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.