No Progressives, the ABA Does Not Control the Supply of Lawyers

You can trash the ABA and its Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which accredits law schools nationally, for many reasons. You cannot, however, trash either for restricting the supply of lawyers in the United States because they are not licensing authorities. They certainly do not restrict the number of law schools. But if you’re Michael Lind writing for Salon, then you’re free to make all kinds of unsubstantiated claims to the contrary.

Lind’s title succinctly describes his argument, “College-Educated Professionals Could Doom Progressive Politics,” and he gives three reasons. One, professionals won’t support higher taxes on themselves. Two, they extract rents by restricting the supply of professionals, e.g. lawyers, doctors, and for some reason tenured university professors. Three, Lind’s personal experience tells him that these folks aren’t really interested in working class issues.

I normally like Michael Lind. He’s even mentioned Henry George approvingly in his Salon articles. This piece, though, is a disaster that substitutes prejudice for reason—and not just because he walks back from supporting land taxes to calling for higher income and, ugh, consumption taxes.

Support for Higher Taxes

Since Lind’s only evidence that professionals don’t support higher taxes on themselves is Democratic politicians fiscal proposals (tax hikes for households with incomes greater than $250,000, in other words the top two percent), there’s really nothing to discuss here. Household income isn’t the same as individual earnings, which I’ll get to below, and plenty of these households don’t include highly paid professionals. It’s not even clear to what extent these households’ incomes are due to investments and not professional earnings.

To editorialize, many professionals, even highly paid ones, aren’t wealthy in the sense that they have significant workplace autonomy and easy alternatives to their current jobs. Many of them even have hefty student loans that cut into their discretionary incomes, IBR or no. These people might understandably prefer taxes on households with higher incomes, whatever the source.

Supply Restrictions

Lind writes:

Try to find a progressive activist denouncing the monopoly rents of the American professoriate, the American Bar Association, or the American Medical Association [Yes, this sentence didn’t end in a period.]

The dirty secret of the American professional elites is credential rents. By restricting the supply of practitioners — you generally can’t be a tenured professor, a practicing lawyer or a doctor without the right degree — the guilds that the professions control artificially drive up the price of college education, legal services and physician services.

As I understand it, the physician shortage in the U.S. is due in part to residencies being funded out of Medicare and Congress not increasing the dollar amounts. Maybe the AMA can ease the rules in other ways, maybe not, but I don’t think it’s pure black hat stuff. I could be wrong though. This blog isn’t defending all professionals.

The supply of lawyers, on the other hand, is not restricted by the ABA. The “generally” Lind uses is a bit broad here. For example, California allows foreign-trained lawyers to take its bar exam (same with New York) and those states have the highest-paid lawyers in the country nevertheless. California also has a slew of non-ABA-accredited law schools. You’ve seen these points here before, so I won’t repeat them, but if there were a lawyer shortage, that’s where you’d see cheap lawyers, not expensive ones.

As for tenured professors … Wow, this one was way out there. Tenured faculty don’t drive up college tuition prices. That’s caused by loose federal student lending, lost public university subsidies, and lack of job opportunities for high school grads. There are plenty of people who teach at the college level for very little, and it ain’t because they lack the credentials.

Lind then states that these professionals maintain their solidarity with the poor by demanding more subsidies to low-income consumers, which is a mixed point. It turns out that poor people can’t afford things like health care, which is why progressives want to give them nationalized insurance. Same goes with legal services. I’ll demur on subsidies for higher education, but it doesn’t occur to Lind that lawyers might have high incomes because rich people and corporations like paying them lots of money. Conspicuous consumption in services provided by superstars and all that. If you don’t like it, the problem is the rich clients, not the superstars.

Lawyers also make money because the economy is poorly managed and industries are badly regulated. For example, many lawyers will make money on recalls of defective hip replacements because the manufacturers didn’t test them and the regs didn’t require them to. Others will make money because large Silicon Valley tech firms allegedly fixed their workers’ wages. You can quibble with how much these lawyers are paid, but it’s not their fault if they make money in high-profile cases. Talk about subsidies.

This is my favorite part:

Doctors, lawyers and professors tend to think of themselves as altruistic servants of the public good. At the same time, many insist on being compensated well enough to belong to the top few percentiles in income, rather than being paid like teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters. This contradiction generally does not bother professionals, but it should bother progressives.

Here are some median salary numbers courtesy of the BLS and their estimated earnings percentiles in 2012:

Teachers: For elementary and middle school, $56,180; for secondary school, $57,710 (~80th %). Postsecondary teachers tend to earn between $50,000 and $100,000 (~93rd %) (law teachers get more, but that occupation’s grown quite a bit over the last decade because of the bubble, so no artificial shortage there).

Nurses: $67,930 (~85th %)

Police Officers: $57,770 (~80th %)

Firefighters: $47,850 (~74th %)

Lawyers: $130,880 (~96th %)

Doctors: $190,060 (~98th %)

Earnings for detailed occupations vary, but the bottom 10 percent of lawyers on a wage and salary basis make $54,310, which from the above list is less than all but the median firefighter. Self-employed lawyers in smalllaw and law grads who could never find work in the profession probably do much worse. Maybe they suffer from enough false consciousness that they think they’re in the two percent by household income?

Lind’s Personal Experience of Professionals’ Uninterest in the Poor

I base my observation (admittedly a personal one) on a quarter-century of experience in journalism and the nonprofit sector. If you want to fill an auditorium at a think tank, magazine office or other venue, hold a panel on one or more of the non-economic issues I just mentioned [global warming or freedom from NSA surveillance] and the seats will fill up quickly with enthusiastic, affluent, mostly white upper-middle-class progressives. If you want to hold a panel on the minimum wage or workplace tyranny, expect to have a lot of empty seats. To avoid embarrassment, you might reserve a smaller room.

Isn’t the stereotype of university professors that they’re all tweed-jacket-wearing Marxists? The other problem here is that this isn’t evidence that professionals don’t agree with progressives about those issues, just that they don’t want to attend lectures on them. (Incidentally, I attended a lecture on the minimum wage at the Henry George School last year, and I’m a cheating credentialed professional. I’ll accept my progressive cred by e-mail, thankyouverymuch).

**********

I’m not being hard on Lind just because his article is a lazy swing at supposedly liberal professionals that he happens to dislike. The reason Lind and those who think like him rile me so much is this: I don’t expect people to go to law school based on spurious studies saying they’ll make an extra million dollars. Nor do I think anyone who does will be surprised when conservatives unhelpfully tell them they were absolutely liable for their employment outcomes, and if they don’t like it they should have conducted an After the JD study of their own and interpreted the data better than even the AJD’s own Ph.D.-wielding researchers have.

Rather, I think would-be lawyers expect progressives (whom they tend to identify with) to not use them as propaganda targets to score points with perceived working class constituencies. I’m reminded of when the New America Foundation, which Lind co-founded, did just this when it sensationalized the changes to the already-generous IBR by saying the graduates of a high-debt, poor-outcome law school were essentially welfare beneficiaries because they were so amazingly educated. The rich lawyers get all the goodies while Pell languishes!

Moreover, even if lawyer-licensing requirements are loosened, which I agree they should be, it won’t result in cheap prices for consumers. Letting in foreign lawyers, a policy futilely advocated by Dean Baker and already implemented in many lawyer-heavy states, will only create a lot of malemployed foreign lawyers. Don’t expect Michael Lind and the progressives to explain why prices haven’t dropped or help clean up the mess anymore than the “absolute-liability” conservatives or million-dollar-law-degree professors will the current one. Meanwhile, the effort progressives spend attacking their educated constituents pointlessly alienates them.

The message that Lind et al. send to law applicants and grads is that they can expect no ideological allies if things don’t work out for them. It even tells them that if they do succeed at law, it’s because they cheated. If there’s a reason not to go to law school, political isolation is it.

4 comments

  1. Totally agree with all the points made above, save for acknowledgement of the physician shortage. Its a myth, like the STEM shortage myth, to repress the wages of skilled workers and engorge corporate profits even more. If one looks at current improvements in health care delivery, which will increase productivity, the fact that around half the recent slow down in health care costs is thought to be structural, and the push for middle levels to have wider diagnostic authority, it is clear we have a looming physician surplus, not shortage.

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