Monday, December 13, 2004

An Economic Analysis of Academia

Via Instapundit. Neat essay. Here's a taste:
Economic theory suggests that if you want to work in the occupation that offers the greatest social good, then you should listen to the market. The market will tell you how to maximize your social value relative to your opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is what you have to give up in order to take on a particular occupation. If you are a gifted person, then the opportunity cost of taking a job as a Walmart stock clerk would be high. For less gifted individuals, the opportunity cost of taking such a job would be low.

Many professors speak as if the opportunity cost of working in academia is a high-paying job in the private sector. However, talent is not quite so interchangeable. It is not just that there are very few CEO's who could do high-caliber scholarly work in chemistry or linguistics. There are equally few academics who could function as CEO's.


To get ahead in almost any field, you have to impress people. However, outside of academia, in addition to peer evaluations one usually finds other metrics. For example, if you are in sales, then your volume figures say something regardless of what others think of your skills. If you are a project manager, then completing a demanding task on time and within budget provides evidence apart from what someone else's subjective opinion might be.

The most successful academics bring both ability and desire to the ego game. The ability to impress intellectually demanding colleagues is respectable. However, the intense desire to play the ego game is not so attractive. It leads you to divide the world into those who can affect your position on the ego ladder vs. those who are irrelevant. What would be considered narrow-minded snobbery elsewhere becomes a survival skill in academics.

In an environment where the esteem of peers is such a crucial variable, the pressures for conformity are likely to be strong. You are better off indicating a sophisticated wine palette than an enjoyment of fast food, just as you are better off indicating contempt for conservatives and Republicans than showing support for George Bush.

What the ego game teaches you is that it is ok to dismiss most people's opinions as irrelevant. Your personal career depends entirely on the judgment of a relatively small set of peers. Since no one else matters for your personal standing, it is easy to slip into thinking that no one outside your academic pecking order has anything valuable to say on any subject whatsoever.

Moreover, for a big winner of the ego game, it comes as a rude shock to discover people who do not automatically defer to the professor's expertise. The politician or businessman, who is a "nobody" in the academic's scheme of things, actually has the nerve to speak to the professor as an equal! What impertinence! The evil, anti-intellectual rubes!

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