Archive for the ‘inequality’ Category
I saw a link to an article called “An Austrian Approach to Class Structure.” It attracted my interest since it is rare for economists to delve into theories of social class. In this article, Lemke offers a theory of social class based on Austrian economics. It is an interesting choice given that Austrians are committed methodological individualists, and class analysis (usually) relies on holism.
So what does the paper offer? The core of the paper is an attempt to rebuild social in terms of methodological individualism. Class (page 179) emerges when:
- Rules and norms apply to some people and not others.
- Group membership is sticky.
- Some people hold authority over people in other groups.
There are a few things happening in this definition. First, it doesn’t match up terribly well with traditional notions of social class, which are usually economic. For example, an ethnic group is a “class” in this definition. However, an ethnic group is usually not considered a class in the Marxian or Weberian sense of the word (“position in the mode of production” or “market position”). I think in Lemke’s definition is closer to Weber’s notion of status group, but adds the idea that that rules are not uniformly applied in society. It’s a bit closer to Shils’ notion of deference or DuBois’ analysis of Black/White inequality, which focused on the forms of privilege that White people enjoy.
Second, the definition is especially suited to the issues that Austrian might care about, such as how states grant benefits to specific people and not others. Sadly, the traditional sociological literature on class and status more generally treats this as an after thought. Lemke’s definition works well, for example, if you want to talk about people in the state, or those who enjoy favors (special interest groups, lobbyists). This does come up in neo-Marxist political economy, but I don’t think it has much of an impact in the broader world of sociology.
Interesting read for anyone interested in the contact point between sociology and heterodox economics.
Today, among the various administrative tasks of scheduling meetings with students and other responsibilities, I decided to RSVP yes for an upcoming evening talk. I didn’t make this decision lightly, as it involved coordinating schedules with another party (i.e., fellow dual career parent).
With the use of technology such as email, increasing job precarity, and belief in facetime as signalling productivity and commitment, the workday in the US has elongated, blurring boundaries to the point that work can crowd out other responsibilities to family, community, hobbies, and self-care. However, one Ivy institution is exhorting its members to rethink making evening events and meetings the norm.
In this nuanced statement issued to department chairs, Brown University’s provost outlines the stakes and consequences of an elongated workday:
This burden [of juggling work and family commitments] may disproportionately affect female faculty members. Although data on Brown’s faculty is not available, national statistics indicate that male faculty members (of every rank) are more likely than female faculty members (of every rank) to have a spouse or partner whose comparably flexible work schedule allows that spouse or partner to handle the bulk of evening-time household responsibilities. Put differently, male faculty members are more likely than female faculty members to have the household support to attend campus events after 5:30. We must be attuned to issues of gender equity when we think about program scheduling. We must also take into consideration the particular challenges faced by single parents on the faculty when required to attend events outside the regular hours of childcare.
Among higher ed policy folks, there’s a counter-conventional wisdom that there is no student loan crisis. For the most part (the story goes), student loans are a good investment that will increase future wages, and students could borrow quite a bit more before the value of the debt might be called into question. Indeed, some have argued that many students are too reluctant to borrow, and should take on more debt.
Just this month, two new pieces came out that reiterate this counter-narrative: a book by Urban Institute economist Sandy Baum, and a report by the Council of Economic Advisers. Yes, everyone agrees the system’s not perfect, and tweaks need to be made. (Susan Dynarski, for example, argues that repayment periods need to be longer.) Fundamentally, though, the system is sound. Or so goes the story.
What can we make of this disconnect between the conventional wisdom—that we are in the throes of a student loan crisis—and this counter-conventional story?
To understand it, it’s worth thinking about three different student loan crises. Or “crises”, depending on your sympathies.
First, there’s the student who has accrued six figures of debt for an undergraduate degree. Ideally, for media purposes, this is a degree in women’s studies, art history, or some other easily-dismissible field. The New York Times specialized in these for a while.
Since student loan debt is not bankruptable, these people really are kind of screwed, although income-based-repayment options have improved their options somewhat. And they make for a dramatic story—as well as lots of moralizing in the comments.
Second, there’s the student who took on debt but didn’t finish a degree. These people often struggle, because their income doesn’t go up much, if at all. In fact, the highest default rates are among those who left school with the smallest debts (< $5000), presumably because they didn’t graduate.
These folks disproportionately attend for-profit institutions, whose degrees have less payoff anyhow, but even more importantly, have abysmal graduation rates. (Community colleges have low graduation rates too, but they’re a lot cheaper.) The debt-but-no-degree people are also kind of screwed, although again, income-based repayment plans can help them a lot, as would a bankruptcy option.
So we’ve got the crisis of people who borrow too much for a four-year degree, and the crisis of people who borrow a little, but don’t complete the degree, often because they’re attending a school whose entire business model is to sign up new students for the purpose of taking their loan money.
These are both problems—even “crises”—but they are solvable. For the first, cap federal loans (including PLUS access) for undergraduate degrees, and make all loans bankruptable, so private lenders are leerier of loaning large amounts to students.
For the second—well, I’d probably be comfortable eliminating aid to for-profits, but let’s say that’s beyond the political pale. Certainly we could place a lot more limitations on which institutions are eligible for federal aid, whether that’s tied to graduation rates, default rates, or some other measure. And, again, making student loans bankruptable would help people who really needed to get a fresh start.
Wait, so what’s the third crisis?
The thing is, these two “crises” may be devastating to individuals, but in societal terms aren’t that big. The six-figure-debt one really drives policy wonks crazy, because every student debt story in the last ten years has led with this person, but the percentage of students who finish four-year degrees with this many loans is very small. Like maybe a couple of percent of borrowers small.*
Proponents of the Counter-Conventional Wisdom (C-CW) take the second group—those who borrow but don’t finish a degree—more seriously. This group is often really hurting, despite having smaller loan balances. But they only make up perhaps 20% of borrowers, and since their balances are relatively low, an even smaller fraction of that $1.4 trillion student loan figure we hear so much about.**
The real question—the one that determines whether you think there’s a third crisis—is how you react to the other 75-80% of borrowers. The C-CW crowd looks at them and says, eh, no crisis. These folks come out with four-year degrees, $20 or $30,000 of government-issued student loan debt, will pay $300 a month or so for ten years, and then move on with their lives. We could argue about how much of a burden this is for them, but it’s clearly not a crisis in the same way it is for the NYU grad with $150k in loans, or for the Capella University dropout trying to pay back $7500 on $10 an hour.
This C-CW is based on the premise that 1) college is a human capital investment that is worth taking on debt for up to the expected economic payoff, 2) individual borrowing is a reasonable and appropriate way to finance this investment—indeed, more sensible than paying for the costs collectively—and 3) as long as debt is kept to a “manageable” level (as indicated by students not going into default and having access to forbearance when their income is low), then there’s no crisis.
Why this understates the problem
I take issue with this position, though, on at least three fronts.
1. “Typical” student debt is increasing .
Individual borrowing levels are still rising rapidly, and there’s no reason to think we’ve neared a max. A recent Washington Post editorial cited the CEA report as saying that “[t]he average undergraduate loan burden in 2015 was $17,900.” But that’s not what the average graduate holds. That’s what the average loan-holder holds, including those who have already been paying for a number of years. Estimates for the average 2016 graduate, by contrast, are considerably higher—in the $29,000 to $37,000 range—and growing. The fraction of all students who borrow also continues to increase.
College costs keep rising. State budgets are still under pressure. The penalties for not completing college keep increasing. We can only expect loan sizes to continue to go up. At what point does “reasonable borrowing” become “unreasonable burden”? And tweaks like expanding income-based repayment or extending the standard repayment period won’t bend the curve (to borrow from another debate)—if anything it will enable the further expansion of lending.
2. We are all Capella now.
These debates often overlook the effects of federal aid policy on colleges as organizations, something I’ve written about elsewhere. (The exception is the attention given to the Bennett hypothesis, which suggests that colleges will simply turn federal aid into higher tuition prices.)
But that doesn’t mean organizational effects don’t exist. Continuing to shift the cost burden to individual students is going to accelerate the already intense pressure on public colleges in particular to recruit and retain students, because with students come tuition dollars.
The drive to attract students is already undermining a lot of traditional values in higher education. It encourages schools to spend money on marketing and branding, rather than education. It promotes a consumerist mindset among students who quite reasonably feel that they have become customers. It encourages schools to develop low-value degree programs simply to generate revenue, and recruit students into them regardless of whether the students will benefit.
The values that limit colleges from doing kind of thing are what separates nonprofits from for-profits in the first place. If they go away, we all become Capella. And allowing “reasonable” lending to keep expanding moves us straight in that direction.
3. It gives up on actual public education.
Ultimately, though, the biggest problem I have with this position is that it concedes the possibility, or even the value, of real public higher education entirely. It doesn’t matter whether that’s because the C-CW sees it as a pipe dream, or because it sees it as an irrational use of public funds, since individuals benefit personally from their education in the long run.
This post is already too long, so I won’t go into a detailed defense of public higher ed here. But I do want to point out that if you accept the premise of the C-CW—that student loan debt will only become a crisis if it increases individual costs beyond the returns to a college degree—you’ve already given up on public higher education. I’m not ready to do that.
And it looks like I’m not the only one.
* This number is actually surprisingly difficult to find. In 2008, it was only 0.2% of undergrad completers, but average debt for new graduates has increased about 40% since then, so the six-figure camp has undoubtedly grown.
** Again, exact numbers hard to pin down. 15% of beginning students who borrowed from the government in 2003-04 had not completed a degree six years later, nor were they still enrolled. This figure has doubtless increased as nontraditional borrowers—who are less likely to finish—have become a bigger fraction of the total pool of borrowers, hence my 20% guesstimate.
After completing a Ph.D., how to get a tenure-track position, secure tenure, and advance to full and beyond are not clear, particularly since multiple layers of bureaucracy (committees, department, division, school, and university board) have a say over candidates’ cases. Despite written policies specifying criteria and process for tenure and promotion, universities can interpret these policies in ways that advance or push out qualified candidates. Over at feministwire, Vilna Bashi Treitler shares her experiences with the tenure process at one university, where unofficial teaching evaluations were apparently used to justify a tenure vote:
In my case, I was unable to defend myself when someone at my tenure hearing read verbatim from RateMyProfessor.com, a popular website where anyone can write anything about any professor in the country. The review reported me for “abandoning” my class. My colleagues discussed my case without reference to the medical emergency that pulled me from class: I lay, pregnant and bleeding, on doctor’s ordered bed rest, trying to save my baby. My colleagues failed to consider the testimonies of graduate students who taught the four class sessions that remained in the semester – at my own expense – or the fact that my website showed evidence that classes continued (with the aid of graduate students) and I distributed handouts online, despite my forced absence.
Perhaps most frustrating, it did not appear to matter to my colleagues that I had several peer-reviewed articles published in top journals, a book already published with a top-tier university press, a grant from the National Science Foundation for a new project, and mostly good reviews from students up until that time. This happened 10 years ago, and despite the opposition, I survived and succeeded in the academy. However, I never stopped facing challenges from white students who – despite signing up for my course, which at no time was ever a requirement – resist what I have to teach them, and in some cases, treat me with open disrespect.
Having served with Vilna on a committee overseeing dissertation proposals at the Graduate Center, CUNY and spending time with her discussing pedagogy, I can attest that she is very invested in students’ learning, no matter how difficult the topic. In sociology and related disciplines, we teach and discuss complex topics – inequality, discrimination, and the various –isms – that can challenge or even threaten people’s worldviews. The individualistic emphasis in the US makes it especially difficult to convey alternative ways of thinking.
Vilna’s post includes several recommendations for the academy. In particular, she urges colleagues who have power to act on behalf of those who do not:
We must stand behind the promises we made to young faculty when we hired them: if you produce high quality scholarship, we will award you the tenure you need to continue conducting cutting edge research. Any scholar who makes the grade with notable and widely accepted peer-reviewed scholarship should not have their fates sealed in closed-door processes with little transparency or overt accountability where the complaints of a relatively tiny number of students – of course, students have never published research or taught courses themselves – are given undue weight. (Of course, bad teaching should not be rewarded, but we have other ways to assess teaching, including examining syllabi, having faculty regularly observed by peer scholars, and creating and encouraging the use of teaching centers where new scholar-teachers can seek aid in improving their classroom skills.)
Faculty who serve on committees that make these decisions know when injustice is being committed, and the time is now to take a stand. Standing up to proceedings that negate principles of both academic freedom and honor among colleagues and that allow racism and sexism to decide who is a quality scholar is risky and requires courage, but is nevertheless necessary. It is difficult to ask questions aloud about what’s not happening when a colleague looks like they’re being railroaded. If you stand up, you effectively become a whistleblower, for which there might be retaliation – but if you’re tenured, that’s exactly what tenure is for: protection from punishment for following through on ideas that may be unpopular. So when the tide turns against a junior colleague in your department or university, the difficult but morally right thing to do would be to take a bold step to stand up and at minimum question why.
And standing up takes many forms. When the conversation turns towards student complaints about a professor, inform your colleagues that student evaluations have gender and race biases (see here, and here, too). Find out if the professor has good evaluations that are being ignored or downplayed. Ask whether colleagues are overlooking other evidence of good teaching, like positive peer observations, or syllabi chock full of information about assignments, how grades are determined, and classroom policies. Professors who stand up must ask about the rest of the scholarly record: are we talking about the teaching of a highly productive scholar who has a publishing record and is a good departmental and college/university citizen? Maybe you should ask whether those things should matter more than evaluations – especially if you know this is what junior faculty are told when informed of the requirements for tenure.
Standing up also looks like administrators who overturn or challenge insufficiently explained tenure denials for stellar candidate records, being mindful of institutional commitments to inclusion and diversity. In addition, professors who become aware that injustice is occurring should reach out to administrators and encourage them to do the right thing.
Vilna’s insightful post includes links to several other scholars’ tenure denial experiences in the academy, as well as additional recommendations on working with students.
This post is the second part of our forum on data analytics and inclusivity. The forum was inspired by an essay written by Michael Wilbon about African Americans and analytics. I’ve asked several people who work in analytics to comment on the problems with and opportunities for inclusivity in data analytics, especially as it relates to sports analytics. The first set of essays can be found here.
Today’s essays are written by three contributors who have direct experience in data analytics and sports. The essays all deal with, in some way, root causes of a racial gap in analytics. Michael Lopez is a statistician at Skidmore College who has written extensively about sports analytics at places like Sports Illustrated and Fivethirtyeight. Jerry Kim is an economic sociologist, who has been at Columbia University since 2006 and will soon join the business school at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the consequences of status for evaluation and he has written about about the effects of status bias on umpires’ decision-making in the MLB (a paper that I can say with zero bias is amazing). Our final contributor is Trey Causey, a computational social scientist who has done considerable work as a data analyst and consultant for the NFL and who is now a data scientist at ChefSteps.
I know that this won’t be nor should it be the last word on this topic. Going forward we need more discussions of this type, especially as analytics becomes increasingly central to how business and sports operate.