Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Higher Education as an Example of Special Interest Rent Extraction

David Horowitz's The Professors depicts academics who are successful without having made any important breakthroughs in science, are not necessarily talented scholars (some are, but most in his book aren't)* and who have no knowledge that would enable undergraduates to think creatively or to succeed in their careers. Academia has become a pretext for extraction of rents for academics themselvs without intellectual accountability or standards. Academics admit this among themselves (not for popular consumption though, as that would threaten salary increases), as Michael Berube's review essay on "Abuse of the University" suggests. Increasingly academics act as though Veblen was right in Higher Learning in America and that universities are pointless rituals that serve as market screens for employers and in loco parenti for Gentleman C's.

The question then becomes why universities continue to receive so much governmental and public support. If the professors themselves (and left wing journalists such as Jane Jacobs in The Dark Age Ahead) begin to argue that universities pursue a vacuous "excellence" or provide pointless credentials then why should the public support such institutions? The claim that a college degree becomes an entry barrier to the professions and so serves the economic interest of the professionals is not a sufficient argument (this is the same argument as signaling theory) because an inexpensive test could serve equally well as an entry barrier.

A better explanation is in the group interest theory of Mancur Olson in The Rise and Decline of Nations and George Stigler, that special interest groups such as university administrations can pressure Washington and the state capitols to provide economic benefits. The argument would go that because professors and universities are compact interest groups with alot of free time and excess resources, they are effective lobbies. As a result, their demand for regulatory support and economic largesse is far greater than that of more deserving groups, such as the poor. Therefore, universities extract benefits that could otherwise have gone to help impoverished Americans to provide six figure salaries to left wingers with crackpot political views who advocate the destruction of the very firms who are paying their bloated salaries.

*One of my favorites is Professor Michael Vocino (p. 345) who, according to Horowitz, although in his fifties has not completed his dissertaton and is still merely a Ph.D. candidate. Professor Vocino's dissertation concerns an analysis of the cartoon show South Park and is entitled "'They've Killed Kenny!': Popular Culture, Public Ethics and the Televisual." Yet, despite the lack of a doctorate and, according to Horowitz, zero refereed publications (allegedly his only publications are a short book on ethics for public administrators and bibliographical lists) the University of Rhode Island has promoted him to full professor. This is understandable because Vocino has the requisite qualification for a career at the University of Rhode Island: he is a gay activist. According to a student named Nathaniel Nelson, Vocino entered the classroom on the first day announcing "My name is Michael Vocino and I like dick." Such is the value of a degree from the University of Rhode Island.

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