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Friday, January 7, 2011


My three part post on the soaring cost of higher education, launched in response to an emailed question, sparked a rather lively exchange of comments. Before moving on, as it seems one always does in a blog, I thought I would respond a bit to some of the comments, beyond what I have already said.

I have always been a raconteur, a teller of stories. Sometimes my stories are about my encounters with famous people -- Bertrand Russell, Henry Kissinger. Sometimes they are about people equally interesting, but less well-known -- former students, colleagues, members of my family. And sometimes I tell stories of a rather different nature, stories about ideas. I am not really a scholar, as I have several times observed on this blog, although I have published books and essays that look like scholarship. Nor am I an ideologue, even though some of what I have written has earned me that epithet. Rather, I conceive my philosophical writing as the telling of the story of an idea. This is what I did in my first book, KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, in which I told the story of the central idea of the Transcendental Analytic. It is, as well, what I did in UNDERSTANDING MARX, unraveling the story of Marx's critique of classical political economy so that it became a clear, simple story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In UNDERSTANDING RAWLS I told the story of Rawls' idea, exhibiting the final, bloated version of A THEORY OF JUSTICE as his series of revisions to the simple story of a "Justice as Fairness." Because I see myself as a story teller, rather than as a scholar or an ideologue, I do not very much care what critics say about my stories once I have told them. So it is that I have not read most of the reviews of my books. If the circle of people to whom I tell my stories like them, find them interesting, perhaps even learn something from them about life, about themselves, about me, or about a philosophical work, I am content.

All of this is by way of explaining why the comment that touched me and pleased me the most was Angus' brief remark. Thank you, Angus. I was indeed there, and am happy if my stories can give others some sense of having been there too.

I have already commented on John C. Halasz's long and very valuable observations, and also on the firestorm provoked by my inaccurate explanation of the Fallacy of Composition, so I shan't revisit those topics. WallyVerr's remarks about "human capital" and the Chicago School are right on the mark, and have implications beyond those he mentioned [a fact of which I suspect he is well aware.] I think, though I am not sure, that the economist who introduced the term "human capital" was Gary Becker. The notion itself is important, and deeply ironic [as I explained in MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY], although I seriously doubt that Becker and his followers understood the irony. It is worth taking a moment to explain this.

According to the neo-classical theory of a capitalist economy, entrepreneurs, producers of commodities, encounter one another in a free, open market and make uncoerced bilateral exchanges out of mutual self-interest. Wheat growers invest their capital in land, tractors, seed and fertilizer. Cloth manufacturers invest their capital in wool, power looms, and coal to drive the looms. And workers, whose product is their labor, invest in the food, clothing, and shelter they need to enable them to sustain their capacity for labor -- what Marx, famously, labeled their labor power. [Never mind that they ought therefore to be able to deduct the cost of these capital outlays from their gross income before paying income taxes. That battle has been litigated and lost.] Viewed in this light, the costs incurred by future workers for their education count as investments in capital, the payoff for which will eventually be their ability to command a higher price for their labor in the market.

I speak of this view as containing an irony for the following reason. [I have written briefly about this in MONEYBAGS, and worked out the mathematics of it in an essay, "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value," that is apparently available on line. If you can handle some not too difficult linear algebra, I recommend it.] According to standard economic theory, an economy-wide rate of return on invested capital, or profit rate, emerges from the constant search by capitalists for the highest rate of return on their capital. If computers are paying 10% a year on investments, and buggy whips are paying 3%, over time the capitalists making buggy whips will pull their capital out of that line of manufacture and go into computers. This, in turn, will increase the supply of computers in the market, bringing the price down and lowering the profit rate a bit. A sort of rolling equilibrium will equilibrate the profit rate across all sectors. And so forth.

But [this is the bitter irony], alone among all of the entrepreneurs, the workers are unable to switch their capital from labor producing into a more profitable line, because their capital is their bodies, and the only way they can cash in their capital is -- by cashing it in, which is to say, dying. Were it not for the metaphysical accident that the body is inseparable, in this life, from the soul, an accident for which capitalism of course is not to be held responsible, the workers could earn the same rate of return on their capital as all other entrepreneurs.

The concept of education as human capital has another very interesting implication, which we can see once we free ourselves from the mystifications and delusions of standard economic theory. In a modern capitalist economy, with its seemingly permanent class distinctions between unskilled, semi-skilled, and highly skilled labor [marked, of course, by years of formal educational credentials], it is possible to see that in addition to the exploitation by which capital extracts profits from its labor inputs, there is also a structure of relative exploitation, whereby as capital exploits labor, more highly skilled labor exploits less highly skilled labor. The first formal analysis of this, to my knowledge, was a very interesting article by my old UMass colleagues Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, published many years ago.

And finally, an acknowledgement of the truth of Charles Pigden's observation about the somewhat insular nature of American commentators [myself included]. I have long been aware that it is necessary to place America's educational institutions in an international context. Through my friendships with senior academics in Africa and Europe, I have been made aware that many phenomena, such as the increasing corporatization of higher education, which I am accustomed to talk of as American problems, are in fact worldwide tendencies. For that reason, as I cast about for something to do with myself now that I am retired, I have more and more thought that it would be exciting, if it could be managed, to start a center or institute devoted to the study of, and advocacy for, the liberal arts in modern higher education worldwide. The problem, of course, is money, but I have been thinking about this for a year or more now, and perhaps I can find time in the coming semester to take some first steps, even though I will be teaching both at Duke and at UNC Chapel Hill.

Well, that is enough for now. Perhaps tomorrow I shall hit upon something else to blog about. Thank you all for the intelligence of your comments. You make this a pretty classy site.

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