Arnold Kling  

Academic Self-selection

PRINT
Health Insurance Administrativ... The Blogging Meme...

Andrew Samwick writes,


An elite university is like a kibbutz hooked up to an ATM. It is the closest thing we may ever find to a socialist enterprise that endures. The key element of the kibbutz--that the workers collectively decide on the activities of the entity--is hardwired into the university via faculty governance. (The departure from the ideal--that some workers are "more equal" than others--is also evident, in that it is faculty, not employee, governance.) The notion that this is a sensible way to organize one's professional life is bound to resonate more with people who have a soft spot for socialist, utopian ideals. In my opinion, that you find more liberals than conservatives in the modern elite university is largely (though not exclusively) a reflection of liberals rather than conservatives feeling at home in such an environment.

Under normal circumstances, we would expect such an enterprise to implode, because some members of the collective are more productive than others, and they eventually get tired of subsidizing the lifestyles of the less productive members of the collective. So what keeps the elite university alive?

It's the ATM--alumni generosity. With outside money, even those who cross-subsidize the rest can feel like they are being adequately rewarded.


I gave my opinion about the kibbutz in Real World 101, where I argued that professors are too insulated from the trade-off between autonomy and security to appreciate the overall economy. I gave my opinion about the ATM more recently in Lawrence Summers as Martin Luther.

For Discussion. Will higher education still be a kibbutz hooked up to an ATM in 2025?


Comments and Sharing





TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/233
The author at South(west)paw in a related article titled bring it on, klingon! writes:
    George Mason University economist Arnold Kling takes off the polite hat he sort of wears at ELIZANOMICS and declares war on the academic left. Arnold Kling, Larry Summers and Christians all in one place! Is the blogosphere great or what?... [Tracked on April 7, 2005 12:58 PM]
COMMENTS (12 to date)
Conchis writes:

A half-formed thought...

"The notion that [worker governance] is a sensible way to organize one's professional life is bound to resonate more with people who have a soft spot for socialist, utopian ideals."

Like socialist law/accounting/consulting firm partners?

Okay, that's a bit of a cheap shot. But it does seem to me that worker governance would also tend to resonate with people who rate both their own and their co-workers' decision-making abilities very highly.

This is consistent with university faculties being dominated by a single political grouping, not so much because that group has a soft spot for socialism, but perhaps simply because of path dependence: if you're a conservative at a liberal dominated university you're not going to be particularly thrilled about worker governance, simply because you don't trust your co-workers' decision-making. If the institution happened to be conservative dominated from the start, things might be different.

Duane Gran writes:

I've read that tuition accounts for only about 25% of the cost of a University education, the remainder absorbed by private and public funds. The political tendencies of persons in the academy probably has little to do with this.

I'm often surprised when I read critiques of workplace democracy like this, especially in light of the frustration that many scholars have University administration. I would hardly call the typical University a worker's state of affairs, but it is certainly more compassionate than the jungle that lies outside.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Higher Education is already losing it's luster. The ability to conduct research via the Internet stands as the more important skill in the Workplace today. Academia is under attack today because they are not producing the Skill levels for high productivity needed. lgl

Boonton writes:

Most workers in large corporations are also insulated from economic forces. Large corporations create a virtual 'shell' that encloses little islands of 'socialism' inside. Inside to each according to their needs. Need Office? Call IT and they will give it to you. From each according to his 'abilities'. Don't tell Jimmy to do your spreadsheet, his job is in the mailroom!

Lancelot Finn writes:

Boonton is right: corporations can enclose pockets of socialism; families are pockets of socialism, too. "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need" is actually an efficient way of running things if you can avoid the problem of moral hazard.

The internal socialism of corporations is linked to their tendency towards corruption and scandals. Enron-style breakdowns in corporations are parallels of the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The trouble is, families and corporations are subject to market discipline in a way that universities are not.

I support a major reform of the university system in this country. Outlaw price discrimination, i.e. "need-based financial aid." A car salesman can't demand to see your financial profile before selling you a car; a university shouldn't be allowed to see your parents' financial profile before selling you an education. Increase direct subsidies to research, but drastically cut subsidies of the costs of teaching. Instead, create education savings accounts for young people who are willing to work for a couple of years after high school. Cut back tenure; give elected lawmakers more say over what kind of scholarship gets funded; stop wasting taxpayer money subsidizing obvious falsehoods like Marxism.

Boonton writes:
The internal socialism of corporations is linked to their tendency towards corruption and scandals. Enron-style breakdowns in corporations are parallels of the implosion of the Soviet Union. The trouble is, families and corporations are subject to market discipline in a way that universities are not.

I think 'internal socialism' is necessary to make the larger organization successful in the market. By generally getting people to think more of 'the company' rather than themselves the company is able to survive in the market which is generally in the interest of its owners.

The university works this way as well. The professors aspirations are directed towards giving credit to the University. For example, when Arnold writes a complicated book that is considered cutting edge economics he is rewarded with an enhanced social position in his department. By becoming more respected for the quality of its economic thought his university is able to attract both donations and paying students. If this buffer between the market & Arnold's 'island of socialism' didn't exist, Arnold might have been motivated to write a popular book that generates lots of sales but has little cutting edge economics in it (think Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore). That would be great for Arnold but would do nothing for his university.

I disagree that universities are not subject to market discipline. Just as no one is required to buy a corporations products no one is required to go to college or to any particular college.

A car salesman can't demand to see your financial profile before selling you a car;

heh, unless you want to finance the car!

El Presidente writes:

Great comments. I couldn't have said it better myself. Very interesting outline of dynamic tension between competition and cooperation. Glad you folks see the value of each in economic considerations.

jaimito writes:

Trying to answer Arnold's question, I think the answer is yes. Universities started 800 or 900 years ago as collectives or guilds of teachers, very autonomous and souverain, and they seem to have survived. Kibbutz Degania is almost a century old and very prosperous. These organizations seem to have solved the problem of managing the work of intellectuals, idealists, excentrics, prima-donnas and other self-motivated neurotic but otherwise talented people.

Brian writes:

Boonton Large corporations create a virtual 'shell' that encloses little islands of 'socialism' inside. Inside to each according to their needs. Need Office? Call IT and they will give it to you. From each according to his 'abilities'.

I'm not sure about your company but here if you need a copy of Word you pay for it. Or your cost center does. I've never worked at a place where software was just handed down from on high.

Which is, yes, a nitpick, but I'm good at that. It doesn't detract from your main point.

Robert Schwartz writes:

I said over at Andrews blog:

I don't know if your[Andrew Samwick] sociology is correct or not. I do know that the whole system is not delivering good value. But I would be willing to run an experiment. Pull the plug on the ATM. Repeal the tax exemptions. Stop the subsidies. See what happens. It couldn't be worse.

spencer writes:

As someone that grew up in and served in the US military I have long considered the US Army, etc., the most sucdessful socialists organizations in the world.

They even compensate NCOs and Junior offices according to a "to each according to their needs" system.

Heather writes:
I support a major reform of the university system in this country. Outlaw price discrimination, i.e. "need-based financial aid." A car salesman can't demand to see your financial profile before selling you a car; a university shouldn't be allowed to see your parents' financial profile before selling you an education. Increase direct subsidies to research, but drastically cut subsidies of the costs of teaching. Instead, create education savings accounts for young people who are willing to work for a couple of years after high school. Cut back tenure; give elected lawmakers more say over what kind of scholarship gets funded; stop wasting taxpayer money subsidizing obvious falsehoods like Marxism.

I was a bit amused by the "willing to work" comment, just for the fact that many people go to college before working because they can't earn enough to get by satisfactorily on a high school education, let alone save for something as expensive as a higher education.

If people want to change the education system's payment/funding/spending, turn Universities into study/work camps, where as some colleges do with freshmen, force everyone to live on campus with no cars and all meals included; and similar to work-study, make everyone work to earn their education; all instead of allowing anyone to live/study/play off of their parents' income. Then everyone would be on the same page and have a more equal learning experience opportunity while presumably covering their costs.

There would, of course, be a problem finding work for everyone to earn their education with, but that is just bringing the same problem into the "present" that they will face when they are done with school.

It would certainly be more of a socialist enterprise, but it wouldn't endure considering a parent's instinct to help their offspring.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top