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Professor Moneybags: When Academics Get Rich..The Agony

By Dinesh D'Sousa



The image of the impecunious professor dies hard, but many of today's college teachers and administrators are in fact living rather well. Academic conferences, once dominated by disheveled, sorry-looking folk, are now frequently a high-class affair, featuring speakers and even ordinary attendees in designer suits. College towns that once rattled with beat-up old Volkswagens and Chevys now hum and purr with shiny new Volvos, BMWs, Lexuses, and even Porsches. Some academics used to attend events just for the free wine and hors d'oeuvres; today this practice is rare--except among graduate students. Indeed, many academic couples these days think nothing of paying $4 apiece for a Venti nonfat latte, or $100 for dinner and wine at the local Italian bistro. A die-hard liberal professor whom I have debated in the past recently surprised me when he confided that he voted Republican last November: "I really like Bush's position on getting rid of the estate tax."

Yes, it's true. Affluence, once the preserve of the entrepreneurial class and the corporate sector, has now come to academia. Six-figure salaries, which used to be restricted to college presidents and a few senior faculty members in business and engineering, are no longer uncommon. The stock-market boom of the past two decades, rising home values, two-earner households, and external sources of income from royalties, lecture fees, etc., all have given the academic world a new taste of prosperity.

You might expect all these professors and administrators who have seen their incomes rise--and their net worth soar--to be living it up and, like my old debate partner, worrying only about their tax liability. But in fact, the new affluence has generated profound ambivalence in the academic community. You won't find such anxiety in the business or engineering schools, where professors typically compare their salaries to the much more generous incomes of those in the corporate sector. Among a large segment of academia, however--especially professors of the baby-boom generation who teach in the humanities and social sciences--there is evident angst about achieving a bourgeois prosperity that many never dreamed possible, and against which they have railed for most of their lives.

Robert Frank, who teaches economics and public policy at Cornell, describes his predicament when a relative offered a few years ago to sell him a Porsche 911 at a bargain price. "I was sorely tempted," he confesses. But he knew that Ithaca has a strong social norm against conspicuous consumption. A chemistry professor who drove a Porsche convertible told him that he occasionally had to endure vandalism and obscene gestures. Frank passed up the deal because "I realized that unless I could put a sign on the car that explained how I happened to acquire it, I would never really feel comfortable driving it." Now, however, Frank has changed his mind and purchased a BMW. Still, he seems apologetic about it, and in his most recent book, Luxury Fever, he deplores the rising tide of materialism and consumerism in America.

A couple of years ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article-entitled "Even Leftists Have Servants Now"--profiling several professors who have hired gardeners, pool men, cooks, maids, and nannies. Most of these servants are, ahem, blacks and Mexicans. The contortions these academics go through to justify their behavior make for captivating reading. Political scientist Mark Petracca, of the University of California at Irvine, says he finally agreed to get a nanny, but he absolutely refuses to hire a gardener, even though everyone else in his neighborhood has one. Putting all his learning on display, Petracca explains: "It reeks of a kind of imperial colonialism one can imagine present in Shanghai."

Recently an editor at a California publishing house told me about one of her authors who has published several books denouncing the rich for selfishness and greed. Even though the latest one has been out for a while now, the author regularly calls her to find out how it's selling. Hearing the dismal sales figures, he responds, "Next time I'm really going to slam those greedy bastards."

It is easy to laugh at this hypocrisy, and I do. And I'm sure the businessmen who read that Wall Street Journal article also had a hearty chuckle. Why not? These are the same professors who for years have directed their resentment and moral indignation at "the rich." Now, irony of ironies, the enemies of the rich have joined the rich. The virtue of impoverishment has given way to the vice of plenty. The good guys have become bad guys, and they stand condemned in their own books and Ph.D. dissertations--indeed, in their own hearts. So it's only fair that, hoist on their own petard, these self-righteous moralizers be permitted to suffer a little for sinning against their own moral code.

Even hypocrites, however, deserve a measure of admiration, because although their actions may contradict their moral ideals, they deserve credit for at least espousing those ideals. Also, the anguish of the professor making six figures is worth exploring, because it reveals a deep split in the academic psyche. Call it the moral conundrum of success. These are people who know they are doing well, but they also want to feel that they are doing good. They want to succeed, but without "selling out." They want material comforts, even luxuries, but they are eager to show they have not been consumed by materialism. In short, they want to integrate the goods of the body with the goods of the soul, and they want their personal prosperity to promote the civic or common good. These are decent, even lofty, ideals.

The decency of these aims adds luster to a great deal of ridiculous social and moral posturing. But our sympathy for the ideals should not extend to sympathy for this posturing. The posturing constitutes, rather, a betrayal of the ideals, and in my view it is only by overcoming their guilt about capitalism and success that these academics will come closer to achieving their goals.

What, after all, is the real academic complaint against capitalism and affluence? If we read Michael Walzer, Andrew Hacker, Andrew Ross, or Robert Putnam, we find variations on a single theme: Capitalism produces an unjust society in which economic values drive out human values. The rich benefit but the poor languish. Greed and consumerism prevail at the expense of altruism, spiritual wholeness, and human relationships. The mad pursuit of technology and profits endangers our environment and undermines our familial and communal bonds.

Such attacks on capitalism and commerce are not new. We associate some of them with Karl Marx, but Adam Smith had acknowledged many decades earlier in The Wealth of Nations that self-interest was the motivating force that drove the market system. And Smith's defense of capitalism was merely an updating of Bernard Mandeville's argument that private vices lead to public benefits. Long before Smith and Mandeville, the Greeks and Romans reviled merchants and traders as lowlife scum, and the Bible warned that "the love of money is the root of all evil."

What is new in today's criticisms of wealth is that many of the critics are confronting the challenges posed by wealth in their own lives. These challenges are all the more severe because in our age of affluence, the problems of inequality and materialism seem to have reached gargantuan proportions. Some entrepreneurs in their mid-30s boast a net worth that rivals the gross national product of small countries. Well-off people in the West spend $2 on a bottle of designer water, while people in the poorest third of the world's population live on less than $2 a day. Even in the United States, the economic divisions are severe. The academic literature on the wealth gap points out that the top 10 percent of the U.S. population now owns two-thirds of the wealth; that means that the bottom 90 percent of Americans own only one-third of the wealth. There has been a spate of books complaining that the middle class, the bulwark of American society, is rapidly dissolving, and that we are becoming a nation in which many struggle while a few live high on the hog.

But what's really going on is somewhat more interesting: In 1980, America was a much more egalitarian country, simply because not many Americans were rich. At that time, according to census data, if you made $55,000 a year you were in the top 5 percent of income earners in America. Fewer than a million households qualified as millionaires. Today you need $150,000 in annual income to make it into the top 5 percent. And over the past two decades the number of millionaire households has soared to 5 million. Five million households amounts to 20 million people.

This means that America has created the first mass affluent class in world history. I call it the Overclass. The earlier great achievement of the West was to create a middle class, to take people who were poor and give them necessities and basic comforts. Now the United States has gone further, elevating a large number of people to the ranks of the affluent. And as these people have become well off, they have increased the gap between themselves and the rest of the population-so inequality is greater. But it's not true to say that the rich have gotten richer while the rest have gotten poorer; data from the Federal Reserve Board show that over the past two decades the median net worth in this country has risen a moderate but respectable 25 percent, to around $75,000. What has happened is that the rich have gotten richer and the rest have also gotten richer, although not at the same pace. An exclusive focus on inequality carries the implication that the emergence of the Overclass as a mass phenomenon is a bad thing, when it is in fact a good thing.

To be sure, affluence opens up for ordinary people the same avenues of indulgence and debauchery traditionally available only to the aristocratic few. In that sense a rich society is also likely to be a more self-indulgent and materialist society. But we should also remember that affluence liberates people from necessity and drudgery, and democratizes access to the higher good of self-fulfillment and spiritual striving. As theologian Michael Novak puts it, "The Bible tells us that man does not live by bread alone, but often you have to have bread to realize this."

The affluence made possible by capitalism also gives us the means to realize our social values. We can expand access to computers and the Internet so that young people in the Bronx, and in Karachi, have the same access to information as the students in America's finest universities. A wealthy society can afford the luxury of environmental protection, whereas poor loggers and farmers are unlikely to save trees and forests when their livelihoods depend on cutting and clearing. Finally, technology and affluence give us the flexibility to work at home, or to work part time, or to move away from crowded urban areas into small towns and communities where we can enjoy more lasting relationships and a stronger sense of belonging.

It's time for academia to get over its psychological hang-up about wealth and discover the virtue of prosperity. What is the point of chasing after success if you feel guilty about it? We would do far better to recognize that capitalism, technology, and wealth are not necessarily the enemies of the social values that we hold dear; indeed, used correctly, they provide the infrastructure and give us the tools to implement those values. So go ahead, Mark Petracca, and hire that gardener. It will free up your time to do more research, or even volunteer work. More importantly, by creating that job, you'll be expanding the income of those at the lower end of the economic scale-and you'll find it much more rewarding to boost somebody's standard of living than to complain about why others don't.

Dinesh D Souza is the Olin Research Fellow at AEI.

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