Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Fiscal Crisis

Sitting in our Ivory Towers, our day-to-day lives don't change much even when dramatic events happen in the "real world." Even with the current economic crisis my basic job of teaching and research much go along as they have before. Whether P = NP does not depend on the GDP (though the converse might be false).

But in the end it does all come down to money. University endowments have shrunk. Alumni donations will surely drop. Less tax revenues will hurt government support of public universities. Industrial research labs may also take a hit if their corporate parents have financial difficulties.

Schools like Northwestern have structured their finances so they can weather short term shocks in the economy but a prolonged recession or depression will start to take its toll.

New faculty hiring will likely be the first victim in universities. Tenured professors may delay their retirement after taking a hit in their CREF accounts holding up slots for new hires. Unversities worried about their long-term finances may also slow down opening up new positions.

On the other hand we should see increased enrollments on every level which may push the need to hire more CS faculty. Computer Science has lost its lustre in recent years, but still reliably produces jobs and there is a flight to safe majors in times of economic turmoil.

People who have trouble finding a good job often go back and get their Master's while they wait out the recession. We should also get more people interested in Ph.D.s as alternatives dry up. My sources told me we have seen a major drop in Indian IIT graduates going on to Ph.D.s because banks have offered them high salaried positions. With the banking industry taking the biggest hit, we welcome those IITers back to academics.

Finally in every crisis, we look for someone to blame, and some blame the algorithms.

Somehow the genius quants – the best and brightest geeks Wall Street firms could buy – fed $1 trillion in subprime mortgage debt into their supercomputers, added some derivatives, massaged the arrangements with computer algorithms and – poof! – created $62 trillion in imaginary wealth. It's not much of a stretch to imagine that all of that imaginary wealth is locked up somewhere inside the computers, and that we humans, led by the silverback males of the financial world, Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson, are frantically beseeching the monolith for answers. Or maybe we are lost in space, with Dave the astronaut pleading, "Open the bank vault doors, Hal."


  1. Not to mention salaries being affected. The professors and lecturers and staff in my department get guaranteed pay raises each year, but the TAs and RAs have not seen their salaries increase since I started five years ago. Surprisingly, this implicit proclamation that inflation does not exist, failed to single-handedly stop inflation. The result is a lower standard of living for graduate students than when I started, since gas is now double what it was and food and rent are not far behind. In my department, you never know if you will have a TA the next semester, or if the hours (and hence the pay) might be cut in half as they look for ways to scrimp. You can imagine that morale is not at its highest.

    Undergraduates and most masters students are going to school under the assumption that the whole thing can be planned down to the month, so it is possible for them to budget their time in academia and know how much in loans they need, how many hours/week they should work a part-time job, etc. For Ph.D. students, this is not typically possible, since the time to graduation depends on luck, and even the parts under your control have difficult-to-estimate timelines, especially when you have no experience in research. For example, if someone told me that they could afford four years of graduate school, but that their finances could not handle five years, I would not advise going for a Ph.D., because you can't bet your future that you can "probably" finish in four years.

  2. http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2008/10/09/leakey-science.html

  3. I wouldn't blame quants as much as bankers getting themselves in a cyclic credit default swap[1] graph. So silly to do bailouts when all the market needs is information on who is backing who by how much. The banks sitting at the leaves should be very undervalued right now.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap