The folks on the editorial board at the New York Times have made another argument for raising the minimum wage, namely that it's good for business.
This is not entirely a crazy argument. The "efficiency wage" theory of labor economics suggests that paying workers a bit more than the going rate makes them happy and pays off in terms of increased loyalty, lower turnover, etc. Probably 95% of labor economics textbooks will accompany discussion of this subject with a sidebar about Henry Ford and the $5 day. Ford famously paid more than any other carmaker in the industry and enjoyed the same type of low turnover -- even in back-breaking, physically demanding assembly line jobs -- touted in the NYT editorial.
Think about this another way, though, and the argument is that basically business owners are too dumb to figure out that paying higher wages will make them more profitable, so the government needs to save them from themselves. I don't mean to dismiss that argument out of hand; certainly H.L. Mencken wouldn't. But any time somebody asks you to believe that, it's worth considering alternative hypotheses.
The NYT talking point that Wal-Mart wants a higher minimum wage is a bit disingenuous, since their average wages exceed the minimum they are basically just asking the government to make their competitors pay more.
The Gap has voluntarily agreed to increase worker pay for the majority of its workforce (albeit to a level that's still below the proposed $10.10 minimum wage). Bear in mind that the Gap sells self-branded clothing, and consumer willingness-to-pay for Gap jeans depends largely on how much they value the brand. So chalk that one up as a shrewd marketing maneuver. Expect Abercrombie & Fitch to follow suit quickly. The model doesn't work so well for businesses that sell things like grapefruit and cat food -- identically packaged and marketed items sold by competing retailers.
And Costco, the subject of a Harvard Business Review article back in 2006, has a dirty little secret about its famously high wages that is patently obvious if you just read the article with calculator in hand. Compared to Sam's Club, Costco logs 16% more in sales while employing 38% fewer workers. Put these two ratios together and you discover that Sam's employs 87% more workers per dollar of sales than Costco does. Costco has clearly traded higher wages for fewer jobs.
So is that what we want? Higher paying jobs but many fewer of them? That might end up working for some businesses, but what is it going to do for the people we intend to help?
Suppose I suggested that the government adopt an anti-poverty program with the following characteristics:
This is a basic description of how the minimum wage operates. This isn't the right-wing spin on it either, points 1-3 were derived directly from a New York Times editorial this morning. There's plenty of controversy regarding the CBO's highly publicized but very rough estimates of how many jobs would disappear following a minimum wage increase, but one could glibly assume no negative effect on employment and still come to the conclusion that the minimum wage is a highly symbolic but dreadfully ineffective way to lift families out of poverty.
The minimum wage is too blunt an instrument to effectively fight poverty
The positive way to think about the minimum wage is that it attempts to ensure that any person trying to raise a family by being a full-time worker will earn enough to get by. By the CBO estimates, some 16 million workers would be affected by an increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and some 900,000 would be lifted from poverty. Thus if the goal of the minimum wage increase were to lift families from poverty, estimates suggest it will have a 6% success rate. Flip that around, and you've got a 94% failure rate. And this is assuming no adverse impact on employment whatsoever.
In the 94% of cases where workers receive wage increases but do not experience a lift from poverty, there are two basic things going on. In most cases, the families benefitting from the wage increase aren't lifted from poverty because they weren't in poverty in the first place. Minimum wage workers are often secondary or tertiary workers in their household -- including teenagers. In some cases, however, the increase in the minimum wage would not be sufficient to escape poverty. For a full-time worker raising a family of 4, the income earned from working 2,000 hours per year at $10.10 per hour would not be sufficient to rise above the federal poverty line. Many minimum wage workers are part-time workers; even if their job continues to exist after the increase there is no guarantee they'll be able to work the same number of hours.
The minimum wage is largely a tax on food
Minimum wage workers are found across a wide range of industries, but the highest concentrations happen to be in industries tied to the production of food, based on data from the 2010 American Community Survey. More than one-tenth of minimum wage workers work in the restaurant or food service industry. Also represented in the list of top 5 industries employing minimum wage workers are grocery stores, discount and department stores, and K-12 education -- it isn't the teachers making minimum wage, but the cafeteria workers and related staff. Crop production sits just outside the top five.
A truly progressive antipoverty policy would transfer resources from the wealthy to the deserving poor. Presumably the goal of a minimum wage increase would be to transfer resources from the highly paid executives and wealthy shareholders of major corporations to their low-paid workers. To understand why this just can't work out in practice, consider the case of Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart's most recent annual report shows that the company paid shareholders about $5.4 billion in dividends, and paid their top executives somewhere around $60 million. Suppose we zeroed out those numbers -- forced the executives to forfeit 100% of their pay, and shareholders 100% of their dividends -- and transfered the money to the company's 2.1 million domestic employees. We'd have enough to give each of them about $2,583 per year. For a full time worker, this would amount to a raise of roughly $1.29 per hour.
Wiping out the shareholders and top executives, in other words, would be sufficient to fund less than half of the proposed $2.85 increase in the federal minimum wage. Granted, the average Wal-Mart employee already earns between $12 and $13 per hour, but the basic message is clear. Minimum wage work occurs largely in low-margin industries, where there just aren't a whole lot of profits to be plundered. The real fat cats of the economy, working in knowledge industries or on Wall Street, don't employ a whole lot of minimum-wage workers.
To pay for the wage increase, then, costs would have to be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices. Given the heavy reliance on minimum wage work at nearly all stages of the food supply chain, the higher prices would be most apparent in a family's food budget. Ask yourself, what type of family spends the highest share of its income on food? Not the wealthy.
There is a better way
The intent of the minimum wage is to raise the payoff from work for society's most vulnerable people. It effectively asks business owners to cover the costs, and requires them to spend a large amount of extra money on raising the payoff from work for a larger group of citizens who are not society's most vulnerable people. These business owners, who by the nature of their business are already serving many vulnerable people as their clientele, cover the costs in part by passing them on to their customers. They rob Paul to pay Paul.
If our goal as a society is to ensure that no person who devotes themselves to full-time work should find themselves living below the poverty line, there is an alternative strategy that is simultaneously more efficient and more progressive. It's the Earned Income Tax Credit.
I am an economist by training, so perhaps it is no surprise that I think the EITC beats the minimum wage. But the selling points of the EITC bear repeating, particularly since the drumbeat for expanding the EITC as an alternative to a minimum wage increase is not exactly deafening.
The EITC effectively multiplies earnings for families that work but don't make much money by doing so. It delivers significant amounts of cash to single parents raising a family on the basis of low-wage work, but not a penny to the teenage child of a high-income family delivering pizza for a bit of spending money.
The EITC doesn't ask business owners to bear the cost of society's goal alone, but rather spreads the burden through the full government system of taxation. If you want the wolves of Wall Street to pay for our social investment in the lives of the vulnerable, the EITC will do it but the minimum wage won't.
And from a pragmatic perspective, the will in Congress to pass an EITC expansion this year might actually exist, given the bipartisan focus on inequality this year. Do you really think the House is going to pass a minimum wage increase anytime soon?
There are criticisms of the EITC. Some employers might use the EITC as an excuse to cut wages, but coupled with the existing state and federal minimum wages it isn't really possible to do that for the workers we're ostensibly trying to help. Moreover, even if we accept estimates that only 73 cents of every dollar spent on the EITC lands in the hands of a deserving family, that surely beats the ratio we'd get with a higher minimum wage.
The minimum wage, in short, makes for good symbolism but bad policy.
[Note: the original Wal-Mart numbers I had in this post were taken from some poorly annotated figures I jotted down a few weeks ago. Walmart reports paying $1.59 in dividends per share in fiscal 2013, with a total of about 3.374 billion shares outstanding. So that's returing quite a bit less than the $100 billion I originally cited, which would have made for a much greater windfall per worker if redistributed.]
NC Governor Pat McCrory, along with leaders of the NC General Assembly, announced this morning that they intend to raise the state minimum teacher salary from $30,800 to $35,000 over the next two years. This announcement comes in response to a chorus of calls to increase teacher compensation in North Carolina, which has languished in the years since the 2008 recession.
Many of these calls make reference to average teacher compensation, and any AP statistics student should be able to tell you that there's more than one way to raise the average. You could take the $200 million the General Assembly is committing to this first round of teacher pay increases, give it to one person, and have the exact same effect on the average as giving it in equal measure to all teachers. Critical commentary has already started to trickle in about this proposal, from those worried that focusing resources on beginning teachers will leave out many veterans.
For now, experienced teachers must be content with the governor's promise that this is just the first step in reforming teacher compensation in North Carolina.
There are several reasons why raising starting salaries makes sense as a first step.
Good teachers are worth much more than even the $68,050 at the top of the NC salary schedule. For this reason I hope, as most observers would, that this is just the first step in a more comprehensive reform. But it's a good first step, and I am hopeful.
Tacloban, the Philippine city ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan last week, appears on the brink of complete abandonment, with the mayor urging surviving residents to flee. Relief supplies are to be found just outside the city, but a range of physical and human obstacles are making it difficult if not impossible to deliver them.
Will Tacloban recover in the long run? Politics will play a role -- can the government afford to subsidize relocation into the area in the same way the United States did after Hurricane Katrina? Geologic considerations might factor in as well. The Leyte Gulf, after all, looks kind of like an upside-down funnel, and Tacloban's location at the narrow part of the funnel poses the same sort of hydrologic challenges as New York's location at an interior corner of the East Coast. There might be some argument for buying out the owners of what remains and starting over in a less dangerous location. But ultimately, rebuilding is a question of economics. Before the typhoon, it made sense for some 200,000 people to live in Tacloban. Will it make sense now?
For some time, the conventional wisdom among economists was that cities bounced back from disasters. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are two data points often cited in support of this view. The atomic devastation of these Japanese cities was different in some respects, however. The bombs targeted the center of town, leaving the outer ring of the metropolis more or less intact. Sufficient infrastructure remained intact in Hiroshima to allow limited streetcar service to resume just three days after the bomb. There was a fundamental logic in taking a devastated landscape in the middle of a sizable suburban ring and making a city out of it.
Most importantly, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were thriving cities before the war. Demand for residence in those cities, in other words, was strong -- and the rational response to a reduction in the "supply" of those cities was to rebuild.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is a more current example of the phenomenon. The city was devastated by the 2010 Earthquake, but given the almost utter lack of economic opportunity elsewhere in Haiti -- Port-au-Prince is home to 28% of Haiti's population but over 90% of the nation's manufacturing jobs -- there was no other place for the residents to go. It is the only part of the country with reliable electric service, and possesses the only modern port and air facilities.
A couple of years ago I made the argument that the same dynamics would not take root in cities experiencing decline before disaster struck, thinking specifically of New Orleans post-Katrina but also of some of the German cities affected by firebombing during World War II. When a city is in decline, a certain segment of the population remains there primarily because the housing becomes cheaper over time. Able-bodied workers might leave a city with no jobs, but a family living on disability or social security would not be bothered by a lack of economic opportunity. As the able-bodied leave the city, the houses remain, and the excess supply puts downward pressure on prices. For renters, this is nothing but good news. For owners, the news is not so good, but the disappearence of home equity makes it more difficult to contemplate affording life elsewhere.
When a disaster comes along and destroys the housing stock, the "excess supply" problem is solved, in a somewhat brutal sense, and downward pressure on prices ceases. This is exactly what happened in New Orleans. No longer a cheap place to live, the city remains about 25% smaller than it was in the 2000 Census. The demographics of the city have shifted predictably as well, skewing towards a more affluent population.
Which of these possible trajectories best fits Tacloban? Population statistics indicate that the region has experienced steady growth in recent decades. By regional standards it has been economically prosperous, and its waterfront location brings obvious risks but also certain advantages. In the coming weeks the city may well experience a near-total evacuation along the lines of post-Katrina New Orleans. But if history is any guide that is where the similarity will end.
Durham, NC came to be because of the railroad. In the mid-19th century, the state of North Carolina hopped on an infrastructure investment bandwagon that began with New York's Erie Canal, constructing a rail line from the capital in Raleigh to Charlotte. The tracks followed a natural ridge through what is now Durham County, fueling the industrial development of a spot on the map that had been simple farmland.
Today, the old North Carolina railroad cuts through downtown Durham, intersecting several of the major streets at grade. The grade crossings can snarl traffic and pose an obvious safety hazard. The aerial shot below shows the two crossings of main concern, near the top of the photo. To the south of the tracks lie Durham's Performing Arts Center, the minor league home of the Durham Bulls, Durham County's "new" courthouse, and the redeveloped American Tobacco complex, which once manufactured Lucky Strikes but now hosts restaurants, offices, and apartments. To the immediate north lies what most folks think of as Durham's "downtown," home to still more offices, restaurants, and condos. Ten years ago, downtown was pretty dead, but it gets more hoppin' every day.
A proposal has been floated to elevate the tracks along this stretch, replacing the two grade crossings at Blackwell and Mangum streets with underpasses. The two streets running parallel to the tracks would also need to be lowered. This plan has aroused some concern from nearby business owners, as they fear that the higher embankment required along the length of the block (and for at least another block on either side) would visually cut off the two sides of the tracks, and that pedestrians would be reluctant to traverse the underpasses.
Here's an idea, Durham: take a cue from Tokyo. Check out the photo below, which represents a section of the Japan Rail Yamanote line just south of Ueno station. Note the thriving pedestrian scene, captured right around dinner time on a weekday. And check out what's under the tracks -- all sorts of stuff: shops, restaurants, an entry to the JR station. The overpass carries all sorts of rail traffic, from local commuter trains to the Shinkansen. But there is a thriving commercial strip underneath. This isn't just a curiosity confined to one section of Tokyo, either. In Japan, elevated tracks are not supported with embankments and retaining walls. The space underneath is put to use, for everything from shops to museums.
So why not do that, Durham? Right now, a 40-yard-wide swath of the city's most valuable real estate is put to productive use -- by passing trains -- for at most 15 minutes a day. The space below the tracks could be put to any number of more productive uses. Rather than serve to blockade people on one side of the tracks, a below-the-tracks arcade could draw people from one side to the other. Two parcels of 20,000 square feet or more could be created where there is now little more than a grassy embankment. That's enough square feet to locate a full-service grocery store to serve the growing downtown population. It's enough for a market hall on the order of Seattle's Pike Place Market, or twice the size of Madrid's Mercado San Miguel. In a town becoming increasingly renowned for "foodiness," a below-the-tracks marketplace would be a signature destination. The railroad that brought Durham to life would become the destination that celebrated its postindustrial resurgence.
The best argument against this plan, of course, would be cost. A few thousand cubic feet of dirt would undoubtedly cost less than the materials required to sturdily support passing freight trains above an open-air marketplace or shopping arcade. But there would be revenues to offset these costs, in the form of rent. C'mon Durham, isn't this worth thinking about?
This post continues the occasional series on lessons learned from three years’ service on the promotion and tenure committee at Duke. If you need to catch up, the previous posts explained why lifetime labor contracts might make more sense than you think, how junior scholars should go about pursuing tenure, and what newly minted senior scholars should do once they get it. This post is squarely aimed at senior scholars, and in fact there is some chance that junior scholars who read it might freak out just a bit, as we’re going deep inside the sausage factory here. A few words of reassurance appear at the end of the post.
At the heart of every tenure or promotion review lies a set of evaluation letters. I’ve read about 2,000 of them over the past three years – most positive, a few negative, and some too confusing to understand. For a tenured professor, writing a letter on behalf of a junior colleague at another university is something of a solemn duty. It is a commitment to spend hours immersing oneself in that colleague’s work, then more hours composing a letter that can run to many pages of single-spaced type. There is rarely any compensation for the task.
The most common way to think about tenure letters is whether they are “positive” or “negative.” For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, “positive” letters are themselves often subcategorized into a range from “lukewarm” to “over the top.”
There is a more important dimension on which to grade letters, however, and that is on the scale from “useless” to “extremely helpful.” The bulk of this post will concern the problem that many letter writers are less helpful than they could be, and suggest some solutions to that problem.
Problematizing the letter
The main reason that tenure letters end up being unhelpful is that their authors are afraid of saying anything negative about the candidate.
Suppose you’ve been asked to write a letter on behalf of a junior scholar, and the honest truth is that you’re not sure whether the scholar in question has met the standards their department should apply. Were you not bound to keep the request and the letter confidential, you might be inclined to ask others for their opinion to help you formulate your own. Given your lack of confidence in your opinion, you’d hate for a person to be denied tenure solely on the basis of what you think. Should you write an unambiguously positive letter or what we might call a “nuanced” one?
This is what a game theorist might call a “multiple equilibrium” scenario. Others might invoke the concept of social norms. If the norm in your field is to write positive letters in this scenario, then a nuanced letter actually ends up looking bad. If, on the other hand, nuanced letters are the norm then there’s little downside risk to writing one yourself.
Among North American tenure letter writers, the norm is to limit nuance. There are a number of negative ramifications of this tendency:
In short, the tendency to avoid saying anything negative or neutral about a candidate makes letters less useful than they might be.
This can end up having negative ramifications for the candidate. Suppose the candidate works in a field divided into two camps. Let’s further presume that the candidate aligns more closely with camp “X,” and scholars in camp “Y” have a tendency to be critical or even dismissive of the work emanating from camp “X.” You, the letter writer, also align with camp “X” and you wonder if you should make any reference to the criticisms that you might anticipate arising from camp “Y” scholars.
Your aversion to nuance leads you to omit this discussion. The possibility exists, however, that the candidate’s dossier will include negative letters from camp “Y.” And if that happens, the question is whether readers of the dossier will correctly discern that there are differing camps in the field, or will instead interpret the camp “Y” letter writer as a rare person who is willing to be candid about a scholar and is saying what everybody else in the field privately thinks. Hopefully, somebody will step forward and contextualize the dispute for the scholar’s colleagues, dean, and other decision-makers in the chain of command. But this is not guaranteed to happen.
You, the hesitant letter writer, have a chance to prevent this from happening. But in order to do it, you’ve got to resist the urge to write a rose-colored letter.
Bringing the nuance back
In many fields, there are senior scholars who have an established reputation for writing blunt letters. European letter writers are often ascribed a similar reputation, though individual differences clearly matter.
If you’re a North American scholar who does not yet have the reputation of being candid, how can you signal to the world that your nuanced commentary should be seen as just that, and not a basic negative statement? Just say so, right in the letter! I’ve come to appreciate letters that have this type of embedded meta-commentary. Tell people that you know about the norm against nuance, and that it doesn’t apply to you. Then just say what you really think. Here’s a completely made-up (i.e., not cut and pasted from any actual letter), generic template for how the meta-commentary can play out:
“While I have focused to this point on the positive aspects of this candidate’s work, of which there are many, it is important to recognize that some scholars in this field would raise a few concerns. Personally, I do not attach much weight to these concerns, and I should reiterate that I am a big fan of the candidate’s work. I also understand that letters with nuanced commentary are often read as negative letters and would urge you not to apply that lens in this case. I’ll provide you with my understanding of the criticisms so that you might understand them in context.”
By providing meta-commentary, you temporarily elevate yourself from a participant in an ongoing battle against the forces of ignorance to a referee of said battle. That’s exactly the perspective that your readers will be coming from. You also permit yourself to raise concerns without assuming ownership of them. Your letter instantly becomes more useful.
A few further suggestions for letter-writers
Now of course, if you do all these things and cultivate a reputation for writing very useful letters, you could pay a significant price in terms of being asked to write them more often. Just remember the lessons from last time about knowing when to say no and everything will work out just fine.
Reassurance for Junior Scholars
And now a special word for the junior scholars who have completed this tour of the sausage factory. If you happen to be working in a field with sharp divisions, are worried that your colleagues might solicit letters from the other side of the divide come tenure time, and further fret that your friends on your side won’t adequately rush to your defense, bear in mind that you yourself have an opportunity to contextualize your work in relation to the divide, in your personal statement. First, ensure that you have a complete understanding of the nature of the intellectual dispute. It is unusual to arrive at such an understanding after reading literature on only one side. Then, spell out the arguments that a critic from the other camp would view your work in your personal statement, and describe your counterarguments. Leave not to a letter writer what you can do yourself!
Over the past several months I've been slogging my way through Robert Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ rose to prominence in a political party that represented an uneasy amalgam of Southern conservatives and Northern liberals. A key strategic element of his rise, according to Caro, was his duplicitousness. He campaigned for the House as an FDR-aligned New Dealer, while convincing the business interests that bankrolled his campaign that he was anything but. In his years in the House he took great pains to avoid taking a public stand on almost anything, sponsoring next to no legislation. In the Senate, he chose whatever means necessary to make legislation happen, even if it meant collaborating with the other party to overcome opposition in his own. He blindsided opponents by cobbling together unlikely coalitions. And as president, LBJ championed the type of Civil Rights legislation to which he had exhibited 100% opposition in his days on Capitol Hill. Having risen to the top of this uneasy alliance, Johnson's actions ultimately spelled its doom.
In today's parlance, Johnson was the ultimate flip-flopper. He was against things before he was for them, and for things before he was against them. In fact, he was both for and against things at the same time. He waffled. He cut back-room deals that benefited special interests right and left.
LBJ did all these things, but that was the key to getting things done. In Caro's telling, Johnson never really compromised his principles in the process because he had none to start with, save self-aggrandizement. And Caro takes great pains to establish that Johnson's actions were critical to reforming what had been a largely ineffectual legislative body.
Where are the Lyndon Johnsons today? The pragmatic deal-makers for whom literally anything is negotiable? You're probably more likely to see them on Survivor than in Congress.
One could write volumes on the changes in politics over the past half-century, but among these changes is the fact that LBJ-style duplicitousness is less sustainable in an era where inconsistencies in a politician's record can be instantly uncovered and exploited. Legislators' need to exhibit consistency leads them to hew more closely to a set of principles, eschewing compromise. Their behavior needs to conform to the promises they made while campaigning, and as government is divided among legislators and an executive who made opposing promises, very little can be accomplished.
Sunlight, as they say, is the best disenfectant. But just as killing off all microbes indiscriminately would leave us humans unable to digest our food, killing off the logrolling and quid-pro-quos that marked the legislative process in the Johnson era has dramatically weakened the system's capacity to actually get things done. The wheels of the legislative process are no longer greased, and they have ground to a halt.
This is, of course, a mixed blessing. We no longer need worry about bridges to nowhere and other follies casually inserted into broader bills. But without the follies, we aren't getting the bills.
It may seem odd to wax nostalgic for the good old days when politicians could get away with being more "corrupt." But at times like these, it's clear that the country would benefit from the service of a few talented but unprincipled people.
I spent slightly more than eleven years of my childhood living on a peculiar street in Bloomington, Indiana. To get there, one drove down a busy road known officially as State Road 46 but colloquially as “the bypass,” turning right just before a set of train tracks (or left just after them, if coming in from the north) onto a short street that paralleled the bypass for about 400 feet before making a dogleg turn. Past the curve, Eastgate Lane continued for about 800 more feet, descending about 20 vertical feet into a usually dry creekbed and climbing the other side, before coming to a dead end.
There were exactly six houses and one apartment complex, Park Doral, on Eastgate Lane. The first four houses lay on the stretch parallel to the bypass. They dated to the late 1950s, as did both the bypass and Eastgate Lane itself, modest but sturdily built homes faced with limestone and brick. From their front doors, the occupants looked out on the Lane, a grassy patch about 10 yards wide, and the bypass. From their back doors, the occupants could view a more bucolic scene, with lots of up to an acre. When I first moved to Eastgate Lane, in the mid-1970s, there were open fields in back of these lots. The fields would soon be replaced with another apartment complex.
The fifth house on Eastgate Lane, number 2558, was mine. It sat right at the dogleg turn. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were going and missed the curve, you ended up in my driveway. This was the fate of many a visitor to the Park Doral apartments. It was a house of similar vintage, a single story over a crawlspace, three bedrooms, brick in the front and siding (which we would replace with aluminum) elsewhere. It had no garage or carport, the former attached garage having been finished to provide more living space at some point in its first two decades. Our neighbors included a couple of other families with children and a couple of retirees, a small group of families but a varied one. As far as I can recall, everybody was white, but that’s not surprising given the place and time. We bought the house from the man who would become my European History teacher in high school.
Whereas the first four houses were separated from the bypass by the lane itself and the 10-yard buffer, mine was effectively wedged between the bypass and the lane. At its closest point – the corner where, for about seven years, I slept – the house was a mere 20 yards from the dashed yellow line down the middle of highway 46. To this day, noise rarely prevents me from falling, or remaining, asleep.
We had a small concrete patio on the side of the house facing away from the bypass, with a picture window leading to it, and a bed of peonies just to the right. We didn’t have a backyard quite as nice as the first four houses, but it was of decent size, wooded with trees perfectly suited for climbing or hanging a swing. Squirrels, chipmunks, cardinals, and robins visited frequently, we would often find little bits of blue eggshell on the sidewalk to the front door in the springtime. The lot was separated from the bypass by a chain-link fence, overgrown with vines in most places. Like most southern Indiana homes, ours had a basketball hoop in the driveway.
This satellite photo, taken in early 2005, shows the scene. I’ve marked the location of the house and its crescent-shaped driveway. The four “upper Eastgate” homes are directly above; the sixth house – our only next-door neighbor’s – lies to the right. The tracks, which carried trains that rattled our windows as they carried loads from the coal fields of southern Indiana to the power plants of Indianapolis, are visible just at the top of the image. Park Doral – home mostly to college students who produced a variety of other sounds audible from our house late at night – lies to the right.
About 100 yards past the train tracks lies a major intersection, and past that cross-street lay the complex where I attended school from Kindergarten through sixth grade. University Elementary School, proximate to the Indiana University campus, served students from around the world, the children of graduate students, faculty, and an assortment of other Bloomingtonians. I walked to school nearly every day. I was one of the few students who walked to school along the bypass; many more came from university-owned apartment complexes just across the bypass from the school. The single crossing guard, an older man, would walk over from his regular post at the busy crosswalk to mine whenever I showed up.
When crossing the tracks, I’d strain to see the bright headlight of an Illinois Central freight train in the far distance. On those special occasions when one appeared, I’d stand by the tracks and wait for the train to pass, waving to the brakeman in the caboose.
Heading the other direction, less than a half-mile from my house, was another major intersection, this one anchored by Bloomington’s lone indoor shopping mall. One had to take a somewhat roundabout route to get there, as the bypass had no sidewalks, but it was an easy walk that my brother and I took all the time in the summer, our pockets filled with small bills redeemable for slices of pizza and arcade tokens.
Crossing the bypass and heading west, it was less than a half-mile to the outer edges of IU’s campus, and just over a mile either to the heart of campus or to IU’s outdoor pool, which was quite the preteen summertime hangout back in the day. It was less than two miles to the courthouse square at the very center of town. From this peculiar dead-end street I could walk virtually anywhere I’d ever want to go. There might be one or two dicey street crossings involved along the way, but these were of little consequence to an adolescent boy. It was the worst of locations, but it was the best of locations.
By the time this photo was taken, the house was gone. From an early point in our residency on Eastgate Lane, there had been talk of widening the bypass from two to four lanes. When first constructed, the bypass represented the eastern edge of developed Bloomington. Like many mid-century ring roads, development enveloped it, transforming it from a thoroughfare for those who wished to avoid Bloomington to a key artery for those who lived there. From my bedroom window I could often see traffic at a standstill in either direction.
Our family sold the home and moved away in the late 1980s. Sometime in the next decade or so, the house was purchased by the Indiana Department of Transportation and demolished. When I last visited the lot several years ago, not a trace of the home remained. The driveway was still there, but the basketball hoop was gone.
University Elementary School still exists, but it moved to a different campus soon after I left. The buildings that once housed the school, owned by the University, were converted into a computing center. Recently, that computing center too has been demolished.
While the four houses of “upper” Eastgate Lane were far enough away from the bypass to spare them from being acquired to widen the road, the private sector brought them to a parallel fate. Where children once played and retirees once gardened there now sits a complex of multi-story apartment buildings, bearing the possibly ironic moniker “East Bay,” a mere 500 miles from the nearest brackish water. The once-graceful backyards are now parking lots. Of the six single-family homes that once populated Eastgate Lane, exactly one remains.
And after nearly four decades of rumor and planning, the widening of the bypass is complete. It is four lanes wide with a narrow median. As the 2013 satellite photo below indicates, Eastgate Lane itself has been realigned; what was once my driveway now lies primarily in the right-of-way. Where I once lay my head to sleep there is now a sinuous paved path, leading to a pedestrian underpass that will ensure that no child need take the risks that I once did to cross that highway. Not that there are any children left to take those risks.
Eastgate Lane, once a dead-end street, is now a through street, with access to the bypass at both the north and south ends of the parallel portion. The eastbound portion after the dogleg has been decommissioned; the apartment complex in the creekbed has been connected to another street. Eastgate now looks like a frontage road, and indeed it serves much that purpose, with a bus stop allowing northbound buses to pull off the bypass and pick up apartment dwellers. The city’s traffic commission plans to make Eastgate one-way Northbound to improve this bus service.
The repurposing of Eastgate Lane makes perfect sense from an urban planning standpoint. Bloomington is a growing town, and infill development of this nature – close to the center, with convenient transit connections – is a smart way to accommodate this growth without carving up more fields and forest at the margins. It took what had always been a peculiar little stretch of road and made it make more sense.
But from another standpoint, this was my home, my neighborhood such that it was, my school. They have all been wiped off the map. If you never lived there, or never attended that school, there is not much to be sentimental about. The structures were close to valueless from a historical preservation perspective. For those whose lives revolved around this little street, though, something has been lost.
Eastgate Lane, in its peculiar way, encapsulates the key tension in modern society: between preservation and progress. When progress defeats preservation, we stand to lose something of our collective memory, culture, and experience, the things that knit us together as a society. But when preservation defeats progress, it often entails a victory for a well-connected few at the expense of many. To govern a modern community is to attempt to keep these forces in balance.
I don't fly Delta Airlines all that often, but a quick round trip to Atlanta last week left me with no other rational choice. I was struck by the subtle humor embedded in their safety video, perhaps just an attempt to showcase their hipness, but also possibly a way to convince people to pay attention. I often try to pepper my lectures with subtle jokes for the same reason -- the bored student peps up when classmates start laughing, thinking "what did I miss?"
Anyway, I was struck by the vignette appearing between the 0:40 and 0:53 marks of the video in which one passenger indicates an unwillingness to help the flight crew in the event of an emergency, and trades seats with a more willing passenger:
A clever joke, right? As it turns out, however, this vignette illustrates a general phenomenon relating ethnic heterogeneity to an unwillingness to take actions in the public interest. The phenomenon was first noted in the literature on developing countries, which noted that nations with more ethnic divisions had poorer records of economic growth. Soon, a similar phenomenon was noted in developed countries. For example, in a 2004 paper I reported that households living in racially heterogeneous counties were less likely to return their Census forms -- an action in the public interest since Census population counts drive Federal grants to local communities.
The Delta video shows the same phenomenon: the exit row passenger who doesn't "fit in" is unwilling to commit to civic responsibility; once the exit row is populated with comically homogeneous occupants the civic commitment is assured.
What explains this phenomenon? In a separate article, I made the argument that calls to take actions that are privately costly but help others -- such as opening an exit door for fellow passengers in the event of an emergency -- depend on how one feels about helping others. And how we feel about helping others, in turn, depends on our capacity to identify with them. The implication is that members of the same ethnic group find it easier to identify with, and therefore to help, one another.
I freely admit that this analysis of the Delta vignette amounts to overthinking the problem. Everybody knows that the real reason to snag the exit row is to get a bit more legroom, paying no attention to the infinitessimal likelihood that one will have to open the door. In that event, the simple desire for self-preservation is undoubtedly motivation enough to act. So it's really hard to know just what that fellow in the aisle seat was thinking.
This is the third in a series of posts inspired by a three-year term of service on a university-wide promotion and tenure committee. After discussing why lifetime contracts make more sense than you might think, and providing a pan-disciplinary, pan-institutional guide to landing said contract, this post discusses the first-world problem of what to do once you have it.
I know what I want but I just don’t know how to go about gettin’ it
Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it
The transition from junior to senior faculty member resembles the transition in attitude between the first and second lyric quoted above (and the timing is about right, too). The junior faculty member is motivated by pursuit of a single objective. While there may be some uncertainty about what it takes to achieve the objective, there is no doubt about what it is.
The tenured faculty member has no such well-defined mission. While it is possible to keep on doing the same things – publishing and teaching – for the remaining 30 years of one’s career, a number of other alternatives pop up. More than anything else, the tenured faculty member will have opportunities to play a leadership role not only in their own program of scholarly inquiry, but in their institution or discipline more broadly.
You can do a wide variety of things. And unlike earlier stages of your career, you face real decisions about which of them you might like to do. In an economy marked by rampant unemployment and job dislocation, this is a luxurious problem to have. But it’s a problem nonetheless. On the APT committee we often spoke of the need for professional development opportunities for newly tenured faculty. Here are the main lessons we spoke of conveying.
Lesson 0: It’s time to take on those risky projects.
I’ve already mentioned that one basic rationale for awarding tenure is to encourage faculty to conceive and execute projects that have both the promise of Earth-shattering advances in knowledge and the possibility of complete failure. So obviously it’s time to do that… if you don’t find yourself swamped with other things to do. Which brings us to…
Lesson 1: You Can Say No.
As your academic reputation grows, you’ll be presented with an expanding array of opportunities. We’ll talk about some of them in a moment. As an untenured faculty member, these opportunities came infrequently enough, and the importance of increasing your name recognition high enough, that the rough rule of thumb “say yes to everything” would not get you in too much trouble.
When opportunities arrive more frequently, and the importance of building name recognition declines (because you’ve already got it – maybe even too much of it), the decision rule should change. You needn’t say “yes” to every request to serve your university or discipline.
Those who have trouble internalizing this lesson will witness the following phenomena occur. First, the time available to do your own research and teaching – the things you’ve demonstrated a talent for – will dwindle, eventually to nothing if you let it. Second, once there is no more of your research or teaching time left to cannibalize, your service will eat itself. Every time you say “yes “ to one more activity, the quality of service you provide to every other thing you’ve said “yes” to will decline.
The “say yes to everything” rule of thumb, in short, will prove harmful not only to you but eventually even to those people to whom you say “yes.” You can throw family and friends into this category along with all the work-oriented folks.
What rule of thumb ought you substitute? Once you've had a chance to try a few different roles and responsibilities, the old "do what you enjoy best" applies. But it's hard to know whether you enjoy certain things unless you try them first.
A colleague of mine at Duke once suggested the following: imagine what would happen if you said “no.” The person who has made the request most likely has a list of possible candidates – on which you might very well not be the first name – and would proceed to the next name on the list. Is that next person likely to do about as good a job, if not better? If so, then say “no.” If you apply the rule correctly (not that there’s any guarantee that you can), then you will end up focusing your efforts in the places where you’ll make the most difference.
There can be a drawback to this strategy, if you are the sort of person who is conscientious, punctual, and otherwise competent at accomplishing things. You’ll end up being asked to do a lot, and by the above rule of thumb you’ll end up doing a lot of it. For this reason, I’ve been advised by more than one colleague to demonstrate “strategic incompetence.” I think that works best if you can get over the “conscientious” part.
If you are conscientious and competent, then your rule of thumb should be to stop saying “yes” when doing so will do harm to others that you’ve already said “yes” to. And do your best to say “yes” to collaborators, conference organizers, or other people whose requests involve getting your research done. That way you'll manage to reach this threshold before your research efforts have been completely cannibalized.
Lesson 2: The things you might do
The possibilities here are too numerous to list in a post of finite length, but I’ll offer a few reflections on some things I’ve said “yes” to over the past few years.
The typical academic scholar will possess tenure for decades – enough time to dabble across a range of these activities, plus others I haven’t mentioned. You may discover some of them to your liking; if you don’t mind the work and are reasonably competent at doing it, the odds are you’ll have a chance to spend an increasing proportion of your time on that activity. If you hate each and every one of them, it might be time to demonstrate “strategic incompetence” if you are lacking in actual incompetence.
Lesson 3: The Next Promotion
At Duke, and many other institutions, a newly tenured scholar receives the title “Associate Professor.” The process of ascending to the next rung, a “full” professorship, is often shrouded in mystery. For many, the route to securing your next promotion involves receiving an external offer at full rank from a peer institution. That isn’t always necessary, however. Once you’ve been promoted to associate, it is worth having a discussion with your department chair regarding the typical criteria for promotion to full.
Generally speaking, if tenure and promotion to associate professor is a statement that a university believes in a scholar’s potential, promotion to full professor is closer to a recognition that this potential has been realized.
In book-writing disciplines, promotion thresholds are fairly straightforward. To receive tenure, you need to publish your first book and make headway on a new project (in some cases, a contract on the second project may be expected). For the next promotion, you need that second project published and progress shown on a third. The exact placement of the threshold may vary; some letter writers will want to see published reviews on that second manuscript, others will be content to see it in pre-publication form.
In journal article-oriented disciplines, the threshold is a bit fuzzier. I’ve seen letter writers in more than one discipline refer to the h-index in defining a threshold. The h-index is a number h such that you have at least h articles that have garnered h citations each. And the magic number I’ve seen quoted is 20. While that might seem like a bright line threshold, it oversimplifies the process. To start with, there are different ways to calculate h (Google Scholar, ISI) which can give you very different answers. Suffice to say, if you’ve got an index number way above that and are still an associate professor, it might be time to bring up the subject with your chair.
If you received tenure on the basis of a strong research record coupled with a poor or below-average teaching record, your colleagues might expect you to show improvement on that score before promoting you again. A similar statement applies to service.
Some fields may state expectations about the length of time a scholar should spend in associate rank, but in general this is not a clock-driven process. In some cases, the criteria for promotion evolve over time. Scholars promoted on a quick timetable typically do so primarily on the basis of their publication records; with a consistent track record of strong teaching and service some universities will award promotions to those with a less consistent research record.
There’s one other factor that determines why some faculty earn their next promotion earlier than others: they ask for it. There is little downside risk to sitting down with your chair and discussing whether your time has come. In a surprising number of cases, this type of discussion is what sets the process in motion. If the answer is “not just yet,” you’ll nonetheless walk away with useful feedback and a clearer sense of what the expectations are in the department.