Seen on Lauren’s Facebook: How Does Academia Resemble A Drug Gang?
Their answer is that both academia and drug gangs are marked by an endless supply of foot soldiers willing to work in terrible conditions for a small chance at living the good life. In drug gangs, the average street-corner dealer makes $3-something an hour; given that he’s got a high chance of being arrested or shot, why doesn’t he switch to McDonalds instead where the pay’s twice as good and the environment’s a lot safer? The article suggests one reason is because drug gangs offer the chance of eventually becoming a drug kingpin who is drowning in money.
(I’d worry they’re exaggerating the importance of this factor compared to wanting to maintain street cred and McDonalds jobs being much more regimented both in the application process and performance, but they’re the ones who have talked to anthropologists embedded in drug gangs, not me.)
Academia has the same structure. TAs and grad students work in unpleasant conditions for much less than they could make in industry, because there’s always the chance they could become a tenured professor who gets to live the life of the mind and travel to conferences in far-off countries and get summer vacations off.
The article describes this structure as “dualization” – a field that separates neatly into a binary classification of winners and losers.
This concept applies much more broadly than just drugs and colleges. I sometimes compare my own career path, medicine, to that of my friends in computer programming. Medicine is very clearly dual – of the millions of pre-med students, some become doctors and at that moment have an almost-guaranteed good career, others can’t make it to that MD and have no relevant whatsoever in the industry. Computer science is very clearly non-dual; if you’re a crappy programmer, you’ll get a crappy job at a crappy company; if you’re a slightly better programmer, you’ll get a slightly better job at a slightly better company; if you’re a great programmer, you’ll get a great job at a great company (ideally). There’s no single bottleneck in computer programming where if you pass you’re set for life but if you fail you might as well find some other career path.
My first instinct is to think of non-dualized fields as healthy and dualized fields as messed up, for a couple of reasons.
First, in the dualized fields, you’re putting in a lot more risk. Sometimes this risk is handled well. For example, in medicine, most pre-med students don’t make it to doctor, but the bottleneck is early – acceptance to medical school. That means they fail fast and can start making alternate career plans. All they’ve lost is whatever time they put into taking pre-med classes in college. In Britain and Ireland, the system’s even better – you apply to med school right out of high school, so if you don’t get in you’ve got your whole college career to pivot to a focus on English or Engineering or whatever. But other fields handle this risk less well. For example, as I understand Law, you go to law school, and if all goes well a big firm offers to hire you around the time you graduate. If no big firm offers to hire you, your options are more limited. Problem is, you’ve sunk three years of your life and a lot of debt into learning that you’re not wanted. So the cost of dualization is littering the streets with the corpses of people who invested a lot of their resources into trying for the higher tier but never made it.
Second, dualized fields offer an inherent opportunity for oppression. We all know the stories of the adjunct professors shuttling between two or three colleges and barely making it on food stamps despite being very intelligent people who ought to be making it into high-paying industries. Likewise, medical residents can be worked 80 hour weeks, and I’ve heard that beginning lawyers have it little better. Because your entire career is concentrated on the hope of making it into the higher-tier, and the idea of not making it into the higher tier is too horrible to contemplate, and your superiors control whether you will make it into the higher tier or not, you will do whatever the heck your superiors say. A computer programmer who was asked to work 80 hour weeks could just say “thanks but no thanks” and find another company with saner policies.
(except in startups, but those bear a lot of the hallmarks of a dualized field with binary outcomes, including the promise of massive wealth for success)
Third, dualized fields are a lot more likely to become politicized. The limited high-tier positions are seen as spoils to be distributed, in contrast to the non-dual fields where good jobs are seen as opportunities to attract the most useful and skilled people. This reminds me of the other article I read today comparing academia to drug gangs, which was where Paul Krugman theorized that the reason so many criminals have horrible tattoos in inappropriate places is as a conspicuous symbol of criminality! He says that since these people’s tattoos mean they can never get a job in legitimate industry, other gang members and black market contacts can trust them to keep their bargains, since they’ve got no option under than continuing to work in the criminal underworld. Krugman writes (h/t Nathaniel Bechhofer):
The author, Diego Gambetta, adds a wonderful parallel: according to his account, Italian academics, who do a lot of horse-trading in appointments etc., cultivate a reputation for incompetence at actual research, again designed to reassure those with whom one deals.
“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else. In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity. In the Italian academic world, the kakistrocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”
(wait, this argument sounds kind of familiar. KRUGMAN, HAVE THEY GOTTEN TO YOU TOO?!)
What dualizes some fields but not others?
Originally I was going to make a simplistic comment about licensing and regulation, but this doesn’t exactly capture it. Certainly the fact that medicine requires an MD has some effect on the dualization of medicine (alternatively, insofar as medicine isn’t entirely dualized, it’s because you can get less lucrative positions, like naturopath or therapist or nurse practitioner, without an MD). But we can imagine a system in which there were more than enough medical schools for everyone, anyone who applied to one got in, there was a glut of doctors, and the good doctors got good jobs and the less good doctors got less good jobs. So we might more soberly blame it on scarce licenses – for complicated reasons I won’t get into here, the number of residency spots is much lower than it should be, leading to a bottleneck where only a few people can obtain the MDs.
What about tenure? We can imagine an alternate universe where academia is populated with various PhDs on equal footing. Since there would be a glut, their salaries would be very low to start, but low salaries would mean easy employment, and colleges would find a lot of room for them to do one-on-one tutoring, or low-level research, or something like that. Eventually some of them would become a bit more prestigious in their fields and could demand higher salaries from hiring institutions, and a few superstars like Nobel Prize winners and the like could demand millions. At no point would there ever be anything called a “tenure track”. It seems like the main difference between this universe and our own is that tradition plus the reasonable desire of professors to be free from political interference has created this dichotomous variable called “tenure” and caused it to replace the continuous variable of salary as the prize for success. In favor of that theory, top professors seem weirdly underpaid compared to eg top athletes or top artists, even though I would expect having one of the world’s top scientists or historians to be a big draw for a school. According to the List Of Highest Paid Professors, only five professors in the US make more than a million dollars a year, and all of those are professors of lucrative medical subspecialties or of finance, who presumably are being paid that much to compensate them for teaching instead of participating in the high-paying professions they are otherwise qualified for.
What about drug dealers? I think there might be “licensing” at work here too. There’s no such thing as a mid-level independent drug dealer, because – if the three seasons I’ve watched of Breaking Bad are accurate – if you try this, the other drug dealers will shoot you. So you need a scarce “license” from the drug lords – basically El Chapo giving you the rights to a big piece of “turf” – instead of a license from the government. Whatever; I’m liberal Monday Wednesday Friday and libertarian Tuesdays and Thursdays; today is a Tuesday so all organizations that rely upon the use of force look the same to me.
But what about lawyers? Sure, there are regulations on who can practice, but the dualization in the legal fields comes after graduation of law school. Here, have some statistics:
The first step of what’s going on isn’t a mystery – the people on the very sharp mountain on the right are hired by big law firms on the “partner track” (note the similarity to “tenure-track”) and the people in the more gradual plateau on the left are everyone else. But there’s still a lot to be explained. Why isn’t there a law firm that hires people almost as good as the people on the mountain, for $100,000? This article suggests that “Not paying the standard top-tier salary [of $160,000] is a tacit admission that you’re no longer top-tier”, but you could say that about any industry where quality isn’t 100% obvious. How come chefs don’t have a salary graph that looks like that? How come engineers don’t?
It seems possible that maybe top law firms act as a de facto licensing system – picking out a couple of excellent young law school grads as Officially Excellent, and then if you’re a sufficiently big corporation you refuse to use any except those? But once again, I don’t know why law would develop this structure and other professions wouldn’t.
So if I had to figure out what all of these have in common, it would be an idea of privilege. Some people get guaranteed an unexpected privilege over and above the continuous measure of salary. The people who have to subsidize this privilege resent it and try to limit access to it. People start competing for scarce access to the privilege instead of having normal competitions for salaries, benefits, working conditions, et cetera, and all of those other things go out the window.
This is interesting because of how well it maps on to some other issues. For example, minimum wage creates a dualized system between workers and the unemployed. If there were no minimum wage, we would expect a sort-of-continuous wage distribution from 0.01$ an hour all the way up to whatever Taylor Swift makes for an hour’s performance. Instead, we guarantee everyone the privilege of $15 per hour. Employers resent this and (in theory) try to limit access to the privilege by lowering workforce, automating, etc, as much as possible. This creates a dualized system with an upper tier (employees with high wages) and a lower tier (unemployed with nothing at all).
Or how about benefits? If there were no benefits, we’d expect a more continuous spectrum of people working 40 hour weeks, 30 hour weeks, 20 hour weeks, and so on. Instead, we guarantee everyone who works X hours the privilege of good health care. Employers resent this and try to limit access to the privilege by hiring people to work X – 1 hours per week, or hiring independent contractors, or so on. This creates a dualized system with an upper tier (real employees) and a lower tier (people working 29.999 hours a week or whatever who don’t quite qualify for the benefits).
If you really want to stretch it, think about urban growth. If there was no zoning or regulation, desirable cities would have a continuous distribution from rich people living in nice mansions with lots of surrounding green land to poor people in apartment projects. Instead, we guarantee people living there certain privileges like “never having their view blocked” and “never having to worry about congestion”. This creates a two-tier system of current residents with the privileges, and non-residents who can’t live in desirable cities at all.
This raises a question of – assuming we want to give people privileges – or assuming we’re political realists who understand it’s going to happen anyway – are there ways to do it with a minimum of dualizing? It seems possible to imagine some solutions along those lines – for example, instead of mandating full health care for people who work more than 30 hours per week, we could seek systems where companies give health benefits that scale up with the number of hours worked. Instead of giving tenure, we seek systems where it becomes progressively harder to fire academics the longer they’ve worked for you.
Other cases seem harder – you can’t give half of a medical license to a doctor who finishes two years of med school, and the idea of a half a minimum wage defeats the whole point.