Monthly Archives: July 2016

Teaching and research and division of labour

Universities usually prefer that the same person both teaches and does research. There are some purely teaching or purely research-focussed positions, but these are a minority. Both teaching and research achievements (and service as well) are required for tenure. This runs counter to Adam Smith’s argument that division of labour raises overall productivity. One possible cause is an economy of scope (synergy), meaning that teaching helps with research, or research helps to teach. In my experience, there is no such synergy, except maybe in high-level doctoral courses that focus exclusively on recent research. Revising old and basic knowledge by teaching it does not help generate novel insights about recent discoveries. Complex research does not help explain introductory ideas simply and clearly to beginners.

Another explanation is that universities try to hide their cross-subsidy going from teaching to research. The government gives money mainly for teaching, and if teachers and researchers were different people, then it would be easy for the government to check how much money was spent on each group. If, however, the same person is engaged in both activities, then the university can claim that most of the person’s time is spent teaching, or that their research is really designed to improve their teaching. In reality, teaching may be a minor side job and most of the salary may be paid for the research. This is suggested by the weight of research in hiring and tenuring.

The income of universities mostly comes from teaching, so they try to reduce competition from non-university teachers and institutions. One way is to differentiate their product by claiming that university teaching is special, complicated and research-based, so must be done by PhD holders or at least graduate students. Then schoolteachers for example would be excluded from providing this service. Actually the material up to and including first year doctorate courses is textbook-based and thus cannot consist of very recent discoveries. With the help of a textbook, many people could teach it – research is not required, only knowing the material thoroughly. For example, an undergraduate with good teaching skills who was top of the class in a course could teach that course next semester. Teaching skill is not highly correlated with research skill. The advantage someone who recently learned the material has in teaching it is that they remember which parts were difficult. A person who has known something for a long time probably does not recall how they would have preferred it taught when they first learned it.

Researchers forget the basics over time, because they rarely use these – there are more advanced methods. The foundations are learned to facilitate later learning of intermediate knowledge, which in turn helps with more complicated things and so on up to research level. Similarly in sports, musical performance, sewing, the initial exercises for learners can be quite different from the activity that is the end goal. A sports coach is rarely an Olympic athlete at the same time, so why should a teacher be a researcher simultaneously?

Organ trade restrictions

Trade in human body parts is mostly forbidden, although donations without compensation or for “coverage of reasonable costs” are allowed. One reason is that trade creates the incentive for criminals to harvest organs against people’s will. In the worst case, a young and healthy person is killed to get all their marketable body parts. Another problem is that stupid people may sell their organs voluntarily and later regret it.

The dangers differ depending on how damaging the removal of the organ is. Trade in hearts encourages killing more than trade in donor blood, although even for blood a victim can be drained completely if the price is high enough. For criminals, the complexity of organ removal and how fast it needs to be delivered to the recipient also matter. It would make sense for the restrictions and punishments to correspond to the danger of organ robbery and the associated damage.

The one tissue type currently transferred between people for which organ robbery and overdonation seem nonissues is sperm. Forcing someone to donate against their will is possible, but causes no permanent damage (in my medically ignorant opinion). Too frequent donations lower the quality (number of cells per unit of volume) in a detectable way, which would make most robbed sperm unmarketable. Yet payment for donor sperm is still forbidden in Australia (Human Tissue Act 1982) and many other countries. This may be a knee-jerk extension of the laws against trade in human organs, or there may be some reason I have missed.

Research articles may have negative value

Falsified, plagiarized or plain junk research is not considered here. The effort of the author and the cost to the funders are considered sunk and similarly ignored.

After a research article is published, it may still have negative value for humanity. How is this possible if the cost of creating it is considered zero and the results are not junk? Doesn’t every discovery, however small, contribute a little to the corpus of knowledge? It does, but the cost it imposes on other researchers may outweigh this. Every publication increases the number of articles that researchers of related topics have to look at, however briefly, to write their literature review and check that their idea is not already taken. It may take a few seconds to read the title and decide that the article is irrelevant to one’s work, but this small cost is paid by many. If the publication makes a small enough contribution to knowledge, then the total cost to other academics outweighs the benefit from this contribution. The researchers whose time the article wasted could have done something useful with that time.

On accepting apologies

There seems to be a social convention that an apology has to be accepted and that someone who does not is unfriendly and a bad person. This seems strange to me, because an apology often tries to undo deeds with words, or cancel unthinking words with considered ones.

The willingness of most people to trade words for deeds seems irrational to me – there is a qualitative difference between words and deeds, in that words can be neutralized within the hearer’s mind. If the hearer or reader does not understand, hear or attach emotional significance to words, then these have no effect. Deeds, on the other hand, have consequences that are not just in people’s heads. A punch causes bruising even if imagined to be a caress. An insult does not cause bad feelings if it is interpreted as a joke by all concerned.

Accepting words in compensation for deeds makes one manipulable. The perpetrator of bad actions can get away with them repeatedly by promising each time to change and to sin no more (Hitler’s “last territorial demand”). The social convention that words have to be accepted as compensation helps the unscrupulous. If instead good works in sufficient quantity were required to make up for misdeeds, then taking advantage of others would be less profitable. Some people would have to spend a lifetime undoing their crimes, which creates the incentive problem of how to make criminals work. Perhaps gradually easing ostracism and restrictions as the debt is worked off. The quantity of good actions required must be large enough to make the overall profit from a bad deed negative.

Cancelling unthinking words with a considered apology benefits impulsive liars who initially insult and then talk their way out of the opprobrium by pretending to be sorry. Every time I find in the media that a politician or a white collar criminal says sorry, I interpret it as them being sorry they were caught. If they were sorry about the deed itself, they wouldn’t have done it in the first place.

A good person who did something bad by accident would volunteer to make amends. They would not have to be forced to it as punishment. Of course, if volunteering to compensate starts being interpreted favourably enough by society, then selfish and manipulative people would also volunteer. Making amends is a costly signal of good intentions, but if the benefit of signalling is large enough, then even the bad types signal to imitate the good.

Measuring a person’s contribution to society

Sometimes it is debated whether one profession or person contributes more to society than another, for example whether a scientist is more valuable than a doctor. There are many dimensions to any job. One could compare the small and probabilistic contribution to many people’s lives that a scientist makes to the large and visible influence of a doctor to a few patients’ wellbeing. These debates can to some extent be avoided, because a simple measure of a person’s contribution to society is their income. It is an imperfect measure, as are all measures, but it is an easily obtained baseline from which to start. If the people compared are numerous, un-cartelized and employed by numerous competitive employers, then their pay equals their marginal productivity, as explained in introductory economics.

People are usually employed by one firm at a time, and full-time non-overtime work is the most common, so the employers can be thought of as buying one “full-time unit” of labour from each worker. The marginal productivity equals the total productivity in the case where only one or zero units can be supplied. So the salary equals the total productivity at work.

Income from savings in a competitive capital market equals the value provided to the borrower of those savings. If the savings are to some extent inherited or obtained from gifts, then the interest income is to that extent due to someone else’s past productivity. Then income is greater than the contribution to society.

Other reasons why income may be a biased measure are negative externalities (criminal income measures harm to others), positive externalities (scientists help future generations, but don’t get paid for it), market power (teachers, police, social workers employed by monopsonist government get paid less than their value), transaction costs (changing a job is a hassle for the employer and the employee alike) and incomplete information (hard to measure job performance, so good workers underpaid and bad overpaid on average). In short, all the market failures covered in introductory economics.

If the income difference is large and the quantitative effect of the market failures is similar (neither person is a criminal, both work for employers whose competitive situations are alike, little inheritance), then the productivity difference is likely to be in the same direction as the salary difference. If the salary difference is small and the jobs are otherwise similar, the contribution to society is likely similar, so ranking their productivity is not that important. Comparison of people whose labour markets have different failures to a different extent is difficult.

Local and organic food is wasteful

The easiest measure of any good’s environmental impact is its price. It is not a perfect measure. Subsidies for the inputs of a product can lower its price below more environmentally friendly alternatives that are not favoured by the government. Taxes, market power, externalities and incomplete information can similarly distort relative prices, as introductory economics courses explain. However, absent additional data, a more expensive good likely requires more resources and causes more environmental damage. Remembering this saves time on debating whether local non-organic is better than non-local organic fair trade, etc.

Local and organic are marketing terms, one suggesting helping local farmers and a lower environmental impact from transport, the other claiming health benefits and a lower environmental impact from fertilizers. Organic food may use less of some category of chemicals, but this must have a tradeoff in lower yield (more land used per unit produced) or greater use of some other input, because its higher price shows more resource use overall. From the (limited) research I have read, there is no difference in the health effects of organic and non-organic food. To measure this difference, a selection bias must be taken into account – the people using organic are more health-conscious, so may be healthier to start with. On the other hand, those buying organic and local may be more manipulable, which has unknown health effects. Local food may use less resources for transport, but its higher price shows it uses more resources in total. One resource is the more expensive labour of rich countries (the people providing this labour consume more, thus have a greater environmental impact).

If one wants to help “local farmers” (usually large agribusinesses, not the family farms their lobbying suggests), one can give them money directly. No need to buy their goods, just make them a bank transfer and then buy whichever product is the least wasteful.

There are economies of scale in farming, so the more efficient large agricultural companies tend to outcompete family farms. The greater efficiency is also more environmentally friendly: more production for the same resources, or the same production with less. Helping the small farms avoid takeover is bad for the environment.

Fair trade and sustainable sourcing may be good things, if the rules for obtaining this classification are reasonable and enforced. But who buying fair trade or sustainable has actually checked what the meaning behind the labels is (the “fine print”), or verified with independent auditors whether the nice-sounding principles are put into practice? When a term is used in marketing, I suspect business as usual behind it.