Academia as tax shelter

A very brief story:

My advisor was Laurence Iannaccone, student of Gary Becker, seminal and in many ways founding contributor to the economic study of religion, now of Chapman University. His observation is a common one in academia, a point of pride for some even, though that varies greatly by discipline, as does their market options outside of the academy. And, yes, flexible work schedules, post-tenure job security, and sometimes picturesque campuses all should be counted towards the total compensation of those fortunate enough to secure a faculty appointment. But the power of the observation goes far beyond proper labor market accounting.

As I find so often to be the case, there is good sociology to be done, but the best first step in doing so is a little bit of economics. To wit:

The academy is, on average, considerably to the left of the population at large. Now this difference, mind you, is grossly exaggerated by your typical right-wing windbag who seems to think that universities begin and end in the English department, but the difference remains. So why would your typical economics, chemistry, or architecture professor tend to be left of the popular center? Well, if the median self-identified lefty got to choose the federal and state tax rates, what would they be? Ok, and how much of that will I have to pay out of my non-pecuniary income? Until they figure out how to tax the thrill of pursuing my own self-determined research agenda, not very much. Taxes are cheap when half of your compensation is non-pecuniary.

The academy is a club.

Scratch that.

The academy is a hierarchy of nested clubs. Which means that we often suffer from exclusionary FOMO akin to fourth tier English gentry trying to marry off five daughter in the early 19th century. Membership in those clubs– those famed research groups, donor-named centers, or even (god forbid) schools of thought — they become more than just sources of funding, workshop critique, and coauthor match-making sock hops. These clubs become the well springs from which ever increasing portions of our non-pecuniary income come from. They become our social networks, our friends, and even ,with a handful of co-authors you’ve gone into scientific battle alongside, a second family. The next time you see someone dig in their heels, seemingly denying the mounting evidence that they were on the wrong side of a scientific argument, don’t just blindly assume they are too stubborn and arrogant to acknowledge they might have been wrong. Consider how unfunded or, more importantly, how lonely they stand to be if they’re the first to give up the fight.

It’s why we covet tenure so much. Don’t get me wrong, everyone wants job security. But for most of us, the prospect of being laid off doesn’t necessarily include the possibility of being jettisoned from what you’ve slowly constructed as a separate parallel universe within which you have carefully curated the technical, educational, and social capital necessary to produce your career and life. If you get laid off from programming for Netflix, the next few weeks or months will be unpleasant, scary even. You may begin to doubt your ability or life choices. But that next job will come, and you will as often as not find yourself with a nearly identical life on the other side.

There are those in the academy though for whom this is all they’ve ever known. Bachelors, doctorate, tenure-track academic placement. Throw in a post-doc and that’s 20 years, and you’re entire adult life, in and around universities. Even if they’re from a field fortunate enough to have robust private sector options, how much will doubling your salary really soften the blow for such a person?

I say all of this now not as a critique of academia, or even to lead to prescriptions or advice. You want my advice? Fine, here: don’t go straight to grad school. Dip your toe in the real world, see how you like it. Come back in a few years with a little experience and distaste for office life. It’ll serve you well when your dissertation hits one of its many inevitable nadirs.

Rather, I invite you to consider this: what does the world start to look like when our utility comes less from the goods that we buy and the experiences we have, and more from the clubs we are members of? What does it look like when those clubs find newer and better ways to monitor our behavior and our expressed beliefs? What does it look like when the purging of membership rolls becomes a part of the culture of those clubs?

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