Academia, Drug Gangs, and Winner-take-all Markets

When one is being recruited to join a PhD program, they usually don’t mention this analogy.

“If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at McDonald’s. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forgo current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and-file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing,” wrote Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in political economy at King’s College London.
— Scott Jaschik

In economics, there’s something called a winner-take-all market. This idea applies especially well to entertainment that is broadcast to a mass audience (e.g. professional sports, the movie industry, the music recording industry).

In a winner-take-all market, you have a relatively small number of star performers that get paid enormous sums of money once they become “discovered.”

However, their fame and fortune might be attributed to random chance or small differences in ability. For example, someone who take home an Olympic gold metal may have only beaten the silver and bronze metal winners by a few seconds.

Or, in other cases, the winner’s competitor may actually be much better, but very unlucky. For example, a powerful track-and-field competitor may have suffered a twisted ankle the morning of the event.

In academia, we could have more of a winner-take-all market if we continue to switch over to online learning.

(BTW: In general, I’m in favor of having more online learning opportunities for students, but there are trade-offs. On one hand, the transition to online learning is analogous to the advent of writing and the printing press. So, IMO, that’s better than what went before – i.e. the oral tradition and hand-written manuscripts. On the other hand, online learning may foster more of a winner-take-all market in academia. IMO, that’s a negative.)

Anyway, although some lecture halls are pretty big, the tradition of holding face-to-face lectures resembles the live theater industry more than the movie industry. So, some approaches to online learning, however, do indeed resemble the movie industry. So, someday, perhaps well see star MOOC performers who make fabulous sums of money and even have groupies following them around. 🙂 BTW: some textbook authors who have been “discovered” already make a pretty good living.


Beshears, Fred

Educational Technology and the Process of Teaching and Learning
by Fred M. Beshears
27 November 2021

FMB Note: Among other things, this blog post discusses the development of writing and printing.

Hartocollis, Anemona

Help Wanted: Adjunct Professor, Must Have Doctorate. Salary: $0.
After protests, U.C.L.A. took down a job posting that offered no pay. But it turns out colleges often expect Ph.D.s to work for free.
By Anemona Hartocollis
6 April 2022

Jaschik, Scott

Welcome to Our Tijuana Campus
How academia sometimes behaves like a drug cartel.
by Scott Jaschik
29 November 2013


Winner-Take-All Market
In economics, a winner-take-all market is a market in which a product or service that is favored over the competitors, even if only slightly, receives a disproportionately large share of the revenues for that class of products or services.

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