INCENTIVE STRUCTURE

Posted in Rants on June 2nd, 2015 by Ed

Like any professional association or interest group, the American Political Science Association bombards its members with emails, occasional junk mail, and various Calls to Action. Lately and quite regularly those Calls have been related to Congress's attempts to cut funding for the social sciences from the National Science Foundation. There are no data available but I suspect the response rate on the exhortations to "Contact your elected officials and tell them to fund the NSF!" is very low. Part of that is the nature of the shotgun approach to asking for help. Part of it is because while no one in the field doubts that funding the study of all subjects is inherently good for obvious reasons, the APSA is trying to mobilize its 10,000 members to save something that directly benefits about 0.5% of us.

As is the case in any profession, I assume, academia has a pretty rigidly defined class structure. If we're being honest with ourselves, 99% of the NSF funding in this field goes to tenured faculty at about three dozen universities – with the top 5 or 10 collecting a disproportionate amount. So when the APSA asks all of us to help it lobby for NSF funding, what it's really asking us to do is to petition Congress to help our social/professional betters stay on top of us. Sure, they push hard on the idea that NSF-funded projects affect us all, and that's not without merit. But if I'm self-interested – and who isn't, regarding their own professional advancement and compensation – I want to know why I should help Joe Blow get a $5 million dollar grant at Stanford to conduct a survey in the hopes that years down the line I can use the crumbs of the data to scavenge for publications knowing that Dr. Blow and colleagues have already published all the good stuff.

It's a nice case study of how the incentive to participate in politics declines as inequality rises. Maybe if the vast majority of the profession had a snowball's chance in hell of getting an NSF grant we would all be fired up about this and put some real pressure on the relevant members of Congress. Or, as I suspect many of us do, we look at it as the rich asking us to help them get richer in the professional sense and check out. That 50% of Americans who cannot be motivated to vote, or can be only at great cost, probably looks at the political process and draws the same conclusions. Hard to blame them. Survey data shows not only that income predicts participation but also that it predicts political efficacy – one's sense of whether participation is meaningful and the process itself is legitimate. The more money people have, the more they believe the political process is responsive to their interests. They believe that because it's true.

As a gainfully employed white male, I generally don't have a hard time paying attention to politics because the entire system and the society it reflects are biased in my favor. It's remarkable, though, how easy it is to disengage when that's not the case. No wonder so many Americans do it so often. We could debate whether the futility of politics is reality or merely a perception generated to keep the poor complacent. Either way, it's working like a charm.