Wednesday, December 17, 2008

You Can't Fight Supply and Demand

I think we should update the old phrase "You can't fight City Hall" to "You can't fight supply and demand" to give people a better appreciation for economic forces that influence outcomes (leaving aside the issue that as the feds slowly nationalize one industry after another, we are all eventually going to be working for "City Hall"). The thought occurred to me as I read this post from The Huffington Post complaining about the treatment of adjunct professors in American colleges (or as the poster describes it - "The Great Shame of American Colleges").
they are hired only on a part-time basis, made to sign a pledge that they will not work more than twenty hours a week and will not--not now, not ever--have a claim to health or retirement or any other kind of benefits, not even a parking pass. That they are "at will" employees who can be let go at any time, for any reason. Their salaries are so meager, they have to teach two, three, sometimes five classes a semester, at five different universities, just to pay their rent.
And why do these "terrible" conditions exist? It's all about supply and demand. The poster notes that for each position there are "two or three other PhDs waiting in line for his job in case he dares complain or ask for more money." When supply exceeds demand, prices get driven down. It's not shameful; it's reality. Conditions for adjuncts will improve when fewer people are chasing the finite number of openings.


  1. Actually, better to call this "simple analysis." The issue is reframing who is qualified to do the work. In your somewhat reductive language, that would be artificially, unprofessionally or anti-professionally "expanding the labor supply" by reducing qualifications. Work that should be done by un- or under- employed holders of doctorates is being done by m.a. holders, (not even ABD), by m.a. students, and even by undergraduates.

    This sort of "gotcha" analysis (It's All About Supply and Demand, Stupid) is neither helpful nor accurate, yet widely practiced. The worst case of course is Bowen's book on arts & sciences faculty labor supply and demand (without an iota of analysis of casualization, permatemping, etc), producing ludicrous yet widely-reported projections.

    Marc Bousquet, How the University Works, Chronicle of Higher Ed Brainstorm

  2. Thanks for the comment. It seems there is some disagreement on whether this work "should be done by un- or under- employed holders of doctorates." Regardless, I still think this type of "simple analysis" is useful. The excess supply (which apparently includes m.a. and undergrads) relative to demand contributes to understanding the issue. For example, if administrators were convinced to only hire PhD's for these positions, wouldn't supply be reduced and conditions be improved?