Friday, August 8, 2014

Remember... all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.

(Updated to correct small grammatical errors due to voice to text problems)

Yesterday's Marketplace Morning Report had a snippet examining different articles from an old 1948 issue of Fortune magazine (starts about the 3:45 point in the short clip). One part of the story stood out to me. It was about business and ethics and specifically about inequality using the example of teachers being underpaid. It is unsurprising but disappointing to me that this story line has been around as long as it has. It is disappointing from the standpoint of it being either economic ignorance or deceptiveness.

Allow me to point out the logical implication of the idea that teachers are underpaid (Fair warning: I do this to be provocative by stating it in a rather harsh but still true manner. This is designed to get a rise out of you but also to make you think critically.). Here goes:
Either they're too dumb or lazy to figure out how to get out of that job and into the one that pays them what they're worth or . . . they're worth what they're being paid.
I will let you seethe on that for a moment.

Okay, now let's be a little more charitable. Notice I won't go so far as to basically canonize everyone in the teaching profession. For those who truly could make a greater total compensation but instead sacrifice for the good of the cause, that is wonderful and to be commended. At the same time, if you are doing it as an act of charity, you have forfeited your right to complain about the pay. For the rest . . .

This could be another case of the old adage there ain't no money in that. But there is money in that; we just have to understand what type of money there is and what is truly determining that total compensation. If you make the proper adjustments for time off and other benefits including pension plans for public school teachers that may be too generous, you see that actual total compensation is fairly high. It still lags what many talented teachers could earn in other professions, but we have to respect their reasoning for making the choices they make.

So why is teacher compensation largely composed of non-pecuniary benefits like time off and job security? One easy answer would be that most of the teaching jobs are through government, which is subject to the whims of the political arena and haunted by bad incentives.

(I've updated the next paragraph to clarify my point)
Yet the larger economic reason (for teachers' pay structures including the low annual wage commonly kvetched about) is more subtle. Income is overwhelmingly determined by comparative advantage and the size of the market--not intelligence per se. Frankly speaking there are a lot of eligible candidates for teaching jobs despite the work of teachers unions to restrict the employee pool. And in the market for teaching children there are in most cases quickly diminishing returns to intelligence.

Don't believe me that income is a matter of comparative advantage and market size rather than intelligence? Imagine you are a member of a primitive society living on a small, isolated island. Would you rather have as your only differentiating skill to be the one guy who knows how to split an atom or the one guy who knows how to tie knots?