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Brennan to Adjuncts: F*** You, Jack, I’m Doin’ All Right

Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan, by his own estimation the soul of reasonableness, has decided that now — when adjunct outrage has reached the boiling point over universities replacing 75% of their faculty with low-paid temporary workers while the numbers and salaries of administrators explode — is the perfect time to give adjuncts the Bronx cheer and say, “It’s your own damn fault.”

Aside from trolling adjunct labor activists on the Facebook page of Precaricorps, Brennan has written three articles on the subject at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. (Note: Much of this article is based on earlier comments under Brennan’s articles. And I’m writing it in response to the versions of the articles that were online at the time of writing. I feel it necessary to point this out because Brennan has admitted to, and feels fully justified in, making substantial alterations to the text in response to criticism without providing any notice in the text of having done so.)

The first, “This Exists” (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, April 26), summarizes Brennan’s original comments that initially sparked such outrage among the online adjunct community. Adjuncts, he says, are not victims because they’re merely suffering the results of their own “bad choices.” (Totally unrelated, but can anyone watch Dr. Phil for five minutes without wanting to slug him?)

They become long-term adjuncts because of their choices. They could quit any year and get any number of excellent jobs, such as working at GEICO.

This is not to say, he adds, that the adjuncts are wrong about the nature of the system. It really is corrupt.

I think Ginsberg’s public choice account of what happened at universities is basically right. Universities have been captured by administrators, and they tend to run things in ways that benefit themselves and those to whom they answer more than faculty or students.

But universities are notorious for this culture of corruption, and people who choose grad school and employment as adjunct faculty go into it knowingly (or at least should know), and are therefore to blame for their own misfortune.

And he finishes up with this bald assertion (which, as we will see below, is based on faulty reasoning):

Keep in mind, too, that if the Social Justice for Adjuncts movement succeeds, most current professional adjuncts will not get TT or other higher paying, more secure jobs in academy. The reason is that adjuncts are cheap and secure jobs are expensive. Instead, a small minority of them will get good jobs, and the overwhelming majority will be kicked out of academia altogether.

Like much right-libertarian commentary, Brennan frames all this as a matter of bad personal choices rather than systemic or structural issues. Like other such framing, it falls prey to the fallacy of composition.

He suggests that there’s an 80% chance of ending up as a poorly paid precarious laborer in academia because the system is corrupt, and has been captured by administrators. In so doing he neglects the fact that most other sectors of the economy are, to some extent, similarly corrupted by corporate-state collusion, managerial capture and the systematic shift of bargaining power away from labor.

Further, most adjunct faculty are in academia out of a love of scholarship and teaching, and are not only better at those things but more honorable than many presently tenured faculty who were better at playing politics and kissing ass. Why should people in a system characterized by thoroughgoing structural corruption simply accept it as “the way things are” and look for a momentarily less corrupt private garden to cultivate — especially given that, to repeat the matter of fallacy of composition, what is a viable out for adjuncts as individuals is not viable for them as a class? Some small fraction of people in a theater may be able to see better by standing up, but if all of them stand up they’re worse off than before.

It’s not like academia is uniquely corrupt. In the corporate world, managerial and supervisory pay has risen from around 25% of total compensation in the 70s to around 40% today, and senior management pay in the same interval has gone from a few dozen to several hundred times the pay of the average production worker. Corporate America is corrupt in exactly the same way, and as the result of the same kinds of forces of managerial capture and self-dealing, as academia.

And meanwhile, there’s been a glut of long-term unemployed new graduates since the 2008 crash as it is. Brennan may have been able to get a good job at Geico — a fact he’s harped on to the point of creepiness. But if the 75% of college faculty comprised of adjuncts drops out, how is the economy supposed to absorb that several hundred thousand extra people? They’ll likely just wind up competing for other precarious jobs and drive wages down even further in other industries.

And all those adjuncts will have to be replaced by somebody. So it makes a lot more sense to stay where they are, make a stand, organize, and fight the corrupt college administration to make things better for everybody, rather than trying to be one of the lucky few who manage to get out first and cut a deal with somebody else. Why not stay in their jobs instead, engage in direct action like strikes, walkouts, sick-ins, and open-mouth sabotage right where they are?

In “Is the Adjuncts’ Rights Movement Anti-Adjunct?” (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, April 27), Brennan repeats his earlier argument that collectively bargaining will lead to reduced employment. This is a common right-libertarian argument against higher wages:

Tenure-track (or other long-term, full benefits) faculty jobs are expensive, while contingent and adjunct faculty are cheap. Georgetown pays adjuncts a much better rate than most universities do, but paying an adjunct to teach 3 courses costs Georgetown about 1/10th what it costs them to hire a tenure-track assistant professor in the business school. Even if universities were to stop using adjuncts, but instead double the total amount of money they dedicate to faculty salary and benefits, they would not be able to hire all the adjunct faculty as permanent, high-pay, full-benefit faculty. Instead, a minority of professional adjuncts would get cushier jobs, and the majority would get kicked out of academia permanently.

But no matter how many times he repeats this — and he makes the same assertion at greater or lesser length in all three articles — this is nonsense. As Will Wilkinson noted in the comments:

the very big problem with your analysis, Jason, is that you’re assuming that the distributive shares are fixed. But it’s not the case that there’s a pre-determined amount of money with which to pay adjuncts, such that if adjuncts get paid more, fewer adjuncts can get paid at all. The size of the adjunct bucket is not fixed, and neither are size of the administrative or TT buckets. It’s possible to raise adjunct wages by making the administration smaller, reducing administrative wages, paying TT faculty less, closing TT lines, opening fewer new TT lines, raising tuition, etc. Who gets what is to a great extent a function of bargaining power. Adjunct bargaining power is extremely weak because supply exceeds demand and adjuncts accept low wages. It seems perverse, however, to criticize adjuncts for trying to increase their bargaining power and organizing to get a bigger piece of the pie. Insofar as that’s what “adjunct’s rights” people see themselves as doing, you’re just begging the question by asserting that the size of the slices is fixed.

Imagine adjuncts organize and manage to triple the average per-course rate. Well, you’re right, that money has to come from somewhere…. There are many margins that can adjust. If your argument is that the attempt to get a bigger piece of the pie is bound to fail, because all of the margins that could adjust, other than hiring fewer adjuncts, are too well-defended, you need to make that argument. This argument is bad and is emblematic of shitty libertarian habits of mind about collective bargaining. It’s shitty to tell people in a weak bargaining position to shut up and take what they’re getting, or else get a job at Geico. Why not help them organize, improve their bargaining position, and negotiate better terms, preferably out of the hide of administrators?

I would add that this isn’t a matter of speculation. Adjunctification was a process with a beginning. Was the actual effect of that process mainly to increase the overall size of faculties relative to enrollment, or to reduce total pay so the money previously spent on faculty could be diverted elsewhere? If the latter, then average faculty pay can be increased without reducing numbers, by taking that money back — preferably, as Wilkinson suggests, out of the administrators’ hides.

In “Either/Or (Vel aut Aut?)” (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, April 28), Brennan responds to the feathers he’s ruffled by doubling down on his rhetoric. His critics, he says, are guilty of bad faith and bad logic. He outlines two propositions:

  1. The system is corrupt and should not offer adjuncts such a bad deal. More money should be dedicated to teaching and less to administrative tasks. The tenure system should be reformed.
  2.  Most professional adjuncts living in poverty are victims of their own bad choices.

His critics, he continues, have tended to act as though the two were mutually exclusive. If propositions 1 if true, 2 must be false. He, however, affirms both of them.

In defending number 2, he keeps asserting how “easy” exit is. “Most professional adjuncts have high opportunity for exit, and most either did or should have known what the risks were.” And he repeats several variations on the theme that “the opportunity for exit is very high” and they could “easily quit” and go to Geico. But he never directly addresses the fallacy of composition thing — what works for a few people won’t work if everybody does it. Given the fact that many laid off people have taken much worse jobs, retired early on inadequate income, or dropped out of the job market altogether and moved in with relatives — and given that people in their original jobs face the same problems of precaritization, downsizing and management featherbedding that characterize academia — how will the economy absorb those hundreds of thousands of adjuncts? And what will they do to the bargaining power of those already on the outside.

In my opinion Brennan himself is guilty of bad faith in his insistence on the full agency and freedom of exit of adjuncts who are currently getting a bad deal within academia.

…[T]heir situation is quite literally chosen–in the most rigorous and agentful sense of “voluntarily”, they voluntarily chose to stay what they are calling an unfair and bad job rather than take what by their lights should be a better and more fair job.

But if this is not a free market — and it is not — and if structural bargaining power is shifted across the board from workers to employers, then we all have a significantly diminished range of alternatives. If we make a Venn diagram of the set of productive activities that people would find satisfying and fulfilling, and the set of available jobs, the area of intersection between them is much smaller than it would otherwise be because of collusion between the state and employers. As a commenter argues,

…Brennan acts as if “you have the ability to leave” just obviously entails “you are in no way a victim.”

This… [is] transparently false. If I get an apartment in Town A, knowing that I could afford one in Town B, I am not thereby unable to be a victim of my landlord’s bizarre demands or failures to follow through with his end of the agreement. Especially if there is realistically no other option in Town A specifically because he’s been given an effective monopoly on apartments in Town A. I know what I’m getting into by moving to Town A, and I could easily move to Town B, but I am still a victim of my landlord.

Indeed. When someone is forced to accept a lower utility, because the range of alternatives is artificially constrained by force, they are a victim of the situation. To argue otherwise is, to borrow a phrase, bad faith.

In a comment elsewhere, Brennan quipped that he’s a better Leftist than I am, because he’s “reasonable” and I just take “knee-jerk” positions. But if his tone in these three articles is any indication, far from being “reasonable” he takes a deliberately provocative and contrarian position, coupled with inflammatory rhetoric, for the sake of generating more web traffic. Or maybe just for the fun of trolling people he’s beaten out in the competition for tenure.

Of course there’s nothing with being provocative and inflammatory for the sake of attracting more traffic — I do it myself. For example, I’ve recently provoked some squeals of outrage by suggesting — mostly in jest — that telecom executives be dragged out of their C-suites and marched to the guillotine. But in using such rhetoric, I always try to be sure — as in the example I just gave — to punch up. But there are a lot of fit descriptions for someone who, having made it, has the ill grace to turn around and make smug “contrarian” arguments from a position of privilege against those who have not — and “reasonable” is not one of them. The term “ass” would be more appropriate.

Brennan stipulates, in his first installment, that the winners of the tenure track lottery might have done so purely through luck. Even so, he says, the losers are not victims because they knew the house odds going in. Perhaps Brennan believes that had he lost instead of winning — purely by luck, either way — he’d have simply gone to Geico and looked on the sunny side of life. Perhaps he even would have. But I have my doubts. And regardless, it takes a special kind of person to win such a lottery and then rub the losers’ noses in the fact of their loss — and not only that, but to go out of their way to troll them for it.

I don’t use the term “troll” lightly. His tone throughout is Limbaughesque taunting, including feigned surprise that adjuncts don’t agree with him. If you think this is an exaggeration, bear in mind that Brennan gloats in the comments over the prospect of spending his soon-to-be tenure track raise on a BMW: “…[I]t looks like I’ll be tenured at the end of this academic year. That comes with a salary bump, and I don’t want your movement to prevent me from buying myself a BMW 335 M Sport for my birthday.” Class act, dude.

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