Thursday 23 October 2014

Academics relish scoffing their big slice of pizza pie

Published 07/10/2012 | 05:00

Private-sector workers are tired of being lectured by overpaid college dons, writes Marc Coleman

It was GK Chesterton who once wrote: "We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders". The joy of life is the wonder in the most ordinary of things. Consider, for example, the pizza. Is the combination of crispy pastry, freshly melted cheese, tomato, herbs and pepperoni not one of the most ingenious things ever conceived? The genealogy of pizza is also fascinating. The pastry in its base employs bakers, wheat farmers and grain merchants. The cheese and sauce employs tomato growers and dairy farmers. The pepperoni gives livelihood to pork farmers and spices traders. Then there are those who package, freeze, warehouse and transport it to your supermarket if it is a frozen one. If fresh, there is the person who kneads the dough, arranges the toppings and bakes it.

So the next time you eat a slice of pizza, consider the wonder in not just its flavour, but also in the hundreds, thousands, of people who can feed their families thanks to the employment it brings. And in how market forces -- you and me making choices about which pizza to eat -- make them strive to be better and more efficient. And also in how pizza-making will for many be a first essential step to doing other wonderful things like being a gourmet chef or making millions starting a pizza delivery business.

A different image of pizza, based on woe rather than wonder, was used last week: it was an article by Stephen Kinsella citing an advert showing a spotty teenager in a hairnet who was making pizza but was so bored doing it that "he'd happily be punched in the face just for variety". The ad he cited ended with a gothic message to teenagers: "Stay in school" with the unspoken message that if they didn't they would, horror of horrors, end up working in the food industry.

Last week the latest report of the Comptroller and Auditor General put focus on the issue of waste in third-level spending, to which Stephen was responding. If the public sector made pizza, his argument contended, it would "measure up" to the kind of scrutiny being demanded of it but as it is more complex, he argued, those standards were not appropriate. They used to use the L'Oreal line "because we're worth it" to secure the highest pay and pension in the eurozone during the social partnership era. But not even in her most diva-like moment would a L'Oreal model like Julia Roberts engage in the kind of waste discussed by the C&AG -- spending €20,000 on flowers and €4,000 to charter flights from Waterford. Now, to hang on to that pay, pensions and perks, Irish academics have a new line: "It's because we're complicated."

Indeed they are. And to see just how complicated, let's take the view Stephen used for pizza-makers vis a vis what he and his peers do for a living and apply it to the production of academic research papers. Such papers take months, sometimes years, to produce. There is no demand for them as they are producer, not customer, driven. The huge sums spent on them are spent on the large -- often six figure -- salary of one person: the author. The taxpayers subsidising this person will never benefit from or understand the contents of the paper, but is forced against his/her will to fund it. Only a tiny minority of peers and students will read such papers. A few will find their way into international research journals. This may help a university achieve a higher international ranking. But far from benefiting students this system draws incentives away from activities that benefit the economy -- passing on skills through lecturing students -- and into the production of yet more papers that very few will read or need.

And however boring academics might think pizza-making is, next to the catatonic oblivion some academics inflict on their students and on the taxpaying public with their lectures and papers, it's a carnival in Rio. As for the state "measuring up" if it made pizza, that's a hoot: anyone who has eaten hospital food and seen hospital catering budgets knows that public sector catering is a fiasco of pub grub quality for Michelin-star prices.

Pizza-makers might be bored but that isn't because of what they do. Rather because, like the rest of us, they're tired of listening to those who earn multiples of what they earn and enjoy far greater pension and job security defending indefensible pay and pensions in the third-level sector. As the OECD study The Sources of Economic Growth in OECD countries (2003) shows, there is no evidence whatsoever that tax funding of general research -- unlike medical, industrial and scientific research -- does anything for the economy. In fact where education spending benefits the economy, the paper clearly shows, is through primary and secondary education and through training in skills relevant to the real economy, pizza-making included.

Of course, Stephen had no intention to condescend to pizza-makers and was using the pizza analogy merely as an example of a productive process. But perhaps unwittingly, the analogy reminds us of a mindset in Irish academia that says "we are superior and know better than you because we are more educated and you should pay the taxes we tell you to pay and ignore how we spend it". But academics would do well to remember that they are net beneficiaries of our economy and tax system -- taking out more than they put in -- i.e. a charge upon the state. The "loser" pizza-makers are by contrast, like the rest of us in the private sector, net contributors. They might also remember that university qualifications are no guarantee of wisdom, intelligence or cop on; far too many academics have been educated way beyond their intelligence.

At the end of the day, the pizza is mightier than the research paper. It belongs to a multi-billion euro food industry that drives jobs, growth, exports and of course the taxes without which those lavish academic pay and pensions could not be funded.

Given his former admiration for Mao, Ruairi Quinn might take a leaf out of his book by encouraging academics to respect the taxpaying proletariat. But as sending them to the mines of Manchuria would be too much for the poor dears, spending some of their three-month holidays making pizzas instead might be a more humane alternative. Make mine a pepperoni with mushrooms to go.

This article was inspired by "I, Pencil" written by Leonard Read.

Sunday Independent

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