Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ricardo's Rule of Comparative Advantage

Economists have a tool called Ricardo's Rule for Comparative Advantage.  This rule states that instead of each country's trying to become self-sufficient in the production of all goods, it is better for each country to specialize in the production of those products where it possesses a material or cultural advantage.

Simply put, it is better for all three countries if Italy produces fashionable clothes, if Argentina produces meat products, and if Japan makes electronics.  In an open market, through specialization, each country would be able to afford more purchases of all three products than if each country tried to become self-sufficient in all three.  The reverse is just not practicalit is difficult to imagine any gaucho pants-wearing multitudes driving their Lamborghinis to drive-thru restaurants named Jap-In-The-Box for orders of Kobe beef to go.

Ricardo’s Rule works and it has applications far outside the world of international economics.  I propose that, since universities are also large businesses, it is time for small cash-strapped states to apply this rule to their state universities.  Let me, there is too much.  Let me sum up..

Universities employ two types of professors: tenure track and adjunct.  Tenure track professors are employed to teach classes, to conduct research and to publish their research.  It doesn't matter if the professor is a chemist or a choir director, an engineer or an English professorthey all have to conduct research, publish their research, and teach.  After 6 years, a committee of their peers reviews their work to see how well all these jobs have been done. 

If the committee approves, the faculty member is given tenuremeaning he or she has a lifetime employment contract.  This is to ensure that every tenured faculty member can maintain academic freedom.  That is, the tenured faculty is freed to pursue knowledge, publish, and teach without fear of being fired for publishing or researching "politically incorrect" ideas.  

Of course, it is also common knowledge that having "politically incorrect ideas" is the surest route to failing to obtain tenure these days, so the issue of having politically incorrect ideas AFTER gaining tenure is actually pretty much a moot point.  Even more to the point, no one cares what any professor says in a classroom anymore.

The other type of professorsadjunctsare hired sołely to teach.  They are not required to do research or to publish, and they have no job security whatsoever.  While they are incredibly poorly paid, they teach their asses off:  they frequently teach twice as many classes (with often a larger class size) than the average tenure track or tenured professor teaches.  In their non-existent free time, they scavenge through supermarkets in search of Bottom Ramen.  

This is the model that is followed by most universities, both public and private.  But should it be like this?  A state agricultural college in a poor state may want to excel in all fields, but can it afford to? 

Mention university research to someone not employed at a university, and what comes to mind is probably the mad scientist in a test tube-filled laboratory, working through the night to breed a mosquito that will suck fat instead of blood.  The truth is closer to someone who's sitting in an office, writing yet another article on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  (An article that almost no one will ever read.)

Last year, in just the sciences, over 1.5 million scholarly articles were published in 23,500 journals.  Remember, that astonishing number is just for the scholarly science articles.  This doesn't count the articles written about art, history, anthropology, sociology, etc.  There are other journals for those articles.

Last year, over 1500 scholarly articles were written about "Hamlet", alone.  How many baby seals would have died and how much of the polar ice caps would have melted if society were missing just one of those articles?  (How many trees were sacrificed to print those articles?Alert the Druids!)

Let’s take a hypothetical example:  Professor Carrabosse does research on popular culture.  After she was hired, she began a lengthy period of research on the historical inaccuracies found in Disneyland’s Frontierland.  It turns out that the Magic Kingdom’s version of Davy Crockett is not an accurate representation of the American West.

Eventually, with the help of a kindly editor who just "happened" to be her brother, Professor Carabosse published her research in a thin volume.  Despite the fact that there are about as many albino dwarves playing in the NBA as people who actually read her book, she was given tenure and a hefty pay raise.

Twenty years later, she is still teaching (though judging by the relatively few students in her class, somewhat badly).  Sadly, this does not really matter, as her annual evaluations are based mainly on her continued research.

And her sole book?  It turns out to be one of the most expensive books ever purchased by the state of New Mexico.  In salary, pensions, and employment benefits to Professor Carabosse, it cost the state well in excess of two million dollars. 

This is roughly the same amount that Christie's received the last time it auctioned off an entire Gutenberg Bible.  Save the funds from two such professors and you can buy a First Folio Shakespeare.  And it will even include "Hamlet".

And since Professor Carabosse is not a talented teacher, she influences relatively few students.  Nor could the department afford to replace her, she is tenured. 

Does every department in a state university need to hire research professors? 

Can New Mexico really afford this?  Does an agricultural college in an impoverished state have to pretend it is Harvard?  Does every faculty member have to be a researcher?

The sad truth is that no one who has worked in academia has ever heard of any professor—at any university—who has been denied tenure on the basis of bad teaching.  Nor has anyone ever heard of a professor's being tenured for good teaching. Sadly, there is no connection between good research and good teaching, either.

Every university claims that teaching is important, that it is respected, and that those who do it are rewarded, but this is more of a mantra than a statement of fact.  Sadly, teaching is one of the least important activities at a university.  If tenure must be given, then is time to hire some professors whose only goal is to teach, to tenure the outstanding ones, and to pay them adequately.

Critics of such a change would lament that I am proposing to turn research centers into trade schools.  Possibly.  Or perhaps, I am just saying that it is time for a fiscally constrained state to stop purchasing what it doesn't need.

Poor states like New Mexico need universities: they need them to help lift their citizens out of poverty and to create the economic opportunities that other states enjoy.  This means that the state universities should focus on education first, not researchat least not in every department with every faculty member.

Let New Mexico universities excel in those areas where they naturally have an advantage:  agriculture, energy, international business, and border studies, among others.  

And if New Mexico isn't a world-renowned center for research on "Hamlet" and that one extra scholarly article is never written?  Then I guess we will just have to let the ice caps melt and allow the baby seals to die.


  1. Bravo! I read once that the surest way to fail to get tenure at Harvard is to win the student voted "Teacher of the Year" award. That's just sad! I looked into journalism classes with an eye to a PhD and possibly a college teaching career and found most journalism schools were looking for socialist propagandists with phones and pens rather than honest news hounds and truth-telling journalists. I went to work in the nonprofit sector instead, where I could do some real good. Taught a few kids to write while I was at it. I would have gotten myself in so much trouble in academia. Much better doing real work.

  2. From THE WEEK (February 6, 2015).
    "It was a bad week for: Believing in medical studies, after a Harvard researcher used a random text generator to write a phony study and had the gibberish accepted for publication by 17 medical journals. The study's title: "Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs"."