Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Non-Sports, Non-R Potpurri

Today, I'm just here to relay a few thoughts on 3 interesting topics I've run across lately. Here it goes. Brain dump time.

1. Why is there a graduate student union ("GEO") at the University of Michigan?

I'll begin here by saying I'm not a fan of unions and I'm also not a fan of receiving snotty emails when I ask questions to the GEO officer here. Last fall, my department asked me to teach a new experimental class (I am not required to teach at all). I said sure as I needed the experience, and this was under the assumption that I would be paid the same rate (which, really, is a pay cut since I was still expected to do all my other work). However, despite the fact that my pay did NOT depend on me teaching a class, I was required to pay $157 in union dues. The GEO has a contract with the University that all Grad Student Instructors must pay dues, whether they are part of the union or not. Okay, fine. But when I emailed the rep to tell them that I had no interest in representation and that I technically was not funded as a GSI, I got a snotty email response. I refused to give them any information related to my pay or my account at that point. They responded by automatically deducting my paycheck with no notice.

So the above is just to tell you that I'm already biased against the GEO and its functionality. But honestly, from a completely neutral standpoint, it makes little sense to have a union for graduate students. The only reason I can see the requirement for paying dues being important is that, with short-term employees, there is not much incentive to increase pay and benefits for the future...there is no future employment with the organization. However, let's think a little deeper as to why anyone would have bothered in the first place.

When I was accepted into the PhD program here, I was sent a letter detailing my pay and benefits. I could have said "No", but I took on the low pay for being able to build a career that I love (yea, I get to sit in my office and think about baseball). If the money wasn't enough, then the University likely would not be able to get talented graduate students to sacrifice the time and money while here. Research production would go down (there are PLENTY of labs where the only work coming out of them is by graduate students with the adviser on the paper for name recognition).

But there's more. Not only could students turn down the offer for pay, etc., but for the most part (and especially at a place like Michigan) the graduate students are very skilled/multi-talented people that would get interest elsewhere. The UAW has a union because the auto workers have a single skill, not very marketable elsewhere. That's not to say it's not an important skill--it's one I certainly do not have--but is a skill which others can learn. Major League Baseball players also have a union because playing baseball is not a very marketable skill outside There is little alternative for baseball players to earn the type of MRP they produce in baseball. Maybe selling cars at a used car dealership would net them $50K a year? Banding together and having a union makes sense here--especially in the face of hilariously obvious collusion by owners.

But this isn't the case for most graduate students. Grad students have more general skills--hard working, motivated, mathematical, managerial/leadership potential--that could earn money elsewhere. Guess what. If grad students weren't getting enough money, they'd just go elsewhere. Remember that there is a sacrifice now for increased utility in the future (i emphasize utility because college faculty positions aren't exactly big pay days).

There's another problem with justifying a union for graduate students: it reduces flexibility. Technically, I'm only supposed to be working 20 hours a week on research. Therefore, I'm paid accordingly. I have worked some consulting jobs in 'spare time' for extra money, but if I were part of the GEO, they could technically limit this since my work was with professors here. Additional research projects are limited so that graduate students aren't "worked too hard". Graders are only allotted a certain number of hours that they can be paid for--whether this is a union doing, I am not sure. But in general, a union reduces the flexibility to work extra or work hard, because--I guess--it looks bad for the lazy members in the union.

I don't think I know a single person that supports the grad student union. Honestly, those running it must have some self-important view on what they are actually doing in the world. If that offends anyone that I know, I apologize and I invite you to tell me why I am wrong. But striking (i.e. not teaching classes) in the face of $50 a year raises or whatever certainly seems like a slap in the face to what students are here for in the first place: advancing education.

2. Are 'local currencies' really successful?

A friend of mine on Facebook recently posted this link asking for support of a movement to start a "Bnote" in Baltimore. Now, I think it is a very interesting concept which has apparently picked up a lot of steam in the U.S. and in Europe. I want to leave Europe and the EU aside for now, as they have some very different views on price and money concepts from the U.S. I'm curious what others think of having Disney Bucks for a city. The claim is that it keeps money inside the city, rewarding those who use them by giving them $11 Bnotes for $10 US. Stores are accepting $10 Bnotes as $10, so the idea is you get an extra $1. Since they can only be spent within the city, the money 'doesn't leave'. But I'm extremely skeptical for a number of reasons. The first is that this $1 incentive will likely be circumvented by store owners by simply raising prices by some weighted amount of expected Bnotes to expected US$$, ultimately reducing any sort of 'deal'. I mean, do small businesses make a 10% profit to cover that extra $1?

Otherwise, here are some concerns/interests I have with local currency for inducing economic growth:

A. Wit...h something like this, transactions costs are greatly increased, enough that they very well could offset any economic growth (a speculation).

B. The 10% incentive for exchange may be enough for some people to use them, but I think there is a serious problem: stores within the community very likely don't pull a 10% profit on sales. If they're accepting $10 for a book that could be sold for $11, with a cost of $10.01, then it's a problem.

C. Any claim of regional economic strengthening should be tempered by the fact that those communities that do this likely would have improved anyway due to the activism to do so within that region. Therefore, the question is: "Are Bnotes a better alternative to other strategies", rather than "Do cities with community currency improve". And that's the research I'd like to read (not the Googled research by Local Newspaper X)

D. There is in fact a disincentive to use Bnotes: flexibility.

E. There is a real cost (outside transactions costs) to exchanging $$ for Bnotes. These include: walking to the Bnote exchange, standing in line, carrying cash rather than using a card...

F. Given the vastly decreased use of material cash in the US, are Bnotes available electronically? If not, then this only increases the costs to using them (carrying them, running out of cash).

G. The people using Bnotes likely already live in the region and spend their money there. The people working (but not living) in the region are still paid in dollars and take that outside the region. Unless the Bnotes are specifically used for Business-to-Business transactions to keep these $$ within the city, I see little change. However, restricting B2B transactions to within-city for ANY employer would seem an extremely inefficient way to do business. Inefficiency is okay if people are willing to pay the cost and forego goods they want from outside the area. But the question is: what are they willing to forego?

G is the biggest concern of mine. Just like with taxation, we have to understand what people view as the optimal 'values' in order to assess the willingness to give up on efficiency. My guess is simply this: the people using Bnotes are those that would have already spent their money within the city limits anyway. Therefore, these local businesses are giving up on $1 per $10. But, I'm curious to hear what those with experience in this area have to say. Please keep the rhetoric to a minimum.

3. Should teachers be able to ananomously post concerns and frustrations on a blog?

A hat tip to Tango for this link. Another note that I'm not anonymous here. As someone who did teach a class here at Michigan, I must say my experience was much the same as the teacher in this article. In fact--as I commented at The Book Blog--I had students complain for being graded down on an essay question because they did it in bullet-point form. I'll also note that the bullets weren't in complete sentences. I'll also note that one student came into my office to tell me (word for word) that my "Test is bullshit". Lastly, I'll note that the average grade was a B, not some ridiculous F-average.

I'll begin by saying that I've noticed this general attitude at U of M. I could care less about engagement--that actually is something up to the teacher, and something I did not do well at in my first run of teaching. I'm okay with that, and I look to improve in the future. My focus, however, is the 'taking responsibility' aspect of student attitudes that is lacking and pervasive across all levels of education. I've never experienced it more than I have here at U of M.

Interestingly, there really is a sense of false entitlement that fills the air here. It begins with describing someone like Rich Rodriguez as "Not a Michigan Man". It applies to both academics and to sports. People from Michigan see U of M as an Ivy League school. They laugh at those attending Michigan State.Those from the east coast laugh at this. Of course, the truth is that the quality is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. It's also true that Michigan State, on the whole, is a good school. There are plenty of extremely smart people both there and here.

But the attitude seems to be: "Well, I got into Michigan, so obviously I'm a straight-A student. If you don't give me an A, then there must be something wrong with you." But then what's the point? Shouldn't we differentiate students between one another, given that they go to Michigan? The answer is of course. Unfortunately, the students don't see it this way and ultimately get offended that anyone would dare to give them a B+. If that's the lowest grade, then it's simple grade inflation. All that needs to be done is communicated to all teachers that B+ now is equal to F. Since faculty are essentially the employees of the students (they pay tuition after all), it seems reasonable to have some level of grade inflation without sacrificing information in order to give the customers what they pay for: a degree.

Grade inflation is one thing, and it can be a problem. But it's not a problem if you can still differentiate students (I won't get into grade inflation, and honestly the problem is overblown sometimes--really it's an issue of relative information loss which can still be upheld without giving out F's). However, I'm not convinced that the current grade distribution at Michigan gives enough information about the spread of abilities.

There are a lot of very smart kids here. That means that the generalization about entitlement is certainly not applicable to everyone, or near everyone. But if a teacher is frustrated with it anonymously, then what's the problem? My question is how students found out who was writing the blog. That is on the teacher's own stupidity. And that's only going to backfire when she is back in the classroom. Should she lose her job over this? No. Should she be surprised that parents and kids are pissed off that she's calling them lazy morons? No. Both sides need to take some accountability. But free speech is free speech, as long as it's not libel. My guess is that the frustrations by the teacher are fairly warranted, so the idea that it is made up would be in doubt.

Okay, rants over. I'd love reasoned comments. Hopefully, I'll have another sab-R-metrics piece up next week. I'll be out of town this weekend for a tasting for wedding and cake food. Mmmmm.


  1. Millsy:

    As someone who's worked just to get graduate employee unions legalized here at Maryland, I think I can answer the first question rather simply: we're employees and we have the right to representation.

    Yes, we all have the right to turn down work contracts, but freedom of contract doesn't preclude freedom to bargain collectively anymore than the right to leave one's state or municipality precludes one's right to be represented by a democratic government.

    Nor is future utility relevant in the discussion. ALL labor is a trade of one factor of utility for a future increase in utility paid back in another factor. If it weren't, people would keep their labor in the household. Moreover, most labor in the university context is incidental to the actual acquisition of knowledge.

    Nor is distribution of skill relevant. Even if you were to simplify auto production to a single non-transferable skill--it's not--this doesn't preclude either the rights or benefits inherent in collective bargaining.

    Future benefits aren't relevant here either; CBA's deal with a lot more than just future benefits.

    Does collective bargaining restrict flexibility? Yes, any contract is going to do that, that's what contracts do. I don't see how this is relevant unless you're willing to grant that the flexibility of the employer is the only thing worth maximizing.

    As someone with colleagues at UM, I can assure you that the union enjoys widespread support. I am sure it doesn't enjoy much support among those in your field, as there's a certain selection of sentiment in Stats and Econ departments (I'm not sure which).

    The opt-out issue with collective bargaining--which is essentially the problem you bumped up against--is tricky and utility-reducing in some situations and for some people. Unions are human institutions and are prone to some flaws.

    For that matter, so are universities, democratic societies and markets.

  2. Awesome! A respectful (and respected) adversary! Though, I don't think I disagree with you on the rights issue. Nothing precludes the freedom of collective bargaining. The reasons I list aren't to restrict any collective action, but to question its necessity.

    First, I know there is relatively widespread support for the union. However, I truly mean that I haven't met a single person that supports it. Likely due to those I am surrounded by, but this also includes movement science and psychology.

    I have no problem with the idea that some feel the need to collectively bargain. I think that a right is just that: a right. And I support those rights for anyone that feels the need to exercise them. I also find the marginal value of such endeavors to be minimal, but you disagree and that's just fine.

    However, a right and a requirement are different things.

    My issue is with a collectively bargained requirement to pay union dues, despite not having compensation based on the actions of the union (as you reference toward the end). The union has specifically told me that it is responsible for my agreement to teach at salary level X, when it was not the case.

    One might argue that my salary must be competitive with those bargained by the CBA deal and that, indirectly, the union was responsible for my pay. But as an individual, I could turn that down and go elsewhere if it wasn't at level X. On a larger scale with enough people saying "no", I think the pay and benefits would have to reach that equilibrium anyway in order to attract skilled graduate students. This is a direct result of having generalizable skills. Without a CBA in this situation, I think you end up at a similar result as there is demand for this labor elsewhere.

    I agree I oversimplified the skill set of members of the UAW...but to make a point as to the marketability of a worker. The point simply being that someone with the ability to be an advanced graduate student--on average--has more market power than others.

    My view on the collective bargaining at the graduate student level is that it gives me little marginal value over what I would have discussing such a thing with my adviser. If I value my own ability to bargain over that of a collective unit, shouldn't I also have a right to opt out? And to restrict the amount I am allowed to work--even when it is my choice to work--is counterproductive on an individual level.

    I do think that future utility is relevant in the discussion of forgoing salary now for later. I'm not saying that the union does not understand this (and obviously this is accounted for within their considerations for demands, etc.); my point is that someone accepting a graduate student appointment understands this and makes the choice knowing the result beforehand. Just like law school students and MBAs go to school to increase future earnings, PhD students do the same for future utility (and in some departments, future earnings).

    No, freedom of contract does not preclude the right to bargain collectively, but it certainly affects the necessity to do so.

  3. I disagree with this, "Does collective bargaining restrict flexibility? Yes, any contract is going to do that, that's what contracts do. I don't see how this is relevant unless you're willing to grant that the flexibility of the employer is the only thing worth maximizing."

    It's relevant because I am able to maximize my own flexibility. Now, as a union buff, I imagine you may argue that my actions are free-riding on the efforts of the bargaining power of a union. To which I say, "Not really my problem?" in what I hope is a completely unoffensive fashion.

    As for "future benefits", what I mean regards the requirement for paying dues. If the actions of the unions do not affect my pay and benefits (i.e. the delay in bargaining is beyond the scope of when I am here), then there is little incentive for me to bother participating. For example, I am here for 4 years. If the next bargaining agreement does not take effect until after I leave, then what incentive do I have to bother? The Union and its CBA that I have a part of have absolutely zero bearing on anything that has to do with me. It's like me paying social security right now knowing that I won't be getting any after I retire. I believe this is why there is the requirement to pay union dues.

    Again, my issue is with the opt-out as you correctly mention. I have no issue with the right to collectively bargain, just question its necessity in this situation.

    By the way, I didn't realize that you were a fellow Marylander. Where from?

  4. On another note, the main thing that sparked my concern about the GEO is its intention to add GSRAs to the required due-paying list, irrespective of teaching duties.

    The organization goes about its business in a strange and--honestly--creepy and unprofessional fashion. For example, I had people walking into my office without knocking to give me a survey of my 'interest' in the GEO. The claim is that GSRAs have shown interest in joining.

    I asked them to leave, as they did not have administration permission to be here AND I was in the middle of writing up my dissertation proposal presentation. About 3 hours later, they returned and again bothered me in the middle of email, no message, just dropped in. I find this extremely inappropriate. And apparently I'm not the only one. If you look at the comments section, others were not happy with this (some of the comments are relatively unwarranted and not supported by me, but I think at least from commenting here, there is an overwhelming feeling that GSRAs as a whole want no part of the GEO).

    In addition--and one thing I did not mention--is that I have a right to work if my skills are demanded. The idea that someone else can affect this right is disconcerting to me.

    I'm told that unless I signed this "Yellowcard", I would be delinquent and ultimately could have been left out of being a GSI. However, the GEO deducted the fees from my account anyway--without my permission--and said nothing.