Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Big Keep (or Intellectual Property Blues: Hard-Boiled Edition)

cross-posted from Dagblog

        Raymond Chandler’s legendary private eye, Philip Marlowe, will be back in bookstores next year. Chandler’s estate has authorized a new Marlowe novel from John Banville, alias Benjamin Black. But the real news is not that Banville gets to write the book. It’s that no one else is allowed to write one.

    The copyright laws during Chandler’s lifetime decreed that his first novel, The Big Sleep, would enter the public domain by 1996. When it did the book’s rueful hero, Marlowe, would become public property as well, just like Sherlock Holmes, Huckleberry Finn, or Tarzan. But in 1978, nineteen years after Chandler died, copyright terms were extended to fifty years beyond the creator’s lifetime, keeping Marlowe corporate property until 2010. In 1999 another copyright extension lengthened terms to 75 years after the author’s death, so Marlowe will belong to someone else until at least 2035. If today’s laws had applied to Sherlock Holmes, he would not have become public domain in the United States until 2006. Tarzan would not be public domain until fourteen years from now.

    The new Philip Marlowe mystery takes advantage of the extra quarter-century during which Chandler’s heirs will enjoy artistic control and exclusive rights to profit. I don’t grudge Chandler’s grandchildren a few royalty payments, but he has no grandchildren. Raymond Chandler, like so many of his characters, died lonely. His estate went to his agent after a fight in probate court with Chandler’s secretary. Philip Marlowe is Chandler’s only child. Banville and his publisher will have to pay a cut of the new book’s profits to the Chandler estate, but that money won’t go to anyone Raymond Chandler ever met.

    In practice, the publisher is paying the estate to keep other writers from using the character. Banville will definitely write the best Philip Marlowe novel next year, because he’ll have no competition. Banville is a very reasonable choice for the commission, who will turn in painstakingly crafted work, and I wish him success. But we will never know if he was the best choice. He’s surely felt Chandler’s influence, but so has nearly every mystery writer, and his understanding of Chandler isn’t necessarily truer or more authentic than anyone else’s. A lesser writer than Banville might make a better Chandler.

    There’s no way to predict which writer would use Marlowe best. The results can only be judged once they’re on the page. And the Chandler estate is no more likely to pick the best literary successor than anyone else is. Fifty-three years on, his heirs have no exclusive insight into what made Chandler’s writing sing. They’ve never met him. Out among the many readers Chandler has influenced there may be a writer or writers whose intuitive feel for Chandler’s prose and Marlowe’s character could lead to a better novel than anyone has a right to expect. The best way to find such people, if they exist, is to let them pick themselves. If we ever read another great Philip Marlowe novel, it’s more likely to be a personal labor of love than a commission.

    Two of the reasons given for repeatedly lengthening copyright terms is that private ownership maximizes a work’s economic value and protects its artistic integrity. But it’s not clear that one authorized imitation of Chandler, shielded from competition, creates more value than would a marketplace where several “Chandlers” worked to outdo their competitors. Protection from the market does not always spur creativity. Nor would Sherlock Holmes have been better used if Conan Doyle’s estate had kept veto power into the 21st century.  But Chandler’s books have drifted into that period of limbo when an art work’s proprietors have lost any connection with its original creation but the work is still kept out of most living artists’ hands. Our current laws focus on prolonging that limbo, placing writers’ distant heirs ahead of their creative legacies.

    Fifty years after a writer’s death, the free market can make a better protector of their art than inheritance law. Anyone who reads detective novels knows what trouble inheritances can be. The best hope for a great Philip Marlowe novel is a lot of Philip Marlowe novels, by many hands, until trial, error, dedication, and talent can make him live again. We should let Marlowe back out on the streets. He was always too independent to work for a big firm. And Sherlock Holmes is waiting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Do PhDs Expire?

cross-posted from Dagblog

Last week the annual job list for college literature professors went live, in an annual ritual I've blogged about before. And it looks like the worst list for Shakespeareans in history.

Two years ago, I used this space to explain how the 2008 crash had killed the already far-too-small job market for new PhDs, and how poor the rebound was two years later:
When the financial crisis hit in 2008 ... [w]hat had been about five dozen jobs teaching Shakespeare or Milton became four dozen, or less, although there were still the same hundred and fifty or two hundred or two hundred and seventy-five people trying to get them.

[In 2009] there weren't even four dozen jobs advertised in the fall. There were still 200 smart young Shakespeareans, Miltonists and Tamburlaine experts out there looking for work. In fact, there were more, because the forty or so who'd gotten jobs the previous year had been replaced by two or three times that many new PhDs.
 And in 2010 there were only about two dozen entry-level jobs for my younger Renaissance colleagues. Four years on from the crash, it's worse than ever: the initial job list has only 13 entry-level tenure-track jobs teaching Renaissance lit in North America. There were 19 jobs; three are outside the country; three are senior positions for people who are already well-established (as in "full professor at the University of Chicago" established). That leaves thirteen for new PhDs who want to stay in the profession and have a middle-class salary. Thirteen. Some more jobs will trickle in over the next few weeks, and there will be a smaller round of listings in the spring (if the listing can, indeed, get any smaller), but thirteen jobs for a year's crop of Renaissance lit PhDs is a famine. And it isn't just one year's crop of PhDs, but all of the accumulated jobless graduates from the past few years.

As if all this wasn't grim enough (and some other subfields are having better luck than Renaissance is, but not much), this year two universities that are hiring decided to declare that people who hadn't gotten tenure-track jobs during the crunch years were now persona non grata.

Colorado State advertised for a job teaching pre-1900 American literature, but specified that applicants had to have gotten their doctorates in 2010 or later. Their explanation was that it was an entry-level job with an entry-level salary, and they were trying to screen out people who'd already been on the tenure-track for several years. That part is fair enough. But their language obviously ruled out people who hadn't gotten a tenure-track job, and who'd been toiling away as adjuncts or lecturers since, you know, the whole economy cratered. An uproar ensued (see great posts from SEK, Historiann, Dr. Crazy, and what the heck, more SEK) and Colorado State changed the wording of the ad. It further turned out that Harvard's Comparative Lit department had published a job ad asking for PhDs from 2009 and later, and they too changed that wording. But the cynic in me doubts that someone who's been teaching college off the tenure track for more than a year or two will end up with the Colorado State job. (That someone who's been teaching off the tenure track for more than three years would land the Harvard job is out of the question.)

The ugly question, "Does a PhD expire?" has two answers: one for search committees, and one for job applicants. To search committees, I say: it is obtuse and inhumane to screen out job candidates because they've been underemployed in an irrationally savage employment market.  We all know that there are talented and deserving people without steady jobs, because there are many more talented and deserving people than there are steady jobs, so don't turn away qualified applicants for no damned reason. Just read their CVs. Yes, you have hundreds of CVs to read. Screening out the adjuncts and lecturers won't shrink your pile in a meaningful way. It will only shrink your heart, and blind you to potential hires who could help your department enormously.

But for the talented and deserving people working away out there, trying to find a job with a future in our profession, I have hard news.

PhDs do expire. Absolutely. But you have to let them.

I have two graduate degrees, in two related but distinct fields. One of my degrees has expired. I could not get a job, nor apply for a job with a straight face, on the basis of that degree. It is, at best, an interesting thing on my CV, but only to someone who is already interested in me because of my other degree, which I have not allowed to expire. One of my degrees has value as a job credential and the other has not, because I have maintained the professional value of one and not the other.

My first graduate degree is expired because I have not published in that field for years. It had expired by the time I got the second degree. (All my publications in the first field are from the years I was studying for that degree. My last publication is from the year I graduated and switched fields. It couldn't be more legible on my CV.) I no longer practice that discipline. I don't teach it, although I have taken over a beginner's class when the scheduled teacher fell through. But I would not teach an advanced course, let alone a graduate course, or direct even an MA thesis. I don't do that anymore. My qualifications have lapsed. On the other hand, I am working in the field where I got my second terminal degree, and that degree has kept its value as a job qualification because I continue adding value to it.

What about those tenured people who haven't published in years? Why haven't their PhDs expired? The answer is that they have. None of those people could get another job in the field. They can hold onto the jobs they have, but they can't even apply for others. Is it unfair that they hold onto those jobs? Sure. (Although sometimes not; I think that there are sixty-somethings who no longer have the fire in the belly for new research projects but who are nonetheless entitled to a professional autumn as teachers.) But the question isn't what's fair. It's what's best for you. And if you do not yet have a job, you need to keep your doctorate up-to-date by continuing to do work in the field.

In the humanities that means writing and publishing, no matter how heavy your non-tenure-track teaching load is. If you got your degree in 2008 and don't have a peer-reviewed publication since then, search committees won't give you a pass because you've been teaching so much comp. They have plenty of applicants who have been publishing more recently than you have, including applicants who were teaching the same brutal loads that you have. If you haven't published since you got the degree, departments will view that degree as nothing more than a technical qualification. It will no longer be a sign of your actual qualifications, no longer a reliable predictor of success. Not publishing suggests to search committees that you won't publish, and they are not crazy to think that. This isn't a job market where you can get credit for qualifications that are not in evidence. A degree that hasn't been followed up by published research will be construed as a sign that you're finished as a researcher. If that's an unfair assumption, it's also the only assumption that hiring committees can feel confident in making.

Getting your degree is an achievement you can be proud of. But more importantly, it is an indicator of your potential for future achievements as a scholar. And you need to keep demonstrating that potential by achieving more things. Your degree has as much value on the academic market as you give it. Use it or lose it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Romney Meltdown

cross-posted from Dagblog

I was writing a post earlier this week, arguing that Romney was increasingly likely to panic as the election approached, trying to find a "game changer" to help him catch up with Obama, and that these gambles would put him further and further behind. But I held off, because I didn't want to post that kind of political horserace stuff on September 11. Then, before midnight on September 11, Romney had done it.

The truth is, the terrible murder of our ambassador in Libya did present Romney a political opportunity. He just did not understand what that opportunity was. The crisis in Libya was Romney's chance to seem calm, reliable and trustworthy, not to mention patriotic. If he had issued a statement unequivocally supporting the President and standing with him in this moment of crisis, he would have done himself a world of good. First of all, he would have elevated himself to Obama's level, an absolutely crucial thing that Romney apparently does not understand that he needs to do. And Romney would have gotten closer to closing the gaps he needs to close (the national-security gap, the credibility gap, the trustworthiness gap) to let swing voters feel safe enough to switch their votes from Obama.

That Romney, and worse still his campaign staff, did not grasp this just shows how little they understand the challenge, and the opponent, that they are facing.

The Romney camp clearly believe that they can beat Obama because he hasn't delivered on the "hope and change" of 2008. The media are also obsessed with how Obama is "failing" to deliver the outsider-challenger magic from four years ago, as if any incumbent could run on a message of "change." The media and the Romney camp see Obama as a messiah figure who hasn't pulled off the miracle, and think that he can be beaten because he hasn't delivered on the hope thing.

But Mister Hope has never been Barack Obama's only political persona. There's always been another core element to his appeal, which the media has never been interested in, and which I've previously argued is actually the central feature of his campaign personality. Barack Obama projects reliability. He's sober. He's responsible. He communicates his own personal calm to others, calming them. He is No Drama Obama. These traits don't seem sexy to the media, who are mainly interested him as a big-speech orator. They like their candidates dramatic. But No Drama is a big part of what got him elected in 2008, and it's the heart of his appeal to voters now.

Obama got elected in 2008 in the midst of a major crisis. His steadiness during that crisis is what qualified him to be commander-in-chief. No matter how bad things get, Obama does not panic. Never discount the effect that has on swing voters. With Obama in the Oval Office, you know that someone's in charge, and you know you can trust him to keep it together. That is clearly what Obama is running on. His convention speech, which pundits sniffed at as "workmanlike" was in fact geared to making his core No Drama case: I'm the President, you can rely on me, "you hired me to tell you the truth," things aren't where they should be but I'm going to level with you about it. That's an enormously powerful appeal in a country where most voters are still feeling a lot of insecurity.

Romney has never understood the bar he has to clear to win this election. He could not just wait for people to flock to him when Obama the Miracle Worker failed to make manna fall in the desert. I'm not fully convinced that Obama was really campaigning as the Miracle Worker in 2008, but he's definitely not campaigning that way now. He's running as President No-Drama: Barack Steady. Romney needs to talk nervous voters into switching from a reliable and trustworthy incumbent during anxiety-provoking times. To do that, Romney needs to position himself as equally reliable and trustworthy. Then, and only then, he can make a case (based on policy details), that he's a better alternative, with (for example) a better economic program. He hasn't done either of those things, because he doesn't realize he needs to.

A foreign-policy crisis, or any unexpected crisis, is dangerous for Romney because crises highlight Obama's No-Drama credentials, his steadiness. A crisis could also be a golden opportunity for Romney to establish himself as a safe, and therefore viable, alternative to Obama. Of course, having blown his response to this crisis so swiftly and thoroughly, Romney may have no way to recover. But what I expect to happen for the next seven weeks is for Romney to lurch and flail, flail and lurch, trying to make up lost ground. That news-cycle-driven hyperactivity, tactically defensible in a calmer election year, is simply self-destructive in an election dominated by the voters' anxieties, especially when you're running against a steady and reliable incumbent. That is Barack Obama's main promise to voters in 2012: that he's steady as a rock. And Mitt Romney is going to dash himself against him.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Student Loans: Dems vs. GOP Made Easy

cross-posted from Dagblog

One thing that Barack Obama has done absolutely right for education is change the student loan program. Romney and Ryan have made it clear that if elected they will switch things back to the old way. This small policy difference demonstrates the larger difference between today's Democrats and Republicans.

Under the old system, college students took government-backed loans from private banks. When they graduated, they paid back the loan, with interest, to the bank. If they defaulted, the government, and you as a taxpayer, ate the loss and paid back the bank. This means 1) the bankers made all the profits and 2) the taxpayers took all the losses. It was obvious even to me, as an eighteen-year-old kid starting college back in the day, that this is a straight government handout to the bankers. It was like the bank bailout except it happened every day with smaller transactions.

When Obama got into office, this system was replaced with something resembling common sense. Now you take out student loans directly from the government if the government is backing them. This is only reasonable since the government is actually putting up the money. The people who risked their money on the loan (in this case the taxpayer) also get the interest. Last time I checked this was called "capitalism." Risk your capital, collect the return. (There are also still private student loans of course, issued directly from the banks and not backed by the government. That's as it should be; it's the bank's money at risk.) And once you cut out the middleman whose only job was to collect interest on someone else's money, the whole program became less of a budget hole. The new common-sense system, brings in interest from student loans, rather than simply losing money when they go bad. The old system was set up so it could only lose money. I think we call that a "subsidy."

To Romney and Ryan, of course, cutting out the middleman is unacceptable. If elected, they will make sure that bankers get to charge interest on someone else's money again. It's that simple.

Romney and Ryan say that the old, broken system was better because it involved "free enterprise." "Free enterprise" here means "bankers taking a fat cut of a government program for no special reason." The bankers have no skin in the game. All they do is make the system more expensive and inefficient. It's welfare for the wealthy. On the other hand, Republicans call Obama's direct government loan program, where you pay the people who actually lent you the money, "socialism." "Socialism" here means "not giving taxpayer money to bankers for free." We've gotten to the point where the Republicans even call sensible capitalism "socialism."

There are other questions about student-loan policies that are important, and student loans have become a touchy issue as students as public higher education has its funding stripped away and the difference is loaded onto the students' backs. But this difference between Romney and Obama is their whole approach to the economy in a nutshell. For the Republicans, government's role is to provide fat handouts to the rich, who feel naturally entitled to them. Then the recipients of those handouts can shout loudly about how they, the private businesspeople, create all the wealth themselves so why won't the government get off their backs? What they really mean is: "Hey, taxpayer, bend over so we can climb on your back."

Some things aren't complicated.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Labor Day Link: The Bread and Roses Strike, 100 Years Later

cross-posted from Dagblog

Labor Day is a great day to remember some of the history of the American labor movement. Of course, our leading American newspaper is using the day to lionize Henry Ford without mentioning how fiercely Ford hated the labor movement. So, a little counter-programming:

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts (a place dear to my heart). The strike, and the mill-owners' violence against the strikers and the strikers' families, caught the whole nation's attention. We have spent the last century assiduously erasing these events from our national memory. But follow this link to read about what the good old days were really like, before labor unions ruined everything with their socialist 40-hour weeks, minimum wage rules, overtime pay, and child-labor laws. It's a good chance to read up on what the paradise of the unfettered free market was really like.

A hundred years ago today, the leaders of the Bread and Roses strike were awaiting trial for murder. They had been three miles away, speaking before hundreds of witnesses, when that murder took place. The victims were striking workers. The shots had most likely been fired by strike-breaking police. And you know what? That wasn't even the third-most-outrageous thing that happened.

I'd like to thank the Bread and Roses strikers for fighting to reduce the work-week to 54 hours. And that's just where the list of thanks we owe them begins.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Old Men Talking to Chairs Is Romney's Platform

cross-posted from Dagblog

I've been trying to lay off Clint Eastwood's surreal conversation with furniture, even as facebook friends urged me to blog about it. (King Lear also talks angrily to an empty stool, and my friends have suggested I blog about that.) But I do want to talk about what that incident reveals about Mitt Romney. It was the most revealing moment of the Republican convention. That Romney turned the mike over to Eastwood in prime time, with no script, tells us who Romney really is.

Letting rich, cranky old men do whatever they happen to feel like is Mitt Romney's main plan. It would be central to the conduct of his administration, because letting rich and powerful old men do what they feel like is a core value dear to Mitt Romney's heart. It's so important to him that he likely doesn't even realize it is one of his values. He just experiences that deferential indulgence to authority as an obviously and naturally good thing.

According to the New York Times, Romney himself had the idea to give Eastwood that plum speaking slot. Eastwood endorsed Romney at an exclusive fund-raiser. Romney bonded with him. What a great guy! Then an idea: give Mitt's new pal Clint a speech at the national convention! He'll be great! And so they did.

They didn't give Eastwood a speech, which is just barely defensible. They also didn't ask Eastwood to show them a speech beforehand, which is crazy. Clint's a rich old white VIP, which means in Romneyworld that he gets to do whatever he wants. Trust the man! Vision! Romney's vision of the world doesn't so much divide into the haves and have-nots as it does into the managers and the managed. Little people need to be managed, even micromanaged, and almost everyone is little. Big shots need to be allowed the freedom of their creativity, without any hint of question or doubt. (This is why actual creative artists never have anyone second-guess them or give them opinions: novelists have no editors, actors have no directors, and directors have no producers. Because, Creativity!) Eastwood is a big shot, ergo Eastwood was going to be great. You just gotta believe!

They did give Eastwood a time limit: five minutes. He took twelve. There was a red light that signaled Eastwood when his time was up, but he ignored it. (There are lights like that in comedy clubs; a comedian who has five minutes but takes twelve, or who runs the light by seven minutes, should not expect to perform at that club again.) Eastwood is too major a figure to be constrained by petty rules or common sense. He is entitled to do what he wants. And that is the vision that Eastwood and Mitt Romney share, on the most fundamental level: Clint Eastwood is entitled to do whatever the hell he wants.

Eastwood's speech was a microcosm of the whole Romney-Ryan campaign strategy, which (as Jamelle Bouie puts it) is to make up an imaginary Barack Obama to campaign against. (Gotta be easier than running against the real guy, right?)  But the decision to put Eastwood on stage, in prime time, with no instructions is a microcosm of Romney's approach to governing: let a handful of rich and powerful cronies, the kind of guys Mitt identifies and feels comfortable with, do whatever they want. The wealthiest and most powerful, especially the wealthiest and most powerful white men, the people with enough power to real some real damage, will be able to get Romney's ear and operate without any restriction whatsoever. They will be able to indulge their whims, and the President of the United States will help indulge them. It's untrammeled individualism for the 1% (to be fair, really for the top 0.2%), absolute liberty for VIPs. The rest of us can just stay out of their way.

Letting a famous actor go on stage with no script is just the beginning. A President Romney will let coal-mine owners do whatever the hell they want with their mines, without bothering with all that red tape about keeping the miners safe. He will let oil companies do whatever the hell they want with offshore drilling. Mitt trusts that they know their own business, and that's enough for him. He will let bankers do whatever the hell they want with complicated hedges and derivatives. They shouldn't be restricted by all these silly regulations. Those Wall Street bankers are all smart guys! What could go wrong?

Romney's deepest core value may be his reverence for the authority of rich and powerful men, especially older white men. He made a mistake just trusting an eighty-two-year-old millionaire to do whatever he felt like without supervision. But if he gets elected he's going to make that mistake over and over again, in a lot of different ways, as he trusts the Eastwoods of business and industry to do whatever they feel like without supervision.

I've been trying to avoid King Lear references for this whole post, but Shakespeare's play deals with Romney's error of judgment pretty directly. What should you do when a rich, powerful and accomplished octogenarian has a spectacularly bad idea and demands to have things exactly his way? Shakespeare's answer is the obvious one: try to stop him, for his own sake and everyone else's. Try to bring him in out of the rain. Tell him not to banish his favorite daughter, even if telling him makes him furious. (In fact, his irrational fury is another sign that you should stop him.) For God's sake, clean him up and put some clothes on him. Don't give him indulgence and deference when what he really needs are sensible limits. Romney's impulse is to let America's Lears do whatever they want, without second-guessing. ("Look, he's the King, and he's been king longer than we've been alive. You've got to let him run his kingdom the way he wants.") Everyone who watches King Lear can see the problem from scene 1. The tragedy of President Romney would be just as predictable.