Wednesday, March 07, 2007

R and R for Faculty

By Richard Vedder

A recent experience I had reminds me of the waste and inefficiency of academia, not to mention what us economists call rent-seeking--which in this context means taking dollars provided by governments and private sector "sugar daddies" and using them for conspicuous consumption.

I was asked to give a paper before a group of free market academics at their annual convention. The whole idea of people traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to hear a paper is terribly antiquated, in an era when we email papers or put them on the Web in nano seconds upon completing them. To be sure, there are personal interactions at meetings of an intellectual nature that are sometimes rewarding, but the very rationale of academic gatherings has diminished sharply in the computer age. Except for one thing: we have a lot of fun at these meetings, at cocktail parties where we trade gossip and hatch up new ways of ripping off taxpayers and other donors further. At some meetings, there is the added legitimate function of interviewing and recruiting new faculty.

The group I am speaking before next month, the Association of Private Enterprise Economics (APEE), goes a step further than most groups. It schedules most of its meetings in, should we say, academically challenged locales, usually resorts where there is gambling, golf, or the beach. This year's gig is in Cancun, Mexico. Registration fees are literally in the hundreds of dollars (partially to pay for a party and some meals), and most people are going for 3-5 days for what is essentially a meeting that could be conducted in a day and a half. I am going because a great friend of rational, efficient higher education, Art Pope (a supporter of CCAP) is receiving an award, and I will also be speaking about the research vs. teaching issue in a panel with several friends, especially Florida State's Jim Gwartney. But the issue is: why should third parties, especially governments, spend probably $1,500 each for scores, maybe hundreds of individuals to attend the conference? It is great R and R, a nice tax sheltered way to increase the income of faculty, but is it an efficient way of disbursing higher education resources?

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