I ran across a headline a few weeks ago in a US Census Bureau press release: “Teachers Are Among Most Educated, Yet Their Pay Lags.” The article itself is perfectly sensible, just offering statistics to point out that teachers often have lower pay than others who have BA degrees. But in seeing the headline, I was reminded of a feeling, sometimes expressed explicitly, that seems to me fairly common among those who work in the world of education: Many of us were above-average in the classroom, but our pay often does not reflect that. I’ve heard PhD economists point out, for example, that they had higher grades than many of those who went on to become lawyers and doctors, but the lawyers and doctors often make higher salaries.

The philosopher Robert Nozick once described this frame of mind in a 1998 essay called “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” He wrote:

Intellectuals now expect to be the most highly valued people in a society, those with the most prestige and power, those with the greatest rewards. Intellectuals feel entitled to this. … Intellectuals feel they are the most valuable people, the ones with the highest merit, and that society should reward people in accordance with their value and merit. But a capitalist society does not satisfy the principle of distribution `to each according to his merit or value.’ Apart from the gifts, inheritances, and gambling winnings that occur in a free society, the market distributes to those who satisfy the perceived market-expressed demands of others, and how much it so distributes depends on how much is demanded and how great the alternative supply is. Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.

In fairness, most academics accepted the economic limits on their professional with their eyes open. Personally, I have known for a long time that I won’t ever get a payout from stock options or an annual bonus for an especially good year. On the other side, my economics journal isn’t likely to go out of business in down year, either. I have steady and secure work that uses my skills and interests. I have perhaps one meeting every two or three weeks, and the rest of the time, I spend editing, thinking, reading, and writing. I’m responsible for schedules being met over time, but my organization is a small one, and my day-to-day work is self-directed. I don’t have to monitor people working for me, and I don’t have a boss monitoring me each day, or each hour. I’m generally happy with my work/life tradeoffs.

In addition, I know perfectly well that one’s wages are heavily determined by supply and demand for one’s skills, not by test scores (and a good thing, too). But I admit that sometimes, when I see an old friend, or meet a new acquaintance who has made more lucrative choices, and I hear about their patterns of consumption, I wonder just a little about the paths I have not followed. One of the great benefits of a free market society is the freedom to make choices about one’s work. But such choices also bring ineluctable tradeoffs.

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