TCS Daily


The Academic Ego Game

By Arnold Kling - December 13, 2004 12:00 AM

"A Democrat on the Berkeley faculty, George Lakoff, who teaches linguistics...said that liberals choose academic fields to fit their worldviews.

"'Unlike conservatives,' he said, 'they believe in working for the public good and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake."'
-- New York Times

George Lakoff and others suggest that left-wing academics are more public-spirited than conservatives or people who choose to work in business. This has become a hot issue, as can be found in Stephen Bainbridge's essay and blog post.

I want to offer my own perspective on the type of person who chooses academia over other occupations. In my view, scholars aim for the esteem of their colleagues. While the goal of peer esteem is not evil, and it is one that motivates people to some extent in many fields outside of academia, I think it would be a mistake to confuse it with public spirit or higher morals.

Listen to the Market

Economic theory suggests that if you want to work in the occupation that offers the greatest social good, then you should listen to the market. The market will tell you how to maximize your social value relative to your opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is what you have to give up in order to take on a particular occupation. If you are a gifted person, then the opportunity cost of taking a job as a Walmart stock clerk would be high. For less gifted individuals, the opportunity cost of taking such a job would be low.

Many professors speak as if the opportunity cost of working in academia is a high-paying job in the private sector. However, talent is not quite so interchangeable. It is not just that there are very few CEO's who could do high-caliber scholarly work in chemistry or linguistics. There are equally few academics who could function as CEO's.

Market signals are constructive. In general, the better the market opportunity that a job provides, the more likely it is that you are increasing social value at the margin by taking that job.

It is important to point out that salary is only part of the market signal. The nonpecuniary benefits and costs of a job also must be taken into account. In my opinion, many of the nonpecuniary issues favor academia. As a professor, you spend relatively little time dealing with inter-personal conflict and negotiation. You face little direct supervision. Your hours of work and your travel schedule are largely under your control. If you have tenure, then you have job security. In fact, in Real World 101, I argued that the combination of security and autonomy in academic life is almost unique.

Overall, I think it is difficult for George Lakoff to make the case that as a tenured professor at Berkeley he is making a public-spirited sacrifice. I might be more open to the argument if he were teaching at a community college or at an inner-city high school. If he wants to make the case that those of us who do not share his high academic status possess less intellectual talent, then I would be prepared to concede. However, the claim that we are less ethical is not so persuasive.

The Ego Game

I think of academics as an ego game. To get ahead in academics, you must win the esteem of your peers. You do so by impressing them in various contexts, primarily by publishing research in scholarly journals.

If you find two people of approximately equal intellectual talent, one inside academia and one outside of it, it does not necessarily follow that the non-academic is one who sold out for a higher salary. The academic might have had better luck or more patience for playing the ego game. The non-academic may not have wanted to take part in the fads that were sweeping a field at a particular time. The non-academic might have a greater desire to see research applied than to see it published. And of course anyone who prefers teaching to research is severely penalized in the ego game of academia. So the "washouts" who go into business after being denied tenure may include some of the better teachers.

At a personal level, I believe that all of these factors affected me. When I was in graduate school, the great fad sweeping economics was "rational expectations," which I considered to be a decent enough philosophical idea that was turned into an excuse for pointless mathematical masturbation. Whether I was right or wrong, it was a career-limiting opinion, because departments only wanted to hire people who were "doing rational expectations." I also have found that I enjoying applied work and teaching more than writing journal articles.

To get ahead in almost any field, you have to impress people. However, outside of academia, in addition to peer evaluations one usually finds other metrics. For example, if you are in sales, then your volume figures say something regardless of what others think of your skills. If you are a project manager, then completing a demanding task on time and within budget provides evidence apart from what someone else's subjective opinion might be.

The most successful academics bring both ability and desire to the ego game. The ability to impress intellectually demanding colleagues is respectable. However, the intense desire to play the ego game is not so attractive. It leads you to divide the world into those who can affect your position on the ego ladder vs. those who are irrelevant. What would be considered narrow-minded snobbery elsewhere becomes a survival skill in academics.

In an environment where the esteem of peers is such a crucial variable, the pressures for conformity are likely to be strong. You are better off indicating a sophisticated wine palette than an enjoyment of fast food, just as you are better off indicating contempt for conservatives and Republicans than showing support for George Bush.

What the ego game teaches you is that it is ok to dismiss most people's opinions as irrelevant. Your personal career depends entirely on the judgment of a relatively small set of peers. Since no one else matters for your personal standing, it is easy to slip into thinking that no one outside your academic pecking order has anything valuable to say on any subject whatsoever.

Moreover, for a big winner of the ego game, it comes as a rude shock to discover people who do not automatically defer to the professor's expertise. The politician or businessman, who is a "nobody" in the academic's scheme of things, actually has the nerve to speak to the professor as an equal! What impertinence! The evil, anti-intellectual rubes!

Some conservative scholars, notably Thomas Sowell, believe that leftwing beliefs flow from elitism. Sowell calls this The Vision of the Anointed. If Sowell is correct, then it could be the inherently elitist nature of the academic ego game that accounts for the predominance of left-wing ideology on campus.

The Ultimate Type M Argument

I am not interested in pushing speculation that the ego game is the cause of the predominance of leftwing ideology among academics. My main point is that there is nothing morally superior about choosing academic life over other pursuits.

The view expressed in the quote from Lakoff, that professors have better moral judgment than people in other fields, is the ultimate Type M argument. That is, instead of talking about the consequences of different political philosophies, Lakoff imputes a disreputable motivation to those with whom he disagrees. But in the end, I believe that it does not matter whether professors are better motivated or not better motivated than those outside of the academy. Ultimately, a policy proposal should stand or fall on its merits, not on the basis of whether a professor supports it.

Professional expertise is valuable. Even outside their areas of expertise, professors have intellectual gifts that may guide them to valuable insights. However, I am not prepared to concede moral superiority to the winners of the ego game.


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