The Matriculant Theory of Value

The Labor Theory of Value goes like this: the value of a good, and the price it should command in the market, will (should) reflect the amount of labor it takes to produce it. It’s a classic fallacy, but not one we should mock. Yes, Marxist thought still often cling to it as it chases its own Hegelian dragon, but Adam Smith and David Ricardo both struggled with understanding why something that yields so little predictive value could still feel so right.

Which brings me to the updated credentialist version of this fallacy:

Now, I apologize for picking on this person, and this tweet, in particular. Similar gripes appear appear regularly in social media and The Chronicle of Higher Education on a regular basis. The formula runs as such: I, and people such of myself, have spent many years in school, have successfully been credentialed with a BA/MA/MFA/PhD, but the labor market refuses to reward us appropriately.

To be clear, I understand the deeply intuitive appeal of the Labor Theory of Value– the more labor I put into making something, the more people should pay me for the product of my labor. The problem with this logic is the very core of the economic puzzle: goods are only worth what people are willing to exchange for them. If you spend a year molding rotting eggshells into a 25-foot statue of Mickey Mouse, it might earn you something at an art auction, but probably not as much as you would have earned working an equivalent number of hours at Taco Bell. At the same time, you could take an art class at a local community college, paint a soft focus acrylic of the local high school, and sell it to an alum for $100. Or you could find a dinosaur egg in your backyard the day after you bought the house and sell it for $2000. Which is the more compelling artistic statement or mantle centerpiece is debatable, but the price each commands in the market is entirely objective, and has nothing to do with the hours of labor that went into them.

Which me brings to me the Matriculant Theory of Value: the more labor and tuition money I put towards producing a more credentialed version of myself, the more people should pay for the product of my labor. I’m sorry to report that the market doesn’t care about your degrees, it cares about what you can produce and the value the market places on that product. If you didn’t acquire any skills valued by the labor market, then your degree is only worth however much the firm values any marginal prestige it might enjoy from your credentials or the interesting conversation you may offer in the break room. If I’m an academic drawing a salary from an institution of higher education (and I am), then I’m reading not as a sign that I should be angry we’re not getting paid enough, but as a sign that I should be terrified that employers don’t value educational product I am currently producing.

Now, unlike a lot of scolds, I am sympathetic to the academic misinformation that students often find themselves marinating in. Professors enjoy telling students who might be wary of joining the glut of PhDs applying for scarce academic jobs, “Don’t worry, you’ll get a job. You’re special and brilliant and you deserve a job.” Given that these professors need cheap labor, but often lack resources, they are all to happy to pay “in trade” i.e. with an advanced degree. For that deal to work though, you have to convince students that the degree has value. They are all too quick to valorize a “life of the mind” not unlike acolytes being invited to take a vow of poverty, and with more than a little implied denigration of more proletarian endeavors.

We also have a tendency to grossly overemphasize grades, academic status, and completion. Rarely do I see a student told that it might be better to get a C in a challenging technical class than dodge it for the sake of their GPA. Who is going to be better valued in the market: a 3.9 GPA student who glided on fluff for four years, or a student who took 5 challenging technical courses over 4 years, failing 2 of them, and collapses at the finish line with a 2.1 GPA and hard earned BS?

What I am less sympathetic to is the frequent failure to admit the other allures of degrees less valued by the market: they’re fun. For a certain type of person, there is pleasure bordering on euphoric to sitting in a comfortable chair and reading histories, grand theories, and poetics for 8 hours a day. If you love your job, you don’t have to work a day in your life. True, but that doesn’t mean anyone has to pay you for it. It should worry you if your anticipated vocation is what other people do on their vacation. Not that it doesn’t have social value (it may have significant social value), but you should be terrified of trying to make a career doing what someone else is willing to do for free. You’ll not be surprised to learn no one is paying me to write these rambling diatribes.

So, yes, $38k a year for 9 months of work giving 10 hours of lectures a week, plus prep, grading, and office hours maybe doesn’t seem like much in the way of wages to you. I was paid $34k (2003 dollars) for 10 months a year teaching 19 hours of lectures a week, plus prep, grading, and parent meetings when I was a high school teacher, so I guess I could make a snarky case that the professor in question is being overpaid, especially since I hold to the belief that public K-12 teachers are underpaid relative to the social value they produce, but that is another post. But I also have enough awareness to know not to complain too much about how an indoor job with no heavy lifting is underpaid, particularly if we are resorting to any version of the labor theory of value. I dare you to walk into any professional kitchen and tell them these exact contract details, the nature of your work, and then explain to them that you’re the one who deserves to be paid more.

One last gripe. If you are sufficiently talented, conscientious, and privileged to complete a PhD, but your field of study offers you no option better than $38k/year to teach, my guess is that you’ve been not just unlucky, but proactively diligent in dodging every bit of coursework that could lead to a higher wage in the market. And I don’t just mean all of that unpleasant math you hate. Or statistics. Or java/C++/Python/etc. I mean even the adjacent courses of study or research projects where the skill acquisition path is that much more taxing or unpleasant. You didn’t study computational anthropology or physical anthropology or field anthropology. You studied cultural anthropology, fine…but you were also careful to avoid data at every step, opting instead you to memorize soft theory jargon and write the kind of dissertation that tells everyone exactly how smart you are, but not much else. Make no mistake, if you spend 5-8 years getting a PhD you may have gotten bad advice, you may have suffered the fallacy of sunk costs, you may have been done a gratuitous disservice by the faculty guiding your education, and may have been deluded by the matriculant theory of value, but on the bright side you chose a safe and comfortable line of work.

And make no mistake, you did choose it.