Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Beginning With A Bi-Modal Distribution

Three things: One for the youth, born full of hope/One for the blogger, indiscreetly wise/One for the prof, at the end of his rope/One post to join them all, where the shadow lies.

First, the oldest nephew blew through Kitsilano on Sunday on his way to Point Grey and the heartstoppingly beautiful campus of the University of British Columbia.
From Why? Because this is one of  the  great things you see on an Alaskan cruise. Book yours today!

That's 29 years, give or take a day, after I did the same thing. I've every reason to hope that he'll do better than me (first year flunk-out become History PhD working at a grocery store), but if you have a somewhat underemployed failed-intellectual uncle living in a garret,* you better damn well know that he's going to be looking out for you as best he can. And while hitherto failed-intellectuals have been content to observe the world, the point, rather, is to change it. By posting on their blogs. Tremble, ye kings and potentates, for I wield Blogspot, and am over-caffeinated!

Second, Brad Delong, driven to distraction by the intractably high unemployment rate, chanced to utter the secret that we generally keep from nice young boys like my nephew: that getting a job depends far more on who you know than how hard you try. Third, there is Paul Campos on the "law school scam." I've linked to a short post at Lawyers, Guns and Money in my Tolkien pastiche above, but he goes on at much greater (and fully justified length) here. So I'm going to put it all together with an insight from an earlier round of the same discussion. Specifically, it is hard for most beginning lawyers to repay their student loans, because the claimed high average pay of beginning lawyers in fact masks a noncontinuous distribution of incomes. Something's going on here: just check out this attempt to defend these statistics, and the acid comments following.

 Some law students, generally the ones with the highest grades at the Top 20 law schools, get into prestigious legal firms that charge deep-pocket clients very high hourly rates to do their vital work for them. So where you went to school determines your salary. Or, in fact, whether you get any salary for legal work at all. And that's why you get this emergent bimodal distribution of legal incomes.

What I'm here to argue is that this isn't a peculiarity of law school, but rather a much more common phenomenon that plays a crucial role than is obvious in the state of things today. The bimodal distribution isn't a bug. It's a feature. Okay. It's a bug, too. It can be both!

*The self-pity party aside, I actually have a pretty sweet contract. It's just that it took thirteen years for the middle-class pay, benefits, paid time off and generous vacation provisions to vest. The garret's because Kitsilano is expensive. And it's expensive because it's such a nice play to live. You pays your money...

Wait. What's a bimodal distribution, Uncle Lawnmower Boy? I'm glad you asked.

It's when well-connected people get good positions through their connections. Monty Python's take is cruel, jealous, bitter, and hilarious.

Put it another way:

This is a traditional arrangement that no-one's ever quite managed to fit to words that really work, so pardon me if they don't actually sing "Ev'ry manly heart is bounding/As our trusted chief surrounding," because I need that line for my argument. (Anyway,and no clicking on links if you have a cheese allergy, same same.) Sure, you can talk about false consciousness, but the point is that it's not necessarily the worst thing to have a "chief" around when it looks like the mill might be shutting down. The richest guy in town may well be a horrid person, but, good or bad, has just as much of an interest in keeping the mill open as you do, and a lot more clout. It's the tragedy of working class politics, 'nuff said.

So here's what a bimodal distribution looks like.
From Empirical Legal Studies: Link.
The range of incomes on the left show a smooth distribution born of inequality of ability and opportunity. Some lawyers are better than others, some law firms are doing better than others. On the right, it's not. That tells us that ability and business success don't matter. Certain kinds of firms hire certain kinds of applicants, and pay them the going rate, whether they're the first-place finisher at Harvard Law or the twentieth; they won't hire you at all if  you place 21st.

Now, you'd have to look hard and far to find another bimodal distribution of income that looks like this within the same profession. Take academe, for example. I don't know that anyone has actually dared to do the work, but I'm gong to take it on anecdote that the gap between an adjunct and a tenure-track assistant professor is probably nothing to blog about.

In case you don't know what that means, university courses these days are taught by either persons hired under short-term contracts or professors who are members of the faculty. The short-term guys are (usually) called "adjuncts," and might be hired to teach one course or five. If the latter, they're not actually doing too badly except for the complete lack of job security, which is why adjuncting sucks. The fact that your average pay while you're working full time is close to that of a tenure-track assistant professor is no consolation when you're not working full time. Tenure, by the way, is an awesome sort of employment on good behaviour that senior professors ostensibly get in case they offend someone, but in practice because it's so  hard to fire senior employees that  you might as well make it a job perk. Technically, there are also "assistant professors without tenure," which are adjuncts by another name, but that just shows that universities are afraid that if their students figure out where their teachers actually sit in the academic caste system, they'll go do whatever it is that undergraduates do that they're not supposed to do.

But since there's no bimodal distribution, the key difference between an adjunct and an assistant professor is ability, right?

Maybe, maybe not. Here's the point where I get depressing and personal. Way back in 1982, when I enrolled in first year, it was statistically obvious that I was going to flunk out. A professor told me that based on my high school when he tried to persuade me to enroll in the easiest courses that I could, and work my ass off. It was the truest, cruellest, most brutal and kindest thing he could have told me. No-one else was even remotely as honest, although admittedly I didn't exactly seek out these opinions. And he didn't even know that I was living at a residence that was going to hit a 55% failure rate that year! I didn't listen, of course, and I flunked out. 

But, see, that wasn't a problem. The community college system that had grown up in British Columbia over the previous decade-and-a-half basically existed to pick up kids like me, dust us off, and send us back to UBC when we were actually ready for it. They knew that working hard wasn't necessarily going to do me any good when what I really lacked was maturity. A year wasted at old Totem Park was no worse than a year, wasted, planting trees around the Kootenays, or backpacking across Europe. 

They were wrong. It wasn't that a hardscrabble recession was coming. There'd been recessions before. It wasn't tuition. I know we complain about how it keeps going up, but I haven't changed the opinion I formed back in 1982 when I spent $800 dollars for tuition and three times that for my residence fees. The problem was living expenses (and the "feature" aspect of the bimodal distribution) is already obvious. And that's still true today, when tuition has hit 11 grand, residence fees 9 grand. (From here.) The numbers are different, and less distorted, but, even so, if you borrow the full cost of tuition at UBC, you still have a debt at graduation that's more in line with a car loan than a mortgage, at least in Vancouver. Sure, you can go to Harvard Law and pay a lot more, but 150 grand in debt is still in the range of a few year's pay for the chosen few. If  you get the job, you're golden. If  you don't you're hooped. There's arguably a question of degree here. It would be the worst scam ever if you graduated 150 grand in debt and only 1% of your class got jobs where they could pay that off, and absolutely reasonable if only 1% missed them. Somewhere between the two is the line between fair and unfair. I have no idea where it lies, although probably somewhere south of the 20% that's this year's scare cite for law graduates actually getting jobs in the United States, but the point is that tuition isn't the killer. Opportunity is.

Hmm. More personal anecdotes: it's 1998, and I've conquered my academic issues, and graduated from the doctoral programme in history at the University of Toronto. I didn't come into Toronto with a SSHRC doctoral fellowship, having missed the single award that UBC thought that it could give out by a single place, according to private information. Let's set the reliability of this information aside. Dwelling on it does no good to my ego. All the story needs to say is that there was a UBC history professor who thought that I was, at least, a diamond in the rough who ought to be encouraged to go on to Toronto to take another kick at the can. He was wrong, obviously, but that's the context I need to establish here.

So I applied for a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship once I got to Toronto, and didn't get it. They were tough times,and the class was large, but at least I apparently never fell into the bottom half of the departmental ranking. Middle of the pack seemed like a fair assessment of where I sat. Hey, it's the University of Toronto. That's not bad, right? I even made a special effort to graduate early, like I was encouraged to, even though it made rather a hash of my thesis, albeit nothing that couldn't be fixed with the help of Franz Szabo.

So, I'm out, and such are the times that I have exactly two chances to qualify for a postdoctoral fellowship. So I apply. And I don't get one. I do, however, get a nice package explaining why I don't. My application package went before a three person committee, each of whom independently ranked me from 1 to 4 in two categories, track record and value of proposed research project. 3x2x4 is 24, and only scores of 22 or higher got postdocs. Now, if you give the job to a committee, you'd think that you wouldn't arrange things so that any of the individual referees can torpedo the application, and maybe that tells  you something. All I know is that I got a 7, meaning that my committee really didn't like me.

So I try again next year, after publishing one (or two, I forget) articles and a monograph. (As the fancy word for "book" indicates, in my field, they rate higher than articles.) And when I get my evaluation back, I don't get a postdoc. So much for that. But, and here's the kicker, my "Track Record" score, which is how the committee is supposed to rate my ability to, say, research and write a book, has gone down. (Statistically, not absolutely.) That same year, two applicants from the University of Toronto got postdocs. Neither had completed their degrees, and neither had yet published an article or monograph. Now, they were both brilliant kids with brilliant advisers and superb research projects in mind, but it did sort of seem to me that the "Track Record" ratings were pulled out of someone's ass. Remember: to get a postdoc, all three members of the committee had to think that not-finished-never-published was an awesome track record, and that finished-and-published was an "auto-fail" track record. 

What the hell, I thought? What can I say? I was naive. Until the facts of next year's job hunt were communicated to me. Me: fifty applications, not a single short list. The winners: same order of applications, numerous short lists. 

That's when I had my epiphany. None of this was actually surprising or unreasonable. The very structure of the job market guaranteed that when a university advertises a tenure-track job, there will be hundreds of applications. There are many adjuncts for every tenure-track position, and by definition they're all still looking for tenure-track jobs. They will snow you with applications that will all look alike. They will be crammed with lists of articles and books published. And you, poor hiring committee member, are not magic. You haven't read everything published in every field of your discipline lo these past many years. You have no idea which of these articles are ground-breaking and which are bumpf. And you're certainly not going to hire at random. So you go to track record. Specifically, you look at doctoral fellowships and postdoctoral fellowships. That's not random. Your department ranks you. 

But the committee that looks at post-doc applications is obviously doing the same. And as for doctoral fellowships, if I'd just come to Toronto with a postdoc, I would never have been ranked there. I would have still been that supposed diamond-in-the-rough. What if I'd got a job on my track record? Promise would have changed to track record like some kind of alchemical magic.

So now we know from what ass the "Track Record" is pulled. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that. I'm obviously a little bitter that I worked harder than the two successful candidates way back in 1999 and didn't get a good academic job, but that's nothing on them, or the committees that hired them. If you prove yourself, you should get a job! And if you don't, it's not like you don't have a chance to prove yourself by getting out there and adjuncting and publishing and whatever else. There's no-one to blame but yourself --and the lack of job openings-- if you don't eventually make the transition to that tenure track job.

Except....Let me go back to those res expenses. Because whether it's $2400 in 1982 or $9000 in 2011, the fact remains that it's a lot of money. And it's a lot of money because people eat a lot of food and sleep under a roof a lot of times in the course of a whole year. That's kind of why we work. the whole money thing is about making sure that you're fed, and you have a roof. Earn more money, and you find new needs. Oh, sure, there's nice stuff, too. But, overall, you either save for the future, or, finding that you  have more than enough to spend on your loved ones, you make more. That's one of the wonderful things about being human. Or so I've heard.

A lawyer on the left hand side of the bimodal distribution has less money than the one on the right hand side. That means less stuff over an entire lifetime. Someone who takes longer to get their career going is in the same boat, even in a field without a bimodal salary distribution. Consider: if you graduate from university after four years, immediately enroll in graduate school with a doctoral fellowship, graduate from that in seven years into a tenure track job, you will have enjoyed a smooth transition from being a dependent child without the money to pay for your own tuition or residence fees into an income-earning adult who is set up to spend money on nice things. Throw five years spent adjuncting around the continent into the mix, and whatever else you've lost or gained in financial and professional terms, you've lost five years. That's your "academic career bimodal distribution" right there. 

And that's why the wasted years that my elders were so willing to shrug off in 1982 turned out to be so important. Lost time=lost lifetime opportunities.

Why didn't they realise this? Because they expected us to be able to make up the lost time, of course. That had been how it was for them. If  you were a faculty member in 1982, you knew all about lost time. If  you were 52 or older, you grew up during the Great Depression. If you were 42 down to about 35 or so, you were raised by people who'd spent the Depression looking for work, then hit the jackpot with a great war job. If you were younger, you weren't advising frosh from the comfort of your corner office. (Although you might have been trying to pick them up over at the Pit. Oh, those wacky Baby Boomers.) If you were between 42 and 52, you probably didn't exist, because hardly anyone was being born then. But if you were, you grew up in a time when the economy was expanding rapidly, and you had no significant competition in your cohort at all.  You had no grasp of how hard the job market was going to become, because your experience was of an easy one. Your elders knew that the Great Depression had sucked, and ever since had been sweet. So your advice was to let kids be kids. Unfortunately, you were wrong. Your advice ought to have been, "get in before the lock."

 I'm going to modestly propose to explain why that was. If you look at what makes my particular, stupid generation special, it's because the Baby Boom crashed right after us, and the North American economy cratered in 1974 and never quite came back. Why? Are the two things indirectly related? I think so.

Some people cynically observe that everything worked out just exactly to the advantage of the early baby boomers. That is, inflation peaked in time to erode the value of their student loans and other early debts. By the same token, if deflation is around the corner, it will come at a time when they're on fixed incomes. So if you want to spin a conspiracy theory, there's raw material here. 

It would go something like this: the bimodal distributions of upper middle class incomes, whether with respect to salary range or time, is mostly a function of the fact that there are only a few right-hand-side jobs to go around. Basically, because demand hasn't increased, they just replace the retirees. Fortunately,while there aren't nearly enough jobs to absorb the larger generations that followed, there are more than enough of to satisfy those with the wealth and influence to make a fuss. Tah-dah, hereditary aristocracy! And since having kids is the main driver of demand, the bad left-hand-side jobs began to act to depress the general level of demand for goods and services in the economy, just exactly as the new, smaller cohorts of post-1966 came into the work force. Meanwhile, the aging Baby Boomers were no longer spending on children, but rather saving for retirement. Tah-Dah, deflation! 

I don't think that we're seeing the times teleologically conspire for the "Silent Generation and early Boomers. What's happening here is that an underlying trend is making it look like that's the case. How did demand come to be so high in the postwar era? Because of the Baby Boom. But if the crash in population growth after 1966 was dramatic, it also brought the growth rate much more closely in line with the growth rate pre-1931 than with that of circa 1944--66. It's the Baby Boom era that stands out as anomalous, not the post-Boom era. Something happened in 1939--45 that made the next thirty years very different from what came before.

World War II. Duh. Now, it happens that I gots a theory here. It's that we haven't captured all the economic good (that's fancy talk for the things that the war made, like trucks and merchant ships, as opposed to what it broke, like Hamburg and European Jewry). Specifically, we haven't adequately accounted for work experience. The war produced a huge cohort of highly proficient stuff-doers. The advanced economies  really began to stall out in 1974. That's the year that the cohort of 1909 retired, the people who turned 30 in 1939. Too old to haul a rifle around at the front, old enough to be thrust into unreasonably responsible work and not die of a heart attack from the stress.

You know what all those  people on the left hand side of the bimodal distribution aren't doing? Whether they're losing years in school or changing jobs or giving up on the field that they were educated for, what they're  not doing building on their work experience. They're losing precious time. The years are flying by. They start late, have fewer kids. And that means that this whole sagging demand/incipient deflation/bimodal distribution of incomes thing is just going to keep on keeping on.   

I know I repeat myself on these subjects,but fuck. Somebody should do something about this. Soon. Or some of my nephews and nieces may end up on the left hand side of the distribution.

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