Economics Is A Dismal Science, But That Doesn't Mean We Shouldn't Study It

Even oceanographers.

Florida State University fires 21 tenured faculty members, in the departments of oceanography, geology, and meteorology:

"There's something wrong here," the 63-year-old [Philip] Froelich, [one of the fired professors] said. "To fire junior faculty like this is immoral — and that word is now around the country."

Eric Walker, an English professor and president of the Faculty Senate, isn't sure how layoffs in geological sciences and oceanography are playing around the country.

"I do know how this fact plays: We terminated 21 tenured faculty members," Walker said. "This is a fact that will get the attention of faculty members across the country.

What should also get Professor Walker's attention is that the state of Florida, hit as hard as any by the recession and an economy based on tourism and real estate, has a budget that can charitably be described as in the toilet. Faculty members in departments such as oceanography, who produce little of present economic value, depend on taxes paid by tourist attractions and realtors and orange growers and the like, who aren't doing too well.  The only solutions for such a problem in a state like Florida are to raise taxes (which will push the economy deeper into the toilet as any economics professor could tell you), to borrow until the state's economy resembles Argentina's, or to fire people whose jobs are less than essential.

That's fine, according to Florida State's faculty senate, as long as it's other people being fired.

FSU invested considerable resources in fall 2008 when it hired Wetz, Brian Arbic and Amy Baco-Taylor in oceanography and Davis Farris in geological sciences. Approximately $1 million in "start-up" fees were earmarked for the four new faculty members, who have all received layoff notices.

Gosh.  $1 million in "start-up" fees for three oceanographers and a geologist.   Who I'm sure produce more of value than their equivalent in primary school teachers, road maintenance workers, law enforcement officers, or state legislators.  (Heh.)   But though I don't know much about the Ekman spiral effect, it boggles my mind that the upper echelons of FSU's faculty, such as geography department chair Leroy Odom, didn't see this coming when they asked for a faculty expansion in 2008:

"I'm not expecting any reversal, but I do expect we'll be treated better in the future," Odom said. "Somehow we went from a department that was good enough to deserve new faculty positions to one that didn't deserve to exist."I didn't see it coming.

I knew there was a budget problem and they were considering faculty cuts and this and that. I didn't know they would all be coming from our departments."

Sounds as though Chairman Odom was reading too many geology papers and not enough newspapers in Fall 2008, if he couldn't see this coming.

In the Soviet Union they had ladies whose job was to polish subway stair railings.  That's all they did, all day.  And while polished stair railings are nice enough, make-work jobs and other non-productive uses of actual productive labor, resources, and energy drove the Soviet Union into bankruptcy more surely than its tyranny and ethnic strife.  And all of the rail-polishing ladies were fired.  It's tragic when anyone loses his job due to economic circumstances he couldn't forsee, whether it's a rail polishing lady or an oceanographics professor.

But it isn't immoral.  And for the academy to claim that it should be above the resources of the people who pay its bills indicates we may need fewer tenured oceanographics professors, and more grad student T.A.s in the economics department.


Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White


  1. Little Raven says

    People in all kinds of 'safe' public sector jobs are going to be in for a real shock over the next two years, as the paper-overing provided by the stimulus package fades. Cities, counties, states…all kinds of public budgets are just dripping with red ink. There's going to be no way to avoid big, big layoffs.

    The need to balance a budget doesn't apply to the Feds, so Federal workers may be marginally safer. But anyone lower down the chain has ample reason to worry.

  2. says

    Just making sure that you didn't miss it, but Florida currently has no tax on earned incomes. 'Raising taxes' would be more than a trivial exercise and would be utterly suicidal for all sitting, elected members of the state legislature.

    Sales tax, at 6%, could be jacked up, but in a troubled economy, with high state-wide unemployment, and property values tanked, such a move would also hint of self-murder.

    Snowbirds, the folk who come down to enjoy the warm winters (but not this one), already pay special taxes.

    That pretty much leaves real estate tax, a tax currently so high that it's keeping would-be home owners out of the market.

    Something, clearly, has to give. In Florida, that something is increasingly government-provided services.

  3. VRaverna says

    While oceanography and meteorlogy don't have much economic value, I thought geophysics have good value. Is geophysics part of geology department or is it part of physics department?

  4. Chris says

    I heartily agree that tenured faculty feel far too safe in their jobs, which is bad for any number of reasons. Being Florida, supporting as much oceanography as the state deems affordable probably makes good sense, but not more. On the other hand, I think it's a bad idea to slam basic science on economic grounds in an overly generic manner. That way lies much easy and counterproductive demagoguery. For instance, you make it sound as if $1M is a wasteful and inappropriate amount of money for this sort of thing, but I don't think that's right. Startup fees refer to the expense of outfitting a new lab, and scientific equipment is expensive. Typical practice is for a department to do this once, when a new faculty member negotiates salary, etc, and from then on it's grant supported or bust.

    I mention this not to defend the academics in question or argue that the terminations were a bad call. Especially if the state gives an overall cut to the institution, and it in turn decides this is the best way to handle it. I just think it's a major league bad habit to get all huffy about specific budget items in fields about which one knows fuck-all.

    But, so long as we're making baseless judgements about the relative worth of academic fields, are you really so confident of the predictive power (hence worth) of economics as a science? As a physics student (haven't run across any geophysicists in my neck of the woods, btw) I've just gotta say I haven't seen much of it that amounted to more than basic accounting encased in a bunch of pseudo-mathematical bloviating.

  5. Patrick says

    Chris I'm speaking of microeconomics. Hence the "TA" closing line. Everything I ever learned about microeconomics is true. That's Adam Smith stuff. Macro? Not so much.

    Coming back around to the point of the post, there is nothing that a refresher course in microeconomics couldn't have taught the chairs of these departments about the relative values of their departments, and their fields. All priorities and values compete, and no one is above this competition. I expect that a number of legislators will learn this to their chagrin in November, in Florida and elsewhere.

  6. Chris says

    So, it looks like I got a little over-caffeinated last night. Sorry about that. I'm still not sure I understand the economic argument here, though. Most science departments are (fairly large) revenue generators. Every grant includes something like 30-50% overhead which goes directly to the university, and winds up funding stuff like English. On top of that, I was given to understand this university in particular was pretty aggressive about making money off of patents, etc, and was more or less entirely funded on royalties from colgate toothepaste and gatorade.

    Maybe I've got my facts wrong, but assuming that's not the case, if this was about money and not politics, wouldn't you expect to see, say, art, music, philosophy, etc get the axe first? I suppose it could happen if they'd all been hired on ludicrous pay or benefits. There's a fair amount of that at my school, but everyone always talks like it's impossible to get rid of them. I swear to christ, I don't think you could design an institutional structure with worse administrative incentives than the tenure system if you tried.

    One more thing: from a selfish, student oriented perspective, I think it's easy to make an argument that there's some immorality here. Students often have a multi-year commitment to work with a given professor, and when you start firing PIs you break that commitment and start destroying careers in a hurry, which is not an occasion for snark. Necessity and morality are orthogonal, and the latter, whether you want to locate it with the terminations or the irresponsible hiring, is present regardless of the former.

  7. Ken says

    Heartily agree with your screed! Florida should get rid of all of these wasters in academia who are not creating value. For instance who needs poetry? Dump the Eng Lit department. History? Other than it repeating itself, what has History ever done for us? Get rid of the faculty. Florida's big money makers are tourism, pensioners, and oranges, so let's get rid of all universities. You can then pour the money into primary school educations – as you suggest. The low-educated people can the contribute constructively to society by asking that age old question "You want fries with that?" and writing dumbass blog posts. Immorality is in the eye of the beholder.Not being able to get the university education you need to fulfil your ambitions and dreams, in the state you live in, because of budget CHOICES is a tricky question. Its answer probably depends on whether you think going back to the Middle Ages is a good idea. Like your blog, hate your post.

  8. says

    Obviously, Patrick, the people of Florida should just pay more taxes until those junior faculty can be paid at current levels. The junior faculty have a greater moral right to the money than the people and businesses who, you know, earned it.

    (I'm a different Ken, by the way.)

  9. craig says

    Leroy Odom is the chair of the Geology Department, not Geography.
    It might be useless talking about science on a law blog, but Geology, Oceanography, Meteorology provide enormous long term value to the economy. Besides, the layoffs in the Geology Dept. at FSU were as political as they were financial.