Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Liberal Utopia in Academia Creates Worst Work Conditions?

Megan McArdle has a piece up about the terrible treatment of adjunct professors and graduate students at universities. The truth is, as anyone taking an English 101 or Algebra course knows, the vast majority of classes at universities these days are not taught by actual tenured professors but by the slave labor of the university system: those who haven't a prayer of gaining tenure.

I'd feel sorrier for them if the bizarre system that allows professors to use arbitrary grading systems and subject students to leftwing rants on unrelated topics weren't so damn cushy for them, or if those not in that system didn't so closely resemble the real world, but, alas, I do not feel sorry for them at all. Welcome to the real world, champ!

I have long theorized that at least some of the leftward drift in academia can be explained by the fact that it has one of the most abusive labor markets in the world. I theorize this because in interacting with many professors, I am bewildered by their beliefs about labor markets more generally; many seem to think of private labor markets as an endless well of exploitation where employees are virtual prisoners with no recourse in the face of horrific abuses. Yet this does not describe the low wage jobs in which I've worked--there were of course individuals who had to hold onto that particular job for idiosyncratic reasons, but as a class, low wage workers do not face the kind of monolithic employer power that a surprising number of academics seem to believe is common.

A recent debate among friends brought forth similar arguments from lefties about the poor and middle class being mistreated by employers (for giving them jobs, I suppose) while the mean ol' CEO and stockholders make billions. It's not fair! How can anybody shop at Wal-Mart in good conscience knowing they buy food from Brazil, for crying out loud? Aren't those clerks and stock boys miserable?

The answer, of course, is that some are miserable but probably not because of their employment. Like most people who work for their income, there are aspects of their jobs they like and others they don't. And most employees are perfectly aware of the tenuousness of their positions, particularly if you live in an at-will employment state.

But such knowledge doesn't make workers more miserable or less productive. In fact, given the behavior of most tenured professors on college campuses, it probably makes those without tenure more responsive to those they teach. But that's just my theory.