Arnold Kling  

The Stupidest Most Annoying Argument for Stimulus

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Question for Fans of Universal... An Education Gap?...

Mark Thoma recycles a chart from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities showing cuts in employment in education. Ergo, we need to send stimulus money to state and local governments.

I don't mean to single out Mark. Every Democrat makes this argument. I think it is a stupid argumentThe argument annoys me, because it assumes that state and local governments need more money in order to keep teachers. They do not. They could reduce compensation and maintain hiring or even increase it.

A reduction in the number of teachers only indicates that you need more money if the reduction comes from teachers quitting their jobs. If you are laying off teachers, that shows that you are making a choice to keep their compensation too high rather than have more on staff.

Unfortunately, nobody in the media will confront the people who are saying that governments need more money for teachers. Just once, I would like to hear somebody challenge President Obama or any other Democrat on this point. This is one of the subtle ways in which media bias works, as Megan McArdle points out. If conservatives were to make an equally stupid argument, they would be called out in the media. But liberals go scot-free.

[UPDATE: I want to apologize publicly to Mark and others for using the word "stupid" in the original post]


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Costard writes:

I suspect that it's far easier to fire teachers than it is to work a change wages. Lower salaries would lead to knock-on effects within the union, whereas fired teachers have no say and no vote.

A larger problem at work is that more experienced - and higher-paid - education workers have tenure and other forms of job security, so when people must get the axe it is inevitably the younger employees that receive the brunt of it. Since they are by far the most productive employees (per dollar), you can see the problem.

Jeff M. writes:

You're overlooking the implicit assumption that many people already consider teachers underpaid, and so cutting wages is not a viable option.

When you get a splinter, you can pull it out or cut off your finger. Is it stupid not to mention unacceptable options?

Maybe it's stupid to refuse to consider lower wages for teachers to be a decent option. But that's a different argument than the one you've made.

Mark writes:

Let's also not forget the option of cutting administrative personnel and non-educational professionals. In North Carolina, educators per pupil, administrators per pupil, and non-educational professionals (consultants, psychologists, etc.) per pupil increased 9, 10, and 11%, respectively from 1997 - 2007. It goes without saying that education outcomes have not budged since 1997. (Actually, even during the decades before.)

Paul writes:

"If conservatives were to make an equally stupid argument, they would be called out in the media. But liberals go scot-free."

Even if I grant you that Thoma's argument is stupid (and I think a case can be made that it is not) the above assertion is patently false. There is so much emphasis in the media on presenting both sides of an argument without evaluating their merits that tons of conservative talking points that have no factual basis end up being considered valid. Case in point it is an undeniable fact that the vast majority of climate scientists and biologists believe in manmade global warming and evolution, but polls have shown that the average American (even Democrats!) think the scientific community is more divided than it actually is.

David C writes:

Paul, I disagree and agree at the same time. Arnold Kling is correct to state that conservatives are being called out for their stupid arguments and liberals are not. You are also correct that the media generally tends to present both sides of an argument without evaluating its merits. The reason why both are true is because when conservatives make a stupid statement, liberals call them out on it. When liberals make a stupid statement, conservatives counter with an equally dumb argument because they've stopped paying attention to the arguments being made by intelligent conservatives.

David C writes:

PS - I don't see how anybody who believes in capitalism can also believe in such an extreme form of market failure as liberal media bias. How does one explain how this occurs?

NZ writes:

A few people have already said something to this effect, but basically I think the notion of cutting teachers' salaries is one of those "unmentionables" in the media. It's like saying "I support the drowning of kittens." People in the media wouldn't touch it with a 50-foot pole.

In his postscript, David C poses a question I'm surprised I've never heard before. It seems like smart people all across the political spectra just take it for granted that there's media bias, regardless of their feelings on capitalism/markets. My smart liberal friends calmly concede there is liberal media bias, and my smart capitalist (conservative and libertarian) friends vehemently agree.

My response to this conundrum is that when people talk about media bias, they're using "media" as shorthand for media's mainstream areas. Wander off that beaten path even a short distance and things quickly become more diverse and nuanced (case in point: Econlog).

It is kinda pointless to say "Media bias doesn't exist because any person can find media biased to support his view...somewhere, eventually." That's like saying "Bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and supermarket chains don't have crummy beer selections, because there is always some place where somebody can buy his favorite obscure imported microbrew."

NZ writes:

PS. In other words, liberal [mainstream] media bias isn't actually market failure, let alone extreme market failure.

KPres writes:

Oh, don't worry. The market is in the process of self-correcting. That's why the liberal outlets are bleeding money while Fox News and talk radio still rake it in.

Floccina writes:

I think that media bias has too forms one is to sensationalize the other to pull at emotions. They both work to attract more viewers. Both tend to favor more government action and therefore favor Democrats except in the cases of crime and war were they favor republicans. Neither favors the Libertarian's cool headed approach of measuring full costs.

MattyP writes:

Firstly, I think that you're completely missing the concept of downward wage rigidity. Teachers that are currently employed might resist a loss in purchasing power (probably through their Union). This rigidity is reinforced by the fact that, as was previously mentioned, that the public generally thinks that teachers are under--rather than over--payed.

Also, you could logically construct a supply curve where after you drop the salary before a certain level (reservation wage), there is no supply (think a curve with an asymptote that lies above zero). When the market clearing salary approaches this point, a drop in demand results in a drop in quantity greater than the drop in wage (the drop in wage might actually be negligible). I haven't actually done a study on this, but it is mathematically (and logically) possible.

Furthermore, you could argue that a wage drop that saves the same amount of money as layoffs could do more harm to Aggregate Demand than the layoffs would. This is for the simple reason that once someone loses their job, their contribution to AG is supported by Public Policy, at least for a short amount of time, through unemployment benefits. You can argue the merits of that policy, but, given its existence, that is the way things go.

And finally, teachers aren't an homogeneous good. It stands to reason that teachers of better quality have a higher reservation wage than teachers of lower quality. Therefore, if you lower the wage past a certain point, you risk alienating the better teachers, who will seek opportunities elsewhere, and leaving only the worse teachers in charge of our children's education.

Chris writes:

Your argument is correct, so far as it goes. There are two choices -- have the district choose who to layoff, or reduce wages and have the teachers themselves individually decide who leaves.

Of course, if you have the teachers themselves decide, then the people who leave may not be the ones you want to leave -- they're likely to be the best performers. The solution would be to only cut the wages of the worst performers, but that's difficult in most school systems.

kyle8 writes:

As a schoolteacher with a degree in Economics I agree with you to some extent. However, I would say that it depends upon each state. In some states the pay rate for teachers is so low that they cannot recruit many good people even when the economy is poor.

I left such a state for that reason. In most cases, such as my current state of Texas, the big problem is not the teacher salaries, it is actually two problems.

In the first place there are way too many administrators and specialists, they have big salaries but do very little or no teaching.

The second problem is the use of property taxes as the only method of paying for education. This ties revenues to the volatile housing market.

Jim writes:

In the comments Mark hits the nail on the head.

A research study at the UT Austin campus found that if 80 percent of the faculty with the lowest teaching loads were to teach just half as much as the 20 percent with the highest loads, and if the savings were dedicated to tuition reduction, tuition could be cut by more than half (or, alternatively, state appropriations could be reduced even more—by as much as 75 percent).

Education is top heavy with arguably failing result. There is no apparent reason that laying off teachers is anything but a long over-due adjustment.

What then, is the argument to prevent it?

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Note the concerns here expressed are about an institution - the "educational system."

Concerns are expressed about the deficiencies, needed reforms, operational effects of what has become an institution.

The institution we have today evolved from what was originally a social or "civil" (non-governmental) instrument to provide access for the young of various communities to certain levels of education. Those instruments expanded to bring advanced education, largely through private funding in colleges and academies. The instruments also expanded their service objects to a broader base, " the public" of a particular area or social (intelligence) segment; all while still preserving its civil character.

Coinciding with accelerating urbanizations, transitions began with needs for capital expenditures (principally buildings); the establishment of "Districts," and the ultimate co-option into governmental functions and political determinations.

Those instruments became institutions within which the interests of those who previously served the functions of the instruments have come to dominate the functions and objectives of the institution.

The resulting conditions and operations of this institution, which has now become systematized (the Education Systems) far afield from the limited objectives of the social instruments that spawned it, have led to reactions, movements for reform, and most importantly and most effectively - circumvention.

Those processes have begun at the areas of secondary education and will now begin (for economic reasons) to flow over into post-secondary education, especially where governmental co-option has been most intrusive and displacing of the original objectives.

The circumventions will generate new civil instuments, which in their turn will evolve institutions which will compete with the residue of the "Educational Systems" of today.

We might profit our nation and all our social organizations if we concentrate on developing the new instruments and accelerating circumvention of a now decrepit, staus quo institution, rather than its partial or piece-meal reform.

Rarian Rakista writes:

As someone who has an unused teaching certificate the reason I don't teach is because wages are too low, esp for science and math teachers. I make 3-4x the amount in the private sector that I would in a public school even though I would love to teach.

Now, looking at what some schools spend on athletic programs is shocking, with coaches teaching a few token classes making double what I would make as an IB/AP physics teacher is the shocking part. If you want to attack schools, attack the massive deficits most of their football, basketball and baseball teams run every year.

Seth writes:

Rarian - I like your point about the school's sports programs. This is another good argument for pushing the education funding decision to parents. I often wonder what those programs would look like if parents got to choose whether to subsidize those programs or not. I imagine sports programs would cease to be tied to education and look a lot more like pop warner football and AAU basketball.

Dallas Weaver writes:

Recent work on the performance of K-12 teachers (value added approaches) has shown that the top 20% of teachers will get 150% of the average results (increases in test scores per semester) and the bottom 20% will produce 50% of the average learning per year. This factor of 3 variation in teacher performance is much greater than the impact of class size on learning results.

The bottom line is that firing the bottom performing 10 to 20% of the teachers and increasing class size by a similar percentage would improve the performance and learning of the students.

The problem is that layoffs are not based upon performance, thanks to the Unions who are just self-interested and exclude the interests of the students or the country when they flex their political muscles.

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