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Is It “Irrational” for People to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities (Or Even in the Sciences)

[ 211 ] August 28, 2016 |

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No, no it is not. After all, the job market for college graduates except for a very few fields is pretty terrible everywhere, at least in something having to do with the field of choice. What, are they supposed to go to law school? Go become teachers and be attacked by politicians? I guess they could drive for Uber! What a future!

But we have a national narrative that the humanities are worthless and that people are “irrational” for getting a Ph.D. in those fields. Aaron Hanlon in the L.A. Review of Books:

In a fascinating way, the NSF data challenges a long-standing narrative about job opportunities by field of study. We’re used to thinking of — more accurately, maligning — humanities students as idealistic, unsystematic dreamers prone to “Peter Pan syndrome,” irrationality, and reality avoidance. Humanities PhDs struggling to find sustainable employment don’t garner much societal sympathy, largely because it’s considered axiomatic that a person with a humanities PhD has no business thinking she possesses economic value. But when the scientists and engineers — the ones confirmation bias demands we view as rational and pragmatic — are caught in a rough job market flirting with something that looks like quixotic delusion, we’re forced to rethink our assumptions. Once it appears that it’s not just humanities students making unadvisable career choices, it suddenly becomes more difficult to victim-blame unemployed doctors (of philosophy) as a whole.

Indeed, when it comes to explaining the seeming contradiction of increases in earned doctorates alongside diminishing job prospects for PhDs, we’re still wedded to the irrationality narrative we’ve unfoundedly ascribed to humanities PhDs. This is the case even though 75 percent of earned doctorates in 2014 were awarded in science and engineering.

The irrationality narrative has accompanied even some of the best analyses of PhD job prospects. As a follow-up on an earlier attempt to explain why people keep pursuing humanities PhDs, Jordan Weissmann provided a telling compilation of Atlantic readers’ responses in 2013. Weissmann’s own conclusions include, per the familiar narrative, the idea that “arts and humanities students aren’t necessarily the most career-minded or pragmatic individuals,” and PhD seekers “aren’t aware of how much debt they might take on in the process of earning their Ph.D.”; readers responded along similar lines. In fact, of the 11 categories Weissmann’s roundup uses to organize reader responses, three deal with suggestions about asymmetric information (people do PhDs based on some form of ignorance or misunderstanding), three deal with suggestions about student irrationality (people do PhDs because love of subject, or of being a top student, blinds them to harsh economic realities), and two are corrective points of information that don’t offer a theory.

If we compare the tenor of Weissmann’s findings in 2013 with that of Laura McKenna’s 2016 Atlantic piece on “The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s,” we see a common premise in spite of the new data: there must be something lacking or irrational about the choice to pursue a PhD. McKenna’s concluding set of questions, simultaneously genuine and rhetorical, suggests as much:

Why hasn’t all this [employment] information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors — why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary […] ? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside the university?

The problem is not people getting a Ph.D., whether in English or Chemistry. The problem is not that schools are producing too many graduates. The problem is that we are engaging in a national disinvestment in valuing the graduate degree and thus there aren’t jobs.

We’ve presupposed a scenario in which there really is a massive oversupply of PhDs, and thus PhD students must be irrational for treading into an oversupplied labor market. But that’s simply not true. PhD “oversupply” is just a euphemistic way of talking about the fact that colleges and universities haven’t met student-generated demand with a commensurate supply of full-time, tenure-track faculty. Instead, we’ve rendered the majority of faculty contingent, increased administrators and administrative staff by 85 and 240 percent, respectively, over the past 40 years, and created a massive holding pen of temporary postdoctoral positions in STEM. If we look outside of academia for good measure, we see similar evidence of increased dependency on contingent labor, decades of stagnant wages, and no increase in leisure time to accompany increases in economic productivity. In this light it becomes harder to claim that PhD students are especially irrational or shortsighted, since so much of the broader US workforce is facing similar problems.

So why do people pursue PhDs despite grim job prospects? For one, because job prospects elsewhere haven’t been great either. Though PhDs are a skewed sample for all kinds of reasons, they also have a lower unemployment rate than master’s, bachelor’s, associate’s, and high school diploma holders. Accepting the five to seven years of employment and insurance benefits that come with a PhD is hardly an easy decision, but in light of deteriorating stability in nonacademic jobs, and the low unemployment rates of PhD holders, it’s hardly an irrational one either. In fact, it’s reasonable to think that a society continually touting the value of STEM research, a college education, and the “knowledge economy” does value PhDs. It would be irrational to think otherwise.

Perhaps the most compelling reason one pursues a PhD, however, is what it means beyond the immediately commodifiable. When we say it’s irrational — and worthy of ridicule — to pursue any kind of education that doesn’t maximize earnings, we’re effectively pathologizing healthy desires to learn and teach, and to pursue a course of research with long-term benefits. In fact, prestigious funding schemes like the MacArthur Fellowship offer no-strings-attached funding precisely because they get better results by untethering fellows from immediate financial pressures. This is also the idea behind no-strings and open-access funding developments in biomedical science: if you want results, you have to think long-term in ways that markets don’t always support. The PhD is hard work, typically with day-to-day teaching, grading, or lab responsibilities, but it’s also a rare opportunity to pursue research that you care about but the market doesn’t, all while keeping the lights on.

Instead of hiring people with a Ph.D. as a tenure-track professors, colleges and universities instead have to build some new buildings, provide some ever fancier dorms, and most importantly, take the money for themselves to their escalating salaries, perks, and new administrator positions.

It’s completely fine to get a Ph.D., although at this point one should understand that a) you should never go to a program without a good funding package and b) you aren’t going to get an academic job at the end of it unless you are very, very lucky. But there also needs to be pressure for universities to invest in hiring these people, including in the humanities. But the managerial MBA class that runs the universities and especially the Board of Trustees has no interest in this.

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The Near Future

[ 65 ] August 28, 2016 |

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It’s not like you needed any reminder that hard-core Republican obstructionism that has stopped any progressive legislation from being passed since 2009 is going to change one iota once Hillary Clinton takes office. But here’s a reminder anyway. And it’s not even about Clinton Derangement Syndrome. Could have been Joe Biden or Tim Kaine taking the Oval Office. The tactics wouldn’t change. It’s all obstruction, all the time.

Also, this article talks about Hillary Clinton being elected and having a “Grover Cleveland moment.” Have fun with that one. Maybe she can send in the Army to bust the Pullman Strike all over again.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 46

[ 21 ] August 28, 2016 |

This is the grave of Timothy Dwight.

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Timothy Dwight IV was born in 1752 in Northampton, Massachusetts. His family already had deep ties to Yale and not only was it inevitable that young Timmy would go there, but that he would become a leader in the institution. His mother was the daughter of Jonathan Edwards after all. He graduated from Yale in 1769 and became a minister. In 1777, he was appointed the chaplain for the Connecticut Continental Brigade, fighting for American independence. He gave many sermons about American nationalism and became a rising star in the ministerial world. He became president of Yale in 1795, where he served until his death in 1817. While there, he was known for his doctrinal and political conservatism and his hatred of anything having to do with the French Revolution. He turned Yale sharply to the right after he took over an institution in 1795 where students openly admired Voltaire and made it one of the most conservative colleges in the United States. He railed in speeches against Yale students being attracted to the twin doctrines of Jacobinism and atheism, which were connected in his head. He led the fight against the separation of church and state in Connecticut and was the head of the state’s Federalist Party. Of electing Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Dwight said “Is in an infidel? Then you cannot elect him without betraying our Lord.” In response, Jeffersonian papers said, “Connecticut is more under the administration of a pope than Italy.” Dwight died of prostate cancer in 1817, still president of Yale.

Timothy Dwight is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut

Supply Chains in Burma

[ 41 ] August 27, 2016 |

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H&M can say that it’s outraged by finding out its clothes are made by 14 year olds in Burma all it wants to. But when H&M decides to contract out with clothing manufacturers in Burma, it’s doing so knowing damn well that there is basically no labor oversight in that country and that children are going to be doing much of the work. Given that child labor has been the open goal of the textile industry for over 200 years and that the labor conditions of nations like Burma, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh are well known, H&M has no space to claim ignorance or outrage. Or they do have space to claim it because avoiding claims of responsibility and day-to-day control over things like working conditions (not cost or on-time delivery of course) is the central point of the textile supply chain. H&M cares about one thing–cost. So long as they get the clothes for very cheap, the executives are happy. Now, a story like this coming out might spawn some sort of concern precisely because it threatens profit if consumers are turned off, but it’s not like these executives give two whits whether Burmese girls live or die. H&M absolutely could do plenty about this. It could agree to international inspections, binding fines for violations paid by the company, etc. But at least from what I can tell, it is not agreeing to any of this. Nonetheless, American companies are significantly worse and openly callous. The European social climate demands a little more of their corporations on issues like this so there’s a little more hope here than there is for Walmart or Target, who flat out don’t care.

Volkswagen and Its Supply Chains

[ 65 ] August 27, 2016 |

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Supply chains exist so that corporations can acquire necessary materials without holding any responsibility over conditions of labor, environmental management, logistical headaches, or anything else. They exist to protect the parent company from liability. So it’s hardly surprising that Volkswagen would respond to the discovery of their vast mendacious conspiracy to avoid American emission law by trying to push costs down the supply chain. Because VW doesn’t want to lose profit, it’s seeking to limit costs down the line. But there is a limit to how much this can happen. In order to reduce costs, VW and other companies have already often reduced their suppliers of products to one. So when a company that makes car seats and transmission parts for VW told them to jump in a lake, VW had to halt production entirely in some of its German plants, which no doubt will cost the company even more money. Couldn’t happen to a nicer company.

Will Hillary Clinton Listen to Progressives?

[ 187 ] August 27, 2016 |
Bernie Sanders, left, speaks with Hillary Clinton during a break at a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Bernie Sanders, left, speaks with Hillary Clinton during a break at a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

As Daniel Marans points out, while a lot of rank and file Bernie Sanders supporters think of Hillary Clinton as the Hildebeest rubbing her hands together to start coups in various Latin American nations while lighting cigars with money donating from Wall Street cronies, veteran liberal insiders are optimistic that a Clinton administration will be quite progressive.

Other observers ask a separate, but related question: If Clinton is courting Mitt Romney voters, neoconservative thought leaders and Bernie Sanders supporters alike, whose core interests will she fight for once in office? She cannot please all of them at once, and with progressives lacking an alternative in the two-party system, she is more likely to view their priorities as expendable, the theory goes.

Progressive optimists respond by noting that Clinton has not actually compromised her domestic policy platform to appeal to these “swing” voters. She still supports expanding Social Security, a public health insurance option, debt-free college and raising the federal minimum wage to at least $12. Most crucially of all, Clinton’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive trade accord negotiated by President Barack Obama, has only grown stronger over time. She now promises to oppose it before the election, after the election ― a tacit reference to the lame-duck session of Congress ― and as president.

The Democratic nominee is not coy about mentioning these plans on the campaign trail. Clinton put them at the center of her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in July, as well as in a key economic policy address in Michigan last week.

Even if she doesn’t believe in progressive policies, she isn’t going to want to cross the Democratic Senate caucus of 2017, a very different world from the Democratic Senate caucus of 1997.

Warren was also not yet a senator when Obama took office, depriving her of the platform in the media that she has used so effectively. One can easily imagine Warren, a higher-profile Sanders and allies like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) taking their case to cable TV if a Clinton appointment is not to their liking.

“Clinton does not want to see multiple Antonio Weiss-style fights,” a senior aide to a progressive House Democrat said, referring to an Obama nominee for a top Treasury post. Weiss withdrew himself from consideration after Warren launched a public campaign against him.

As a banker, Weiss had worked at a firm that specialized in tax inversion, a technicality through which companies reincorporate overseas to avoid U.S. corporate taxes. (Obama has since named Weiss to a role that did not require Senate confirmation, where he supervises White House policy for the Puerto Rican debt crisis.)

A key test for Clinton will be whether she re-nominates to the Supreme Court Merrick Garland, Obama’s centrist nominee who is stuck in limbo due to Republicans’ refusal to grant him nomination hearings.

The aide to a progressive house Democrat said Clinton is “even cool on Senate Democrats’ push to get her to renominate Garland,” indicating she is acutely aware of progressive trepidation about Garland.

Obviously, a Clinton administration is going to be very good for progressives in some ways. And it’s going to be disappointing in others. Sometimes it might be infuriating. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The primary reason the Bill Clinton years were generally bad was that Democrats in Congress and the general public as well were far to the right of where they are today. Today, as was very much not the case 20 years ago, there is an active left-wing of Congress and there is an active and growing left wing in the general public. Had Sanders not put up such a strong challenge to her, I don’t think Hillary Clinton would realize this easily and there would be some Weiss-style fights in 2017. But now she’s quite cognizant of the left. So are her advisors. This is one of the many good things that will come from the Sanders campaign.

Nat Turner

[ 150 ] August 27, 2016 |

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We recently passed the anniversary of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion. And we should remember it and celebrate the bravery of Turner and his followers to fight back against the horrors of slavery.* However, not to be overly pedantic, but the idea, as this piece in Time suggests, that we should take Nat Turner’s “confession” to a white man as literal or even anything close to truth, is highly questionable. We actually have no solid evidence that what was written down was anything Turner said or even really if even represented Turner’s thoughts. The individual who published it was a slaveholder named Thomas Gray. As was common in the southern elite class, Gray had a lot of debt and needed cash. He may well have fabricated all of it in order to pander to southerners freaking out about Haiti coming to Virginia. I’m surprised Time didn’t at least note this. It’s not super helpful to simply repeat lines from the Confession as the true words of Turner without noting that they may well not be.

*And please no one say that Turner and his followers were bad people for killing future slaveholding white children. As if we have the right to judge slaves for fighting for their freedom because they didn’t do it in a way to gain the approval of 21st century white liberals.

Today in the Stadium Scam

[ 76 ] August 26, 2016 |

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The Raiders want to move to Las Vegas. They are their partners, i.e., the always lovely Sheldon Adelson, are demanding the city pay a mere $750 million for the stadium, a number that will no doubt increase once the inevitable cost overruns take place. Adelson’s lackey says this $750 million is a non-negotiable number.

The Raiders and Sheldon Adelson: a match made in Hell. Where in fact Al Davis is still pulling the strings over this whole deal.

Anti-Union Universities

[ 20 ] August 26, 2016 |

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There’s a forum at N+1 about yesterday’s NLRB decision overturning the Brown decision and granting graduate students at private universities collective bargaining rights. Want to point you to the contribution by Gabriel Winant and Alyssa Battistoni. Universities use the same arguments against unions as any other employer, plus simply claiming that graduate students aren’t workers.

The crux of the 2004 Brown decision had been that the relationship of graduate students to the university was primarily educational, and as a result did not fall under the purview of legislation designed to govern economic relationships. What a line to draw—how could anyone who works at a university fail to cross it? In overturning Brown, the Columbia decision states plainly what we’ve argued all along: “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer.” The decision similarly demolishes, with reference to empirical evidence, familiar arguments that a union of graduate employees would worsen the quality of education, suck up inordinate amounts of valuable time and resources, or pose a threat to the continued functioning of the university. In other words, Columbia rejects the idea that academia is a uniquely un-unionizable industry (an idea that many employers have of their own industries: Target, for example, warns workers that “ if the unions did try to organize our team members, chances are they would change our fast, fun, and friendly culture”).

Pretense prevails among those who run the institutions. Deans often feign surprise at graduate student complaints, and claim not to notice the thousands petitioning them every semester. With impressive sophistry, administrators manage to argue that unions would at once destroy academic life and fail to accomplish anything. Columbia’s administration, for example, both warns that the union could break the budget (“all schools may have to make difficult decisions to reflect these new fixed costs”) and cause wages to fall (“Stipend levels, remuneration, and benefits may change; there is no guarantee that they will increase”). The message they’re sending is that change is impossible—that there’s no way to make your voice heard.

To us, then, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the NLRB decision is its explicit recognition of our years of organizing outside the protection of the law, and its argument that this work in itself is admissible testimony for change. Unlike our deans, the federal government has heard our speeches and petitions, and listened to us as adult citizens capable of advocating for ourselves:

It is worth noting that student assistants, in the absence of access to the [National Labor Relations] Act’s representation procedures and in the face of rising financial pressures, have been said to be “fervently lobbying their respective schools for better benefits and increased representation.” The eagerness of at least some student assistants to engage in bargaining suggests that the traditional model of relations between university and student assistants is insufficiently responsive to student assistants’ needs.

When your employer insists that none of your actions matter, it is gratifying to learn that, through years of struggle—sometimes bitter, often seeming fruitless—you have moved the gears of the federal bureaucracy.

Really, this is a hugely important decision for academic labor.

When Will Canada Solve Its Immigration Problem?

[ 44 ] August 26, 2016 |

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Sounds like Canada needs to build a big wall to protect itself from these scary migrants who are probably bringing crime to the northern paradise, not to mention stealing Canadian jobs and probably sleeping with their women.

An estimated 1,500 Americans illegally and unexpectedly washed up in Canada late Sunday after strong winds blew them across the St. Clair River near Sarnia, Ont.

They were participating in the annual Port Huron Float Down, during which people simply float down the river on rafts, inner tubes and other flotation devices from Port Huron, Mich.

High winds pushed them to a number of points along the Canadian shore. They had to be rescued by Sarnia police, the OPP, the Canadian Coast Guard, Canada Border Service Agency and employees from a nearby chemical company Lanxess Canada.

In the Canadian Coast Guard video below, you can hear thankful Americans praising Canada for its rescue efforts.

Hopefully Canada places these migrants in long-term detention before sending them back to their terrible lives in their home country.

Brilliant Political Analysis from Brilliant People

[ 90 ] August 26, 2016 |

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Above: John Kasich

In a great find, the Hoover Institute blog put up Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s (then Fitzpatrick) 1997 prognostications about Gen-X voters in the 2000 election. This is great stuff.

I would say that Al Gore has little appeal among Generation Xers for the simple reason that Xers eschew hypocrisy. The irony for Al Gore is that his running mate, Bill Clinton, had considerable appeal among young people. But that reservoir of goodwill and “coolness,” if you will, does not automatically get bequeathed to the second banana. You’ve got to earn that on your own, and Al Gore has not. Young people are uncomfortable with him–he’s the uncle who buys them subscriptions to Field & Stream for Christmas and makes them sit up straight at the dinner table. Bill Clinton got them their first girl and their first beer. So Xers identify with Al Gore very differently.

Bill Clinton got me laid. Al Gore talks to me about the outdoors. LAME!!!

Among other potential Democrats, I imagine that someone like Bill Bradley may have some appeal among younger voters because he’s a national celebrity and established figure outside politics. He’s a Rhodes scholar and a basketball star, and so he can make a credible case for being a capital I Independent. I think that as time marches on, though, Evan Bayh, the current governor of Indiana, will be the Democrat to look out for in terms of appeal.

If there’s one thing we know about 2000, it’s that the kids flew to Bill Bradley’s campaign of zero charisma. But Evan Bayh, well, that’s a man for the youngs!

But the real good stuff is about the Republicans.

Among the Republicans, Dan Quayle has potential with young people. He’s young, he’s got a handsome young family. But it’s more than that. He talks about the kind of core, commonsense values that appeal to Generation Xers, the kind that its grandparents–the silent generation–grew up with. For obvious reasons, Xers have more respect for their grandparents than they do for their parents, and a candidate like Dan Quayle can really speak to them on a level that resonates with them.

For obvious reasons, the kids hate their hippie parents and want guidance from Strong Leaders like The GREATEST GENERATION OF ALL TIME!!! And therefore, they only have one option–Mr. Dan Quayle, already long since discredited as a national joke.

And now the punchline:

As for other Republicans who appeal to young people, look out for John Kasich. He’s forty-three or forty-four, chairman of the Budget Committee, newly married, takes his staff to Oasis concerts, and knows his way around the hip vernacular.

Well, Oasis, Jesus we might as well be electing a hipster to the White House! And John Kasich has truly maintained his youthful exuberance and appeal to young people all the way to 2016.

In conclusion, The Aristocrats!

What Should Be Done To Protect Renters in Expensive Cities?

[ 128 ] August 26, 2016 |

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Since for at least some of you, evidently rent control is the greatest evil in human history, I am wondering what should be done to protect renters?

More than three dozen New York officials stepped into a high-profile court battle over rent stabilization yesterday, filing a brief on behalf of tenants who have sued their Lower Manhattan landlord, claiming they were denied rent caps that should have been guaranteed under a state tax program.

The fight between residents of 90 West Street and developer Kibel Companies, which ProPublica first chronicled in a story published in May, could determine the legality of two decades of rent increases in more than a dozen downtown high rises.

Developers received hefty tax breaks for converting these former office buildings into luxury rentals under an obscure program known as 421-g. In exchange, they were supposed to provide tenants with leases that limited yearly rent increases to levels set by the city. In practice, they often haven’t, maintaining that units renting for more than a certain amount (now 2,700 dollars) were not subject to rent stabilization.

The amicus brief filed late Thursday afternoon by New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, twelve state senators, twelve assembly members, and thirteen city council members, all Democrats, accuses Kibel of claiming a “windfall grant of tax abatements…in exchange for nothing at all.”

Officials said they decided to wade into the case, in part, to demand stronger oversight of an array of programs that swap tax benefits for rent limits, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of units citywide. Preserving rent-stabilized units has become an increasingly hot political issue, with many local leaders calling for Mayor Bill de Blasio to do more to expand lower-cost housing options.

“The deal behind 421-g was clear—tax breaks for housing in lower Manhattan must include more affordable housing,” State Sen. Daniel Squadron, who represents the neighborhood, said in a statement. “It is not acceptable to shortchange the tenants or the community.”

I am not saying rent control is the only answer. But I do think it can and should be part of the answer. Not having rent control certainly isn’t working. And those who oppose it have no program to fix these problems. Just saying “build more housing units” doesn’t work well in many cities, where foreign billionaires are buying up whole floors of the luxury apartment complexes arising in New York, Seattle, Vancouver, and other cities. Of course, we do need a lot more housing units. But if you are a developer and you have control over what kind of housing unit you build, why not go for the profit on the high-end? Obviously that’s what you are going to do. Far more mandates are needed on rent control and the types of housing that are built. Unfortunately, we do not have that and whole cities are becoming completely unlivable for the working-class, or even the upper middle-class in the cases of New York and Vancouver. And that’s simply not sustainable in any way.

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