Sunday, April 21, 2019

Looking for the New Keynes

A new correspondent writes:

[John] Maynard Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and radically revised a lot of our understandings of national political economies. I’m thinking now about the larger system of faculty employment in higher ed, both in the US and abroad. Recent meetings of our faculty union at the vast, urban, multicampus public university where I teach are becoming increasingly tumultuous over demands that we strike unless pay for adjuncts rises to $7,000/course. This isn't an issue for just our university or our state; it’s everywhere. It’s not systemic, it’s endemic, and thus structural. There’s no single driving factor: it has as much to do with the production of terminal degrees in grad programs as it does with economics and legislative policy and the labor market and a half-dozen other factors. It’s public and private.

Has anyone come across a truly thoughtful, insightful study, along the lines of what Keynes did, that provides us with a broad, grand perspective on how exactly the conditions under which contingent faculty now work evolved? I’m speaking specifically about why typical labor market theory, having to do with supply and demand, etc., simply doesn’t apply to this situation. I’m worried about comity within our union as well as the conditions under which my colleagues work and I want desperately to put our supposed intelligence as scholars to work calming things down a bit.


I have to admit, I’m much more sympathetic to the quest for a Grand Unified Theory of Everything than is probably healthy.  But I find the most insightful theorizing tends to be inductive, starting from empirical observation and working its way up.  Rather than starting with “what’s the nature of the universe?,” it starts with variations on “how the hell did we end up with a system as messed up as this?”  Whether that leads to “calming down” or to concerted action is another question; done well, I think it leads to a greater possibility for coming to terms with the world, and even to changing it in positive ways.  (For those keeping score at home, this is a variation on “standpoint epistemology.” It’s probably part of the reason that I’ve been comfortable with feminist work or critical race theory; they may start from different locations, but their methods and goals are recognizable.)  Put differently, I’d rather read Galbraith, Ehrenreich, and Coates than, say, Husserl or Heidegger.

Accordingly, I don’t think we can theorize the adjunct trend by looking only at the adjunct trend.  It has to be seen in a political/economic context. That means going beyond garden-variety administrator-bashing; if it were merely a matter of this dean or that provost, the trend wouldn’t have happened across the country, in every sector of the industry, for decades.  It also means moving beyond the temptation to reify abstract concepts like “neoliberalism” and to invest them with a life force they simply don’t have. I’ve read plenty of angry attacks on an “adjunct nation” or the “corporate university” that correctly identified objectionable outcomes, but didn’t shed any useful light on causes.  Without causes, it’s just slogans.

I’d start with “The Cost Disease,” by William Baumol.  Longtime readers know that I’m a champion of the concept, in part because it explains sectors other than higher education.  Why did ticket prices for concerts and plays go up, while the price of expensively-produced recordings (albums, movies) went down?  Why do “eds and meds” get steadily more expensive relative to other parts of the economy? Baumol’s Cost Disease offers an invaluable starting point.

More broadly, why does public higher education funding keep following a “one step forward, two steps back” pattern with each economic cycle?  Answering that requires understanding the severe upward trend in where the rewards of growth go, and the resentment generated among the many who wonder why they aren’t getting ahead.  It also requires understanding the relative decline of middle-class salaried jobs with legible career paths. Higher ed used to feed those jobs; as the jobs have grown scarce, higher ed comes under more scrutiny, and therefore more austerity.  I did a double-take recently when I heard a podcast discuss the “new normal” of people having “anchor jobs” and “side hustles.” What are now called “anchor jobs” were once just called “jobs.” That’s a major shift, and combined with tuition increases, it explains a lot.

As always in the U.S., race is an inescapable part of any explanation.  As student bodies become more racially diverse, political support for funding them drops.  That’s true both over time and across sectors. And I remain convinced that part of the long boom of the 50’s and 60’s had to do with other countries being hamstrung either by war damage or by communism.  As they’ve recovered from those and grown more competitive, the middle class worldwide has grown, but the middle class in America has shrunk.

There’s no shortage of potential narrative threads in the story.  I’ve even taken a few preliminary cracks at it, here and here. But I haven’t yet seen anyone tie it all together.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a Keynes for our times who ties it all together?  If not, what would you add to the ingredients list for whomever eventually tries?