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Overeducated, Underemployed

Mises Daily: Friday, February 02, 2001 by

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As layoffs continue to mount during this economic downturn, let us reflect on the purpose of the labor market, with a special focus on the market I know best: academic music.

A classmate once told me he would become a university faculty member or an overeducated, "bitter, underemployed vagabond." He got his PhD in social psychology; I got my MS in psychology and later a doctorate in music (I'm a composer). Now, he's a professor and I'm a banker.

In an open market, goods and services, and even people, flow to their most valued uses. If petroleum is more valuable as a plastic connector than as gasoline, a free market will move that oil toward becoming a plastic connector.

If you are more valuable--if people are willing to pay more for your time--as an engineer than as a salesman, you'll move toward being an engineer. The high cost of developing skill makes the flow of people less perfect than the flow of products. Goods and services nobody wants tend to disappear.

This is all true under the assumption of a free market; a planned economy can produce goods and services nobody wants.

Hence, I am a banker. Composers since the beginning of the 20th century have written mostly dissonant, tuneless music enjoyed by few outside academia and by relatively few inside. Most of what has been written by trained composers in the last 100 years has been consumed exclusively by academic music composers and theorists.

Names such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg and others are famous among academicians, yet obscure among the public. By contrast, there are composers who have written modern, challenging music the public loves, among whom are Bartok, Stravinsky, and Debussy. It is notable that their music is studied and revered by academics as well as the public.

Why are universities filled with composers writing music only appreciated a an elite few? Composers in universities don't face the same incentives as those in free markets. Academic composers teach, serve, and in lieu of doing research, compose. They don't have to make music people enjoy; they have to please administrators. They do this by having their compositions performed at conferences at other universities. These conferences are similar to contests in that having your music selected for performance is an honor.

Having works performed at many conferences is a factor in earning tenure. Those who decide which works get performed are themselves academic composers. They select winners based on whatever criteria they want, whatever level of standards they want. Often the selection is a matter of political expedience or philosophy rather than aesthetic criticism: 12-tone serial works enjoyed a hegemony for decades, but even academic composers themselves rarely listen to serial works anymore.

Thus, in the planned economy of a music school, success is determined by criteria unrelated to the value anyone might place on the works produced.

Artificial criteria have sheltered composers for a century but threaten composers today: Administrators want publications, and since composers don't get published--music publishers sell in the free market, so they don't touch academic music--administrators are hiring theorists to replace retiring composers.

Composers and theorists often can teach both theory and composition, but only theorists get published, because there are music theory journals. A side effect is that students lose: You can't be a trained composer without studying theory, but you can be a good theorist without studying composition. Thus, composition students usually suffer more than theory students as the number of composers dwindles.

I'm not bitter about working outside music; I'm saying more of us should. Composers who make music that people don’t like ought not attempt to compose for a living. To write unloved music and expect a salary, tenure, benefits, etc., is comically arrogant. Academics at public universities exemplify this arrogance when they defend their salaries: Public funds must shelter us from the free market, because the public is merely ignorant, even though they, uh, pay our salaries.

One reason public-school composition jobs are drying up is that ambitious deans are imposing publish-or-perish strictures on artists. Another satisfying reason composers like me can't find jobs is a proper free-market phenomenon: Deans are cutting payroll because fewer students are majoring in composition.

Yes, there should be some academic composers keeping alive an understanding of crafted music. It is not incidental that private universities are already doing this perfectly well--Princeton, Yale, and many others.

It is permissible for faculty at private universities to thumb their noses at the people who pay their salaries. They hurt only themselves. But composers at public universities who ridicule the sensibilities of those who involuntarily pay their wages are a different matter, and it is proper to reduce their subsidization.

When the labor market is free and functioning well, it rewards work that serves social and economic, and not merely private, purposes.