Thursday, October 14, 2004

Teachers and Athletes

How often do you hear a commentator bemoaning the state of a nation that will stand to pay so much to its athletes and entertainers, while paying a mere fraction of this to the educators that we trust to teach our children? How sorry is this situation when the future of that state, in the form of said youth, is so valued?

Codswallop. This criticism betrays an absolute ignorance of the most elementary principles of economics. Teachers are paid less because they are less dear, though that hardly means that they are less important. Take the classic comparison between water and diamonds - the former, necessary for life, might often be forsaken in favor of the diamonds, mere baubles. Yet in the desert with a mere canteenful of water left and none in sight, that water may become the dearest thing you own, far more important than gaudy trinkets.

The crucial difference here is availability. Since water is common, like those who would be teachers, it is valued little. Since diamonds, like athletes, are comparatively rare, they are expensive. Eliminate 30% of teachers in the country and there would be little more than a temporary disturbance as substitutes and other entrepreneurs shifted careers. Eliminate 30% of the NBA and your problems might be more significant - fewer people can achieve the levels of physical performance desired. It's just not an apples-to-apples comparison.

So no more of such rubbish, thank you very much.


David said...

You make a good argument Tim but let's take it one step further. I agrue that teachers are actually dearer (not more dear than professional athletes or pop singers) than we talk of now. All over the world, people understand that an education is the key to success (though determination, persistance and not procrastinating are equally important and often underplayed). Teachers are ALSO rare, especially high school teachers. The diamond-water paradox does not apply here.

What does apply is the critiscim of state education, which depresses teacher salaries and hampers the incentive for people to become teachers. In fact, it's worth noting that the best and brightest would make the best teachers; they also face the highest opportunity cost in the private sector for the same reason. No wonder our teachers are scare and bad (with notable exceptions).

The argument goes a little something like this: politicians control federal funding for teachers. But their goal isn't the best education with that money, it's the appearance of the best education--a goal that's a lot easier to attain if you ignore the goal society has (geniunely good education). Instead of raising salaries, they build schools. Sure it looks nice and SOME good is done, but we still have a teacher shortage. They might create bills that might give people incentive to be teachers (like paying for college education if you become a teacher; that money also tends not to come out of the education budget) but they aren't as good as increasing salaries. You might lock a bad teacher in a job or fray away a good teacher because they don't want to be locked in said job (because maybe they are not sure yet). You're right when you say we shouldn't compare teachers and athletes, but the commentators are right when they say teachers aren't being paid enough; they just aren't looking at the right cause.

Tim said...


I'll start off by saying that I've not yet finished your response, but I wanted to state right off that I don't know if I buy that teachers are really all that rare.

Being a teacher, aside from being saddled with all manner of statist-protectionist regulations, really seems to have as the most formidible barrier to entry nothing more exotic than a disposition complementary to the nature of the work. Most people, I think, could teach - if they wanted to. As you say, prices are depressed, so still more people would want to teach without this affecting the process. But even so, teachers are there waiting to pop out of the woodwork should the need (and incentive) arise.

Are they then really scarce at all? I certainly have my doubts. Please disabuse me of them, friend!