The policy illusion

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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18 Responses

  1. RTod says:

    Erik – Good post, and if I may I’d like to ask you to briefly expand on a thought:

    “Even if we leave our children’s schooling up to the school system, we should take their education into our own hands as much as possible.”

    This seems like one of those statements everyone will agree on, but no one will agree on what it means. What do *you* mean by this, and what do you see as the difference between the two?Report

  2. E.C. Gach says:

    The point of my post was really to try and drive home how absurd some of the dividing lines in our political discourse really are. Depending on the starting point, which policy preferences we may prefer could categorize us as libertarians or liberals or conservatives. The direction our policies take us is much more important than the teams advocating those policies, or the labels they are associated with in popular culture.

    This is often a problem for me, when making up my own mind on policy. Is simply moving in the right direction good enough? Or should my policy support be more guided by what I want the end-game to be?

    One example is “free” trade. Is it good enough that workers might (a big might) be better off because of a factory opening up and the jobs it provides and the wages this makes available? Or is anything lower than a certain floor of human dignity/prosperity just off the table?

    We do this with “inalienable human rights.” So letting my slaves work half as much isn’t a good policy simply because it moves in the right direction. Anything short of emancipation is a bad policy.

    But in economic matters, or matters looked at through the lense of cost/benefit analysis coupled with morality, where that floor exists is harder to decide.

    As a result, in education there are the moral imperatives of, every child should be given an equitable chance to succeed (if you subcribe to that), coupled with, what is the most economical way to help the most children succeed.

    Also, this discrepancy between movement in a direction and arriving at the prefered endstate is somewhat related to the problem of, “well, if you could only tweak one thing and not the whole system,” vs. “what if you could change the whole framework upon which the system is built.”

    For instance, I’d be for single payer education, but not for a limited pool of vouchers to be raffled off.Report

  3. Amy says:

    Single-payer schooling doesn’t mean privatization. The point of single-payer is to make possible a system of equitable funding, in contrast to the local funding we have now, which exacerbates inequalities. Once you equalize funding through a single-payer system, there are any number of ways to think about what those schools would look like and how they would be run. Vouchers are one of those ways (and most likely to lead to privatization as I see it) but single payer =/= vouchers, which seems to be what you are suggesting.

    However, you do raise a fair question, which is why are some people apparently comfortable with publicly-funded, privately-provided health care, but balk at a similar model for schooling. I would start by saying that education is a public good in a way that healthcare is not. In a democratic society, I am affected by the way other people’s children are educated, so I have a legitimate interest in democratic oversight of how schools are run. Schools are also engines of social (im)mobility, which also suggests a need for democratic oversight. Now that I think about it, you could apply a similar argument to some aspects of health care; for example, a single-payer system creates incentives for emphasizing preventative care, which benefits everyone. But I don’t think the two (healthcare and education) are fully analogous.Report

    • James K in reply to Amy says:

      I would start by saying that education is a public good in a way that healthcare is not.

      No, it really isn’t. Public goods are non-rival (once you produce the good, there’s no real limit as to how many people can use it) and non-excludable (it’s really hard to stop people from using it once it’s been provided). Education is neither of these things. What education does (arguably) provide is a positive externality, but that only justifies a subsidy (say, by giving people x dollars to spend on education), not government production of the good.Report

      • Markus in reply to James K says:

        James, you’re defining education awfully narrowly and individualistically. The experience of sitting and getting an education isn’t a public good under those terms, but the outcome of having an educated public certainly is. An educated populace is non-rival in that its effects cascade to every corner of society, and non-excludable for exactly the same reason.Report

        • James K in reply to Markus says:

          That part is the externality. Non-rivalry implies a marginal cost for producing the good of 0.Report

          • Amy in reply to James K says:

            I think you are quibbling with my terminology, not with my actual argument. The point is that education affects everyone, either positively or negatively, and therefore everyone has an interest in how it is run.Report

  4. Markus says:

    From a progressive perspective I think there’s an explanation for the double standard you mentioned. The progressive preference I’d for equality. In health care, where procedures and outcomes are pretty standardized, singlepayer pretty much ensures equal access and outcomes. But in education, single payer vouchers would still produce vastly unequal outcomes based on what school purple happen to choose and what philosophies they choose to pursue, and that in turn endangers equality of opportunity for a whole generation. So I don’t think it’s inconsistent for a liberal or progressive to support single payer health care but not education.Report

    • Markus in reply to Markus says:

      Btw, Amy’s argument above is better than mine.Report

    • trizzlor in reply to Markus says:

      But then the more logical solution seems to be to standardize procedures and outcomes for education (to the extent that they can be), socialize the funding and privatize the providers. If such standardization is impossible, then government control isn’t offering any benefits; on the other hand, if it is possible, then there is still a contradiction in desiring such an outcome for health-care and not for education.

      Let’s imagine a heavily regulated, publicly supported, but private school system: like physicians, potential teachers would to through a rigorous schooling, residency, and licensing process; supported schools would be required to offer certain services/subjects and graduating patients/students would be means-tested. Parents get vouchers and choose which schools to send their kids to. Religious schooling is it’s own can of worms, so let’s say it would be unsupported the same way faith-healing/homeopathy is unsupported under single-payer. Would progressives be against such a system? Actually, I don’t know. I consider myself a progressive and this system sounds pretty workable (obviously, because I designed it!).

      One big difference that I can see is that schooling is compulsory. While health-care is a necessity, it’s not as stringent as going to school 30hrs a week for 10 years. That’s a big reason I see as to why progressives require very stringent regulations and are much more comfortable with full public control (and “public control” vs. “government control” is an important difference in the way liberals and libertarians view it).Report

      • Amy in reply to trizzlor says:

        It sounds good, but you would have to think about some of the perverse incentives created by competition among schools. One is a tendency to “encourage” those with behavioral problems, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, etc. to transfer or drop out. This is very easy to do, even when it is illegal. Another is increasing reliance on those indicators that are easiest (and cheapest) to quantify, which tends to lead to narrowing and dumbing down of the curriculum. Maybe these issues can be addressed somehow, but they have to be considered. Another problem: who will run schools in places where it’s not profitable to do so (eg, sparsely populated areas)?Report

        • trizzlor in reply to Amy says:

          These are very valid concerns, but, as you said, they arise under any system with competitive means-testing – including the current one. Are progressives proposing that we entirely eliminate competition from the public school system? That would be a fundamental difference in the way the private/public market is expected to work, but I haven’t seen such an argument made. Moreover, returning to Kain’s original point, these kinds of problems are also inherent to the health-care system: squeezing out patients with pre-existing conditions or long-term disabilities; defensive medicine or over-prescription to game test metrics; and poor hospital access in rural areas. Yet few progressives are proposing a move to government hospitals, even in the ideal.

          I think the public-goods argument goes a long way towards explaining why we are more comfortable with public schools than public hospitals. But, unless there is a major difference between the two, the ideal system for one should also be seen as the ideal for the other.Report

          • Amy in reply to trizzlor says:

            What do you mean by eliminating competition from the public school system? Do you mean getting rid of charter schools? A lot of people do advocate that, yes.

            As for health care, I don’t understand how anyone benefits from squeezing out people with pre-existing conditions under a single-payer system. If I am a doctor and I get paid by the government (via my patients), what difference does it make to me whether they have pre-existing conditions or not? As for overprescription / defensive medicine, single-payer would affect that indirectly, via public pressure to keep costs down. (This seems to work pretty well in other countries, where the government keeps costs down by buying medication in bulk.) You would also get rid of all the waste that comes from money spent on research for copycat drugs, marketing directly to doctors, etc. (This of course assumes that single-payer extends to payment for medications, not just doctor visits.)Report

            • RTod in reply to Amy says:

              Actually, I think the learning disability/pre-ex already works in a way that benefits providers in both situations.

              For docs, a pre-ex means more billable items and more revenue. For public schools (at least in Oregon, but I am pretty sure this is a federal program) a school gets more money per child that is deemed special needs. At our kid’s school, kids who are not already deemed TAG are given tests each year to see if the qualify whether or not their teacher feels they might. The school is very upfront that they do this for revenue proposes.Report

  5. Adam Schaeffer says:

    Erick . . . I really don’t understand this:
    “Our silly rhetoric often reflects this. Somehow single-payer healthcare is a great progressive achievement, yet single-payer education is the privatization and corporatization of public education. I don’t think many people actually consider how this double standard works, or why they support the one but not the other.”

    Where is the double-standard, and what is silly about all this? It seems perfectly sensible to me . . .Report

  6. DensityDuck says:

    The problem is that you’re starting with the assumption that the education system isn’t already single-payer. I’d say that if you look at how the education system works, and compare it to most proposed single-payer healthcare systems, we have indeed created a single-payer system.

    Consider: There is one provider for services, and it’s government-run and staffed by civil servants (both in administration and in service provision.) These servants are not paid directly by those who receive the service; instead the recipients are taxed to provide the payments. It’s permissible to procure private services from a non-government provider, but this doesn’t completely offset the tax payments, and the government doesn’t typically provide funding assistance to procure those private services.Report