Why many government jobs are a bad idea for many academics

by on February 25, 2014 at 2:06 pm in Law, Political Science | Permalink

When the Obama White House requested that I serve on the National Council on the Humanities, I agreed to have my name put forward. I went through the lengthy FBI check, including repeated probing of friends about my nonexistent drug use.

But in the end the White House decided not to move my nomination forward. There were two reasons. First, taxes. In 2009 and 2010, the years of my divorce, I filed my taxes late — four weeks and 10 days, respectively. Second, I was not willing to commit to never criticizing the administration, nor to restricting my publishing agenda to topics that were unlikely to be controversial. There is just no point trying to be a public intellectual if you can’t speak your mind. This requirement was conveyed and discussed through phone calls; I have no written record to prove it. But that was how it went.

Why did the White House want such restrictions? Lawyers told me that the administration didn’t want to have to deal with even one news cycle being overtaken by media frenzy about something some low-level official had said. The administration was trying to survive in our 21st-century media environment.

That is from Danielle Allen.

prior_approval February 25, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Which is why so many academics prefer a tenured position with a state institution of higher education, instead of a political job at the discretion of an elected office holder.

msgkings February 25, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Um, should they not?

JLV February 25, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Yes, yes, insofar as a) academics can’t keep their mouths shut, b) academics are irresponsible in their personal life and c) the only “government jobs” worth taking are political appointments.

chuck martel February 25, 2014 at 2:27 pm

“Ostrom’s work has been important for efforts to develop policy approaches to climate change.”

That sentence sends her article to the cyber wastebasket.

nr February 25, 2014 at 2:32 pm

You hear that everyone? Show’s over; Chuck says we’re not reading this one. Thanks for the guidance Chuck.

Michael February 26, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Nuh, Nuh, Nuh, Nuh, Nuh … I can’t hearrrr you.

Ray Lopez February 25, 2014 at 2:32 pm

“When the Obama White House requested that I serve on the National Council on the Humanities, I agreed to have my name put forward. I went through the lengthy FBI check, including repeated probing of friends about my nonexistent drug use.” — I’m sorry, but: (1) why does a member of the National Council on the Humanities need to have a background check? Do they deal with national security? Or probably it’s standard operating procedure? (2) if the candidate never did drugs, how qualified are they to sit on the National Council on the Humanities? Oh, the humanity…

Andrew' February 25, 2014 at 2:58 pm

In case in a pinch he is ever called upon to operate a fork truck.

Ray Lopez welcomes back Andrew' February 25, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Welcome back Kotter. I just read one of your comments from 2009, lol. You are a veteran of this blog it seems.

Hadur February 25, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Out of respect for chuck martel, I didn’t read the article, but I’ll note that plenty of economists are employed at federal agencies that regulate some portion of the economy, do meaningful and impactful work, and are hired as apolitical civil servants rather than political appointees. They are not subjected to drug tests and have no restrictions on what they can say outside of work. And they arguably have more influence than people who serve on presidential councils of dubious consequence.

Alexei Sadeski February 25, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Presidential Councils of Dubious Consequence

I’d be happy to see this become a more commonly used term.

Finch February 25, 2014 at 3:20 pm

+1

It’s a clever phrasing. Hadur’s comment is otherwise good as well. Most economists working for the government are doing actual work and not providing plausible deniability for some politician’s whims. Political appointees are a tiny minority.

Further, I’d venture a guess that the largest category of academics who work for the government are technical people who work for the military. I’d say the most common question they face when considering the job is, “Am I comfortable working on things that will be used for violence or in support of violence?” Betcha the DoD has a lot more academic consultants than the SSA, let alone the NEH.

mavery February 26, 2014 at 10:55 am

There are no academics who work for the military. Or at least there are very few. By and large, they work for DOD and a bit more commonly, contractors. Most of the “academics” work for FFRDCs (eg, RAND) as well as various research institutions (APL) that are partnered with universities.

None of these types are federally appointed, and if they go through background checks, it’s for security clearances.

Finch February 26, 2014 at 11:27 am

That’s a distinction without a difference mavery. I personally know many academics who would describe themselves as working for the military, though technically their paycheck may come from MIT, a contractor, another agency, or some combination of these.

My point is that the government pays academia for a lot more engineering and science than economics, and it’s generally done in service of the military.

ummm February 25, 2014 at 3:11 pm

“I didn’t read the article”

my favorite disclaimer

“these views shouldn’t be construed as professional advice, but advice from someone that should seek professional help,”

someone needs to form a band out of respect for not reading it

Willitts February 25, 2014 at 7:00 pm

With great respect for your idealism, I could not disagree more.

The civil service is poisoned by politics despite any design to the contrary. Their work is far from meaningful, the vast majority of which is neither published nor consulted in policymaking.

Surely you can’t believe that having political appointees at the top doesn’t infect the organization. At best, the federal agencies are politically correct, and at worst they are echo chambers for the executive branch.

I expect a short list of counterexamples such as CBO and Fed banks, but the paucity of such examples is the proof.

CPV February 25, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Much better to stay in a supportive community of dysfunction, never to marked to market by any type of reality, and opine on how others should live.

tt February 25, 2014 at 2:57 pm

The Mercatus Center ?

CPV February 25, 2014 at 3:10 pm

It’s absolutely hilarious when academics are too frightened to move from one coddled non-market environment to another because of potential loss of privileges.

ummm February 25, 2014 at 2:57 pm

government jobs may the only hope for those with non-STEM degrees. Otherwise, there is growing demand for STEM degree holders in the private sector. Every major company employs at least one economics PHD. Wall st. for a long time has favored math & physics related PHD holders over MBAs

Doug February 25, 2014 at 3:09 pm

“Wall st. for a long time has favored math & physics related PHD holders over MBAs”

It’s complicated. The Physics PhD and the MBA tend to do very different things. They’re not really substitutes for each other.

ummm February 25, 2014 at 3:15 pm

but the physics phd can get up to speed really fast and cover the role of the MBA

Renaissance Technologies is a well known example

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly February 25, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Until the Physics PhD discovers that business isn’t governed by immutable laws.

LTCM is a well known example.

Just another MR Commentor February 25, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Actually LTCM is exactly the exception which proves Ummm’s point.

Willitts February 25, 2014 at 7:08 pm

An MBA involves people skills.

bluto February 26, 2014 at 1:15 am

I have people skills, dammit, people skills!

Non Papa February 26, 2014 at 9:34 am

Then how do we explain the irrationality of bank hiring decisions? If they can get someone with valuable technical skills that can tweak the models AND sell investment banking services, why wouldn’t they?

There’s no reason to believe it would be more expensive — according to the NSF earned doctorate survey, the starting salary for physical sciences PhD going into industry is about $100K. Not exactly out-of-bounds for MBA-level hires.

You could argue that Wall Street buys into the traditional cachet/marketing surrounding MBAs, but wouldn’t they, of anyone, be the most likely to pass over that sort of thing in favor of maximizing profits?

Ricardo February 27, 2014 at 1:37 am

No, Doug is right. Physics PhDs are fine for the quantitative modeling that is used in trading and wealth management divisions. But “Wall St.” involves a lot more than quant stuff. People skills, sales skills and the ability to talk BS are a big part of what is valued on Wall St. It is easier to make money if you have a stellar sales team even if they are selling garbage than it is to make money with first-rate products and services but nobody with the charisma to close deals.

Roy February 25, 2014 at 4:08 pm

That’s a load of….

But an awful lot of Government workers are in STEM, I have a colleague who actually has one day of his graduate class called to “How not to go to prison when working on a government project.” Of course in the E part, and the applied part of the S, you have to worry about that sort of thing.

Office managers and attorneys will always be needed.

Willitts February 25, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Attorneys are definitely not STEM.

What specialties fill the ranks of government?

-HR
-Lawyers
-Accountants
-Business majors
-Liberal Arts majors
-Vast legions of barely skilled office labor

Anti-ummm February 25, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Government jobs may be the only hope for non STEM folks to live a middle class life.

high horse February 25, 2014 at 6:45 pm

ummm, you seem to be forgetting that “economics PHD” in not a STEM degree! Please don’t sully real engineers and scientists by associating us with your lot.

Willitts February 25, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Most PhD economists use math that engineers would shrivel from. Must be nice to have your existence embodied in unwavering natural laws and well known formulas.

Corey February 26, 2014 at 9:56 am

“Most PhD economists use math that engineers would shrivel from.”

lol

Finch February 26, 2014 at 10:48 am

Egad man. Most PhD economists make a living using math I learned in high school. Granted I was precocious, but econometrics is just not that sophisticated.

Bill February 26, 2014 at 12:44 pm

How do you think most engineers spend their days?

Finch February 26, 2014 at 2:34 pm

> How do you think most engineers spend their days?

I don’t think that’s terribly relevant when rebutting the statement “Most PhD economists use math that engineers would shrivel from.” That statement is just untrue. Most PhD economists spend time doing one form or another of regression at varying levels of sophistication. That is common in engineering. It’s not ubiquitous – engineering is diverse – but it’s common. Think of all the people employed in jobs that are essentially about pattern recognition, from Google to Nuance.

At least at the level of published papers, economics math is usually pretty simple stuff. Drop a variable, add a variable, consider the log of something, the interaction of two things, an oddball test of significance, or some correction from your toolkit for limitations in the analysis. I don’t think the typical engineer would shrivel from it in the first or second year of his undergraduate program. Now, I don’t think the typical first year engineering student would be okay in a mid-level econ PhD math class, but I don’t think the typical first year economics student would either.

Finch February 26, 2014 at 2:44 pm

I’ve argued in other contexts that economics programs should realize the principal thing they give their undergrads is a rudimentary education in programming and statistics, and that if they increased the focus on that, and lessened the focus on crystal-gripping-hippie-nonsense like macro, they’d be doing their students a big favor. You could easily get smart undergrads to the level of typical econ PhDs if you focused on working with data, and it would be far more useful to them for the rest of their lives.

Bill February 26, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Most PhD economists spend time doing one form or another of regression at varying levels of sophistication. That is common in engineering.

But it is nowhere near as common. That’s the point. You are comparing run-of-the-mill economics with fairly high-flying design engineering. It is also “common” in engineering to spend your time doing sales calls or taking apart a broken machine a customer has returned to figure out what’s wrong with it or troubleshooting that damn welding robot which keeps screwing up. Those things require zero math.

If your point was engineers working at Google are about as smart and mathematically sophisticated as the average economist, you could have said that—I don’t doubt it is true.

I don’t disagree, much, with your point about undergraduate programs in Economics, though I think you’ve got the range of skills too narrow. What we should be teaching them is about incentives, equilibrium, statistics, and the thing which wraps these things all together: causation/endogeneity. We do a not great job of this at present.

What you are describing as your ideal curriculum for undergrad economics pretty much is the typical undergrad curriculum in statistics. Most places, those guys come out knowing how to program in R and knowing a bunch of standard statistical modeling techniques. What they don’t typically come out knowing is how to think about incentives and equilibrium.

Finch February 26, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Huh?

> But it is nowhere near as common.

Sure, engineering is diverse and you see many different kinds of math used in different sub-fields and some sub-fields which don’t use much math day to day.

But econometrics, the bread and butter of economic publication and what most PhD economists do for a living, is pretty simple math that would not bother an ordinary engineer, even early in their education. We aren’t talking algebra and topology here.

Are you really trying to make the point that regression is some arcane and difficult to understand discipline? I just don’t see it.

> You are comparing run-of-the-mill economics with fairly high-flying design engineering.

I don’t think this is true at all. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect I’m being trolled here. I don’t think anyone with experience with academic economics or engineering could think this.

Bill February 27, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Unsurprisingly, I feel the same way about your position. Very many (maybe even most) engineers don’t use math. Engineers are famous for not-quite-understanding what math and statistics they do know and for being blissfully ignorant of this fact. They are like doctors that way. Go talk to some statisticians used to educating engineers.

Are you really trying to make the point that regression is some arcane and difficult to understand discipline? I just don’t see it.

If you think that is a reasonable summary of what I have said, then you are crazy.

Frank Somatra February 25, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Seems like a general waste of the taxpayers’ money to have a 26 member Board for the National Endowment for the Humanities, all of whom must by confirmed by the Senate.

Alexei Sadeski February 25, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Not as big of a money waste as the Senate itself.

msgkings February 25, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Don’t let James Madison hear you say that!

Doug February 25, 2014 at 3:08 pm

So you’re telling me that Obama’s trying to staff a council of highly respected thinkers in the Humanities exclusively with people who don’t use drugs?

Good luck.

dearieme February 25, 2014 at 3:17 pm

I’ve twice been faced with making promises under the Official Secrets Act when Her Majesty’s Government has wanted my help. No prob. But when they wanted my help urgently after the Chernobyl disaster, the matter wasn’t even mentioned. I conclude that if they really, really, really want your help, bureaucracy can go out of the window.

RR February 25, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Curious if its not a violation of the “OSA” to reveal it. What kind of help after Chernobyl?

Brett Dunbar February 25, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Those declarations are legally meaningless theatrics, the Official Secrets Act applies to everyone anyway.

dearieme February 26, 2014 at 6:12 am

BD: Of course they are theatrics; their point is to remind you how important it is that you button your lip.
RR: I refer you to the answer I gave moments ago.

Urso February 25, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Is Danielle Allen a public intellectual? For what definition of “public?”

Finch February 25, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Tyler and his cronies seem to have a really weird definition of public intellectual. It involves writing things read by other public intellectuals, and people who actually do a lot are ground-ruled out. So Andrew Sullivan counts but Steve Jobs does not. It’s not clear to me what they’d do with someone like Albert Einstein. Perhaps he did enough non-technical philosophy and commentary to count? Ed Witten would surely not count, but Neil deGrasse Tyson probably would.

Roy February 25, 2014 at 4:16 pm

No one would call Steve Jobs a public intellectual because he was not, just as no one called Henry Ford (even when he was promoting Fordism) or George Westinghouse that either. Jobs would be an engineer and Captain of Industry, maybe an industrial designer, Harley Earle wasn’t a public intellectual either. Do you think, wow that Tesla, what a public intellectual?

This is from wiki, but it has been pretty much the definition since the 19th century:

“A well-known, intelligent, learned person whose written works and other social and cultural contributions are recognized not only by academic audiences and readers, but also by many members of society in general”

Finch February 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm

This caused some confusion the last time Tyler brought it up. Apparently “public intellectual” does not mean “public” “intellectual,” it means someone who is primarily a writer, for broad but elite audiences. So Carl Sagan, but not Ed Witten.

I wasn’t familiar with the usage, and I don’t think I was alone. It’s an odd category – automatically ejecting the successful.

I’m not sure about the answer to your question about Tesla. Is the answer that he was not a public intellectual because he was more a showman than a writer? Or more a builder rather than a writer? He certainly wrote a lot for the elite public, but no one would call him primarily a writer.

Finch February 25, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Thinking about it some more, Tesla is definitely not a public intellectual because his actual accomplishments overshadow his writing.

Just another MR Commentor February 25, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Although your definition is why I would definitely include Mark Zuckerberg in the public intellectual category because of his philosophical contributions to public education ( Code.org), immigration reform, and thoughts on the future of connectivity.

carlospln February 25, 2014 at 4:55 pm

@ JAMRC: go puke somewhere else.

CPV February 25, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Her essay (and Kritsof’s) discuss the lack of respect and influence accorded academics in the public opinion sphere. Well, it could be that the public believes that academics, mostly, have been on the wrong side of issues over the past 100 years or so. Their lemonade isn’t selling at the stand.

chuck martel February 25, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Nick Kristof once described the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as his son’s birthright. I don’t know for sure, maybe he’s married to an Eskimo. Anyway, he dropped the middle initial “B.” from his byline and made sure to tell us all about it. So he must know something about public intellectuals.

Michael February 26, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Merriam-Webster defines birthright as “a right that you have because you were born into a particular position, family, place, etc., or because it is a right of all people.” Unless his son isn’t a U.S. Citizen, his comment seems fair.

Yet another MR Commentor February 26, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Damn strait ANWR belongs to Exon, anything else is foolish

johnnyz February 25, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Government “workers” are net tax consumers and pure public parasites, not productive taxpayers.

Anti-ummm February 25, 2014 at 6:04 pm

Tell that to our soldiers – see where that gets you

Alan February 25, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Dead right.

prior_approval February 25, 2014 at 11:09 pm

And yet, the one thing the Founding Fathers could agree was that a standing army was a bad thing.

Rich Berger February 25, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Paying your taxes late is a problem? Talk to Turbo Tax Timmy Geithner about that. No problemo. Also, “The administration was trying to survive in our 21st-century media environment.”, is a real howler. The Chocolate Nixon regime will brook no criticism.

Marie February 25, 2014 at 4:57 pm

“Second, I was not willing to commit to never criticizing the administration, nor to restricting my publishing agenda to topics that were unlikely to be controversial. There is just no point trying to be a public intellectual if you can’t speak your mind. ”

I assume she was selected for the appointment in part because she had not as of that date criticized the administration or entered a controversy.

I wonder if this means her book or other public discourse from her office in the next few years will either criticize the administration or be controversial — controversial as in challenging a tenant of progressive thought. It would be interesting to watch for it, if you had the time.

Brian Donohue February 25, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Waiting for the follow-up: “Why many government jobs are a bad idea for many taxpayers”

Yancey Ward February 25, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Obviously, only YesMen/Women need apply.

anon February 25, 2014 at 7:14 pm

I disagree. More like team players.

There are ample opportunities internally for government officials and even staffers to offer their personal opinion and expertise on the topic at hand. That part should come naturally to any academic. It is the next stage where theory becomes practice and disparate views have to be melded into a durable consensus. Once that happens personal opinions are not so welcome internally and are often a liability externally. (Note the protections on speech that come with tenure at a university are non-trivial compared to government and especially private-sector jobs … and academics are used to those protections.) Now I think the article also rightly implicates the media in this outcome. If an official or staffer could talk in public, like on a personal Twitter account, without always getting their government association attached to their words (always trying to chase a new story), then the ‘we must speak with one voice’ or not speak at all would be less of a qualification. It’s too bad but honestly not everyone is cut out to be a public servant. Academics also play a fruitful and vital role in the policy process from the outside.

Deepish Thinker February 25, 2014 at 8:24 pm

“Why did the White House want such restrictions? Lawyers told me that the administration didn’t want to have to deal with even one news cycle being overtaken by media frenzy about something some low-level official had said. The administration was trying to survive in our 21st-century media environment”

If only there were some way to have fewer low-level officials.

FE February 25, 2014 at 9:01 pm

The “many academics” in the title of this post must refer to tenured academics, who are pretty much the only people who are free to criticize their employer without repercussions. College administrations don’t want to have to deal with news cycles being overtaken by media frenzy about something some adjunct said either.

CPV February 25, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Damn it, where are all the jobs where I can just irresponsibly spout my opinions without regard to who is paying me and they don’t really care if I smoke pot or pay my taxes or make any sense? Oops I already have one.

David Wright February 26, 2014 at 3:43 pm

This comment isn’t entirely fair, but still I love it.

Mike February 26, 2014 at 10:41 am

Times have changed.

A long-long time ago I was granted a Q-clearance; during the background check I admitted smoking pot (only on a few occasions a long time prior). Apparently being in politics is more sensitive than handling nuclear weapons info … Sad commentary on today’s political environment.

Ricardo February 26, 2014 at 11:55 am

They don’t care so much about the pot (so long as it was more than 7 years ago); they care about the fact that you might lie about it. That would make you vulnerable to blackmail.

Bob February 26, 2014 at 1:22 pm

We had the ‘best and the brighest’ academics serving in the Kennedy administration………and it got us the Vietnam War and the Great Inflation.

Dan Hanson February 27, 2014 at 4:11 am

“Second, I was not willing to commit to never criticizing the administration, nor to restricting my publishing agenda to topics that were unlikely to be controversial.”

The next time a government official at that level or above tells you something, just remember that you’re listening to a person who WAS willing to make the above commitment.

Most valuable factoid in the piece.

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The Only Jim February 27, 2014 at 8:58 am

>commit to never criticizing the administration

Dear God. It’s Orwell’s world, we’re just living in it.

You can’t work for Obama unless you relinquish your First Amendment rights. Fitting.

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