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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, May 22, 2006

He asked for it: Education is not like TV sets

Paul Noonan seems like a smart enough guy. In our previous tussles on education (see links at the top of this post, for example), he's proven a worthy opponent.

The other day, he actually tried provoking me:
When I think about whether a certain product should be left to the private sector v. the public sector, I usually think about TVs and freeways. TV's are products that are purchased by many individuals who benefit directly from owning the TV. Freeways, on the other hand, have many secondary beneficiaries [. . .]. In general, I think that most things should be left to the private sector, but if I believe that a certain product closely resembles a freeway, (national defense, certain infrastructure, sewers, etc.) I am more inclined to let the government have a role. The government still doesn't do a great job with many of these responsibilities, but the alternative is to not have these products and services at all.

We treat education as a freeway in this country, but I think it is clearly more like a television. Parents have an interest in purchasing a fine education for their kids, and so it seems that the best way to provide education would be in the free market.

This is the logical and philosophical argument for keeping the state out of schooling. What I never hear from those who are in favor of public education as it currently exists, such as Jay Bullock, is any logical or philosophical justification underlying their arguments. Jay is a champion debater, but he hits you with a thousand bb's, whereas I tend to hit with one giant missile. He'll drown you with information, little examples of public school successes or failures of privatization, but there is no underlying coherence to his arguments.
That's my style of fighting all right--The Blog of 1000 BBs. I will teach it to anyone willing to learn for a mere $600.

More seriously, I need to diffuse Paul's giant (and misguided) missle. While I may sometimes lack underlying coherence (it's there; sometimes you just need 3-D glasses to see it), Paul lacks common sense. Aside from the reductionist false dischotomy proposed by Paul's little thought experiment, he implies that there are no "secondary benficiaries" to free, quality public education. That there is no interest except on the part of parents in educating a child. That no one but individual families sees any positive or negative effect whether their children get an education.

I thought about spending the evening Googling up quotes like the classic one from Thomas Jefferson (“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education”) and trying to point out how much importance the people who founded this country placed on education. But, you know, Horatio Caine is busy trying to nail the guy who murdered his wife, so, frankly, I don't have time for that.

Let's instead go on a bit of a thought experiment of our own: What happens when Americans start treating education like TVs? Well, first of all, we know that the wealthiest buy the biggest, newest, flattest-screen TVs, while the rest of us get by with much less. Given that the top 20% of Americans have something like 84% of the nation's wealth, that leaves quite a few of us who will be buying shoddier models.

Moreover, consider what the market has done to TVs in the last few decades. This commentary was merely the first hit in a long Google list:
But Sony don't appear to be the only company affected by this general decline in standards. [. . .] To make things worse, much of today's consumer electronics is considered "disposable" rather than repairable.

The cost, and often poor availability of spare parts, combined with high labour rates means it's often just cheaper to buy a new VCR, TV or cellphone than it is to have the old one repaired.
The Wal-Martinization of America--and the world--has resulted in vast availability of inexpensive product, but you get what you pay for. Is it worth $40 a year to buy a new DVD player every time your cheap one craps out, or should you spend five times that for one that will last ten years? When you think about education, your answer--whether as a parent or as an outside observer--has to be to get the long-lasting one.

But the market doesn't do well at getting the high-quality merchandise to the 80% of us who lack the resources to buy it outright. One of my favorite stories ever is "The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart." Consider this passage:
Selling Snapper lawn mowers at Wal-Mart wasn't just incompatible with Snapper's future--Wier thought it was hazardous to Snapper's health. Snapper is known in the outdoor-equipment business not for huge volume but for quality, reliability, durability. A well-maintained Snapper lawn mower will last decades; many customers buy the mowers as adults because their fathers used them when they were kids. But Snapper lawn mowers are not cheap, any more than a Viking range is cheap. The value isn't in the price, it's in the performance and the longevity.

You can buy a lawn mower at Wal-Mart for $99.96, and depending on the size and location of the store, there are slightly better models for every additional $20 bill you're willing to put down--priced at $122, $138, $154, $163, and $188. That's six models of lawn mowers below $200. Mind you, in some Wal-Marts you literally cannot see what you are buying; there are no display models, just lawn mowers in huge cardboard boxes.

The least expensive Snapper lawn mower--a 19-inch push mower with a 5.5-horsepower engine--sells for $349.99 at full list price. Even finding it discounted to $299, you can buy two or three lawn mowers at Wal-Mart for the cost of a single Snapper.

If you know nothing about maintaining a mower, Wal-Mart has helped make that ignorance irrelevant: At even $138, the lawn mowers at Wal-Mart are cheap enough to be disposable. Use one for a season, and if you can't start it the next spring (Wal-Mart won't help you out with that), put it at the curb and buy another one. That kind of pricing changes not just the economics at the low end of the lawn-mower market, it changes expectations of customers throughout the market. Why would you buy a walk-behind mower from Snapper that costs $519? What could it possibly have to justify spending $300 or $400 more?
Pretend for a minute that Paul compared education not to TV sets but to lawnmowers. Do you have faith in the market to offer the best education to the most people at an affordable price?

I'm not suggesting that the feds, the state, the city, or anyone else start subsidizing lawnmowers. Whether or not I toss my cheap lawnmower when it breaks is of no concern to the greater community: Only a handful of people ever have to look at my lawn. But my child--well, I don't have children, so, let's say your child--if your child has had nothing but a disposable education, your child would be little more than a burden on society. Multiply that by the many tens of millions who cannot afford--or don't care enough to find--non-disposable education for their children, and you have not the greatest country in the world, but the dumbest.

And imagine that this sentence is not about lawnmower consumers but about education and parents: If you know nothing about maintaining a mower, Wal-Mart has helped make that ignorance irrelevant. This scares me not as a government employee who might get muscled out of a job, but as an American who has to share the country with the children of parents like that.

Do I love the highways as they are? Not really. And I'm not fully content with education as it is, either. But I wouldn't trust the people who bring you cheap DVD players and disposable lawnmowers to keep our commercial traffic humming along. Neither would I trust them to look out for the best of society when it comes to education.

And, hey, exciting news: Horatio's going to Brazil!

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