Advertisers vs. Teachers II

Bryan Caplan over at EconLog, in addition to giving this rookie a lovely welcome into the world of blogging, has raised a good point about the arguments that I made in my earlier post.  The state of play right now is as follows.  We start from the highly oversimplified premise that kids are either going to be influenced by commercial advertisers or by public school teachers.  Our positions are:

Me: To a first approximation, the harm done by unregulated advertisers is fixed at the level that arises from profit-maximizing advertising practices; any advertiser who refrains on principle from a bit of profitable but socially harmful advertising will be replaced by someone who has no such qualms.  In contrast, the amount of harm that teachers will do depends much more on the characteristics of the people who select into the teaching profession, as well as on the professional ethos in which they are trained and supported.  This raises the possibility that people with a natural affection for kids will be the ones doing the teaching, supported by an institutional infrastructure and set of professional norms that are themselves set by pro-kid people.

Bryan: The very same things that make it possible that teachers will be better for kids than are commercial advertisers also makes it possible that they will be worse.  They might end up being ideologues who are committed to passing along dangerous nonsense or ex-jock gym teachers who have nothing but contempt for the unathletic (in fairness to gym teachers, I think there has been some progress on this front in recent years) or just jerks who like to make themselves feel big by pushing little kids around.

Bryan’s is a very powerful objection.  The more-or-less fixed level of damage done by commercial advertising is not the worst possible outcome.  A world dominated by vapid consumerism is a lot worse than the Enlightenment utopia I dream about, but it is a lot better than some other things.  So one might argue against public education on insurance grounds: there is always some chance that the really bad guys will get to be in charge of’ public education, and to insure against that we need to keep power out of the hands of teachers.  But I don’t think that’s Bryan’s claim.  I think he is saying some combination of (i) the damage done by commercial advertisers is not that bad; and (ii) the influences of public education are really bad as things stand right now.  And this seems wrong to me.

I also enjoyed that lunch at GMU.  We hadn’t know each other five minutes before we were all hollering at each other.  What’s not to like?

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  • Robin Hanson

    You spent your entire post summarizing the positions so far, and then your new argument is … “this seems wrong.” Surely you can do better than that; how does it seem wrong exactly?

  • David J. Balan

    The idea of the post was to see if I could sort out where there was common ground and where there wasn’t. As to why it “seems wrong,” here are my thoughts. First, the fact that there is as much persuasive commercial advertising as there is shows that firms believe that pushing peoples’ buttons affects their behavior a lot, which in turn suggests that the cumulative effects of a lifetime of exposure are large. The fact that there is no reason at all to suppose that the button-pushing that is profit-maximizing is the same as the button-pushing that most benefits the person is grounds for a presumption against leaving that kind of power in the hands of unaccountable entities like for-profit firms. Second, my armchair empiricism (I’m not sure where you’d get good empirical evidence on this), is that most public school teachers, as they actually exist in the U.S. today, are people who have a basically pro-kid agenda. It seems like the best knock against public school teachers is a certain amount of laziness, rigidity, and lack of imagination, so maybe they do too little of the best kinds of button-pushing, and too much just trying to get through the day. But it hasn’t been my impression that most of them are in for the anti-kid reasons that Bryan has suggested.

  • michael vassar

    For what it’s worth, I would strongly endorse your version of Brian’s thesis David.
    That thesis doesn’t seem even arguably *at all* wrong to me.
    I would add that I think it very clear that public educators could get much much worse than they currently are, but that doesn’t make them not seem very bad compared to the null state of no public school. (not to mention my preferred state of no specific parental rights and large basic income payments to all citizens regardless of age). I also think that advertisers almost definitely do substantial net harm (commercial less than non-commercial, but both do harm) and that there should ideally be some sort of monitoring of attention flows to compensate for this (say, with the establishment of a phone hotline which anyone can call in order to impose a small fine on any company in order to impose a fine on it for wasting their time with undesired advertising. Obviously, this idea needs work, but something along these lines seems plausibly to be a good idea/), but that I don’t see such ideals as worth pursuing given the difficulty of their realization and the probability of more important shifts in society. As things currently are, substantially restricting commercial advertising would have direct benefits, but would set bad precedents for the expansion of state power.

  • Glen Raphael

    David, your original premise was: “Suppose that commercial advertising increases your demand for advertised products, but at the same time makes you worse off by reducing your ability to appreciate those things that commercial advertisers don’t sell.” Can you give a specific concrete example of that mechanism? Without it, I honestly don’t know what you’re getting at.

    For instance, are you saying that knowing I might enjoy drinking a Pepsi makes me less /able to appreciate/ the joys of playing with my cat or drinking tap water?

    The traditional negative externality argument I’m familiar with (and have some sympathy for) is that advertising encourages envy. Knowing about new products I can’t afford might make me sad that I can’t have them. But then, knowing about new product I /can/ afford makes me happy that I /can/ have them and may even increase my satisfaction with the products I already have; it’s not clear to me the net negative externality would exceed the net positive externality. In any case, that’s all very different from being “less able to appreciate those things that commercial advertisers don’t sell”. So to sum up: “example, please?”

  • Robin Hanson

    David your elaborated argument is “teachers … have a basically pro-kid agenda” and are not “in for the anti-kid reasons that Bryan has suggested.” This is just not enough detail for us to be able to analyze your claim. *What* about teachers tells you they are “pro-kid”?

  • David J. Balan

    The claim about the pro-kid agenda of teachers is an empirical claim and not an argument. The empirical evidence is admittedly limited, but I know a reasonble number of educators, and I have some idea of the tenor of what is taught in education programs. And my impression is that the contemporary educational establishment has absorbed, to a pretty admirable extent, a “pro-kid” agenda consisting of things like: (i) don’t harm or humiliate kids; (ii) help them cultivate their talents; (iii) help them compensate for their weaknesses; and (iv) inculcate some pro-social civic norms.

    I don’t want to idealize any of this. There are plenty of crappy teachers, and many more that are just lazy or unimaginative. And a lot of public education does a bad job of dealing with unusual kinds of kids, whether unusually bright or learning disabled or just odd, which has left a good number of people feeling unhappy and misunderstood. I do think there has been some progress on this front since the people posting here were kids.

  • Robin Hanson

    David, so your evidence for a pro-kid teacher agenda is “the tenor of what is taught in education programs”. You mean that in the classes that people take to become teachers, they talk a lot about how much good they are going to do for students?

  • Nicholas Shackel

    David: Judging by your comments here and your remarks elsewhere that ‘the harm here is obvious’ and ‘I could go on’, you apparently think that your opinion is obviously true, easily proven and that no reasonable person could possibly disagree with you. I have found that people who advance similar propositions assume the same, indeed, they frequently think that anyone who disagrees with them is either stupid or immoral.

    You speak as there is a significant distinction between the sales pitches of commercial enterprises and educational enterprises, but a sales pitch in high-falutin language is still just a sales pitch. You speculate about the goodness of teachers but why should you think the people in commerce are less noble, and why think that teachers are not equally motivated by the pursuit of self interest. After all, they don’t do it for nothing.

    Just like the nurses’ unions, the teachers’ unions put out propaganda about the greater nobility of their public service compared to the world of commerce. They consider schools superior to commercial organisations, think that pupils are not customers because ‘children are much more important than that’ and believe therefore that education lies outside the grubby world of commerce. Likewise, as I’m sure you’ll agree, my own work is of *far too elevated* a kind to be properly regarded as a ‘job’ in the ‘market place’; not only should you all be taxed to pay me so I can do what I want to do, but you should all be grateful to me for doing it as well.

    The advertisers have to compete on price, variety and quality for my custom. The teachers coerce me on pain of prison into paying for very poor quality education whether I want it or not, and give me no choice where to send my child. The advertisers don’t consider themselves morally superior and want to do nothing more than to sell me something. Teachers believe they have a superior view of what my child needs, go on and on about how dedicated they are as if they are moral heroes doing us a favour, and indoctrinate my children with whichever fashionable political ideas they think that only the stupid or immoral could disagree with.

    Teachers get away with this only because many people buy the propaganda. But if the schools managed to satisfy their customers wants as successfully as the businesses that you complain about did, education would be in a much better state than it is.

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    This is not a reasonable comparison between the teachers and advertisers.Both have same responsibility to deliver their ideas and message but the working style of both parties is entirely different.

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