family to see. We’re not going to any of these places because we want to fill our suitcases with material goods, but we still need money in order experience everything we want to experience in life. And the things I buy for myself most often are books. I’m not buying them to display them on my shelf. I’m buying them because I’m interested in the ideas that authors like Kasser express. A good book makes me very happy.

I’m also happy for Kasser as it appears he has used his money so wisely. Indeed, make no mistake that that simple lifestyle of his still had to be bought. Ten acres of land costs money. The ability to work at a reduced land costs money in the sense that you can’t do things or purchase things with the money you’d earn with the classes you miss. If Kasser didn’t have a Ph.D. and the earning potential that comes with this, there’s no way these things would even be an option for him. I don’t think he’s a hypocrite, I just think everyone should recognize that this simple life is simply not an option for anyone who’s working class.

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