Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Inherent Elitism of the Right: Education and Redistribution Editions

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law post last Friday (which was thematically linked to my Verdict column of the day before), I discussed the puzzling willingness among prominent Democrats to join in the teacher-bashing, anti-union nonsense that should really be the sole sport of the country-club wing of the Republican Party.  The post included a discussion of how the attacks on teachers and tenure have been paired with a variation on the winner-take-all approach to compensation, in which school administrators would seek out and lavishly reward the "exemplary teachers" who stand astride the world, while mere mortals are left to hope that they will not be fired when the next round of test scores is announced.

My point boiled down to something like this: Why do the school "reformers" think that this is the right way to get the best out of people?  Years of business school studies have shown that workers' productivity levels are non-responsive to that type of high-value/low-probability compensation structure, and it makes more sense logically to try to see what would work to improve teaching across the board.  Crucially, we especially want to know what would encourage people to enter the teaching profession in the first place.  "True, you might get fired because of things beyond your control, but you also have a vanishingly small chance of being anointed a superstar" does not strike me as a great way to attract and retain the best teachers (or any other kind of worker), especially when we are talking about a profession that needs millions of good professionals -- and when it is clear that the superstars themselves can be tossed overboard in a minute, if they ever fail to set the proper Stakhanovite example.

On the comments board for that post, readers offered several very good comments (as so often happens on this blog).  I plan to return to Professor Bruce H. Webber's comment in a future post, because he has identified some very important questions about corruption and conflicts of interest in the mishandling of public employees' compensation.  Here, I want to focus on the comment from Professor Benjamin Alpers, who questioned the fundamental premise of my post.

[Irresistible side note: Professor Alpers and Professor Dorf, during their Senior year at Harvard College, were the winning team in the American Parliamentary Debate Association's national championship tournament in 1986, and they took home the top two individual speaker awards as well.  This championship, by the way, is different from the "Team of the Year," an award that was invented the following year, and which was won in 1992 by a team that included, ahem, now-Senator Ted Cruz.  Cruz never won the national championship.  But I digress.]

Professor Alpers wrote:
I'd add one thing to this excellent post: I think the superstar teacher illusion is not simply a reflection of a belief that giving people a chance to win the lottery will improve their performance. I think many people in our society now believe (and are continually encouraged to believe) that the distribution of skills in our society resembles the distribution of wealth or income...thus, in effect, making our society's distribution of wealth just (or at least potentially so). I think "reformers'" vision of education reflects such a general hierarchical vision of society. Superstar teachers are, in this view, a natural fact (like the "natural aristocracy" that some of the founders of this country hoped our system of government would empower). Similarly, some very large percentage of teachers (or potential teachers) are lazy "takers," incapable of being truly effective in the classroom, and easily identified and fired by (the oddly omniscient and entirely competent) administrators (like CEOs, we can simply assume the cream has risen to the top in the instance of these folks). Viewed this way, the carrot-and-stick approach you describe isn't a system of incentives at all. It's merely a sorting mechanism. 
Or, to put it more bluntly: "Neil, you misunderstand the game.  They are not looking for ways to improve the productivity of the majority of teachers.  They are only interested in heaping rewards on the people who are inherently superior.  And screw everyone else!"  I always prefer the more cynical explanation, so I am at least partially convinced.  Perhaps a better way to say this is that I think Professor Alpers identifies an attitude that is at least one important part of the story in the increasingly fierce attacks on teachers and their unions.  Some people are, I think, honestly trying to find the best way to run a public school system, but some people are not.  The latter group simply views this as another way to prove that the top 1%, 0.1%, and 0.01% earned their way to the top.  (Let us put aside the complete challenge to that story that is raised by inherited wealth.)

This more cynical explanation caused me to rethink my views about another talking point on the right, which is the idea that calls for redistributive taxation are motivated by "envy" and "jealousy" on the part of the great unwashed toward their betters.  Conservative commentators frequently, for example, describe progressive taxation as "punishing success."  Earlier this week, the faux-redoubtable Rep. Paul Ryan referred to President Obama's proposals to raise taxes on the rich as "envy economics."

As I have occasionally discussed on this blog (for example, here and here), it has never made any sense to me that this jealousy/envy explanation has such purchase on the right.  Liberals simply do not talk or think in terms of envy or jealousy, when it comes to justifying redistributive policies, so it has always puzzled me that conservatives constantly go back to that theme.  One of my planned sometime-in-the-future posts will be based on the results of some ongoing research of public opinion polling results, to see if the public at large actually buys into this envy/jealousy nonsense.

In short, having explained why the envy/jealousy argument is completely empty, I entertained only one alternative explanation of Republicans' constant use of that bad argument: They must think that everyone else is stupid.  Applying Professor Alpers's logic, however, raises an alternative explanation: They really, really believe this nonsense!  It is so cooked into the DNA of people like Ryan to believe that the non-rich are unworthy, grasping wretches, that it is impossible for them to imagine that liberals are making a different argument.  In Ryan's view, the economy has properly sorted the (small number of) true winners and the (large number of) pathetic losers, making liberals' attempts to upend the natural order of things explicable only as a matter of an undeserved sense of entitlement by the non-rich to take what is not rightly theirs.  Liberals might not say that they speak for the envious masses, but that must really be what's going on, right?

Viewed in that light, it would still be interesting to know whether the public at large buys the envy/jealousy story.  If they do, the Republicans' talking point would at least be good politics, even though it makes no sense on its own terms.  Even if the public does not believe the nonsense, however, it is understandable that conservatives constantly repeat their talking point, because it is their only way to make sense of a world that they cannot understand.

18 comments:

Kilo said...

Your encouragement of cynical explanations left me with another alternative. The characterization of teachers as a group offered by the right tends to suffer badly when compared with many people's experiences of actual teachers. The tension between their ideological beliefs about the unworthiness of teachers and their experiences of knowing some clearly worthy ones can be eased by the suggestion that the few teachers they've encountered happen to have included an unusually large sample of excellent ones. Sure, THOSE great teachers deserve the moon, but most of them fit the ideological characterization of losers merely trying to leech off the success of others.

It also makes that view of teachers less susceptible to disproof by counterexamples from others' experiences. Since none of us have personal experience of most teachers, and only personal experiences are persuasive in demonstrating that a teacher deserves a professional's compensation (because so much of the work teachers do goes unmeasured), no one could be in a position to show that the reform proposal is wrongheaded.

egarber said...

EJ Dionne just wrote about this:

Paul Ryan’s name-calling misses what government does all the time

ghkozen said...

This strikes me as a profoundly concerning revival of Calvinist thought on economic success being a sign of preordained salvation, such that those who were poor were not only less worthy, but less holy. Thus, there is a religious duty not to uplift the oppressed, who are to some extent oppressed as a mark that they are cursed by God.

egarber said...

A few points:

1. The tactic is a strawman, intended to attach a negative label to anybody who favors government investment in something. As such, it sidesteps the debate, because to even start it, the target is on the defensive and climbing up hill. Or maybe to use a sports analogy, the approach is an attempt to make it "Right Winger" (-10) going into the game. Because of the phony conditions, the "defender" can often only cover the spread.

2. The correct paradigm of course is that this is a big debate about investment priorities. And here is where I contend that to a very large extent the difference between Left and Right is mostly a matter of degree or focus when it comes to economics. We're really not talking about different *kinds* of things.

Unless you're a libertarian, you acknowledge that taxes have to be collected and spent on things. Hell, almost all Republicans also believe that the tax code should be progressive, at least nominally. The difference of opinion is therefore really about the proper point on the spectrum.

But like with much else in politics, the debate goes off the proper rails. As an example, here is a paraphrased conversation I had the other day with a conservative friend.

Him: Like I said, people make their own way. It's not the job of taxpayers to help them out.

Me: Really? So you've never benefited from a government investment? Never used a road? Never taken advantage of medical research in some way? Never claimed a tax deduction for say, home ownership? How about student loans - are they evil?

Him: Those are basic services, I'm talking about entitlements.

Me: No, you said "it's not the job of taxpayers to help others." You're changing the argument. In any case "entitlement" is really just a statutory term - that distinction is meaningless for this conversation.

The truth is that we both favor investments / subsidies - we simply disagree on which ones are important. You therefore really have to stop using such soaring language. Unless you're a true libertarian, this is really about degree.


- end

This is typically where we give up :), but I think the exchange kind of makes my point. Notice how I didn't even have time to talk about *why* I value my preferred investments; I had to exhaust all my energy properly framing the debate.

djg273 said...

I would like to float a more charitable explanation. There are a few general models of job security. They include:

1. At will: employee may be terminated for any or no reason not specifically prohibited by law
2. Just cause: employee may be terminated only for just cause
3. Tenure: employee may only be terminated only for exceptionally bad behavior

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these three models and reasonable people can disagree about the merits of each one for a particular job description. Public school teachers often benefit from tenure, the most protective category while most workers in the US are at-will.

Is there something about public school teachers that merits the extraordinary job protections of tenure? I would point out that many skilled professionals in private industry are at will employees.

Should I read these articles as a critique of at will employment more broadly? If so, I will require some convincing that at will employment is not only suboptimal, but unreasonable.

t jones said...

"'True, you might get fired because of things beyond your control, but you also have a vanishingly small chance of being anointed a superstar' does not strike me as a great way to attract and retain the best teachers"

Prof. B., I want to agree with your point, but it's always seemed to me that this is essentially the irrational but deeply held belief system underlying the "silent majority's" failure to support a truly progressive tax structure: "I might be rich tomorrow, so we can't raise taxes on the rich."

Neil H. Buchanan said...

My thanks to Kilo, egarber, and ghkozen for their insightful, good-faith analyses.

In response to t jones, I can see your point. It's true that people in the US often have a "maybe it'll be me" attitude, an attitude that does seem to be part of the public's reluctance to support truly progressive taxation. Similarly, the public is surprisingly willing to play the lottery, and to gamble in general, even when the odds are ridiculously long.

Even so, when it comes to people's jobs, they are far more risk-averse. People know that they won't win the lottery, and that's OK with them. But when they are told that they might win a prize at work for being extra productive, those types of incentives generally fall flat. After all, most people are paid in wages and salaries, not in bonuses and profit-sharing. That might be because employers like it that way, but I suspect that it is largely because people want their incomes to be more predictable and stable.

In any case, the evidence does not seem to support the idea that most American workers are willing to let their compensation (and job security) be directly tied to matters that are clearly beyond their control.

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Tania Wilson said...

Neil H. Buchanan, I recently had the good fortune of reading this article regarding Professor Alpers, Teachers & Way. It is well-written
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