The funny thing about this Megan McArdle essay arguing that all of us spoiled academics should stop trying to be professors and get real jobs is that Megan McArdle lives a more profoundly professorial life than most professors I know, and wouldn’t occupy what she thinks of as a real job at gunpoint. But allow me to explain.
McArdle writes at length about the recent Rebecca Schuman-Tenure Radical-The Professor Is In-etc. contretemps that I’ve written recently about lately. All you really need to read is the headline, though– get a real job, you layabouts! (A real job like, you know, Megan McArdle has, I guess.) Still, I’m glad McArdle wrote the essay because I think it’s really demonstrative of some of the things I’ve been talking about. For one thing, as I’ve warned, I think it’s indicative of the way in which inter-academic squabbles have a way of being picked up by people who would prefer just to shut the whole academy down. I’ve read McArdle for a long time, and she’s always struck me as straightforwardly anti-academic, although when I’ve made this accusation she’s insisted that she comes from a family of academics, etc., and has no personal enmity against us. I’ll take her word for it, although I’ll confess that I suspect everybody’s political motivation, at least to a degree, is really a matter of packaging social and cultural resentments in a rationalist framework. And Megan really does not seem to like the conventional image of most academics!
Now I suppose I should say first that, once again, a member of our media mistakes elite university education for education writ large, and thus badly misunderstands what life is like at the average college. Like many, McArdle asserts without evidence that tenured professors simply want to research and teach interesting graduate seminars and never want to sully their hands with the dirty work of teaching undergrads. I certainly don’t blame her individually for that; it’s a very common trope. Speaking as someone who has been around hundreds of professors in all manner of contexts and across many institutions, I’ve found this stereotype to be almost completely untrue, and in fact I’d say the median professor I’ve known loves to teach. That, of course, is anecdotal evidence that I am forced to rely on, although I guess that looks better when placed against no evidence. Anyway: I can’t prove they’re wrong to think that and nobody expects them to prove that they’re right.
More to the point, though: the large majority of college departments have no doctoral programs, so it’s weird that so many people fixate on the idea that college profs just want to teach graduate students. Most American colleges are teaching colleges. R1 schools are rare, and tenured R1 professorships are truly rare. Most tenured faculty are spending most of their working hours teaching and planning for teaching, which takes far more time than actual in-class hours. But our media is permanently incapable of understanding college as anything else than elite institutions, because that is the kind of institution that they themselves went to. As I’ve said before, there are something like 4,000 two- and four- year colleges in the United States. At most, 125 reject more than they accept. The vast majority accept essentially any students who apply. Given that only a third of adult Americans has a college degree anyway, the percentage of people who attended elite institutions is a tiny sliver of the American populace. But college is represented in our media as something like Harvard and Yale, and it probably always will be.
Another sense in which this proves some of the points I’ve been making lies in the way in which people in precarious industries make fun of the precarity of graduate students. I mean, if there’s one group that shouldn’t throw stones about job prospects, I’d say journalists applies. I still marvel at the way people throw shade at grad students while their career To Do List reads “become big-time successful writer!” McArdle waxes sympathetic for all of us saps in the academic game, pointing out that the academy is a tournament-style employment field where many take risky gambles but few succeed. She does this from her position in political punditry. I can only assume she’s aware that there’s several thousand desperate youngsters trying to be journalists and bloggers and pundits for every one spot among the elect, so I’m not sure why she doesn’t similarly indict her own profession. I mean, if I was going to decry winner-take-all lottery style employment, I likely wouldn’t do it from the vantage of writing for Bloomberg, you know what I mean? If McArdle just doesn’t think about it because she’s one of the winners, then she’s in exactly the position of the out-of-touch professors she decries.
Ah, but McArdle is not just a journalist, and therein lies the way in which she occupies the rarefied cultural and economic space she is here deriding. McArdle is a libertarian pundit, and this is a field in which her own success is far more assured. Libertarianism is a tiny, tiny portion of the American public. And given the tendency for people to claim to be libertarians but who are just conservatives who want to sound a little edgy about it– Glenn Beck springs immediately to mind– I suspect that polling even overstates their numbers.
You would never, ever know it, though, from our media. Libertarianism is disproportionately represented within elite American media to an astonishing degree. Libertarians are everywhere in magazine publishing, think tanks, cable news…. Wherever there are people getting paid to have political opinions and express them loudly, you’ll find far, far more libertarians than you will if you just take a random sample of Americans. Now in part this is a facet of the skewed demographics in media I alluded to above. The media, as I said, likes to hire people from the fancy colleges. Those fancy colleges turn out a lot more libertarians than vanilla American conservatives. In part, this is because despite the useful stereotype of American universities as left-wing indoctrination camps, lots of students at fancier schools get turned on to the work of the most influential and important libertarian thinkers, like Milton Friedman and Freddy Hayek. In part, it’s because of class differences between those who have the wherewithal to attend said fancy colleges and those who make up the bulk of American conservatism. In part, its because they smoke weed in college and like it. In any event, there’s a higher-than-average chance that a conservative graduating from the kind of elite schools our media chooses from will be a libertarian.
More importantly, though, is that there’s an awful lot of libertarian money out there. Now look, people will take this as all very rude, but I don’t mean it that way. Libertarians write important stuff all the time– about the drug war and the incarceration rate, about limitless war, about civil liberties, about the fact that if Bloomberg had another term he would have banned talking and drinking at bars next. And I don’t think it’s necessarily corrupt or unfair that there are people willing to fund a particular political platform; if there were people or companies throwing money at lefty publishing out there, I’d be all for it. But it’s simply the case that libertarianism is overrepresented in our media and politics in part because there’s so many rich groups and individuals funding it all. You can make a real living as a dedicated libertarian. See, libertarianism’s principles are really good for corporations and the rich. Corporations and the rich have the money. So they tend to give it to libertarians who will advance their (moneyed) interests. Again, there’s nothing inherently crooked about that. It just means that, if you’re an economic conservative, you’ve got a big leg up, as the world of political journalism and commentary is awash in cash. The Koch brothers are the most notorious part of this, but they’re only part of a broader reality.
Now, libertarianism has been accused of having a bit of a white dude problem. I think people tend to overplay that angle; it can become a profoundly stupid tic where you lose the ability to actually interrogate arguments. (It’s particularly noxious when it’s deployed against, say, anti-drone arguments, given the racial realities of who gets killed by drones.) But it’s the basic demographic reality of the ideology. This helps Megan, and other female libertarians, professionally. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not, in any sense, arguing that McArdle specifically or female libertarians generally are undeserving. I’m sure the advantage within the libertarian journalism world is not nearly as powerful as the disadvantage they suffer from sexism writ large. I do think, however, that in being a female libertarian in Washington, with the pedigree of a degree from a fancy school and the kind of resume other journalists envy, McArdle will probably work for life. And it will not be an unpleasant life.
The consequence of all that libertarian money floating around is the weird world of libertarian Washington DC, a culture dedicated to the hatred of government that happens to occupy the seat of American government and whose members in fact depend on that government for their livelihoods. There are particular beats libertarian writers can occupy. Anti-Obamacare is a hot one now. Low tax stuff will be a perennial winner. Anti-nanny state, anti-regulation, the usual. If you work that beat, and throw enough red meat to satisfy the people who pay for it all, you can enjoy a life– well, a life like a tenured professor. Look at the life McArdle enjoys: broad autonomy in her professional work. Ample time to think and research on whatever topics suit her current interest. Plentiful vacation time and a flexible schedule. She gets intellectual challenge and creative satisfaction. She gets to write books. All dependent on her ability to keep publishing, just like for a professor. And she doesn’t have to teach a soul.
All in all, McArdle’s life is remarkably similar to the one that she imagines tenured professors live and deluded grad students hope to. I bet there are few people who live as roundly professorial a life.
Now some would assume that I’m undermining McArdle’s claim to this life, that I don’t think she deserves it. But like all red-blooded Americans, I take a kind of theological pleasure in people getting away with something. There’s enough people squeezing into drab cubicles, hating themselves and the world as they do it, and I don’t want Megan to have to do the same. I’m just saying: she’s living the life that she criticizes others for pursuing. I suppose saying “fuck you, I got mine” is kind of the epitome of the libertarian ideal, so there’s no real contradiction there.
But stalking around behind all of this is an odd notion of value, and it’s a notion that libertarians are forever contradicting themselves on. When people discuss CEO compensation or the bounty we hand to our corporate overlords generally, the standard libertarian line is that anything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it, and there’s no such thing as a deserved salary. But when it’s some bus driver or public school teacher, suddenly, there’s such a thing as deserves, and they don’t deserve much. This is true of bloggers and journalists writ large, by the way. I am perpetually amazed at the chutzpah of people in our chattering class when they say that other people are overpaid or that other industries need to shrink. I often find myself thinking, really, dude? You get paid to write TV recaps of Crank Yankers and you think Chicago public school teachers are overpaid? For real? Anyway: maybe Megan should think about the particular elevated station she herself lives in before she identifies career delusion in others, and maybe she should consider why, exactly, she hasn’t gotten one of those “real jobs” where she would ply her time filling out TPS reports instead of making fun of people like me.
Because it’s those “real jobs” that are the real issue here. I put them in scare quotes because I assume that “real jobs” actually means bullshit jobs, the kind of white collar jobs that David Graeber correctly identifies as simultaneously the only kind to receive respect and yet the kind for which workers can show the least actual value. When people talk about real jobs, after all, that’s what they mean, jobs where you put on some shitty tie and go sit at some computer and play Snood for 6 hours with a break for lunch and maybe 45 minutes of filling out some form that nobody will ever look at. Megan thinks that the untenured of the world should go and get one of those jobs.
Well: it is funny, in a continuing unemployment depression (which is what we have, considering the actual number of jobless who would like a job, and not the uniquely useless conventional unemployment rate), to say to people “get a job!” If grad students are deluded for thinking that they will get a tenure-track job, then the people who are yelling at them are deluded for thinking that grad students can strap on their job helmet, squeeze down into a job cannon, and fire off into Jobland, where jobs grow on jobbies. It’s like when people would shout “Get a job!” at Occupy protesters, many of whom were protesting their own inability to get a job. Saying “get a job,” I guess, is like saying the Lord’s Prayer for conservatives, something you do out of habit even though you know it’s useless. I don’t mean to make this about me, but I tried to get a job for years before I went to grad school, both in Chicago and in Connecticut. I sent out hundreds of resumes to “real jobs.” The best I ever got was painting racquetball courts and subbing at the middle school I went to. That’s true for a lot of people. Saying “get a real job” to someone suffering in our economy is about as useful as a football coach saying “win the game!”
And that’s true now. What’ll happen in the future? I happen to think, in fact, that most bullshit jobs are actually really bullshit. If my own experience and the first-hand reports of essentially all of my friends and our cultural understanding of work as expressed in media are true, very, very few people are actually sweating through their whole work day. Sure, we make fun of the people at JC Penney who watched 5 million Youtube videos in one month. But I suspect that isn’t that far from the lived experience of most white collar workers, the kind of people who spend some time at work moving other people’s money around in processes they don’t understand and for purposes they don’t care about, but who spend most of their time at work endlessly checking their Match.com profile or posting kitten photos to Pinterest. I suspect, in fact, that the really scary part of the financial crisis wasn’t just that we were so exposed to the whims of the financial system, but that so many business could shed so many jobs seemingly without issue. I suspect that the white collar jobs that McArdle likely thinks of as real are in fact the most susceptible to automation, outsourcing, or at the very least, vicious pruning in numbers.
After all, McArdle’s colleague in libertarian DC, Tyler Cowen, has been predicting exactly the kind of world that McArdle sees the academy as, and criticizes for being. Cowen, who is both a tenured professor and someone who gets paid money to flatter rich people’s preconceptions and predict that the future is libertarian, thinks that we’re on the way to a future of Elois and Morlocks, where the few with cognitive gifts will enjoy vast material wealth and power and the rest of us dopes will have to scrape out a bitter existence on the scraps. (I wonder which group Cowen believes he’ll end up in himself!) So maybe the academy is just the wave of the future. Maybe, despite Megan’s belief that tenure is old-fashioned, it’s actually gonna be the hot new trend.
Or, perhaps, we could decide as a society to make a life as pleasant as Megan McArdle’s more freely available. After all, we have never been a more productive people. We have never had to invest fewer man hours to generate enough food for us all to eat, or enough material goods for us all to be able to enjoy them. Day after day, incremental innovation makes it cheaper and easier and quicker to make the things that human beings need to enjoy life. Rather than pushing people into bullshit jobs, we could instead use our great material abundance to spread basic material security more broadly, through a system of market socialism established through some sort of guaranteed minimum income. Then, more people could spend their days thinking and writing, even about how regulation is bad and how Obamacare is worse than people dying of preventable diseases. (I don’t discriminate!) Not everybody could have tenure. But everybody could have the guarantee of basic material security and minimal requisite comfort. And that would allow an incredible flowering of human creativity and production, as people are allowed to dedicate their productivity and work to projects that will increase human flourishing, but which they could never have attempted while they had to work to make sure they kept food in their bellies. People who love to teach, like me, could even pick up a class or two on the side, for a little extra money, and for the sheer satisfaction.
Or we could live in Tyler Cowen’s future. Although I don’t think we’d live in it for long. Some see Cowen’s prediction as cynical. I actually see it as profoundly naive. Because history teaches us that when a critical mass of people see society as a conspiracy to exclude and degrade them, eventually, they explode. It’s happening all over the world, in Egypt and Brazil and Greece and Thailand, people taking to the streets to fight against the neoliberal order that has failed to deliver on its promises of widespread abundance. It’s only that particular brand of American chauvinism that could suggest that it can’t happen here. Now explosions can be productive, or they can be deadly, and there’s no guarantee that the one that comes after Cowen’s world of angels and untouchables will lead to a better world. But if we work now to destroy the flimsy notion that basic material security is something you have to deserve instead of something you have a right to as a human being, we could transition from our brutal capitalism into a post-capitalist world of shared abundance. Megan could even participate in laying the ground work for that project, if only she is willing to expand her vision of just what it means to be free.
But they don’t give you any of that sweet Koch money for doing that!
Update: Well I thought I made this clear when I said it in the piece originally, but in case it isn’t clear: the point of saying that there’s room for women libertarians to make a living in libertarian media is a point about the demographics of libertarianism, which is something like two-thirds male. It’s not, as I said directly, to undermine the accomplishment of any women working in libertarian media. And (again as I said originally) I’m happy for that kind of advantage to help cut against the rampant sexism in political journalism. My only point was that there is a professional advantage, in a very small ideology that is dominated by dudes, to be a smart libertarian woman. It’s just a numbers game. And I doubt even most committed libertarians would dispute the fact that a) libertarianism’s representation in politics and media is far out of proportion with its numbers in the population and b) libertarianism skews strongly male.
As I said in the piece: I don’t begrudge her the life she’s carved out for herself. On the contrary, I only want to spread its advantages more widely. Because those real jobs really suck.
Update II: Here’s my clarification about that point.