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01/21/2006

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Chris J

A person who enters into a given field of employment that offers tenure does so because they value a tenured position more than they value a non-tenured position, ceteris paribus. This value is subjective across individuals as person A may very well not care about tenure while person B sees its sex appeal. Now, whether or not tenure is viewed as a positive or negative aspect of certain types of employment is also in the eye-of-the-beholder. A person who has tenure and is tired of their current job may quit whenever they feel like it in pursuit of something more fulfilling, whether it be a new job, family, travel, basically whatever they deem to be of utmost value to them. If they want a higher wage then they should submit to non-tenured employment and join the at-will employment universe. However it is worth noting that at first this person did value a certain wage ceiling for tenure more than he did value the higher wage for no tenure, now his values have switched for whatever reasons. But it is the switch that I think is the most important idea to focus on. If, for example, we lived in a society where there was only tenured employment or vice versa, things would be a lot different. Without the freedom to chose between which type of employment you wish to pursue over your lifetime our choices would be severely diminished. Certainly tenure has its caveats, whether seen as advantages or disadvantages, but it promotes certain levels of diversity that are necessary to promoting market processes that without we would be at a loss, whether or not you feel tenure is a good or bad thing. I think that doing away with tenure would lead to negative events, most notably the further decline in people seeking higher degrees for tenured positions as professors.

The debate about the qualifications required to obtain tenure, whether or not a person deserves such a position, whether or not somebody could do it better, etc. are worthy of an entirely fresh discussion.

anon

"If there is a market for the unpopular idea, the fired professor can find another job."

True, but there are switching and search costs. These are often real and substantial. Look at what happened to a (formerly) Wheaton professor that converted to Catholicism.

"If there is no market, he's likely to be ostracized by his peers."

'ostracized' is a verb above. It implies that people are intentionally excluding a person. This, to me, is a little bit different than a lack of a market. A lack of a market may not be intentional. People may be oblivious to the lack of the market. With ostracism, the ostracizers are often aware of the person or idea they are excluding. Keynes has a quote that says something to the effect that it is better to fail conventionally than succeed unconventionally. I kind of agree. People, including management, enjoy commiseration with others who enjoy the same plight.


"I would like some examples of where tenure made the difference between production and suppression (presumablly temporary) of a genuinely important idea."

Some people might not want to teach in certain public schools given lack of tenure. The discipline problems with kids are so high that the job is too low paying and too risky without tenure. I am very not sure on this. I suppose someone could argue that tenure and bad teachers perpetuate bad schools. Anecdotally, I do not see support for this latter argument. Many kids in the U.S. have access to more stable and stronger people through teachers and administrators at public schools than through their mom and dad at homes. Tenure attracts stable and consistent people to work in otherwise difficult situations.

Corey

The problem with tenure as something bargained for in Posner's free contract world is the same information assymetry he mentions, but viewed from the workers point of view:

Imagine that you are a hard worker who wants to trade a lower wage for increased job security. How can you bargain for this? You know you intend to work hard, but the employer thinks you want job security because you intend to be lazy. The minute you ask the question you are rejected for the job.

Unions make this easier because the bargaining process is not conducted against the background of judging individual worker's potential commitment to the company.

It is nearly impossible to ask for job security outside of collective bargaining or industries where tenure is regulated. Treating tenure as a matter of individualized bargaining is just a way to ban it from practice without looking like you are doing so. Only the few most excellent and desired candidates will ever have the leverage to ask for tenure.

Eteraz

Sir, these are very subversive ideas to the entire western civilization. I have effectuated a detailed response to your suggestions on my blog. The direct link to the article is as follows.

eteraz.wordpress.com

Kossuth

To add to Corey's point above: the assymetry of information between workers and their employers is larger still--to the poin that it undermines the idealistic free market principles that Judge Posner advocates. Workers don't know what share of value they add to a product. Moreover, they lack so many other metrics about what they produce and worse yet (for them), without some kind of place at management's table, they lack a context within which to situate these metrics.

Moving from acknowleding this asymmetry between worker and employers, I can't help but wonder if it is, in fact, the source of a larger counterpoint against Judge Posner's notion that the "free market failure" of unions is the conclusive evidence of their inefficiency. Sure they're inefficient, not as workers, but as a group of people shut out from knowledge of the market they work within--hence their need for unions, i.e. their need for a unit that matches the corporation's ability to manage and track the information of the marketplace (sorry, the owners don't share).

I also can't help but wonder, too, if Judge Posner might in fact mean profitability for the owners, period, rather than simply the ability to generate value via product, when he talks about efficiency, for when we think of efficiency as a group of workers' ability to add value, efficiency might be measured differently than it is simply on the employer's bottom line. In Judge Posner's view, are unions less efficient simply because they take profits away from owners and spread them out, as salary, to the people who do the work? Looking forward to more on this, though the rest might have moved on to this weeks' posts.

Elton

Workers don't know what share of value they add to a product.

I'm not sure why they need to in a free labor market -- they only need to know what they can earn at similar jobs from other employers. If it's a competitive industry, then the marginal value of that employee will be priced into what companies are willing to pay him or her.

Thomas Brownback

--The Externalities of Unpopular Ideas--

"If there is a market for the unpopular idea, the fired professor can find another job."

Unpopular ideas might provide some value to society as a whole, even when providing very little to employing institutions.

These unpopular, unmarketable, even wrong ideas encourage others in the field to think and write on the subject, perhaps developing more robust theories as they go, developing more good ideas.

Academia often works in dialogue, so employing some devil's advocates or straw men along the way might not be so terrible. Certainly, any individual institution would prefer not to employ the straw men, though the system as a whole might benefit.

Our intellectual history isn't a succession of completely independent and original thought, but from countless brilliant responses to problematic ideas.

Basically, I'm just suggesting that an idea can be "genuinely important" even without being widely adopted, or even though it might be quickly rejected.

On the other hand, even without tenure, I'm not sure we'd have a real shortage of bad ideas. (Some people use the internet to contribute their bad ideas to professors in their spare time, for free!)

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