Monday, May 24, 2010

Escape from New Jersey

According to this story from the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger (motto: "Not Dead Yet!"), the New Jersey Senate has passed a bill that would require all newly-hired public employees, including faculty and staff at public colleges, to live in New Jersey as a condition of employment. Apparently, an early draft of the bill would have given existing employees a brief window during which to move, but it has since been amended to 'grandfather' current employees, as long as they don't change jobs.

Wow. Where to start?

As a rule of thumb, any law that has to be 'grandfathered' is probably a terrible idea. Were it up to me, we'd retire that word from the language, and replace it with something like "eat the young." But never mind that.

I've heard of laws like these applied to police and sometimes firefighters. They strike me as questionable there, but I suppose one could make an argument based on emergency response time. Firefighting can't be telecommuted, and you're needed when you're needed. In the case of police, it's usually a racial issue.

But college faculty? Really?

As students of geography know, New Jersey is directly across from both New York City and Philadelphia. It has long borders with both Pennsylvania and New York, and a short one with Delaware. (Nobody has a long border with Delaware.) It has the highest population density of any state, which results, predictably enough, in the highest property taxes of any state. How requiring more people to live in the state will undo the damage done by excess density isn't entirely clear.

As a practical matter, the proposal is absurd. In the age of dual-career couples, what happens to couples in which one member crosses the border to work? If, say, Pennsylvania were to respond with a similar law of its own, a dual-career couple would have to separate. Then there's the issue of housing cost. Although the Great Recession has taken the edge off somewhat, real estate in New Jersey is still indecently expensive, especially when compared to assistant-professor salaries. Some of them have managed by trekking out to Pennsylvania. Take that option away, and they'll just have to leave altogether. How that helps isn't clear. The struggling adjunct who crosses bridges and tunnels from New York is now completely out of luck, as is the prominent musician or artist who used to come out once or twice a week to teach.

Tying the peasants to the land is an abuse of power. Tying them to the land for no particular reason is a stupid abuse of power. The closest thing to an argument presented in the article was that people on the state payroll shouldn't spend that money out of state. But that confuses salary with expense accounts. Subjecting my expense accounts to public scrutiny is fair enough, but my salary shouldn't be less my own than anyone else's is. When I go home, I'm off the clock.

I'd expect to see NJ colleges start to suffer some recruitment issues. The high-salaried superstars who would like to live in New York City or Philly won't come; the low-salaried everyone else who made ends meet via long commutes will just have to find other jobs. The net gain to the state is...what, exactly?

If New Jersey is worried that its employees are taking their paychecks and spending them elsewhere, it should try to make itself more appealing so people will choose to stay. Punitive measures are not the way to go. ("You are hereby sentenced to live in New Jersey." "NOOOO!!!!!") Micromanaging employees' private lives won't solve any of the underlying problems, and will only cause unnecessary stress on the employees. And the message it sends about the state isn't exactly flattering. New state motto -- New Jersey: There Is No Escape.