Proposed: The Subsidized Intellectual Life

08Mar09

We have lots of highly educated people who won’t be getting work, anytime soon, at their skill level.  We would have even more of them if people were more diligent about following their interests and going with what really excites them, which is much more likely to be literature or social justice than engineering or accounting.

Normally, we consider egghead intellectuals to be a net drag on things.  They don’t produce nearly as much money as a lawyer or an engineer, so we pay them very little.  Indeed, we put all kinds of barriers in their way.  We discourage them from majoring in English in college; we minimize the funding for graduate educations in philosophy; we insure that they will be competing against 200 or more other Ph.Ds when they finally come out of graduate school and start looking for a job as a professor.  And then the job they get will pay next to nothing.

Instead, why not cut to the chase and encourage these otherwise unemployable and not highly money-oriented individuals to pursue their dreams?  We give them enough to live on, maybe including some kind of minimal housing near a campus where they can do their reading and their research; and in exchange we expect them to devote four hours a day to work with short-term value.  For example, a team of them might be responsible for understanding and summarizing, in plain English, an issue that economists or politicians wish the public could understand.  We give them opportunities and incentives to use their skills, and their 20 hours per week, to help out where their help is needed.

In exchange for that part-time usage of their talents, these intellectuals get a basic lifestyle, with an opportunity to spend years at it if they choose.  By the end, it will be a miracle if they are not just craving a chance to plunge into the capitalist economy, when and if it roars back into action.  Some of them won’t — the bohemian life will be just fine for them — and that’s OK too.  Either way, we are treating them as productive assets, just as they are, regardless of what happens with the economy, and we reduce both the unemployment rate and the political problems that arise when intellectuals go hungry.

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