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The Rich Are Different: They’re Luckier

This long attack on the unfairness of progressive taxation from the Hoover Institution by Kip Hagopian usefully embodies a lot of right-wing delusions about income inequality. It argues that a person’s income is determined by three things:

America’s free enterprise system provides an environment in which the substantial majority of its citizens can realize their fullest earnings potential. Within that environment, individual economic outcomes are the product of a combination of three elements: aptitude, work effort, and choice of occupation.

Aptitude. For the purposes of this essay, aptitude is broadly defined as the capacity to produce, or to earn income. For the most part, it comes from circumstances of birth and is distributed unequally. Aptitude may be derived from innate talents (cognitive, musical, artistic, athletic, etc.) or physical attributes (appearance, dexterity, possession of senses, etc.). Or it may be acquired from lessons learned from parents and other life experiences. Aptitude emanating from circumstances of birth (either innate or acquired) can be significantly enhanced by individual effort applied to strengthening one’s skills (see “Work Effort” below). Aptitude is measured from low to high in accordance with the monetary value placed on it in the marketplace. This is a measure of earning power and is not in any way an indication of an individual’s intrinsic worth as a human being. For most people aptitude is the most significant determinant of income. But it has to be understood as capacity; aptitude does not produce income until it is combined with individual effort.

Work effort. For any given level of aptitude and occupation, work effort plays the decisive role in determining income, and in many cases may result in persons with lower aptitudes earning more than their higher-aptitude peers. For the purposes of this essay, the term “work effort” includes not only the number of hours worked, but also the intensity of the effort applied during those hours. As noted above, it also includes work effort applied to strengthening one’s skills.

At every level of aptitude and in every profession, whether the pay is in salary or hourly wages, there are workers who outperform their peers in each hour worked. They do this by performing tasks more quickly; focusing on the tasks more intently; finding and completing additional tasks that need to be done; and using some of their leisure time practicing or training to become more skilled. These people get more raises, larger bonuses, and more promotions than their peers. Thus, greater work effort can produce higher income whether the person is paid by the hour or earns a salary.

In addition to producing higher income in its own right, work effort applied to strengthening one’s skill — resulting in “learned” or “enhanced” aptitude — can make a substantial contribution toward increasing income. The “rough” carpenter who spends nights and weekends developing the skills necessary to qualify as a more highly valued “finish” carpenter will move up the wage scale by doing so. Professional athletes, musicians, singers, and other performers can enhance their innate aptitudes substantially through extensive practice, and a great many are renowned for having done so. A classic example is Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice, who is generally recognized as the best wide receiver in NFL history. He was one of the highest paid players in pro football for twenty years, an achievement largely credited to his intense practice and workout regimen. Perhaps the most effective way of enhancing aptitude is through increased study in school. Whether it is grade school, high school, vocational school or college, for any particular tier of aptitude, those who study the most almost always get the best grades, matriculate to the best colleges, and secure the best jobs.

Choice of occupation. Choice of occupation is also important in determining income. Had Bill Gates decided to finish Harvard and become a high school math teacher, he almost certainly would have been successful, but he would not have become a multi-billionaire.

Earned income is determined by a mix of the three factors described above, and the relative contribution of each varies by individual.

This is obviously written to minimize the role of luck. It acknowledges that Bill Gates made more money by choosing to become a software mogul than by choosing t be a high school math teacher. But, of course, Gates (as he has acknowledged) benefited enormously not just from his family situation but from the timing of his birth, which put him in the work force at a moment when computing technology was set to explode. If he had been born a decade or two earlier, he probably would have been an anonymous lab geek if he had followed his mathematical inclinations, or perhaps the owner of a successful grocery store chain if he had pursued his entrepreneurial instincts.

What’s more, it is demonstrably not the case that income levels simply reflect aptitude and effort. Now, obviously being from a richer family affords all sorts of advantages, including physical, emotional, and cultural development. But factor all that out of the equation and assume that it’s just fair for all those things to translate into higher academic performance and higher earnings.

Even assuming that, there are massive advantages inherent simply in being born rich (and disadvantages in being poor.) My favorite example, simply because it’s so dramatic, is that a child born into the lowest-earning quintile who manages to attain a college degree is less likely to be in the highest-earning quintile than a child born into the top quintile who does not attain a college degree. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that making it to, and through, college is far harder for poor kids than rich kids even at a given level of aptitude. (Two thirds of the kids with average math scores and low-income parents do not attend college, while almost two-thirds of high-income kids with average math scores do.)

 How would Hagopian explain this? The lower-income kids managed to beat the odds by graduating from college, yet they make less money than the rich kids who beat the odds in the other direction by not going to college. By any measure, the former group has more aptitude and greater work ethic. Now, clearly right-wingers in general, and wealthy right-wingers in particular, like to think aptitude and effort and choices determine how much money you make. (Hagopian is the co-founder of a venture capital and private equity firm.) You see this from Greg Mankiw, Arthur Brooks, and on and on. The right-wing worldview is based on a moral premise about the relationship between merit and wealth that is demonstrably false.

By: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, April 1, 2011

April 2, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Equal Rights, Ideologues, Income Gap, Jobs, Minimum Wage, Politics, Right Wing | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Invest In Your Child’s Future: Pay Teachers More

From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid.

That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid. If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession.

Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.

These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.”

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

We all understand intuitively the difference a great teacher makes. I think of Juanita Trantina, who left my fifth-grade class intoxicated with excitement for learning and fascinated by the current events she spoke about. You probably have a Miss Trantina in your own past.

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

A teacher better than 93 percent of other teachers would add $640,000 to lifetime pay of a class of 20, the study found.

Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.

But none of this means that teachers are overpaid. And if governments nibble away at pensions and reduce job security, then they must pay more in wages to stay even.

Moreover, part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.

Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found.

“We’re not going to get better teachers unless we pay them more,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education reform organization. Likewise, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says, “We’re the first people to say, throw them $100,000, throw them whatever it takes.”

Both Ms. Wilkins and Ms. Allen add in the next breath that pay should be for performance, with more rigorous evaluation. That makes sense to me.

Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000, would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.

Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.

Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.

By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 12, 2011

March 13, 2011 Posted by | Education, Employment Descrimination, Professionals, Teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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