Current Events, Academic Philosophy

The Valorization of Envy

Robert Nozick, among others, wondered to what degree left-wing conceptions of social justice are mere attempts to valorize envy. (Extreme left-wing views in the US, in particular, tend to concentrated among privileged upper-middle class liberal arts grads in the 2% who are angry with the 1%.) As an example of an envious rant, check out this remarkable essay at Counterpunch, “The Economic Inequality of Academia”., by Richard Goldin.  An excerpt:

Paths to knowledge are often forged through the interplay of publications and teaching. No objective standard of measurement exists to financially quantify, and differentiate, these approaches or their contributions. Yet a vast and enduring economic hierarchy has emerged grounded in the supposed intrinsic hierarchy between the two. This financial hierarchy is not a dispassionate reflection of an objective reality; it is a strategic effect of the mechanisms underlying class formation and preservation.

The primacy of publishing, and the attendant allocation of resources, is utilized not merely to perpetuate two different economic classes, but also to create two different kinds of people.[13] This creation allows the hierarchy of privilege to function as though it represents objective value differences both in terms of the work produced and the individuals who produce it.

Some comments on the essay:

1. Like many essays in this genre, it has its facts wrong. It claims that the majority of faculty are adjuncts, but that is just false. As Phil Magness documents here, at normal four-year, not-for-profit universities and colleges, the majority of faculty are tenure-track. Even when we include for-profit and community colleges, which rely disproportionately on adjunct labor, the majority of faculty in the US are not adjuncts. (See this post, too.)

Also, contrary to what everyone keeps saying, the number of tenure-track faculty slots has been increasing over the past 40 years. Here’s a chart with US Dept of Ed data, again from Magness:


It’s bizarre that the madjunct crowd keeps repeating obviously false claims, such as that they make minimum wage. Can’t they make their point without lying? I suspect the issue here is that many of these people are postmodernists, and for postmodernists, the concepts of “truth” or “facts” are just attempts to wield power over others. Or perhaps Dr. Goldin is being funded by the Koch brothers as part of a neoliberal assault to undermine the credibility of academia.
2. The essay claims that the academic 1% do as well as they do because the burdens of teaching are shifted onto poorly paid adjuncts. But the rather obvious problem with this claim is that the places where the academic 1% reside are not the places that use lots of adjuncts. The top researchers end up in places like Princeton, Harvard, MIT, and Penn. These schools do not make heavy use of adjunct faculty. (Insofar as they do use them, many of their adjuncts are professionals with full-time jobs, who teach extra clinical classes in their law and business schools.) For Goldin’s argument to succeed, he’d have to show us that the reason the academic 1% do so well is because their employers somehow exploit the adjuncts working at other universities and colleges.

I’m an academic 1-percenter, but it’s not because adjuncts do all my teaching for me. We do have a two-tier system, it’s true. In our system, the majority of faculty are extremely well paid tenure-track professors with high research expectations and low teaching loads; the minority are very well paid permanent teaching faculty with higher teaching loads. (According to this website, Goldin makes $30.5K a year, which is only a tiny fraction of what we pay our non-tenure track teaching faculty. Indeed, we pay our non-tenure-track faculty better than Cal State Long Beach pays their tenure-track faculty.) We use few adjuncts.

I’m not making bank because Georgetown exploits adjuncts.  Martin Gilens isn’t making bank because Princeton exploits adjuncts. R. Edward Freeman doesn’t make bank because Darden exploits adjuncts. Rather, the exploited adjuncts are getting exploited elsewhere, at community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, third tier/low output “research” universities, and the for-profit colleges.


3. Goldin has some interesting points about whether research is overvalued and teaching undervalued. But we should keep in mind the economics of the situation. Good teachers are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to find people who can teach low-level undergraduate courses well. It’s easy to teach these classes well, and many people can do it. The supply of good teachers is very high. But good researchers are rare. Most faculty cannot consistently publish in high-level venues. The supply of good researchers is low. (It’s easy to publish in obscure third and four-tier journals and presses, but difficult to publish in prestigious top-tier journals and presses.) Even if universities valued teaching and research equally, we’d expect the star researchers to be paid more than the star teachers, because star teachers are easy to come by.

I realize that as a Counterpunch author, it’s unlikely Goldin has ever seen an economics textbook. But I’d invite him to go to Cal State Long Beach’s library, check out Mankiw’s undergrad econ textbook, turn to pages 6-7, and read about the diamond-water paradox.


4. Consider this quotation:

It is teachers dedicated to a challenging education who engage in the task of reworking and concretizing theories to make them relevant to students. It is in the classroom where the dialogue between theory and politics takes place; and it is the classroom which sends forth generations of students who can perceive, and possibly undermine, the rationalities of power.

Paths to knowledge are often forged through the interplay of publications and teaching.


What should we make of this? Is coming up with general relativity less of an achievement than teaching it to undergrads secondhand? Is writing A Theory of Justice less of an achievement than teaching it to undergrads secondhand? Is writing the stuff that gets into the textbooks less of an achievement than teaching the textbook to undergrads?

Also, after reading Academically Adriftit’s not clear to me that college teaching is undervalued. It might instead be overvalued.


5. Goldin, like many writing in this genre, claims that academia is a lottery. This view is problematic. First, if it were a lottery, we’d expect that the type of people being hired as tenure-track at Harvard would have average credentials, but, on the contrary, the top schools tend to hire people with the best publication records. Second, the way the madjunct crowd reacts to their failure to secure good jobs doesn’t match how people react when they lose lotteries. My Uncle Freddy like to play the lottery from time to time. When he lost, he didn’t act surprised, claim that the system is unfair, and demand redistribution from the winners to the losers. Rather, he expected to lose, threw out his losing tickets, and kept living his life. If madjunct crowd sincerely believed that academia is a lottery, they would not act surprised or indignant that they lost and would move on with their lives.


  • Jameson Graber

    First world problems.

    • geoih

      I agree. The priests are complaining about the padding on the kneelers.

  • Theresa Klein

    I can’t speak to the issue of adjuncts vs. tenure-track professors, but the first quoted paragraph is a nearly perfect description of the dynamics of STEM research.

    First of all, it is nearly impossible to get published for the first time in some of the top science journals without at least having as a co-author a person who is already well reputed within the field. Thus, established people are often gatekeepers to getting published and establishing one’s own reputation. Secondly, it’s nearly impossible to get one of those people as a co-author unless they are your advisor or collaborating with your lab for some reason. Which means you’re probably have to be a student at a top university in the field, working in one of the top research labs. The top research labs are often determined by who gets funding from government organizations like the NIH or the NSF, which hand out funding often based on the reputation of the heads of those labs. Again, reinforcing the established players in the field. The top research labs are naturally very selective and thus generally accept grad students only from top schools.

    Ergo, let’s say you can’t afford to go to an ivy league school for undergrad. Chances are you’re going to have trouble getting accepted to a top-tier graduate program, and getting into a good research lab. it’s almost inevitable that you will end up at a second tier university, which means your research won’t be as well funded, you won’t get published in the best journals, and you will (unless you are really awesome) not establish as good of a reputation. Whereas other students, to a certain extent, if you’re in the right economic class, you get fast-tracked into a good school, get into a well funded lab, and in the well-funded lab you have all sorts of opportunities to explore your research interests and publish papers in top journals, because the top guy in that field is at the same school or in a lab that’s collaborating with yours. Basically it means that if your come from a nice upper-middle class background, you have people almost holding your hand and directing you towards exactly where you need to go to end up as a tenured professor. But if you come from a poor background, you pretty much have to stand out as steller just you’ll get noticed and have a chance of being taken seriously.

  • JW Ogden

    It seems to me that Bernie Sanders, for example, talks too much about the middle-class and too little about the poor. He also talks about free college. So yes, it makes the left not to be about compassion. It makes it look like his campaign is more along the line of: If you vote for me I will take money from the rich and give it to you. Now he could be just saying that to get elected and if gets elected, funnel money to the poor, but he seems to think that middle-class voters want more for themselves.

    Also he talks about making college free but he does not promise to cut the costs in state schools, which I think has huge potential, but rather to change how we pay for college. The way I see it is the college students will pay the full price either through taxes or tuition and I would rather it be through tuition because that might lead to lower spending but Bernie is selling the idea that the rich can pay for it.

  • Rocinante

    If good teachers are so easy to come by, why did I (and so many others) have bad or mediocre college professors? I’d say the good researchers were evenly split – 1/3 were also good teachers, 1/3 were mediocre teachers, and 1/3 were bad teachers. It could be that teaching output is so hard to measure, and student evaluations don’t help much.

    • Jake

      Agreed, that was also my experience in college. Indeed, the stereotype is that, since tenured/tenure-track faculty are almost exclusively evaluated on their research output, they face little pressure to teach well, with predictable results.

      Unfortunately, I think Jason’s point remains: it’s not *good* teachers that are easy to come by; it’s *good enough* teachers. It seems to me that, since learning outcomes depend so crucially on student effort, and the latter are so random, that the ratio

      quality of excellent teacher / quality of mediocre teacher

      is much much greater than the ratio

      progress of average student taught by excellent teacher / progress of average student taught by mediocre teacher

      to such an extent that the top 1% of teachers produce results not that different than the top 10%.

      • Rocinante

        “Unfortunately, I think Jason’s point remains: it’s not *good* teachers that are easy to come by; it’s *good enough* teachers.”

        That strikes me as plausible – (publications + good enough to avoid complaints) is more important than having the best teachers.

        Sadly, I think it’s the teaching that has the most impact on the world. Even widely agreed research conclusions don’t seem to trickle down to the public – consider free trade. On the other hand, people who had a good teacher tell them about free trade will remember the lesson for a long time.

    • Jason Brennan

      First, you might not be in a good position to measure what makes a teacher good. Students reward teachers for being pretty, thin, easy, and entertaining, not for being good.

      Second, while good teachers are easy to come by, your university or college might have had other priorities. Where did you go to college?

      • Rocinante

        Brown and UCLA.

        • Jason Brennan

          Good. So, these are examples of universities where publishing trumps everything else. At Brown and UCLA, a horrible teacher with great pubs will get promoted, but an exceptional teacher with mediocre pubs will get fired. I worked at Brown for a few years, so I know first-hand that while faculty do push each other to teach well, in the end, al that really matters is publishing.

  • William Bruce

    Poopburgers and mudpies.

  • reason60

    I will sidestep the issue of adjuncts, and just address the envy question and grandly speak for all leftists everywhere.

    In order to be envy, one first has to believe that their claim to wealth is legitimate.

    Its not at all clear that it is. Most of us view progressive taxation for example, as merely seeking a better bargain for the services that we provide the wealthy.

    • Jason Brennan

      “In order to be envy, one first has to believe that their claim to wealth is legitimate.”

      That seems false. Isn’t the standard analysis of envy as follows:

      1. Person A lacks something that Person B has
      2. Person A wishes he has what Person B has
      3. Person A prefers that neither of them have that thing to B having that thing but A lacking it.

      This is the first time I’ve heard anyone claim that envy is possible only if someone has a legitimate claim.

      At any rate, for a response to your other arguments, I’d suggest Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Harry Frankfurt’s forthcoming On Inequality.

      • Jake

        I steal your laptop. I now have something you lack, you wish that you had it, and moreover you’d prefer neither of us to have it than that I alone have it.

        So this fits your 1-3 but we’d still not want to say that what you feel towards me is envy; it’s more like justified indignation at my crime.

        While I don’t number among them, I know many people who sincerely believe a lot (even most) of the property distribution today is analogous to the laptop theft example, and what they feel (justifiedly or not) is indignation at a crime, not envy. In fact, seeing a poor person move up in life makes them several times happier than seeing a rich person move down — the exact opposite of what the envy theory would predict.

        • Phil Magness

          “While I don’t number among them, I know many people who sincerely believe a lot (even most) of the property distribution today is analogous to the laptop theft example, and what they feel (justifiedly or not) is indignation at a crime, not envy.”

          Such arguments would seem to conflate a specific act in which the indignant person is also its direct victim with any vague act that the indignant person deems immoral, whether she is in any way harmed by that act or not.

        • Jameson Graber

          “and moreover you’d prefer neither of us to have it than that I alone have it”

          Is that really the case? Personally, I wouldn’t want the thief to just destroy my computer. Also, think of the classic biblical story of Solomon deciding which prostitute the baby belongs to. The real mother is, of course, the one who’d rather not divide the child in two.

          So I don’t think the third criterion would truly apply to someone who’d had something stolen.

      • Ian Blaustein

        On that analysis, there’s no reason to think it unreasonable for losers of lotteries to envy winners, is there?

        (I’m thinking of your second argument in 5. of the original post)

        • Jason Brennan

          How does that follow?

          • Ian Blaustein

            1 and 2 from that analysis are perfectly reasonable responses for the loser of a lottery to have towards a winner; 3 is as reasonable in that case as it is in any (“I’d rather nobody won than have to see that jerk B parading around…”).

            And if that’s right, that there’s no reason to think envy a particularly unreasonable response to someone else winning a lottery, your second argument in 5. of the original post doesn’t work. You say that ‘madjuncts’ call the academic world a lottery, but don’t really think of it as a lottery, because lottery losers don’t go around envying lottery winners. But of course they do, and why wouldn’t they?

          • Jason Brennan

            I don’t see why 3 is reasonable in this case. If you have preference 3, you’re a defective person.

          • Ian Blaustein

            So you think only defective persons feel envy? Even if that were true, it wouldn’t matter here, since the question isn’t whether enviousness is a good or reasonable character quality to have, the question is whether this is the kind of situation that is fitting or unfitting for envy.

          • Jason Brennan

            I think if you play what you know is a lottery, you should not envy the winner. It’s okay to prefer that you win to the other person win, but it’s not okay to prefer you both having nothing to the other person winning while you lose.

            As Rawls says, envy is socially destructive emotion.

      • reason60

        If someone has no legitimate claim to their wealth, it can hardly be called envy to demand they return it to its rightful owners.
        Obviously you have a different theory- I’m just explaining why the envy theory is so unpersuasive.

      • Francis Bellamy

        Since it is not universally agreed that the perception of inequity necessarily constitutes envy, what is gained by invoking a stylized definition of envy at this moment in the argument? In my history of protesting “concentrated wealth,” I have never thought of proposing that no one have assets.

  • Gordon

    “Goldin makes $30.5K a year, which is only a tiny fraction of what we pay our non-tenure track teaching faculty.”

    I think of a “tiny” fraction as being less than 5%. You actually pay these folks over $600,000 a year?

    • Jason Brennan

      Okay, then “small” fraction. We pay all of our non-tenure-track teaching faculty six figures plus full benefits.

  • King Goat

    I think you make a lot of good points and the author you’re criticizing makes a lot of sloppy ones (or just misses a point). But I have to wonder, what do these Universities hold themselves out as doing? If they hold themselves out as offering a great education to students, then what’s the purpose of paying a lot of money to a faculty member that teaches very little but publishes, even in top rank journals and presses, a lot? And given this situation, and granted that you could probably find more faculty that would be labeled as ‘good teachers’ than you could find ones that would be labeled ‘good researchers,’ is there anything analogous to the ‘star researchers’ among the teachers, and if so are they being valued? I’d think that if an institution holds itself out primarily or largely as a place to get good teaching then, despite the arguendo higher supply of ‘good enough’ teachers out there making the remuneration lower than for ‘good enough’ researchers, there should still be ‘star’ teachers that should make more than many a ‘good enough’ researcher. Is that happening, and if so, why not?

    • Jason Brennan

      Again, diamonds and water. Why does the bench-warmer second baseman make more money than the world’s best high school teacher?

  • Francis Bellamy

    Jason begins with the assumption that a consciousness of “inequity” is equivalent to “envy” and thereby trivializes the first. While some envy the achievements of others without legitimate claims to similar outcomes, we cannot begin by foreclosing the very possibility of justified challenges to “market” outcomes. Citing economics textbooks of a particular stripe does not exhaust one’s obligation to engage with those who unpack markets and find both opportunity and exploitation. Let’s try to break out of the circular arguments. Embedding the term “madjunct” in the conversation and citing Mankiw and Magness but no other authorities on economics and academic labor markets leaves one in an ideological cul-de-sac that Nozick himself transcended.

    • Jason Brennan

      Madness just charted some Department of Education Data, and Mankiw is offering a nice explanation of a standard ECON 101 concept. There’s nothing ideological here.

    • Phil Magness

      FWIW, I actually do have a couple of peer reviewed publications on the political economy of US higher ed. Trends in the American university system are not my main field by any measure, but they are something I investigated in mainstream scholarly venues for a side project with a couple of colleagues a few years back – incl. a journal article and an academic press book chapter on the effects of recent patterns in academic accreditation. It doesn’t make me a “top expert” on the subject (something I have never claimed or even suggested, btw) but going by CV output that still puts me leagues ahead of the madjunct crowd, whose published “expertise” usually consists of nothing more than anecdotes and conjecture they typed up for a crappy blog post for Slate.

      • Jason Brennan

        Peer-reviewed is good, but not as good as Storify,

        • Phil Magness

          Or the in-house vanity press of an unaccredited degree mill in Switzerland.

          • Francis Bellamy

            If full-time academic employment is stable, how have universities escaped the more general trend of rising part-time and contingent work? I remain skeptical.


            (relying in part on GAO research)

          • Phil Magness

            It is highly misleading to lump part time and all contingent work together as if they were the same phenomenon.

            A part time faculty makes about $3,000 a course and is only contracted to teach that course & nothing more.

            A full time “contingent” faculty makes a competitive academic salary in the neighborhood of $50,000 and has obligations to teach, research, participate in department proceedings, and fulfill service expectations to the university.

            The gap in job expectations between the two is as immense as the pay difference.

          • Francis Bellamy

            That is not what “contingent” means in the broader labor market context. Ordinarily, contingent work is highly variable and on demand. What you are describing differs only minimally from probationary pre-tenure faculty employment.

          • Phil Magness

            The question of what “contingent” means in the broader labor market context is subordinate to whether it is an appropriate categorization tool for both adjunct and full time non-TT faculty for empirical purposes.

            It is not due to the reasons I have stated.

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