A few years ago, a former Mondoville colleague and I were talking — my friend was none too pleased. He had just emerged from a meeting that included representatives from various members of the college community — faculty, staff, administration, and the board. As they were scheduling the next meeting, one date was rejected as falling within Spring Break. The board member apparently sneered that he wished he could have a Spring Break, and when we were talking my friend said “And I wish I could have his money, but that’s not how it works, is it?”

My friend was irked that the board guy (probably without realizing it) had fallen into the Ivory-Tower-As-Lotusland myth (which I’ve discussed before). This is because the board guy had forgotten opportunity costs: He chose a career that was much better paying, but considerable less flexible in many ways. But of course, opportunity cost is a two-way street; I have opted for what I see as a certain kind of happiness (doing stuff I enjoy with a flexible schedule and no dress code) and have traded a certain amount of financial compensation (that I would have received in a higher-paying gig) for that happiness. Board Guy took the other end of the deal. Fine.

Of course, the reason either of us can make our choice is because of surplus productivity — neither of us have to work as subsistence-level farmers. But as Trevor Burrus observes at Free Thoughts:

[I]n an affluent, productive society, we should generally expect income inequality to rise while expecting psychological satisfaction—I’ll call it “happiness inequality”—to converge. While the top earners build better mousetraps to sell to a consumer base that is broad enough to turn small innovations into million-dollar ideas, the rest of us can spend more time smelling the roses.

I still consider this an open question, but I think there are strong reasons to suspect it is true. I also think that this gets closer to asking the right question about inequality, namely, when and why is it a bad thing?

Check out what he has to say, and then join me in wondering if many of our current social differences aren’t forms of buyer’s remorse.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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2 Responses to Trade-Offs

  1. ND says:

    The idea that educators have it easy because we get more “breaks” overlooks that the nature of our calling. These so-called “breaks” are simply times when we are usually not teaching (though many of us teach in summers too), but we still have to grade exams, prepare lectures, design new courses, do research, read, think, etc. Even where we are not primarily researchers, our work is not limited to the time when we are physically in the classroom or in our offices. My work follows me home every night, every weekend, and on every vacation. I am okay with that. Competent educators are not in it for the money, and the intellectual nature of the endeavor means that they are on the job–thinking–all the time.
    I do not wish to suggest that those who are lawyers or doctors, for example, do not feel the burdens of their job when they are not at the office. But lawyers and doctors make on average 10 times the wage of a university professor. I do not envy them; their jobs are demanding and they should be well compensated. I also do not feel that I should make the same as an ER doctor or a high-power corporate lawyer. I don’t know if they are worth 10X my salary, but I do not begrudge them financial success.
    What I really could do without is the constant condescending tone of some, who feel that educators should be grateful that they are even compensated for working in this fantasy land outside the “real world” where they get Spring break and the summers off to dance ’round the big rock candy mountain.
    First, we do not get half the year off. Secondly, our “time off” is usually taken up in large part with work-related endeavors for which receive little to no additional financial compensation. What about tenure, eh? Yes, well, if one gets a tenure track job straight out of grad school, which is becoming rarer and rarer, one could have tenure in six years. More often, however a grad adjuncts for a few years, maybe one becomes non-tenure-track lecturer or visiting professor; indeed many may never land a tenure-track job, but maybe the “lucky one” finally gets the tenure-track position. But this fellow might not get tenure after six years. In which case, after settling down in a place, one has to uproot oneself and one’s family and start all over again someplace else. And all this after enduring 6-10 years of grad school and usually incurring substantial debt from loans.
    So, to sum up, life in the Ivory Tower ain’t easy, but it has rewards for those who are really dedicated to educating and the life of the mind. We take up this calling because we love what we do. We are not here for money, recognition (except perhaps that which we earn from our students), nor fame, and certainly not for the summers off. I would think that most parents of college-bound students would take comfort in recognizing such dedication in their child’s instructors. I doubt they can be so sure of their lawyers or investment bankers in the “real world”, where individual profit is often all that matters.

  2. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I find working at the University of Ghana pretty Lotusland like compared to every other job I have had. Except for classes and meetings the work schedule is amazingly flexible. There is very little intrusive supervision. I get to largely work on what I want to work on. Yes, I don’t make anywhere even what Profmondo makes, but I certainly make enough to get everything I want.

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