A Political Philosopher in a Taxpayer Watchdog Agency

By Eleni Manis, senior research analyst in the office of an elected official in the New York metropolitan area. Dr. Manis completed her PhD in Philosophy at the University of Michigan in 2009.

Not so long ago, I was a philosopher specializing in political philosophy. Today, I work in the political arena, serving as a researcher and communications staffer in the office of an elected official. Then and now, I’ve been motivated by an interest in how government policies like the tax code shape people’s life prospects, and by a desire to see just and effective policies put in place.

Dr. Manis speaking at a roundtable

I’ll say just enough about my academic interests to make the connection to my current work in the office of a municipal comptroller, a taxpayer watchdog agency. Then I’ll talk about how everything else changed when I gave up being an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college and started working in government and politics in a large suburb of New York City.

As an academic, I engaged in the philosophical debate on democratic distributive justice—that is, what a democratic society owes its citizens, as a matter of justice (not charity), in the way of access to income, education, health care, professional opportunities, and other benefits. Citizens of a democracy play essential roles in supporting their society’s democratic political process, its characteristically free civil society, and its economy. I started with the obvious claim that citizens need an adequate level of education and other benefits to ably perform these essential political, civil, and economic roles, and I defended the view that a just democracy must at a minimum aim to provide this adequate level of benefits to its citizens, or else undercut its political, civil, and economic wellbeing. In a nutshell, as a philosopher, I considered just democracies’ provision of benefits for citizens.

Today, I work in a governmental office that authorizes and scrutinizes a county’s roughly $3 billion of annual spending on behalf of residents. So what benefits does local government provide with this money? The Department of Public Works builds and maintains infrastructure from roads to wastewater treatment plants; the Health Department addresses public health concerns and oversees some aspects of special education; Social Services supports residents in financial need and other vulnerable populations; the county hospital, community college, police force, and courts provide the services you’d expect. The comptroller’s office oversees these agencies’ spending and all other county agencies’ spending. It is charged with identifying and eliminating inefficient spending and fraud. Because the comptroller is an elected official, there is also a public-facing aspect to the work: we publicize the outcomes of the office’s audits, reports, and accomplishments. I have produced quantitative research on the performance of taxpayer-funded programs and answered reporters’ questions about that work, served as the office’s communications director on an interim basis, and organized coalitions and committees to promote special initiatives. For example, in recent months, I recruited the support of some forty government agencies, small business development organizations, and community groups to put on a conference that connected minority, women, and veteran business owners with government buyers.

This work speaks to my longstanding interests. It also capitalizes on research and public speaking skills I developed as a graduate student and professor. That said, almost everything else changed when I traded my job in academia to work in the public sector.

I knew the standards for advancing as a professor: research, teaching, and service to the department, in roughly that order. Succeeding in a new work world meant learning and following its norms and standards. For example, elected officials require and reward their employees’ loyalty. This was new to me; I identify as a critical, independent thinker, not a joiner. I learned to volunteer my time on evenings and weekends to demonstrate my loyalty and commitment to the cause.

My new work world also offers a distinctly “unphilosophical” view onto justice concerns. Political philosophers learn from the particulars of historical struggles against injustice, like the US Civil Rights Movement. They don’t get stuck at the level of particulars, though—philosophers levitate, defining general principles of justice and defending them on the basis of reasons that weigh everyone’s interests or rights equally. We spend quite a bit of time being impartial! That’s mostly missing in my work today. My employer, like other elected officials, is entrusted with advancing the interests of residents of a particular geographic community. Our office is sensitive to justice concerns, and when a group of constituents protests unfair or unjust circumstances, we often try to advocate on their behalf. There is nothing neutral about this advocacy. We take a side in a power struggle that will advance the winners’ agenda at the expense of others. This is radically different from my work in philosophy.

Leaving academia and starting a new career takes nerve and persistence, but you are in good company if you are a humanities graduate student or PhD who decides to pursue a nonacademic career. When I made the move, I reached out to several philosophers who had gone before me and established their own nonacademic careers. They offered camaraderie and advice. They also described their work in granular detail—a gift, because I only knew a lot about one job, being a professor. I also read (and recommend that others read) the helpful literature written by academics who have left academia but circled back to help the rest of us. One good place to start is Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius’s “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia.

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