Tuesday, January 20, 2015

science definitely doesn't cost you your firstborn

I've seen this link a couple places in the last day or two. In addition to the clickbaity nonsense title based on the calculation that the monetary opportunity cost of a postdoc is the same as the monetary cost of raising a child (go figure, an economist calling out a biologist for confusing money with utility!), I take issue with the content as well.

Academic science is a fantastic career. I'm intellectually challenged every day, I learn new things all the time, I dictate my own hours, I can work from home or from another country if I feel like it, I get to decide what projects to work on, I can work on my own or with other people however I like, and I get paid very well. That's worth a hell of a lot of money to me, and my revealed preferences prove it - I can't even fathom the monetary cost of leaving my awful, but lucrative, finance job to go back to school and stay in academia, but it was the easiest decision I ever made.

Economics is indeed one of the best academic fields to be in as far as academic prospects go (although I anticipate that economic postdocs will become the norm pretty soon). My friends in other fields like astronomy and biology have it much much worse, and I consider it one of the most phenomenally lucky things that ever happened to me that I stumbled on economics as a university freshman*. But clearly, the reason it's so hard to get an academic job is because so many people want them. Apparently there's more of a supply and demand imbalance in biology than in economics, lucky for me, but the point remains, biologists jump through these hoops because that's how much they love their job (despite the fact the author starts his post by saying how much they all seem to hate it. C'mon, everyone gripes about the parts of their job they don't like.)

On top of that, the fact the opportunity cost is so high is, by definition, because there are other very good options. So not only do they really love what they do, if they had a change of heart, they'd have a great way out. Other fields that people love to go into so much that they are willing to put up with extremely low wages and other inconveniences (music, art, literature...) don't even qualify them for anything else.

So yeah, tradeoffs suck. There's no good solution to that. The only way to balance supply and demand is to increase supply (hah!) or reduce demand by either cutting academic wages or making it more unpleasant to get an academic job. Both are going on and neither one is popular and there's nothing to do about it.

One thing I completely agree with, though, is that people shouldn't be taken by surprise by these circumstances. I certainly never heard one word about "postdocs" in high school or got any advice about anything post-PhD in college. I don't think the phenomenon is specific to science, but it's unfortunate in any context how divorced reality is from kids' ideas of professional life. The things you learn in school bear effectively zero resemblance to related jobs, so pursuing what you love is a terrible strategy compared to what suits your personality and priorities, and I have no idea why this is so thoroughly ignored by school counselors etc.

*both because I really wouldn't want to have to move several times in quick succession at this point in my life, with a partner whose career is as important to him as mine is to me, and because economics is uniquely well suited to my reclusive tendencies... And since I didn't anticipate any of these factors, it was pure dumb luck they worked out.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Jonathan Haidt

I stole this link from MR but only now got around to watching the video (below). Jonathan Haidt is one of my favorite scholars, someone who is so reasonable it hurts and has really interesting things to be so reasonable about.

I have two motivations for sharing this video. First is to make a point; I lived in the most politically extreme city in the US for six years and have an ongoing argument about the merits of capitalism with my dad-the-stereotypical-extreme-left-humanities-academic, so there are quite a few people in my life who I wish would watch this. And I emphasize again: it's almost annoyingly reasonable, with absolutely no party-loyal antics, so yeah, watch it.

The second is out of contrition. I'm on average right down the middle in American politics* so New York was the only place I've lived where I didn't feel constantly attacked for my political views**. I left Oklahoma when I was 16 convinced that I was an extreme lefty, but moved to California, and was treated like a crazy reactionary for so long there that now I barely identify as liberal at all.

But the explanation for the phenomenon isn't really an excuse for the phenomenon that I tend to ignore the truth in the left's story about capitalism. (See this page for the genius 1 minute videos of the two stories, if you really really can't spare 20 minutes for this fantastic talk.) Capitalism does lead to unparalleled improvements in quality of life for society overall. But as Jonathan says, the constant incredible innovation of capitalism includes innovation in methods of exploitation. I agree completely, and "dynamism with decency" seems like a perfect way to put it. With government to some extent, and with social pressure and demand-side pressure (e.g. boycotts, or buyer preference for humane products) to a large extent, we should absolutely insist on decency along with capitalistic dynamism.

*I'm not so centrist on most individual issues, although a lot more than you would expect from reading this blog because I don't write about the many things I am on the fence about.
**As far as I can tell, there is so much diversity in every dimension in New York that people are numb to differences and you can't feel broadly attacked for anything... It's wonderful :)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

re-SMBC part 5

This one is very late, but had to be done. Re-SMBC part 5!

3507 (and you may want to re-read the original to more easily parse the redo...)

But, in fairness to Zach Wiener, he did much better with 3595 which I'm going to quote in full because it's one of my all-time favorites:

Friday, January 2, 2015

Australian PC

Australia is much less PC than the US, which I love. It's just plain awkward when US TV shows have to hide jokes about groups of people in a layer of meta by, e.g., having an uncouth character make an uncouth comment so the joke is the character rather than the comment.

Shortly after I arrived in Brisbane, I was in a workshop and a chair collapsed underneath an Asian man. After it was clear he was ok and we all had a good laugh, someone asked "One too many dumplings, huh?" Imagine someone saying that in California!

That same week I was at a department event and introduced myself to someone as the new lecturer, and he said "Oh! I was wondering who you were, I thought maybe we had a new secretary." Even moreso, can you imagine someone saying that in California! Americans can't even call them secretaries anymore! I was certainly not offended* but had a hard time not losing my composure while I died from internal shocked laughter.

But the best one so far was a van Matt spotted earlier this week in Sydney. "You ling, we bling." We couldn't figure out what it was, maybe something involving chrome rims installation? Turned out to be a Chinese restaurant delivery van.

*I'll be offended the first time someone suggests, based on my gender, that I might be more suited to being a secretary, but nothing in my experience has come remotely close.