Sunday, December 24, 2006

'A Tenured Professor'

Montgomery Marvin wants to do good: he is a liberal. But, there's a catch. He's also a young assistant professor of economics at Harvard, and he has been advised that activism could derail his career in academia. So he waits. While working towards getting tenure, he uses his knowledge of human irrationality to play the financial markets and becomes rich. When he gets tenure, he is ready. With a secure academic reputation and considerable wealth, he is now able to bankroll some gloriously liberal activism. That, in a nutshell, is the story of A Tenured Professor -- the third novel by the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

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Sidebar: A Tenured Professor is the third novel by the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith. I recall reading it -- and enjoying it tremendously -- when it was published in 1990; thanks to the Strand Book Stall's recent sale, I got a chance to read it again. It was great fun -- all over again!

Should I be feeling odd writing about a novel from 16 years ago?

Anyway, here are some more links:

NYTimes review.

An academic paper on the novel.

Galbraith quotes.

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In the first (and to me, the most engaging) part of this slim novel, Galbraith describes Marvin's intellectual and moral development through a series of episodes in which academics play a starring role. For example, when he tells Prof. Grierson, his undergraduate tutor at Harvard, that perhaps a career in economics might enable him to "do some good in the world", the tutor responds, "Excellent, but watch that business about doing good. It's fine in principle, but a smart economist sticks to his knitting. So stick to it." Then there is the loathsome Prof. McCrimmon, a professor of 'psychometrics', who teaches him to bet against "sobriety, rationality and good sense as social assumptions". It's "better to assume individual and collective aberration."

Marvin goes through some life-shaping events in the year between his degree and doctoral studies at Berkeley. During that summer, in Vienna, he meets Marjie, a strong willed liberal Canadian who will become his wife and lead partner in his liberal activist crimes. Then, during his year-long study at the Cambridge University, there's a serendipitous foray into the history of financial scams (the tulip mania of the seventeenth century all the way down to the Great Depression of 1929). While the history books focus on the misery of the millions who lost their shirts in those scams, the take away for Marvin is the enormous amount of money made by those few who sold their stakes at the peak! Then there's this revealing conversation between Marvin and Prof. McCrimmon when the latter visits Cambridge:

Marvin: I'm going to be an economist, but I want to make my small contribution to the liberal agenda. Peace, a better break for the poor and the inner cities, greater equality in income distribution, government assuming its proper responsibilities. I haven't got it fully worked out yet.

McCrimmon: Most unwise, most unwise. And certainly impractical.

Marvin: Why, sir?

McCrimmon: You simply won't get tenure. Tenure was originally invented to protect radical professors, who challenged the accepted order. But we don't have such people anymore at the universities, and the reason _is_ tenure. When the time comes to grant it nowadays, the radicals get screened out. That's its principal function. It's a very good system, really -- keeps academic life at a decent level of tranquility."

Marvin: Suppose one waits until one has tenure to show one's liberal tendencies?

McCrimmon: The only sensible course. But by then conformity will be a habit. You'll no longer be a threat to the peace and comfort of our ivied walls. The system really works.

And, finally, Marvin receives some wise advice from an elderly couple, both professors of economics at Cambridge, who invite Margie and him over for dinner.

Economist: You are one of those liberals, I'm sure. And when you go home, you'll be like all the rest. You'll complain constantly about the power of money and do nothing about it. Complaining but compliant. That's all.

Marvin: What should I do?

Economist: It's obvious. Get money yourself and then exercise power yourself. Don't waste your time asking others to be nice; do right.

Marvin: That might not be so easy.

Economist: Just look at the people who get rich. No particular intelligence. Americans especially. Anyhow, if you don't know how to get money, you have no business calling yourself an economist. If untrained, stupid people can get rich, why can't you? Be like Maynard [Keynes]; he died a wealthy man by the standards of the time. And he didn't work at it more than an hour a day. Why try to persuade politicians when you can buy them?

Marvin: I don't think we can all be quite up to Keynes in this matter.

Economist: At least be rich enough so that you can do all the socially inconvenient things without personal risk. That's the true formula for happiness.

The psychometrics course under McCrimmon and a study of the history of scams lead Marvin to formulate an index of Irrational Expectations (IRAT); you can almost sense Galbraith's glee as he created this phrase to contrast with the rationality assumption so common in economics. With the help of IRAT, Marvin becomes enormously wealthy by, for example, betting against the irrationality of investors as they pour their money into oil companies in Texas. This wealth accumulation happens in the privacy of Marvin's home, while he continues to progress towards tenure through his academically brilliant research on refrigerator prices.

When he does get tenure, Marvin follows the advice of the Cambridge economist couple by using his now considerable wealth to support liberal causes. Like, forcing companies to disclose the number of their female executives. Or establishing endowed chairs in the defence service academies in the areas of Peace Studies. Or funding Political Rectitude and Integrity Committees (PRICs) that would combat the corrupting and corrosive influence of the political action committees in American politics.

This activism brings Marvin fame and loathing in equal measure. Unable to handle the heat from PRICs, the establishment fights back. During a Congressional hearing, a legislator asks him, "... don't your operations imply a serious absence of faith in the American free enterprise system? You apparently sit around trying to find out what's going wrong. Un-American, I suppose some would say." The last part of the story is about how Marvin faces this backlash. And no, I'm not giving the plot away.

Galbraith is at his best in those parts that deal with early influences in Marvin's life and his post-tenure activist ride to liberal prominence. While the narrative sort of winds down to a rather unconvincing end, the point of the story, really, is Marvin's rise, and Galbraith evidently had a great deal of fun in writing it, interlacing it with incisive comments on academia, on economics and economists, and on American society and politics. While these larger 'public' themes give the story a certain seriousness of purpose, Galbraith's (often sharp) humour and light touch ensure that it doesn't weigh the novel down.

A Tenured Professor is a celebration of nerdiness, liberalism (of the American variety), and activism. It will certainly appeal to the progressive nerd in you!

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Before I end this post, let me leave you with a short extract where Galbraith offers a short commentary on the Laffer Curve (there is quite a few of these interludes in the novel):

Even some of the more theoretically committed members of the faculty found themselves asked about the budget priorities of David Stockman [President Reagan's Budget Director], the monitarist magic of Professor Milton Friedman, the now compelling doctrine that the rich were not working because they had too little money, the poor because they had too much. And about the Laffer Curve. Especially about the Laffer Curve.

The economic formulation of high personal importance to the Marvins held that when no taxes are levied, no revenues accrue to the government. An undoubted truth. And if taxes are so high that they absorb all income, nothing can be collected from the distraught, starving and otherwise nonfunctional citizenry. Also almost certainly true. Between those two points a freehand curve, engagingly unsupported by evidence, showed the point where higher taxes would mean less revenue. According to the accepted legend, the original curve had been drawn on a paper napkin, possibly toilet paper, and some critics of deficient imagination held that the paper could have been better put to its intended use. ...