Saturday, February 09, 2013

Too many PhDs?

Here's the thing... I'm about 50 years old, I'm an undergraduate in college, and I want to get a Ph.D.

I'm also a communist. If you told me that the entire capitalist ruling class had decided to Go Galt and move to Mars, I'd be thrilled... and not in the least bit worried. As long as it's reasonably democratic, I have no problem per se with the government exercising control of economic activities.

I'm also an economist (in training). Capitalist or communist, we have to make trade-offs. I always try to think, "What will this cost?" Not in money, but what real stuff do we have to give up to get something else.

I also really like Mike the Mad Biologist, and I think his work is generally of excellent quality.

So I sighed when I read this article: The Overproduction of PhDs and the NIH’s Failure of Governance. In this article, Mike observes that there is an "overproduction" of Health Science Ph.D.s, which is driving down wages, eroding job security, and worsening working conditions. According to Mike, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has both the power and the responsibility to correct this situation.

I'm a worker. I'm going to be one of that surplus of PhDs (In political science, not Health Sciences, but the problem goes all through academia). I'm a communist. But there is one thing I've learned from capitalist economics that I am firmly convinced of: restricting the supply of anything is the worst possible way to protect the working class. Restricting the supply of people in some profession, especially the high capital professions such as medicine, law, and academia, is not a way to protect the working class. It is, instead, almost always a way to keep the members of some profession privileged above the working class.

Capitalist economists say they don't like quotas, and they're right. Quotas always have negative overall economic effects, and their positive effects are limited to privileging one class of producer to obtaining economic rent.* Even if we have good social reasons to allocate economic rent to some class of producers, implementing a quota on production is the most ineffective way to give rent to those producers. There are two social reasons to intervene in the market determination of the quantity of anything: either we want more of it or less of it, but the market cannot hit that social target because of physical or game-theoretic externalities. It is far more effective, however, to use subsidies, taxes, or penalties. The problem is most obvious when we want more of something: using a quota to drive rents to the producers does not cause an increase in production because we have, ya know, placed a quota, an artificial limit, on production.

*If you want a wonky micro explanation of how this works, feel free to ask.

A quota on academics would, by definition, restrict the number of academics, which is contrary to our social goal of improving human capital and increasing scientific research. Furthermore, when you have a quota, money, not merit, becomes increasingly important in deciding who gets in and who is excluded. If we say we want to graduate only 1,000* PhDs per year instead of 10,000, then the 1,000 will be chosen not on the basis of who will most effectively advance science (even if we could predict that, and I don't think we can), but on the basis of who can generate the most profit for whoever maintains the quota. The trade-off of a quota is we assign privilege and rent to a subset of the producers, and we give up expanding production. This a trade-off that (outside of quotas for the capitalist class itself) that capitalists themselves do not want to make, so academia is moving towards a superstar system, which still privileges a few but does not restrict the industry overall.

More importantly, communists should also reject a quota system. All a quota system does is assign privilege to some producers while retarding the social goal of increasing production.* Instead, if communists** see that more people want to join academia than can productively join academia, then we have to look at the real trade-off: what do we give up by having those people become academics instead of doing something else? Having people do the work they want to do is a primary social goal of communism; it counts directly on the benefit side of the benefit-minus-cost equation. So we add (a) the benefit of people doing the work they want and (b) the product of that work, and we subtract (a) that these people are not producing something else and (b) the capital they need to do their work is not employed to produce something else. We capitalize the occupation until the marginal benefit equals the marginal cost.

*In a transitional communist economy, a.k.a. Lenin's "socialist" economy
**It bears repeating that if the social goal is to retard production, then taxation is vastly more efficient.

It's also extremely important to understand that in a transitional communist economy, wages will be relatively lower for occupations that a lot of people "naturally" want to pursue, and relatively higher for occupations that few people "naturally" want to pursue. If you want to make a lot of money in a communist system, you do not seek out high status, high prestige occupations: it is precisely because those occupations have high status and prestige that a lot of people naturally want to do them. Instead, if you want to make a lot of money, take the dirty, dangerous, uncomfortable, and difficult jobs. If you want to sit in an air-conditioned office, read papers, have a lot of 18- to 23-year-olds call you "Professor," and see your name in print, you're not going to make a lot of money. If you want to make money, go clean the sewers.

One of the reasons I don't like to call myself a "socialist" is that too many people who do call themselves socialists seem to take the capitalist paradigm and institutions for granted, and look for narrow solutions to narrow problems withing that paradigm. Low-level workers unable to make rent? Increase the minimum wage by a dollar. Too many PhDs, MDs, DDSs, JDs? Close a few graduate departments, medical schools, dental schools, and law schools and keep these privileged classes privileged. But these soi disant socialists are just squeezing the balloon. All too often the pressures of the capitalist system prevent any solution (and the pressures of capitalism are going to inevitably erode the economic privilege of academics). Even if they do actually fix one problem, and the pressures of the capitalist system itself move to something else. Improve manufacturing workers' wages? Service workers' wages go down: the profit, the surplus labor, has to come from somewhere. I categorically reject these kinds of reforms, the kinds that improve the condition of some workers at the expense of others.* Thus I call myself a communist: I want a revolution that improves the condition of all workers.

*There are some reforms, such as eliminating the exclusion of women, people of color, queer people, differently-abled people, etc. from the privileged classes of capitalism, that are important enough to overcome the theoretical objection that these benefits will come at the expense of of privileged straight white Protestant men. My only argument here is that diversity in the capitalist ruling class is an laudable first step, but I would go farther and eliminate all privilege.

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