On Social Priorities

Or, let the market decide.

About a week ago, Paul Krugman wrote an interesting (and rather lengthy) article about what economists got wrong regarding pretty much everything over the past twenty years, and why they still argue about it. On a side note, one of the reasons I liked reading Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics is their assertion that economics is great at measuring – notably, they do not say at predicting.)

This morning Howard Kurtz has a column initially about Glenn Beck and Van Jones, and by the time he gets to the rambling end, about the Obama administration’s attempts to crowdsource policy initiatives. “The people rule – sometimes badly.”

We’re okay accepting that people make mistakes, but there remains a strong and vital belief particularly in the U.S. in the power of the market economy to work itself and everything else out. The theory is that collectively we’re pretty good at figuring things out, even if we’re bad at it individually (RadioLab also did a good piece on this, but I can’t remember which one. Just listen, it’s a good show).

This summer I worked for 6 weeks as the construction coordinator on an independent feature film using a low-budget union agreement, even though we began as a non-union film. I had no “qualifications” per se, in terms of a degree or anything, but I have years of experience in theater and carpentry, and a shop, and between one and the other, plus an experienced boss who figured I’d be a good bet, I got the job.

For four and a half I taught university classes. Last spring I was adjuncting again, but for the two years previous to that, I was salaried. I spent six years getting my Ph.D., so I’m qualified (minimally) to do that.

I made more money on an indie film in a comparable period of time than I did teaching full time at the university. Taking my benefits into account, I probably made about the same amount of money. When I taught adjunct last spring, I calculated that I was making a little above minimum wage, in the 7.50/hour range.

The “market” may have determined what my wages were within each job scheme, i.e. how much I make as a university instructor, but it doesn’t weight that job against another, say construction coordinator.

“Society” has made that determination. Just like the market, society is us, of course.

Sometimes I feel like watching democracy in action is simply an exercise in watching an id-driven puberty-wracked teen trying to curb his worst impulses. Only the worst ones, though. The bad ones are too much fun.

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