Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States
  • .: Phil Magness’ Blog :.

    Personal blog of Dr. Phil Magness, historian of the American Civil War and the 19th Century United States. Here I will post my thoughts and commentary on current research topics, upcoming events, and the general state of academia.
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  • Non-ideal policy in an idealized public policy world

    Posted By on July 26, 2016

    Kevin Vallier offered a response on the BHL blog to my last post on the subject of the Universal Basic Income. It’s a lengthy post that should be read in full, but I wanted to briefly respond to a couple of points. In my previous post on UBI consisted of a challenge to the practicability of its implementation. I argue that the case for UBI is essentially undone by the political perils of its adoption. I’ll break down my position in further detail into a series of steps, starting with a few general observations:

    1. The case for UBI directly depends upon a “swap” in which it replaces the existing welfare state. This “swap,” if successfully effected, would replace the notoriously inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt welfare state with something that is comparatively more efficient and more cost effective to administer.

    2. It is a necessary implication of #1 that the inability or failure to successfully execute the proposed swap would obviate the primary argument in favor of adopting UBI, as it would leave us with not only a new UBI program but a simultaneous sizable remnant of the old comparatively wasteful and inefficient welfare state.

    3. A failed execution of the proposed swap would also necessarily leave us worse off than the status quo of doing nothing, when measured by the cumulative expense of both programs and the cumulative inefficiency of their simultaneous existence.

    4. The policy swap between the welfare state and UBI will have to be implemented through the very same political channels that produce, sustain, and administer the current welfare state, which we know to be inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt.

    Though I’m open to someone making an argument otherwise, I believe these first four observations are generally non-controversial and undisputed. The rub emerges with the next step:

    5. The inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt political system through which the swap must be effected is very likely to (a) capture/corrupt/distort the design of the new UBI program and (b) resist the elimination of the old welfare state, which has become politically entrenched despite its comparative inefficiency. These factors combine to make the most likely outcome of a proposed swap an expensive new UBI program + an expensive and sizable remnant of the old welfare state.

    Note that this is a prediction. I outlined in my last post why I believe it is a likely prediction for UBI (there is also an extensive academic literature on why this phenonemon happens). Briefly stated, experience teaches us that several existing features of the welfare state such as Social Security are deeply entrenched in the political process and highly resistant to even modest efficiency-improving reforms. It is also likely the case that, following the implementation of UBI, persons who are disposed to a much larger welfare state than the one it provides will seize upon its perceived deficiencies to make an emotion-laden political case for retaining the old welfare state as a further “supplemental” security net. And finally, Congress – which would likely have to execute the swap on a staggered schedule over several years – has a long history of reneging on politically difficult prior commitments such as the reduction of spending or the elimination of an old program once the deadline actually hits.

    I believe I have made a pretty strong case for this outcome being likely. Others may disagree and I invite the counterargument, but if we proceed as if observation 5 is indeed an accurate diagnosis of the likely outcome, we may also conclude that its necessarily obviates the case for adopting UBI in the first place (observation 2) and necessarily leaves us worse than the status quo in terms of its cumulative budget strain and inefficiency (observation 3).

    I arrive at my skeptical position on UBI for these reasons but, more importantly, I also note that they reveal a shortcoming in most current arguments for UBI. Specifically, the proponents of UBI have paid very little attention on how to get us from their proposed policy on paper to actual implementation (which again necessarily requires the execution of a successful “swap” with the existing welfare state).

    This is where Kevin takes issue with my argument, because he notes (and somewhat accurately, I’ll happily concede) that I have presented a world in which “policy change isn’t seriously possible, and so isn’t worth pushing for.” I’d amend that to read “sweeping policy change in a desirable libertarian direction isn’t seriously possible through political channels, and so isn’t worth pushing for through those same political channels.” I’d also add that this does not preclude the viability modest policy changes for the better, attained through incremental processes or the occasional chance opening on the margins. But nevertheless, you get the gist.

    So where does that leave us? For my own outlook, it’s admittedly a position of deep pessimism about the efficacy of politics in general (I’d also add for anyone who knows me or my general outlook on the political process, none of this should come as even a slight surprise). Kevin seems to indicate that he does not share this pessimism, and he may even consider me mistaken in reaching this position.

    But also note what he does not do: he does not provide an answer to the specific obstacles to UBI’s implementation that I raised, now summarized in point 5 above. Kevin seems to believe that it isn’t necessary for UBI’s proponents to explain how we could arrive at UBI, and that they need only show that UBI is conceptually better than the current welfare state. This position is deeply problematic, because UBI is being justified as an improvement upon the current welfare state. As such the entire case for UBI is actually dependent upon its successful execution – or at least a plausible case that its successful execution is likely.

    If, as I have argued in #5 above, the most likely outcome for UBI is a failed implementation that instead saddles us with both a large new UBI program and the majority of the old welfare state, then the case for UBI collapses as per observations 2 & 3. Note that this is also true irrespective of whether one considers my general outlook on politics to be overly pessimistic, cynical etc. A more optimistic person might take regular refuge in political campaigns and sweeping policy solutions and yet similarly conclude that UBI faces insurmountable implementation obstacles along the very same particular lines I have suggested. And since, as I have shown above, the case for UBI is itself dependent upon the successful implementation of the UBI/welfare swap, it is incumbent upon the proponents of UBI to make the case that those obstacles are actually surmountable. Thus far, we’ve seen an unusual reluctance to make that case beyond an unconvincing exercise in the waving of hands to deem its implementation plausible without any deeper consideration of the path.

    Without addressing the obstacles to UBI’s implementation that I raised, Kevin attempts to turn my description of them around by positing an analogous case against privatization along similar lines in a socialist regime. I’ll simply note that the analogy doesn’t really hold all that well for the reason that socialist regimes (or at least their hardline variety) are usually hostile to the very same political processes by which the proposed privatization or other deregulation of the status quo might be initiated. Instead you’re likely to get Prague 1968. Or Venezuela today. Still, socialist regimes do from time to time collapse and thereby “privatize.” Their softer “democratic socialist” variants also sometimes retract themselves from state ownership or heavy state regulation. At most, all this analogy shows us is that large sweeping political changes of any type are exceedingly difficult to politically design and almost impossible to execute (therefore in answer to Kevin’s question – no I actually wouldn’t view a sweeping attempt to orchestrate and manage privatization politically in a socialist regime as a particularly viable expenditure of energy – rather, as I indicated in my last post, I’d be on the lookout for cases on the margins where the rents extracted by the socialist regime had dissipated beyond the point where they are cost effective to maintain, as that is where deregulatory movements are most likely to occur).

    So whether we want to address them or not, we’re back to the obstacles of implementation and to a non-ideal theorist, this should actually come as no surprise. Just as UBI is offered as a non-ideal political strategy for the welfare state problem in a non-ideal political world, its implementation must also grapple with the non-ideal features of the political system through which it is being proposed – including the likely obstacles. Otherwise the non-ideal political strategy errs in idealizing its own prescriptive political implementation in spite of the very same instincts that prompted the original turn to a non-ideal solution.

    Donald Trump, Hamiltonian

    Posted By on July 25, 2016


    One of the many unsettling features of the Donald Trump’s strange political ascendance is found in his deep seated antipathy to the time-honored doctrine of free trade. Trump devoted a substantial portion of his Republican Convention speech calling for the adoption of protectionist tariffs and other trade restrictions against “any country that cheats.” He proceeded to blame NAFTA for a litany of largely-imagined economic woes in the industrial sector, reiterated his support for an import-substitution regime to internalize manufacturing and tech production in the United States, likened the trade deficit to the federal budget deficit, and railed incoherently against that favorite modern era scapegoat of all of America’s purported trade ills, China. In the following days Trump only doubled down on his calls for alleged economic autonomy, suggesting that as president he would consider taking the United States out of the World Trade Organization.

    These renewed calls for protectionism are not new to American politics, though they do buck the trend toward a managed but certain trade liberalization advanced by both major parties over the past 80 years. In his own idiosyncratic and sometimes vulgarized way, Trump represents the resurgence of an economic philosophy as old as the republic itself: that of Alexander Hamilton.

    A skilled if often mistaken political commentator in his own right, Hamilton was the father of the direct antecedents to Donald Trump’s favored economic system. Over the course of almost 30 years in political life, Hamilton developed a system of sometimes-nuanced but assertive economic nationalism. He believed that trade restrictions were crucial to the development of the fledgling nation’s “infant” industrial base, as well as a guardian against practices of European nations that he deemed unfair or harmful to American interests. To attain this result, Hamilton advocated a complex and carefully tuned system of “bounties” (essentially subsidies to boost American companies agaisnt their competitors abroad) and moderate but certain protective tariffs to insulate American industries from foreign competition. Hamilton and his political heirs coupled this prescription with an aggressive program of harbor, canal, and road infrastructure spending, often called “internal improvements.” These public works projects would in turn provide the means to transport American-made products to American consumers, thereby bypassing the alleged “dependency” on Europe for manufactured imports. As an added bonus their construction would supply American workers with jobs and industry in its own right.

    The parallels are no accident. To quote the great classical liberal economist William Graham Sumner, Hamilton’s mind “was completely befogged in the mists of mercantilism.” This affliction that lasted from his earliest forays into politics as a young soldier in the revolutionary army until his most famous economic treatise, the deeply protectionist “Report on Manufactures” that he wrote as Secretary of the Treasury in 1791. To Hamilton, economic “autonomy” – as maintained through an extensive system of state regulations and economic management – was a primary feature of the American experiment.

    “Food and clothing we have within ourselves,” he wrote in 1774. The rest could be cultivated with a policy of enforced economic independence. Hamilton continued:

    “Our climate produces cotton, wool, flax, and hemp; which, with proper cultivation, would furnish us with summer apparel in abundance. The article of cotton, indeed, would do more; it would contribute to defend us from the inclemency of winter. We have sheep, which, with due care in improving and increasing them, would soon yield a sufficiency of wool. The large quantity of skins we have among us would never let us want a warm and comfortable suit. It would be no unbecoming employment for our daughters to provide silks of their own country. The silk-worm answers as well here as in any part of the world. Those hands which may be deprived of business by the cessation of commerce, may be occupied in various kinds of manufactures and other internal improvements. If, by the necessity of the thing, manufactures should once be established, and take root among us, they will pave the way still more to the future grandeur and glory of America; and, by lessening its need of external commerce, will render it still securer against the encroachments of tyranny.”

    This aggressively autarkic pronouncement gave way to greater nuance as Hamilton’s politics matured, yet protectionism remained a constant feature of his message. In 1782 he pressed its strategic propriety in a blistering assault on the national government’s lack of regulatory powers under the Articles of Confederation. “To preserve the balance of trade in favor of a nation ought to be a leading aim of its policy,” Hamilton declared. “The avarice of individuals may frequently find its account in pursuing channels of traffic prejudicial to that balance, to which the government may be able to oppose effectual impediments.”

    Trade regulation, to Hamilton, was the essence of economic policy. Free trade, he complained, stood “contrary to the uniform practice and sense of the most enlightened nations” Rather, commerce must be subject to “the encouragements or restraints of government.” The “power of regulating trade ought to have been a principal object of the Confederation,” he continued, laying out the case for a national authority to regulate commerce that would come to pass under the new Constitution of 1787.

    Hamilton’s 1791 Report advanced these sentiments as prescriptive policy. Deeming foreign demand for American agricultural products “too uncertain a reliance” for the fledgling nation, he called for the use of economic regulations, tariffs, and bounties to create “a substitute for it, in an extensive domestic market.” The reason for these policies, according to Hamilton, was an allegedly unfair playing field abroad. “If the system of perfect liberty to industry and commerce were the prevailing system of nations,” he argued, free trade would have merit. “But the system which has been mentioned, is far from characterising the general policy of Nations. The prevalent one has been regulated by an opposite spirit.”

    Echoing Hamilton, Trump advanced a boorish but conceptually identical argument in the March 10th Republican debate: “Take China as an example. I have many friends, great manufacturers, they want to go into China. They can’t. China won’t let them. We talk about free trade. It’s not tree free trade; it’s stupid trade. China dumps everything that they have over here. No tax, no anything.”

    To complement his managerial approach to international trade and domestic industry development, Hamilton also used the 1791 report to propose a national infrastructure plan. “Improvements” favoring the transportation of goods, he argued, were an object of any government. In this area “the United States stand much in need.” He continued:

    “The symptoms of attention to the improvement of inland navigation which have lately appeared in some quarters, must fill with pleasure every breast, warmed with a true zeal for the prosperity of the country. These examples, it is to be hoped, will stimulate the exertions of the Government and citizens of every State. There can certainly be no object more worthy of the cares of the local administrations; and it were to be wished that there was no doubt of the power of the National Government to lend its direct aid on a comprehensive plan. This is one of those improvements which could be prosecuted with more efficacy by the whole, than by any part or parts of the Union.”

    If these features sound familiar, consider the following line from Trump’s acceptance speech:

    “This new wealth will improve the quality of life for all Americans – We will build the roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, and the railways of tomorrow. This, in turn, will create millions more jobs.”

    It is more or less the same argument, updated by about 200 years of technological advance and distilled downward to the bombastic platitudes of an idiot.

    An Immigration Policy Parallel

    If Trump’s trade protectionism is essentially Hamiltonian, albeit a less coherently argued form, what about its close cousin in immigration? Trump has infamously appealed to the nativist tendencies of American populism, ranging from his proposal to build a massive wall on the American border with Mexico to multiple notorious and bigotry-tinged “security” deportations and immigration restrictions in the name of fighting terrorism.

    Alexander Hamilton was, famously, an immigrant himself. He also diverged from Trump in his pairing of immigration and protectionism. The 1791 Report contained an extensive defense of “promoting of emigration from foreign Countries” and linking this policy to his broader program for the state promotion of manufactured goods.

    Though he struck liberal policy tones on immigration for his day, Hamilton’s immigration views were not without nuance or even an uglier side that emerged toward the end of his life. Hamilton proved quite capable of espousing openly xenophobic and nativist beliefs, often to the surprise of his contemporaries who knew of his own foreign birth on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

    One striking episode came to print in 1796 involving a dispute between Hamilton and William Findley, a congressman from Western Pennsylvania who had harshly criticized the former Secretary of the Treasury’s instigation of the Whiskey Rebellion. Addressing the Irish-born Findley and Swiss-born politician Albert Gallatin, Hamilton “censured the people [of Pennsylvania] for electing us.” According to Findley’s recollection:

    “[Hamilton] expressed much surprise and indignation at their reposing so much confidence in foreigners, that Gallatin and I were both foreigners and therefore not to be trusted. When it was answered, that I had been in the country from my youth, &c. and that Mr. Gallatin had come into it very young and had been a citizen a competent length of time, to be legally qualified for trust, that we were both sensible men, and had a sufficient stake in the country, to secure our interest, he persisted in saying, that we were bad hearted men and dishonest politicians.”

    Perhaps “foreigners are bad hearted men!” was some sort of slightly tamer 18th century shorthand of “The Mexicans are sending us drugs dealers, criminals, and rapists!”

    Hamilton served as something of an architect behind the scenes of perhaps the most severe anti-immigration policy to emerge from the founding era, the legislative package known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. This set of four bills is best known today for its penalization of “sedition” – the criminalization of certain forms of political speech that the Federalist party used to persecute opposing newspaper editors. The legislative package’s other three less-discussed provisions actually pertained to immigration.

    The first was the Naturalization Act of 1798, which increased the required residency period for an immigrant to obtain naturalized citizenship from 5 to 14 years. The Alien Enemies Act authorized the imprisonment or forcible deportation of non-citizen males coming from any country at which the United States was in a state of declared war (note that this provision extended to persons who would have lost their citizenship eligibility under the Naturalization Act). The Alien Friends Act granted the president widespread authority in times of peace to order the detention or deportation of foreign nationals that were deemed “hostile” to the United States, and to prescribe severe restrictions on the lengths that targeted persons could remain in the country.

    These draconian measures came into being as a product of early anti-immigrant sentiments tied to the undeclared Quasi-War with France, which Hamilton played a key role in fomenting. The Quasi-War itself was an outgrowth of the French Revolution, entangling the United States in a state of degrading diplomatic and eventually naval relations with a succession of governing regimes in France. As Hamilton’s political adversaries, the Democratic-Republicans, had expressed early sympathies for the French Revolution, the episode also functioned as a prime opportunity for the Federalists to whip the American public into a state of alarm about the presence of alleged subversives and other “treasonous” elements who supposedly threatened to import a Jacobin Reign of Terror into of the fledgling United States. In reality, the Federalists’ driving motivator was likely a combination of (1) a ploy to strengthen the case for war with France, and with it the establishment of a “defensive” army under Hamilton’s command, and (2) an old fashioned ballot suppression scheme to disenfranchise immigrants, who tended to vote for the opposition Democratic-Republicans.

    Hamilton followed the bills’ progress through Congress closely. While his role in their drafting is confounded by the destruction of his personal papers and a disputed assignment of blame to him by Hamilton’s bitter enemy, President John Adams, there can be little doubt that he approved of the anti-immigration measures. As Congress debated the bills he wrote Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, his line to the Federalist Party faction in Congress, for information about their progress. Hamilton informed Pickering of his opinion that “the mass [of Aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the Country.” He wished for Congress to carve out exceptions for persons “whose situations would expose them too much if sent away & whose demeanour among us has been unexceptionable” and he asked that their enforcement “not be cruel or violent.”

    Nonetheless, his position was clear. Hamilton supported the deportation of foreign nationals on the suspicion of threat to the United States, which in his own time entailed the publicly inflamed spectre of Jacobin revolutionaries from France. It is not difficult to see the parallels between the “security”-tinged rationale of 1798 and Donald Trump’s own vulgar manifestations in his call to prohibit Muslims from entering the country on the same grounds.

    All three of the Alien and immigration acts were quickly repealed after the Federalists fell from power in 1800, though they served as an unsettling precedent for subsequent anti-immigration measures across American history. Similarly, economists have long since debunked the reasoning behind Hamilton’s neo-mercantilist economic system. Its shadow continue to linger over American politics and directly sustained a trade-penalizing protectionist policy regime into the early 20th century on expressly Hamiltonian grounds. Unfortunately the rise of Donald Trump has reinvigorated one of America’s oldest and most dubious political traditions, and this time it’s coming with all the reckless ambition of its progenitor but very little of his intellectual sophistication or erudition.


    I have since learned that the Alien Enemies Act actually still remains in effect to the present day, having been adapted into the United States Code in a series of revisions in 1918. Part of the original text it still requires deportations under the act to be conducted “according to the dictates of humanity and national hospitality” – a clause that was probably included at the behest of Hamilton, based on a suggestion he made in a letter to Timothy Pickering shortly before its adoption. The clause confirms Hamilton’s own intimate involvement in the drafting of the measure.

    Why non-ideal UBI is still a unicorn hunt

    Posted By on July 25, 2016



    Kevin Vallier has an interesting post up over at the BHL blog in which he takes on the public choice critiques that I have made of the Universal Basic Income proposal that is popular among some would-be reformers of the welfare state. It’s a long post and worth a read, but I want to focus on one argument in particular. Kevin espouses a version of UBI on explicitly non-ideal grounds, that is to say it is not a destination policy but rather a transitional policy – that is to say “one that we should pass through in transitioning from our present institutions to ideal institutions.”

    So far, I’m with him and would readily concede that UBI is likely an improvement over the status quo in a non-ideal political world…if you can get to it. But that’s the rub. A non-ideal political world also entails non-ideal implementation mechanisms, which is to say legislative and administrative channels that are also highly susceptible to corruption, interest group capture, regulatory incompetence, waste, and everything else we know and expect to encounter from government. Kevin acknowledges these challenges as well, but assesses them comparatively against the current welfare state:

    “The important question is whether it would face worse problems than the present welfare-state that the UBI would replace (or some similar welfare-states to what we have now). And I see no reason to think it would fare any worse than the current welfare state, with its many, many problems. We should expect less waste, less rent-seeking, and so on, just as UBI advocates claim.”

    I’d answer that such a comparison is only half of the picture though. On a side by side comparison, made between two mutually exclusive policy options, a plausible case can be made that UBI will be less susceptible to waste, rent-seeking, and so on than the current beast of a welfare state. Unfortunately our political system does not permit such clear demarcation lines between the two. In order for UBI’s advantages to become known in this comparison, we also need a pathway to get there – to implement UBI in a swap with the current welfare state. And as I noted, that pathway must also be laid out within a deeply non-ideal political world new where policies are highly susceptible to corruption and capture.

    In other words, we’d have to make a large-scale policy swap between the current welfare state and UBI. And as I have noted previously, policy swaps of this type are exceedingly rare in history. At the scale envisioned by UBI’s supporters, they may not even exist. They might as well be unicorns.

    I can accordingly think of one very likely scenario where UBI’s affliction with the problems of rent seeking, waste, corruption etc. is not simply worse but significantly worse than the current welfare state: the scenario in which UBI is adopted due to a promised “swap” for the existing welfare state, but the existing welfare state never goes away thereby saddling us with both programs. Now wait a minute, you might say – that’s not a part of what UBI is proposing! Indeed it isn’t, but remember – we are living in a non-ideal political world. The seamless execution of a political swap between the current welfare state and UBI is highly improbable in non-ideal conditions, so we must contemplate the adoption of our non-ideal policy in accordance with the most likely pathway to its implementation.

    I’ll go ahead and predict right now what will likely happen if, say, Congress were to seriously consider implementing a UBI system:

    1. A deal would be proposed to “swap” UBI with the existing welfare state as a necessary condition for getting enough skeptics on board. This deal would carry all the promises that we now hear from UBI supporters about how the new policy would be welfare-improving and more efficient than the hodgepodge of a system we currently have.

    2. Once UBI is adopted, it will need to be phased in over several years if not decades in order to wean us off the old system and onto the new. This will involve a “phasing out” of all of the elements of the old welfare state over many years, likely on a schedule prescribed by law.

    3. When the first phase-out deadlines arrive for the old welfare state, interest groups that are highly invested in those programs will begin to realize the imminent loss of their captured and concentrated program-specific rents, even though all people also now have UBI. A number of them will move to preserve the rents of the old system by pressuring Congress to carve out an exemption to the previously agreed upon schedule.

    4. Pressure to abandon the agreed-upon schedule will be immense, and will point to perceived deficiencies in the newly-adopted UBI system as a reason to “preserve” part if not all of the old welfare state on top of the UBI benefit. You can expect to see news features and TV commercials that illustrate the sob stories of children or other dependents who still need food/clothing/medical attention despite having UBI. This includes a very likely number of cases where incompetent parents or guardians misappropriated their UBI payments on wasteful or frivolous self-indulgence, leaving their dependents little better off than they were previously. The paternalistic instincts of the welfare state will come out in full force.

    5. Amidst these and other pressures, Congress will cave, because the concentrated benefits of that rent will have an advantage over the diffuse costs of the program. We also have extensive evidence that Congress will cave because that is what Congress usually does in this very similar scenarios where a previously agreed-upon expenditure-limiting schedule runs into political demands in the present for continued appropriations.

    6. Instead of getting the promised swap, we will be saddled with both an extremely expensive new UBI program and substantial preserved elements of the old welfare state.

    I say this scenario is likely because the existing welfare state is the product of many decades of rent extraction, as well as a number of deeply entrenched and relatively stable stakeholder interests that sustain it and make the execution of substantial changes to it very, very difficult (just look at Social Security for a long track record of would-be political “reformers” slamming head first into this wall). Vested interests with substantial existing rent extractions do not simply dissipate, unless the rent itself also dissipates to the point that it is no longer worth the political investment to maintain it (and that scenario is highly unlikely with a direct payout system, as welfare is). Nor do interest groups easily “swap” to something else, such as a parallel “alternative” policy like UBI. Doing so is something akin to scrapping one’s lucrative and existing political investments – including investments that keep out other competitive seekers of the same rents – and starting again from scratch under a new rent allocation regime that is, comparatively, open to new competitive entrants seeking to capture some of its fruit.

    In the end, a non-ideal transitional UBI program may explicitly eschew an idealized unicorn “fix” for the welfare state. But its implementation is still subject to a non-ideal political world. Delivering a massive proposed overhaul intact through that non-ideal political world therefore becomes its own unicorn problem, given everything that we know to be true and evidenced by centuries of experience within that political world.

    It’s not enough to compare the welfare state and UBI – even a non-ideal transitional UBI – side by side and see how they stack up. We must also ask if we can even get to a UBI from the current welfare state while also leaving its promised benefits over the welfare state intact. Since one of those benefits necessarily entails repealing and replacing substantial parts of the welfare state within a non-ideal political world, the obstacles that political world places on the pathway to UBI’s implementation must not only be addressed – they are the very essence of why UBI, idealized or not, is a politically impractical program.

    How many adjuncts are there in not-for-profit higher ed?

    Posted By on June 29, 2016

    Counting adjunct faculty is a strangely politicized topic, replete with bad information and even outright false statistical claims. Media reporting of the subject routinely repeats the false claim that adjuncts make up about three fourths of the academic workforce. Adjunct activist organizations such as the “New Faculty Majority” even incorporate this claim into their name. Yet as I have documented on this blog and elsewhere, the stats behind this claim simply do not add up.

    We also know for a fact that the adjunct job market is heavily distorted by the for-profit higher ed sector, which almost exclusively draws from part-time faculty. My article in the most recent issue of Liberal Education documents this phenomenon and illustrates some of the nuances beneath the surface of the adjunct numbers.

    One request I often receive is for an accounting of how many adjunct faculty teach at traditional not-for-profit institutions. Owing to data limitations in the way that adjunct numbers are tracked and reported, it is difficult to arrive at a precise estimate. We can however see the results of the for-profit distortion by removing these numbers from the historical trend in adjunct hiring. An estimate of this pattern without the for-profit effect is overlaid in the dotted red line below. As it shows, adjunct growth – though existent – is far more stable without the for-profit effect, and actually does not appear to be growing much faster than the ranks of full-time faculty in recent years.


    There are still some data issues to work through though. The U.S. Department of Education tracks its adjunct data through self-reported surveys from higher ed institutions. While adjunct activists have long charged that these surveys “under-report” the total number of part-time employees, the opposite is actually true – at least in aggregate. The most thorough survey data on the adjunct workforce indicates that about 22% of current part-time instructors teach at two or more institutions. That means the Department of Education numbers are likely double-counting a sizable subset of the adjunct ranks. We don’t know exactly how many are double counted due to data limitations. Some of these persons teach at 3 institutions and are therefore triple-counted. Even if we err on the conservative side though, the Department of Education numbers are probably at least 122% of the actual adjunct population.

    A little math gets us to a rough but reasonably accurate estimate of how many adjuncts are currently teaching in not-for-profit higher ed, a figure that includes community college and 4-year institutions. By dropping the for-profit workforce, the total number of not-for-profit adjuncts reported to the Department of Education sits at around 625,000. Since this figure includes a the aforementioned double-counting problem, it needs to be further discounted. That brings us to about 512,000 adjuncts on a conservative reduction. But since triple counting also exists, actual numbers are likely below 500,000.

    By contrast, these same institutions currently employ about 800,000 full time faculty. The claimed “new faculty majority” isn’t anywhere close to a majority after all.

    When Mises met Keynes

    Posted By on June 5, 2016

    On June 23, 1926 John Maynard Keynes delivered an unusual economics lecture at the University of Berlin. This event has gone almost completely unnoticed by Keynes’ principle biographers despite what would seem to be a historically significant product. A few months after the event, Keynes heavily edited the Berlin lecture into his well known essay, “The End of Laissez-Faire.” The resulting pamphlet is arguably Keynes’ second most famous work, after the General Theory, as it articulates a formative step in his broader case for using the tools of the state to prescriptively intervene in certain matters of economic policy.


    The historical neglect of Keynes’ Berlin lecture is unfortunate, as it obscures a troubling feature of his economic thought. More specifically, Keynes used the occasion to advance an economic argument for population eugenics. Population growth was one of the primary areas where Keynes believed that the principle of laissez-faire should be abandoned. As he stated in the derivative essay:

    “The time has already come when each country needs a considered national policy about what size of population, whether larger or smaller than at present or the same, is most expedient. And having settled this policy, we must take steps to carry it into operation. The time may arrive a little later when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members.”

    There is reason to believe that this overtly eugenicist nod from the essay comprised an even larger portion of his Berlin lecture. Several German-language newspapers covered the event. Their reporting focused heavily upon what was considered one of the primary takeaways of Keynes’ lecture. Its message was received as an attempt to modernize and operationalize Thomas Malthus’ famous theory of runaway population growth. To do so he espoused deploying unnamed tools of the state to “manage” the population of a given country, including with an eye toward maintaining what he saw as a desirable racial stock. Keynes in fact had advocated such policies for many decades, and had previously attributed them to the proliferation of “laissez-faire” doctrine, as in this 1923 editorial for the New Republic magazine:

    Keynes1923-NewRepublicKeynes’ frequent eugenic nods are deeply bigoted by modern standards, even as they were common among intellectuals in his day. The 1926 Berlin lecture still stands out as an exceptionally egregious case, both for its close connection to the development of Keynes’ more famous economic assault on laissez-faire and for its timing. Though the text of the original lecture has not survived, a direct glimpse into its severity may be seen in the reaction of one of its witnesses. Economist Ludwig von Mises, then visiting from the University of Vienna, was in the audience at Keynes’ Berlin talk. A few months after the lecture he wrote a short but devastating critique of Keynes’ adapted essay for a German-language periodical. Making note that it was based on the Berlin lecture, Mises did not weigh directly into the Malthusian debate it had since provoked. He did however single out the deeply unsettling implication of Keynes’ argument. As Mises wrote:

    “Certainly there were found among his listeners some, who in the last few years were driven out of the land in which they had worked and lived; and many, who wish to emigrate from an overpopulated Middle Europe and cannot, because the workers of more thinly settled lands defend themselves against the addition of  competitors. And Keynes will also certainly know that protectionism has put Germany and England in the most difficult economic situation.”

    Clearly Keynes’ nod to state-designed population control had struck a nerve, including with his own audience at the Berlin lecture hall. The resulting implications of this context upon the essay it produced are similarly disturbing to contemplate.

    Adjunct Activists and the Terminal Degree Problem

    Posted By on May 26, 2016

    Most adjunct professors in the United States lack a PhD or other comparable terminal degree. Surveys of the past decade have consistently attested to this fact, indicating that only between 18% and 30% of current adjunct faculty possess a doctorate. Many of those faculty who do hold terminal credentials are highly qualified scholars. A portion of the remainder are ABD, or holders of Master’s degrees who competently teach introductory level courses in which a Master’s is likely sufficient training. Still, the harsh reality of inadequate academic qualifications is probably the single biggest obstacle that most adjuncts face in the quest to obtain a more permanent form of academic employment.


    The reason is simple. Doctorates are overproduced – especially in the humanities. In almost any given year, there are more new PhDs granted in many of these fields – think English, History, Philosophy, and almost all of the ___ Studies departments – than there are available job postings. The resulting glut means that several PhD holders will be unable to obtain academic employment.

    Note that, by virtue of their degree alone, each and every one of these unemployed PhD-holding applicants automatically has a stronger CV than practically anyone who stopped at the Master’s level or below. Yes, there may be a few exceptions of well published MA holders or persons who are hired on career experience rather than academic credentials, but they are rare. The inescapable reality is that the PhD has become a bare minimum prerequisite to even make the first cut of the job application stack, let alone obtain an interview for a tenure track position. To put it bluntly, if you apply for a tenure track job at anything even remotely resembling a serious academic institution and you do not have a PhD, you are likely living in a fantasy land. Your application will not even be considered for the simple reason that there are 100 other people ahead of you who possess the PhD that you lack.

    A small and noisy segment of the adjunct activist community has recently become aware of this obstacle. Rather than rectify the deficiency on their respective resumes though, they have chosen to attack the very notion of the credential. Consider the following article by adjunct activists Maria Maisto and Seth Kahn, which appeared in the AAUP’s May-June 2016 newsletter. Critiquing another author who pointed out the overwhelming lack of this minimal qualification among the adjunct community, they editorialize:

    “Their insistence on terminal degrees for tenure-eligible positions—despite the fact that the majority of contingent faculty don’t have such degrees and without substantial evidence that they’re helpful, much less indispensable, for teaching-intensive positions—leads to the book’s deepest disappointment: the authors acknowledge the injustice their proposal would do to long-serving adjuncts but offer no solutions except to allow them to keep working in contingent positions.”

    The position Maisto and Kahn argue for is nothing short of insanity. They are effectively arguing that unqualified adjuncts with admittedly weak academic credentials are somehow entitled to the scarce number of tenure track jobs in a glutted academic market, even if granting these jobs to MA-toting adjuncts would also place them ahead of potentially hundreds of better qualified academics who actually meet the minimum degree expectations for a position. Never mind that a typical PhD requires 4-10 years to complete, whereas a Master’s can be finished in 1-3. As with most other aspects of their political cause, these adjunct activists actually eschew and demean merit as a basis for hiring. They continue with an uncharacteristically revealing concession. Merit-based hiring, they absurdly contend, is also somehow “sexist” and “ageist” since it advantages young people with PhDs in hand:

    “Clearly, requiring terminal degrees could cost many women (disproportionately those with family responsibilities) an opportunity for secure, tenure-track employment. Age is also a significant factor in the mistreatment of adjunct faculty, with older adjuncts least likely to be considered for full-time positions and most likely to be pushed out of departments (see, for example, “No Country for Old Adjuncts” and “The Age(Ism) of Diversity,” both articles from Inside Higher Ed). It is admirable to support new and recent PhD recipients, but not at the expense of women and older faculty members, with or without terminal degrees.”

    Note that at no point does their argument even acknowledge that the lack of a terminal degree renders their expectations of tenure unrealistic, or that applying for a job without the minimal qualifications might signal a deficiency in one’s own application. It’s always somebody else’s fault – somebody else’s fault that they don’t possess the minimum qualification for the job they seek, somebody else’s fault that they don’t research or publish, and somebody else’s fault that faculty hiring committees place their applications in the reject pile.

    Strangely, they never consider that perhaps the reject pile is exactly where these under-qualified adjunct activist applicants belong. Though I disagree with many adjunct activist arguments, I’ve never contended that they should be dismissed out of hand. The avowedly anti-meritocratic position advanced by Maisto and Kahn signifies however that they are not interested in a serious discussion of the problems facing adjuncts. Rather, they seek only job protectionism for under-qualified and under-performing applicants on the flimsiest of grounds only to poison the discussion with cheap allegations of “sexism” and “ageism” when their absurdly unrealistic expectations of the academic job market are challenged with uncomfortable but empirically attested realities.

    AAUP report confirms: ‘Adjunct Justice’ is a costly proposition

    Posted By on April 11, 2016

    The American Association of University Professors just released its 2015-16 report on the Economic Status of the Profession. As with previous reports, the employment status and wages of adjuncts are a central theme. The report’s authors express alarm at what they allege to be the mass “adjunctification” of U.S. higher ed, even though their actual figures (see the table in Figure 2) show a continued decline in the overall percentage of part-time faculty for 2014. As I showed previously, the adjunct “replacement” theory itself is a myth created by the use of percentages to obscure the fact that full time faculty have been continuously growing in ranks for almost 40 years. Adjunct numbers actually peaked around 2011 due to the For-Profit Higher Ed bubble. They’ve been on the decline ever since as that bubble continues to deflate.

    The AAUP report contains another important finding in Table D. They use a sample of three representative universities to estimate the cost of converting adjunct faculty at these universities into (1) assistant professors and (2) full-time instructors/lecturers. I reproduce the AAUP table below:


    If this sounds familiar, it’s because the AAUP report actually mirrors the approach that Jason Brennan and I took in our recent article from in the Journal of Business Ethics, “Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts.” Our own table used similar categories of “Pretty good job” (an Assistant Professor) and “Minimally good job” (a Lecturer-rank position) to derive similar estimates on the national level:


    The AAUP report does not contain the full dollar amount of each conversion, showing instead only the percentage increases on total operating expenses. Since many of these expenses are fixed and tied to non-discretionary elements of the university budget, these percentages obscure the full scope of the increase that would be required as it would fall disproportionately on instructional expenses. We may nonetheless calculate it from their reported numbers on a per-campus basis:


    The actual price tag is simply staggering. The Ohio State University would incur an instructional budget increase of between $50 and 123 million dollars to convert all current adjuncts to full-time positions. The AAUP’s reported numbers suggest a budget increase of between $16 and 23 million for colleges according to the “national average” of adjunct employment. The AAUP also recognizes the high cost and also proposes a 50% conversion in which half of all adjuncts receive a full time job (it is not stated in their report but the remainder, presumably, would be out of work for reasons that we discussed in detail).

    Furthermore the AAUP notes that there are no easy sources to obtain this money (putting them at odds with the absurdly unrealistic proposal made by Gawker and touted by a number of madjunct activists). They do propose a broad array of budgetary adjustments that apply to college sports, facilities construction, and course scheduling that could potentially recover some resources, but there’s plainly no pot of gold.

    The AAUP’s adjunct conversion findings should be a sobering realization for the adjunct union activist crowd. When Jason and I reported similar cost estimates in our article, their response was shrill and dismissive. One long-term activist called our findings “willfully ignorant” despite his own inadvertent revelation that he had not even read our article. Another screeched that we had produced a “ideological arguments” in simply raising the reality of the tradeoffs invoked by our cost estimates. Yet sure enough, when the AAUP – a faculty group that has long advocated for adjunct pay increases – takes an honest look at the price tag of “adjunct justice,” they find staggering per-adjunct conversion costs that are not far removed from our own. I can only wonder if the madjuncts will similarly dismiss the AAUP’s report without bothering to read it first on account of their repeatedly-expressed disdain for data analysis.


    On closer investigation, it appears that the AAUP’s budget statistics from the Ohio State University further obscure the size of the $50-123 million price tag of “adjunct justice” on that campus. Since the AAUP presents their estimates as percentages of the overall university budget, the cost of the proposed adjunct conversion to full time positions appears to be a relatively modest overall increase of 1%-2.5%. The 2015 Ohio State University budget was a staggering $5.3 billion, so even a $123 million increase in expenses looks like a drop in the bucket.

    This $5.3 billion figure is misleading though. Almost half of it comes from the operating expenses of the university’s extensive hospital system. The actual budget for the university itself, excluding healthcare, is $2.85 billion. The university only reports salary data for faculty and staff combined ($1.4 billion) and staff far outnumber faculty on their campus, so it isn’t possible to break the numbers down further. We can nonetheless safely assume that the “modest” 1-2.5% increase is actually closer to a 5-15% increase on instructional salaries, if not even higher.

    Do Adjuncts and Full Time Faculty have similar work loads?

    Posted By on March 28, 2016

    Historically, adjunct faculty positions emerged as a part time job. The most common example of this practice was designed to allow working professionals to take on a class or two in a university setting. Students benefited from moonlighting instructors who were also practitioners with experience in relevant fields, or perhaps even faculty from different departments or universities who could take on an additional class and add some interdisciplinary perspective. In another common use, adjuncting allowed graduate students to gain teaching experience (usually with intro level courses) while they prepared for the job market or finished their dissertations. Both functions are still very common in academia, with working professionals comprising roughly a quarter of all adjuncts and grad student ABDs making up perhaps another 5-10%.

    These traditional functions stand out in contrast with what might be called the “professional adjunct” – instructors who piece together the equivalent of a full-time course load through multiple adjuncting jobs. The vast majority of these teach at only one or two universities, though a very small number of so-called “freeway flyers” have been known to combine work from three or more different universities into a 4+ course load per semester.Table17

    Most of the adjunct labor union movement centers upon this latter category of “professional adjuncts” and one of its most frequent claims is that persons who teach these course loads are “underpaid” relative to the work they perform. Some of the more extreme activist narratives go so far as to claim that full time faculty are offloading their teaching obligations onto underpaid adjuncts, even as they extract significantly higher full time salaries. This assertion chafes with extensive research showing that most full time faculty spend the largest part of their work week teaching, yet it also hints at a self-perception among “professional adjuncts” that they are carrying a workload that is at least equal to that of a typical full time professor.

    This is an empirical claim, making it testable against actual data. So how does it hold up?

    Full Time Faculty Expectations vs. Professional Adjunct Teaching Expectations:

    Before we get to our analysis, it helps to define the performance expectations and duties of a typical full time faculty member. With some variation on emphasis depending on the rank and university type, most full time professors split the bulk of their time between three areas:

    1. Teaching and advising students
    2. Research – including fulfilling expectations of peer reviewed publishing to qualify for tenure and/or promotion
    3. University service – a broad category that includes departmental work, serving on committees, and taking on certain functions of faculty administration and governance

    All three of these functions are typically part of a full time faculty member’s employment contract, and all usually weigh into tenure and promotion decisions though with some differentiation on how much they are emphasized. The division of time between the three areas also varies by institution type. Faculty at R1 research universities will typically spend more time on research and less in the classroom. Faculty at liberal arts colleges spend more time in the classroom than conducting research, though some research is usually necessary for promotion. Faculty at community colleges spend almost all of their time in the classroom and are only expected to do a small amount of research.

    Note that adjuncts, by comparison, are contracted almost exclusively for the classroom part of the first category: teaching. Most adjuncts are not expected to formally advise students beyond classroom instruction. They usually have no research expectations for promotion or contract renewal. And most adjuncts are not expected to fulfill service requirements at either the departmental or university level.

    Briefly summarized: full time faculty are contracted to (1) teach, (2) research, and (3) provide university service. Most adjuncts are only contracted to teach.

    As our comparison already shows, full time faculty have significantly more employment expectations than adjunct faculty who are only contracted for the classroom part of the job (note that this does not mean adjuncts conduct no research. Rather, they do so on their own time as it is not an official part of their employment terms).

    Full Time Faculty Teaching Hours:

    A 2014 study of a panel of 30 tenure track and tenured faculty at one research university (Boise State) found that teaching actually consumes the single largest portion of the typical full time professor’s work week. The average participant actually spent 24.5 hours/week on teaching. Since research is often done on Saturday and Sunday, this makes up about 40% of their overall work hours when weekends are also included. It’s also the equivalent of about 60% of their standard Monday-through-Friday 40 hour work week.

    This finding is consistent with other research on the subject. In 2003, the US Department of Education conducted an extensive survey of faculty workloads. They found that the average full time faculty member (any institution type) spends about 58% of his/her work week on teaching. The number drops to 43% for faculty at research universities. Liberal arts college faculty spend about 66% of their time on teaching. These data compare closely to an earlier 1987 survey by the Department of Education. As reported in a 1994 study by the AAUP (unfortunately its most recent comprehensive look at the question), the 1987 results showed that the average full time professor devoted about 56% of his/her work week to teaching. The lowest was 40% at private research universities. Liberal arts college faculty averaged 65%. So the data changed very little between 1987 and 2003. And those earlier findings are consistent with the 2014 Boise State panel study.

    Using these reference benchmarks, let’s estimate that the average full time faculty member spends between 56-60% of his/her time on teaching.

    The Department of Education studies also estimate the total working hours of a typical faculty member, as does the Boise State study. The 2003 USDOE report found that the average full time faculty works about 53 hours per week. The Boise State study showed a 54.4 hour total work week. This translates into 31 hours/week in the classroom on average. The low ball number for research universities translates into about 24 hours of teaching/week (roughly the same as the Boise State study). Liberal arts faculty spend about 35.5 hours/week on teaching.

    Service consistently takes up a little over 20% of the typical full time faculty member’s time regardless of institution type. And research ranges from a little over 30% at research-intensive universities to a little over 10% at teaching-intensive institutions (excluding community colleges, where research is only 4% of the work week).

    How Adjuncts Compare:

    Recall that a common complaint among “professional adjuncts” is that they work the equivalent of a full-time faculty position, but for pay that is well below the entry level full time faculty median salary of about $48,000.

    We’ve already established that most adjuncts in this category have very minimal research or service obligations as they are only contracted for their classroom instruction. The aforementioned U.S. Department of Education study also examined adjunct work divisions and found that teaching comprises about 88.3% of the average adjunct’s work week. Adjunct work hours may therefore be compared directly to the teaching component of full time faculty.

    According to the Department of Education Study, the average adjunct works a total of about 40 hours/week, or significantly less than a full time faculty member. But even this figure is high because it includes secondary jobs, whether as a full time professional or other part time work outside of adjuncting. This study reports that the average adjunct only works about 15 hours/week within the university including paid and unpaid work. This finding is actually pretty consistent with about what one might expect to find for somebody who teaches 2 classes a semester with a generous amount of additional time outside of the classroom (imagine 6 hours/week of classroom lecture + 9 hours for preparation and grading, split between two courses)

    These data also put the average adjunct’s teaching load a good 9 hours short of the average full time faculty member at a doctoral institution (24 hours/week). It is also less than half of the workload of a full time faculty member at a teaching-intensive institution such as a liberal arts college (35.5 hours/week) or even the general average of the U.S. university system (31 hours/week).

    But perhaps I’m cutting the adjuncts a little short on my estimates. In that case, we might generously assume that our “professional adjunct” is one of the minority of adjuncts who teach at two or more universities. Let’s assume this adjunct teaches a 4-4, split between two universities, and therefore doubles the hours worked to 30/week. This still puts us only 6 hours more than the average teaching load for a full time faculty member at a research university, just under parity with the national average for all full time faculty, and 5.5 hours short of the liberal arts college average.

    In other words, a “professional adjunct” with a 4-4 course load split between two different campuses is likely working weekly hours that are somewhere in the neighborhood of only the teaching component of a typical full time faculty member at the same college or university. Most adjuncts are working significantly fewer teaching hours than full time faculty at the same institutions. And those same adjuncts have almost none of the research and service obligations that full time faculty must contractually perform.

    Using the same Department of Education data, research plus service easily adds another 20 hours/week to the typical full time faculty member’s work expectations on top of their teaching. Those 20 hours are in addition to what even our 30 hour/week adjunct spends in the classroom.

    But why stop there? Let’s imagine a severe scenario involving a teacher that we will call Super-Adjunct. Super-Adjunct comes from the extreme upper tail of the adjunct workforce – and indeed the extreme upper tail of the tiny 4.2% of all adjuncts who are true “freeway flyers” and spend time at 3 or more campuses. Super-Adjunct teaches 6 full three-credit-hour courses a semester. This means Super-Adjunct spends 18 hours/week just standing in front of a classroom. Let’s assume our hypothetical extreme adjunct has an average efficiency at grading and prepping for class. After all, Super-Adjunct is Super-Adjunct. And Super-Adjunct spends 5 hours out of the classroom per week for every one of the 6 classes being taught. That’s 30 hours/week on grading and prepping and answering emails and caring about students. Super-Adjunct’s total work load is now 48 hours/week…or still 5 hours short of the average full time university faculty member, inclusive of the latter’s research and service obligations.

    Super-Adjunct may indeed be working more than a standard 9-5 full time job (albeit for only 30 weeks out of the year, as opposed to 50 for the 9-5er). But not even Super-Adjunct is putting in hours that match just the national average for a typical full time college professor. Those hours, by the way, are even higher for full time faculty at research institutions.

    But most “professional adjuncts” are not Super-Adjunct. They’re actually putting in somewhere around the 30 hour/week level at the upper end, and probably lower considering that the Coalition on the Academic Workforce reports that less than a third of all adjuncts teach more than 2 courses per semester.

    An Empirical Conclusion:

    The results of our examination of the “professional adjunct” empirical claim are conclusive: even an adjunct with a heavy teaching load falls well short of the average work hours of a typical full time faculty member once the latter’s service and research obligations are included.

    A “professional adjunct” would have to be teaching somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 hours/week to simply maintain a teaching portfolio on par with the average full time professor, and that would include none of the additional obligations of research and service. And most adjuncts have teaching obligations that fall far short of 30 hours/week. Furthermore, most adjuncts would not be competitive applicants for the average teaching job as that average includes research university positions. Multiple points of evidence indicate that the typical “professional adjunct” has a comparatively weak research portfolio, and a subset of the activist ones even hold the entire peer review process in open contempt. Assuming they could even get a full time job it would likely be a teaching-intensive job, and therefore closer to 35 hours/week.

    In effect, this means that the “professional adjunct” activists who claim they deserve salary parity with full time faculty are actually demanding “equal pay” for severely unequal and lesser amounts of completed work.

    I will likely be lambasted by a small and anti-scholarly but vocal activist segment of the “professional adjunct” crowd for pointing out these data and even conducting an empirical examination of their own empirical claim. But it should come as no surprise to learn that full time faculty actually have substantial obligations to their employers outside of the classroom and its related activities of preparation and grading. In fact, the AAUP pointed this out in 1994 when it noted the general public’s bad habit of equating full time faculty work hours with time spent teaching:


    It would appear that the “professional adjunct” activists have appropriated this same mistaken belief as their own.

    Arguing Adjunct Justice, Part II

    Posted By on March 26, 2016

    The fun continues with the adjunct activist crowd in the wake of my Journal of Business Ethics article with Jason Brennan (who has an interesting challenge up for all the “social justice” claimants on the other side of the issue). Unfortunately, most of the comments we’ve received continue to display little evidence of actually reading our paper. And most of the exceptional examples that do largely fail to engage the main argument we make about the existence of tradeoffs in pursuing “adjunct justice.” Nonetheless a few additional points are worth commenting upon. Continuing in the same vein as my post from the other day


    “But the adjuncts are being exploited!”

    That’s certainly an interesting normative claim. It does not however challenge or alter what was, at its core, a positive argument to demonstrate the existence of tradeoffs in attempting to deliver higher pay to adjuncts as a class. Those tradeoffs are a product of scarce resources and university budget constraints combined with the fact that demand curves do indeed slope downward, including in labor markets. They exist independently of whether or not exploitation is occurring in the adjunct market. I might fully accept your assertion that adjuncts are exploited, and the very same tradeoffs we’ve presented would still exist and still constrain your efforts to deliver upon adjunct justice.

    Alternatively, I might challenge elements of your exploitation framework. I might argue, for example, that adjuncts tend to be highly educated people who have an abundance of exit options to comfortable and well-paying jobs outside of academia. While this may not necessarily obviate all exploitative characteristics you ascribe to adjuncting, it probably reduces the resonance of their “plight” and the urgency of prioritizing their claimed exploitation over other problems. Or I might answer that what you describe as “exploitation” is actually a misdiagnosis of a situation in which some adjuncts are making highly unreasonable salary demands relative to the work they perform and the qualifications of they possess. A 4-4 teaching load covering about 30 weeks of the year with minimal or no research and departmental obligations is a far cry from a full-time job, especially compared to the 50 work week 9am-to-5pm norm. It also entails significantly fewer work obligations than the typical junior level full time faculty position. So perhaps a better place to start the exploitation discussion is by explaining your use of the term. Perhaps you will convince me, as I am not wedded to the foregoing challenges – I only raise them since they do not seem to have been considered when you attributed exploitation to the adjunct situation as if it were a broadly-encompassing and established matter of fact.

    But even then, it’s not clear what you’re adding. Although you take “exploitation” as a given, the issues I note here suggest a need to further explore whether and to what degree adjuncts are being exploited before we may even proceed to the implications of your normative addendum. And when we do proceed to those implications, they still do not meaningfully alter the reality that any effort to alleviate them will be constrained by the same sometimes-unpleasant tradeoffs that we originally presented.

    “It would take something much higher than the basic living wage that adjuncts desire to induce the job gentrification effects you describe.”

    First off, you need to define a living wage if you intend to use the term. I make this request in all seriousness, noting that while your tone suggests it may be a relatively modest pay hike, other adjunct activists have endorsed the SEIU’s $15K per course solution in complete seriousness. That solution would yield an adjunct $120,000 a year on a 4-4 load with summers off. At that rate, I’d even quit my job and assist to gentrify the full time adjunct market. So I assume that when you use the term “living wage” you have something else in mind than the SEIU proposal.

    So let’s go a more modest route and assume you mean $6,000 a class as the new adjuncting norm. At the same 4-4 course load, that translates into $48,000 a year. We don’t even need to hypothesize a job gentrification effect at that level because we may also witness its reality every day in the present academic job market. $48,000 also happens to be well within the range of the median starting salary for an entry level full time faculty position. In several of the humanities where the adjunct problem is strongest, positions at this level are besieged by dozens or even hundreds of applicants. English in particular suffers from a massive overproduction of PhDs and a large cohort of residual job seekers from previous years. These conditions are prime for the job gentrification effect we describe.


    Still not convinced? Well, you could offer $4,000 a class, or a salary of $32,000 a year on a 4-4 load. While it may not be as pronounced as the national median of $48,000, I’ll gladly wager that you will still have a gentrification effect. Yes, the academic job market in some fields is actually that saturated. In fact it’s so saturated that many adjuncts routinely complain that they are underemployed, i.e. they cannot find enough classes even at the current national average adjuncting rate of $2,700 per class. Any increase in adjunct pay will therefore tap further into that already-saturated market and, eventually, entice others to enter it. If those entrants tend to have PhDs in hand, their credentials will already exceed the majority of current adjuncts, who do not possess terminal degrees as a rule. And that is where the gentrification occurs.

    “You’re just anti-union, and you don’t want adjuncts to be able to organize.”

    While this is not a serious counterargument to our paper, it is true that I would not personally join an adjunct union. I would not join one because I see no benefits that I could derive from joining one, and I see many downsides including the union’s short-sighted pursuit of policy objectives that I believe would actually harm most current adjuncts. You may believe differently for your own situation, in which case you should be free to join a union.

    What I struggle to understand though is your assumption that unions are innately good for all adjuncts. I can think of a number of reasons why this is not the case. Specifically the adjunct unions are advancing many of the very same proposals that are vulnerable to the tradeoffs scenarios we describe in our article – the same tradeoffs you are curiously reluctant to engage. These include measures that would likely impose considerable strain upon university budgets, induce job gentrification effects in the saturated quarters of the humanities market, and prompt universities to create a smaller number of full time positions by laying off the majority of the adjunct workforce and consolidating its classes. In fact, we’ve already started to see evidence of what happens when universities begin converting large numbers of adjunct positions to a smaller number of full time positions: the adjuncts do in fact lose their jobs.

    I would also decline membership in an adjunct union because I believe that its goals are not representative of a sizable minority of the adjunct workforce – the working professionals who also moonlight in the classroom for 1-2 courses a semester. This not only pertains to my own teaching obligations, but roughly a quarter of all current adjuncts in the United States. Many adjunct unions are currently pressing for one-size-fits-all compensation arrangements as well as seniority privileges in adjunct hiring decisions. Both of these proposals are likely to harm the many working professionals who adjunct – the first because it may actually impede the pay level differentiation that is necessary to attract professionals to the classroom, and the latter because it would privilege long term “career” adjuncts with weaker credentials over better-qualified (and younger) professionals in competitive hiring decisions.

    I do not oppose the right of persons to form a union, provided that they do not require unwilling adjuncts to join the union they form. Unfortunately, many adjunct union initiatives are seeking a closed shop arrangement where all adjunct faculty are required to join (at least in states that permit such things). We’ve also seen real world examples of the SEIU behaving badly in attempting to bring these arrangements into existence. Just last month a popular professional adjunct at Georgetown University was forced out of his job by the SEIU’s closed shop arrangement. This followed months of harassment of the adjunct, including SEIU reps stalking him to the university parking lot after his classes and verbally disparaging him for his now-founded opposition to joining their union.

    “Everything you state about the tradeoffs of university budgeting is already obvious.”

    Good, because I fully believe that the tradeoffs are obvious. I’m not convinced that most adjunct activists recognize them as obvious though, because a number of them are presently bombarding me with angry and inflammatory rants in which they insist that the tradeoffs we’ve identified do not exist. Or in which they offer ridiculous and unrealistic non-solutions that we already addressed in portions of the article that they did not bother to read.

    I am also somewhat unconvinced that even you recognize the tradeoffs as obvious, despite your claim to do so. While you do indeed identify them as “obvious” and purport to recognize the constraints they impose, you too fail to meaningfully engage their implications. When I caution you about the job gentrification effect, you deny its existence or assert against all evidence that it somehow doesn’t apply to adjuncts. When I note that there seem to be no immediate pots of gold in the university budget to meet the level of “adjunct justice” you desire, you insist otherwise but do not bother to explain where it may be found. When I suggest that there may be multiple other more-just claimants to university resources than adjuncts, you insist that I’m trying to impose some sort of false dichotomy upon you and then proceed to act as if we might provide justice to all simultaneously without concern for the price tag. And when I point out that your favorite pot-of-gold funding source, university administrative bloat, includes a litany of student activist offices, green sustainability initiatives, campus diversity centers and other ideological causes that you personally support, you suddenly become non-committal about defunding those areas of “badmin.” Or you offer ad hoc reasons to justify their existence. In short, while you pay lip service to recognizing the tradeoffs I describe, you also display a habit of revealing preferences that suggest either you don’t actually understand them or you are unwilling to seriously engage their implications.

    “You’re wrong about the tradeoffs favoring stakeholder group X. Here’s a reason why adjuncts have a stronger social justice claim than they do.”

    Actually we intentionally took no position on who has the more just claim. Though you undoubtedly found this unsatisfying, remaining neutral on that question was necessary. It allowed us advance the discussion on a topic where a majority of the participants are still adamantly hostile to the notion that any tradeoffs exist at all. Taking a position on the preferable tradeoff solution at that time would have been a distraction to that necessary first step. In fact, your eagerness to assign us a position anyway when we did not take one is its own evidence of precisely the type of distraction we were aiming to avoid, at least until the existence of tradeoffs was more widely acknowledged in the adjunct debate.

    But since you’re eager to go down the route of specific solutions, let’s hear you make your case! Tell me why you think the adjuncts have a more socially just case to benefit from university resources than, say, students. Or taxpayers. Or the student activities office that wants to build a lazy river next to the rec center. I’m sure there are arguments to be made for each, and I’m somewhat intrigued as to whether yours will be convincing. Even as I do hold my own rank ordered preferences that are likely different than yours (especially given that you’ve placed adjunct justice on the very top), I never claimed that the matter was settled or that I know the “right” answer to a very complex problem.

    But in order to give it the full consideration it deserves, you will also need to move beyond haranguing me over a position I did not take and actually make the case for the position that you believe to be your strongest case.

    “The madjuncts are justified in being upset with you and acting out in rage.”

    I don’t really care if they’re justified or if you think they’re justified, as it really doesn’t bother me one way or another that they’re upset with me. Challenging ideas can be upsetting, and I do not subscribe to the ideology of “safe spaces.” I do however consider the way they frame their responses to be a useful signal in deciding whether I should treat their arguments as a credible component of this discussion. Right now and based on the evidence (which I nonetheless find hilarious), I lean against.

    “Your motives for writing this article are hateful/concealed/ulterior/evil, and you’re inexplicably angry at adjuncts.”

    I cannot stop you from assuming whatever you like about my motives. You still haven’t addressed my arguments, and attacking someone’s assumed motives in lieu of his/her arguments is a grade school fallacy.

    That said, my actual motives for writing this piece are pretty straightforward. I work in a university environment and study trends in higher education. I also have first-hand familiarity with adjuncting. And in following the public discussion of the “adjunct crisis” over the past several years, I noticed it was plagued by erroneous data claims, non-existent economic analysis, a preference for frivolous “activism” over scholarship, and a general lack of peer reviewed literature. So I started to work on several projects to elevate the discussion of a topic that had been neglected on a scholarly level into suitable peer reviewed outlets.

    I’ll also plead guilty to one ulterior motive: it added some nice lines to my CV.

    In the process of researching this topic I did encounter a number of deeply unprofessional and unscholarly agitators and malcontents that might be collectively dubbed “madjuncts” (and note that most adjuncts are not madjuncts – just the small but loud cadre of activist types who offered many of the inane “rebuttals” I addressed in my previous post and, to some degree, here). And believe it or not, I actually ignore most the madjuncts.  I engaged a few of them directly, only to discover that they were not serious contributors to the discussion. In assuming all manner of evil motives on my part, many of these people have also projected their own anger onto me. Yet truth be told, I still find them amusing for their ridiculousness and, at most, only mildly annoying for their habits of eschewing scholarship in favor of a broken record of activist talking points. Though I do occasionally indulge in humor at their expense, I also find that a few of them are impossible to parody…which is also amusing. Real life can be stranger than an Evelyn Waugh novel or a Mel Brooks movie. Living, breathing Ignatius J. Reilly types, albeit with a Slavoj Zizek twist, seem to gravitate to that small but loud madjunct basement of the adjunct world.  Some of them have taken to sending me very strange pieces of hate mail, only further validating my initial assessments of the “activist” crowd. And a few, from time to time, explode in profanity-laced online tirades…which are also amusing to read.

    But the one thing they don’t do is glaringly obvious: the madjuncts don’t actually do research. They don’t produce meaningful scholarly work and they don’t publish anything of substance in academic venues. Melissa Click has a more robust CV than the activist madjunct archetype, and she writes utterly silly articles about Foucauldian power dialectics in the Twilight series. Or something. The madjunct activists don’t even reach that low level of pseudo-scholarship, be it in their own respective fields or in their claimed knowledge of the adjunct problem. And though they profess to be full time “activists” for a largely counterproductive strain of the adjunct cause, that complete absence of scholarship effectively makes them non-players in the intellectual dialogue about U.S. higher education.

    Is Administrator Bloat an Adjunct Pot of Gold?

    Posted By on March 24, 2016

    “What about university administrator bloat?” This question is commonly posed in conjunction with the adjunct activist movement, and usually identified as an “obvious” source for funding that could be reallocated to other purposes. And it might well be suitable for reallocation, though as Jason Brennan and I showed it is not obvious that adjuncts deserve to be first in line to receive this funding. One thing is certain though: administrative bloat is real, and it consumes an ever-growing percentage of higher education budgets.

    Unfortunately, administrative budgets are not the pot of gold that many adjunct activists make them out to be. University administrators are stakeholders in the spending equation too, and far from being the “corporate” managers that are commonly depicted in the activist literature, they actually tend to behave more like government bureaucrats. As bureaucrats, their motives are not “profit” but rather budget maximization for the purpose of securing and expanding the comforts of their respective administrative fiefdoms.

    Contrary to popular claims, administrative growth has not come at the expense of full time faculty. Nor is it a cause of “adjunctification.” As I showed previously on this blog and as Jason and I demonstrated in our article, the hiring patterns of full time faculty are remarkably stable and predictable. Excluding the for-profit sector, the U.S. university system has consistently maintained a ratio of 25 enrolled students per 1 full time faculty for the past 40 years.FulltTimeFaculty-Students

    Adjunct growth has exploded in this same period for a number of other reasons (most recently the for-profit sector), but this ratio also makes it clear that nobody is raiding the ranks of full time faculty to prop up administrative functionaries. Faculty hiring is keeping its stable historical pace with student enrollment.

    What, then, is going on with skyrocketing administrative costs? Part of the answer comes from the type of administrative growth we’ve seen over the past 40 years. Most of the rhetoric around higher ed administrative bloat focuses upon the top level, including university presidents, vice presidents, and other high ranking executives. Compensation for these jobs has increased to fairly dramatic levels in recent years, creating its own problems of waste and resource mismanagement. It isn’t the only story though, or even the largest component. The number of executive-level administrators has actually grown very slowly – including substantially slower than the ranks of full-time faculty.

    The following chart depicts administrative growth between 1976 and 2011 (the most recent year with comparable data) along with full-time faculty growth, as tracked by U.S. Department of Education IPEDS survey data. Executive and managerial level administrators are depicted in the blue line. Full-time faculty (meaning adjuncts are excluded) are depicted in red. As may be plainly seen, full time faculty growth has far outpaced executive-level administrator growth over the entire period (note: administrator data from 1976 to 1987 are interpolated).


    A more interesting trend may be found in the gray line, which depicts an explosion in “other professional staff.” These categories also exclude what might be termed “support staff” – meaning everything from facilities maintenance to university dining to office secretaries (support staff numbers have remained fairly stable for at least two decades, hovering around 930,000 employees give or take). The U.S. Department of Education defines the two main university administrator categories as follows:

    Executive/administrative/managerial – Employees whose assignments require management of the institution or of a customarily recognized department or subdivision thereof. These employees perform work that is directly related to management policies or general business operations and that requires them to exercise discretion and independent judgment.

    Other professional – Employees who perform academic support, student service, and institutional support and who need either a degree at the bachelor’s or higher level or experience of such kind and amount as to provide a comparable background.

    Administrative bloat, it would therefore seem, is primarily a product of rapid growth in the second category, or the lower levels of the university administrative bureaucracy. While the Department of Education unfortunately did not break down these functions on a line item basis, they are defined as including most university jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or higher. The ranks of these lower level campus bureaucrats have exploded in recent decades and show no signs of slowing down. And while they are not acquiring their funding at the expense of the still-growing ranks of faculty, they are gobbling up university resources at a frightening pace.

    Some of this administrative bloat is to be expected. One likely source is the creep of regulatory mandates from the Department of Education and those accompanying state and federal student loan programs. Accreditation review, which largely determines access to federal student loans and research money, has also become a more laborious process with the passing of time. While there is almost certainly room for efficiency improvements in these areas, they encompass functions that are at least plausibly considered essential. As mandates and reporting requirements increase over time, universities will likely require additional staff to simply keep their institutions in compliance with regulatory mandates and to retain accreditation with a recognized accrediting body.

    But what about the other low-level administrative functions? My hunch is that they reflect the worst tendencies of the budget-maximizing bureaucrat. Here it is not difficult to see how university presidents or governing bodies acquiesce to student, faculty, and staff pressures to provide funding for a wide variety of pet causes, which then morph into permanent bureaucracies. In this vein, we’ve witnessed a relatively recent explosion of “green sustainability” offices – university bureaucracies that receive hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to reduce the campus “carbon footprint.” Or recall the “safe space” protester movement that swept several campuses over the fall and winter of 2015-16. While premised on student debt relief and calls to combat racial injustices, many of the lists of protest demands actually included additional funding to be allocated to any number of student counseling, student life, student diversity, and student “justice” offices – all functionaries of the administrative bureaucracy’s lower levels, and almost all of them perfectly willing to receive those investments.

    I personally happen to believe that many of these “pet cause” administrative offices are little more than wasteful captures of university resources, and misappropriations of student fees and tuition dollars. They also raise distinct questions of justice on their own. For example, is it “just” to raise tuition on students in order to fund an ideologically charged administrative office that promotes environmentalism on campus? I would argue that “sustainability” offices are not just on two grounds: (1) they allocate student-derived funding to a primarily political cause that not all students willingly support and (2) they take money from a comparatively vulnerable and underemployed economic group – students – and use it to provide comfortable employment for mid-career bureaucrats who are, generally speaking, on much sounder economic footing. But there may be many other areas of university spending where we should be asking similar questions.

    In any case, the problem of administrative bloat also highlights the reality of trade-offs in university budgeting. Let’s suppose for the moment that, yes, all adjuncts “deserve” more money than they currently receive and that money may be found by simply reallocating it from administration. Consider the following questions, some of which have more obvious answers than others. In order to fund the adjuncts:

    1. Are you willing to reduce administrative functions that are charged with ensuring federal regulatory compliance, or conducting institutional review for accreditation purposes?
    2. Are you willing to cut student life and student recreation offices, which tend to provide perks that attract new students to enroll?
    3. Are you willing to close down the campus writing center, or other similar non-teaching curricular support offices?
    4. Are you willing to cut back on campus IT services?
    5. Are you willing to eliminate student counseling services?
    6. Are you willing to defund the professional staff in all of those deanlet offices that support student clubs, student government, and student activism?
    7. Are you willing to shutter the Office of Diversity and Inclusion?
    8. Are you willing to scale back the financial aid office? Or the admissions office?
    9. Are you willing to cut community engagement functions? Or cut campus life functionaries who support cultural and artistic endeavors?
    10. Are you willing to give up your campus’ effort to become “carbon neutral” by the year 2030, and close down its Sustainability Office

    All of these things and more have administrative functions to them that fall under the very same lower level administrative staff that caused almost the entirety of the same administrative growth you bemoan on the whole and tout as a source of funding to be reclaimed.

    We might also ask the following: what do you plan to do with the administrative staff in university fundraising and development? Their ranks have grown too and, generally speaking, they are net revenue producers. It might be worth mentioning at this point that many of the madjunct ideological devotees attack the revenue that the development office brings in when they dislike (or harbor conspiratorial prejudices about) the private-sector source, even when it goes toward hiring more faculty. In any case, cutting development staff – a part of the gray line, for the most part – would likely cause the actual loss of funding.

    As with most aspects of the university system, it’s more complicated than the shallow presentations found in the activist, public, and media discourse about higher ed.

    Note that I am not disputing the presence of waste in these areas, and quite the contrary. I suspect that it is abundant, and I suspect that universities could survive and thrive while scaling back many of these functions and even eliminating a few of them. That said, knowing the commonly expressed preferences of university faculty at large and adjunct union activists in particular, I also suspect many of the most obvious areas I might target for cuts are also areas that they strongly support retaining (any madjunct volunteers want to lead the charge to close ineffective and politicized writing centers? How about eliminating spending on all the silly carbon footprint reduction initiatives?).

    So yes, we should cut administrative bloat. And we should have a discussion about where its funding should be reallocated, whether it means more pay for part time faculty or lower tuition for students or a refund for taxpayers or something else entirely. But in order to have that discussion, we also need to recognize that there will be trade-offs involved – including trade-offs that many nominal advocates of administrative reform will be less-than-eager to make once they move beyond activist slogans about fighting “badmin” and into the weeds of deciding what is actually being spent and where.