Monday, December 11, 2006

Why isn't all employment contingent? 

I spent some time on the air Saturday discussing a post Dave Downing had on employment conditions and the minimum wage. The point I raise is something I've used ever since I read it in Paul Heyne's Economic Way of Thinking.
Have you ever reflected on the fact that we all obtain our incomes by inducing other people to provide them? We also produce some goods for ourselves directly, of course, and there may even be a few hermits in the coutnry who never use money and never have to depend on other people's cooperation. Except for counterfeiters, however, we all get our money incomes from other people. As Adam Smith put it in The Wealth of Nations: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner; but from their recard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk of our necessities but to their advantages."

We persuade them to hire us, to buy from us, to lend to us, or simply to recognize that our status entitles us to income. The last technique is one employed by children to extract income from their parents, by retired people to get Social Security benefits, by people who qualify for unemployment compensation, and by the lucky holders of winning lottery tickets, to mention just a few. Another way to put it is that we supply what other people are willing to pay for. In short, the distribution of income results from supply and demand.
Dave relied in his post somewhat on altruism. In an email to me he later says he thinks the relationship is more one of symbiosis -- largely true, I think, but a word that is likely to confuse. Allow me to demonstrate.

This morning's Chronicle of Higher Ed (subscriber link) notes that the AAUP has produced a "contingent faculty index" to measure the number of faculty teaching without tenure or the promise of review thereof. It finds that the share of faculty working off the tenure track has climbed from 43 to 65% since the 1970s. While at one time most fixed termers were either visiting faculty on sabbatical leave (or the junior faculty member who fills in for the person off on sabbatical), it has now become de rigeuer in some fields to spend a few years in visiting positions before landing a tenure-track job.

Most of this it couches in terms of academic freedom:
In terms of pay and physical working conditions, full-time non-tenure-track faculty may well be on a par with their tenure-line colleagues. They are likely to have an office and access to campus facilities and services. However, because of the contingent nature of their employment, they face many constraints on their academic freedom. With no employment guarantee beyond a limited term and facing a reappointment decision as soon as the second semester� where a reappointment is a possibility at all�the non-tenure-track faculty member is in a vulnerable position. Although the initial hire may have involved a faculty committee, successive reappointments may well be at the discretion of a single administrator�producing the kind of hesitancy regarding controversy or offense in teaching and research that limits academic freedom.
Now compare this to the statement at the beginning of this post. Some of us can persuade universities to agree to a long-term arrangement. Others, with less experience, perhaps cannot yet make that argument persuasive to a university. So how do we prove our reliability? How do we make ourselves more persuasive, if not by developing a resume of teaching, research and service?

AAUP has created as well a list of recommended institutional policies for using part-time faculty. They in essence increase the cost of releasing part-time faculty. In so doing, it may become harder for those workers to gain work, since universities must factor the cost of ending a faculty member's contract in the decision to hire one.

As I said on the air, minimum wage laws are a suppression of free speech between a worker and a firm: The worker cannot persuade a firm of his willingness to work for $4 an hour; the firm cannot advertise the possibility of hiring at that price. So too is this contingent faculty debate really one about suppressing the speech of some faculty -- young and with new ideas -- to offer to take a job with a different level of academic freedom than that tenured faculty enjoy. In whose interest does AAUP speak in this case? Or let me ask the question differently: Is there any evidence that the increased use of contingent employment arrangements for new PhD's in the humanities has reduced the supply of English and history professors -- to only name two? I see little evidence that it has, and it might indicate that such arrangements are not viewed as a barrier to work in their chosen fields.