Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Universal Education.

The interesting things John Fund says in OpinionJournal today about the recent Democrat confab at Disney World (the Democrats appear to have closed their in-house “Department of Unintentional Irony Avoidance”) includes this note on the performance of North Carolina Senator and Presidential aspirant John Edwards:

“Mr. Edwards's speech scored points with a Clinton-like call to support middle-class workers ‘who play by the rules.’ But his vague policy proposals left many cold. He called for creating a public education system in which every child "can get as good an education as the richest person in America." Who isn't? But Mr. Edwards's suggestions on how to do that involved higher pay for teachers and smaller class sizes, ideas that have failed many times.

Mr. Edwards and Mr. Fund’s comments are deliberately symbiotic political nonsense from which much can be learned.

It is hard to imagine that many people – even many Democrats – think that there is an unlimited supply of top quality education in the world available at any price, still less a price the public would even conceivably want to pay, or be able to afford, to supply free to every child. So how could any sensible person be in favor of a public education system in which every child “can get as good an education as the richest person in America?” Did either Mr. Edwards or Mr. Fund ask anyone at, say, Harvard or the exclusive private Washington D.C. prep school, Saint Albans, about how easy it is to find top quality educators at any level? Messrs. Edwards and Fund make Lake Wobegon’s fictional communal belief that all of its children were “above average” seem like flinty realism. Mr. Fund rhetorical question, "Who isn't?" has as its serious answer: “Everybody isn’t” or “Nobody is.” The teachers who are normally over-represented at Democrat gatherings were probably acutely aware of how hard it is to obtain quality education, so it is possible that Mr. Edwards’ “policy proposals left many cold” in the way one may be left cold by an elderly friend whose increasingly daffy “policy proposals” leave one feeling that his dotage is progressing apace.

But the Edwards/Fund interchange (it isn’t really a “dialogue,” of course, it more resembles an exchange of deliberately partially responsive voice mail messages) conceals a deeper rift – much deeper than can be accounted for in “Mr. Edwards's suggestions … for higher pay for teachers and smaller class sizes, ideas that have failed many times.” Such ideas have, of course, failed just as Mr. Fund says. But there is likely a much bigger divide than that. When Mr. Fund says that he (or “everyone”) supports a public education system in which every child “can get as good an education as the richest person in America,” he probably means a system in which every child can be educated to the best of that child’s abilities – but in which student “merit” plays the biggest role (perhaps the only role) in rationing public education. (Of course, this asserted “probability” is based on my perception that Mr. Fund generally values “merit” – but he may have written to the contrary.) But when Mr. Edwards says he supports a public education system in which every child “can get as good an education as the richest person in America,” he probably (assuming he at least to some extent shares the public agenda of his party) means a system in which merit does not play such a big role as Mr. Fund is contemplating and in which many "academically unqualified" students are admitted, by way of affirmative action and other non-“merit” criteria, to the very highest realms of education. Such students would largely waste that extra measure of education but they will obtain a debased “credential.” That result seems to be close to the current Democratic ideal – and even some Republicans seem willing to flirt with it, as evidenced by Republican support for State university systems being required to accept the “top 10%” of even low-performing high schools.

But obtaining the “ideals” expressed by either of these men would be absurdly expensive – leaving little if any resources for anything else in life. How many people are there in the world who are qualified to sit on the Harvard faculty? How many students could all those people teach? That number – and a very small number it will be - is the number of people who can be given top-flight education (objectively defined by a credentialist) at the college level, like it or not. Even if the definition of “top flight education” is generalized away from this credentialist norm, the number of people who can be given such an education is very small. Education is a scarce good. And no concept of “merit” is going to get the number of “deserving” students down that far, even if it were for some reason desirable to tell wealthy people that their money is no good when it comes to buying top quality education, an argument which is far from made. Mr. Edwards’ probable “ideal” is even more expensive and wasteful than Mr. Fund's.

Both of these men know that in America today wealthy people with unintelligent or underperforming children are free to purchase for them whatever level of education they want – provided a private school or other source of such quality education may be found to supply it. Mr. Gore, for example, appears to have consumed large quantities of marijuana and did not excel at Saint Alban's, but nevertheless applied to only one college – Harvard – because he knew in advance that he would be admitted there (presumably as a beneficiary of his family connections and the famous Harvard slogan: “There has to be a bottom ten percent!”). Politicians and editorialists both are nearly universally loath to admit that this aspect of the American educational system is nearly universally accepted, if grudgingly.

There is much to be learned from this pseudo-exchange. Messrs. Edwards and Fund use the same language with deliberately different meanings to assert ideals neither they nor anyone else with any sense would actually hold, but which neither they nor anyone else would actually dare deny publicly. Both sides sound good, and nothing much comes of it. As a result, most of the education market remains rationed by price. This “exchange” is a microcosm of how education issues are treated generally in America today. It takes a game with a lot of fast moving shells to keep something as important as education economics nearly rational and efficient – but America has shown that it can be done! Indeed, polls suggest that Republicans have recently at least pulled even with Democrats on the issue of education.

As noted in prior posts, the Man Without Qualities views the market for education (and, more generally, information and knowledge) and the market for medical services to have much in common. Their commonality is perhaps nowhere more in evidence than at the points where these markets intersect the political system. This kind of “exchange” which Messrs. Edwards and Fund provide therefore should be studied as a model for future methods by which the public’s “demand” for universal availability of top quality medical services can be sublimated into something more rational and efficient. Surely most politicians and editorialists would like a system in which “basic” medical care is broadly available, some top quality medical care is available to “meritorious” people (however defined) even of lesser means, the bulk of the medical services market is rationed by price, and Democrats and Republicans can each claim they are in favor of “universal top quality medical care” while meaning different things which they don’t intend to be taken seriously anyway. Who wouldn’t be?

Just like education. Just like Messrs. Edwards and Fund.

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