The Role of Market Correctives

Recently I dipped in to the January 11, 2010 edition of the world’s best magazine, I mean, The New Yorker. There I found “After the Blowup,” an essay by John Cassidy about how the various schools of laissez-faire economics are dealing with—or failing to deal with—recent economic crises. As author of How Markets Fail, Cassidy is well-positioned to write such an article. While the article is worthwhile in itself, I mention it primarily as a springboard.

When Cassidy was talking with Richard Posner, Posner was criticizing academic economists for their lack of realism, and for their failure to learn from the recent events. Posner said,”…market correctives work very slowly in dealing with academic markets. Professors have tenure…They have techniques that they know and are comfortable with.”

While part of this unintentionally ironic—Posner seems not realize just how many faculty don’t have tenure or the option of pursuing it—the core sentiment is strikingly valid and useful. As I’ve commented on in past posts, the ideal functions of tenure are well-known. They allow academics to follow their own visions, researching long term and/or unpopular projects.

Posner, though, has articulated one down side to tenure, and to the model of the tenured academic. Once tenured, an academic can solve problems no one else cares about. He or she can continue to embrace theories that events have left behind, or fail to even notice the emergence of difficult counter-examples.

This could offer an alternative model for the adjunct scholar. Rather than following the private vision, follow the public one. Rather than moving independently of the market, ride its momentum. This might mean writing about brand new books, using new media, and so on. Rather than publishing in academic journals— so long carefully insulated from the economics of publishing— publish…elsewhere. This might mean corporate publishing venues, it might mean artistic non-profits, it might mean community papers, self-publishing, etc. And rather than following one’s own vision and assuming (rather arrogantly and Platonically) that it is right, allow your vision to emerge through interaction, dialogue, and synthesis.

After all, the current adjunct situation was created through market forces; why not turn them, at least somewhat, to our advantage?

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