Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dip, Law, Economics and Greed

Photo by Ryan Suffern

One of the things I teach is law and economics and for 8 years I was a economics professor. The last three of those I went to law school and eventually landed a law teaching job because law and economics was an up and coming field. At that time, resistance to an economic approach was fairly strong. If you knew anything about economics the view was that you were likely to be a conservative and even then law teaching was not a profession that was as open to conservatives as it was to so-called liberals. This view still persists but it is not as knee jerk as it once was.

This all seemed odd to me because law professors were far more uptight and humorless than the economists I had worked with. And, if two professors were talking and one was wearing an expensive suit and carrying an expensive briefcase and driving a Mercedes, that was almost always the "liberal" law professor and the one in jeans was the economist. In short, the law professors seemed, and still do seem much more materialistic and greedy than the economists I know.

In fact a pattern seemed to emerge. Some people found law and economics offensive but lived their personal lives like maximizers of self interest. Things were negotiated down to the last nickel and the fewer number of courses and days taught the better. They were the law professors. Others taught economics or law and economics and did not live by efficiency standards at all. To me, at least, they seemed less obsessively self interested.

The law professor greed factor seems to have found a new manifestation. One, of course, is the double dipper. Retire at one school and collect your pension check and get a full time job at another. I am not talking here about the retired professor who teaches as and adjunct or part timer for a small fraction of his or her former income. I have always wonder why schools would pay double dippers as much as their other professors. Unless the double dipper is a star surely he or she would take a reduced salary. Even if the new job offers only a 50% salary, the double dipper is still making more than staying at his old job.

At my school we have the possibility of triple dipping. You can collect a check equal to a year's salary if you agree to resign at the end of the year. At that time you can collect retirement and also get another full salaried job. In fact, if there are few positions for new professors, it is in part because these schemes to get veterans to move on and make room have failed miserably.

I cannot say whether economists are as likely to double and triple dip at law professors but I am willing to bet they are no less greedy (and remember the law professors are already among the highest paid people at a university) than economists and if I really had to bet I would say more greedy. And, remember this is all in the context of people who claim not to wedded to the ideals of capitalism and materialism and for whom the phrase "rational self interest" is an anathema.

I suppose is this all just fine but sometimes I wonder if it goes too far. Suppose you are at a law school and have a sense of entitlement. You teach hardly any students, name your schedule and start a program that is your baby meaning that the school invests gobs of money to keep you happy. And then you get a chance to triple dip and you are gone to another school. I guess you are just a rational maximizer of self interest -- something many economists view as just an assumption.

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