Tuesday, April 2, 2013

For Whom The School Bell Tolls

Arnold Kling has a great article at the Library of Economics and Liberty on a common epistemic blind spot that conflates school with education. He drops a great line in the fourth paragraph that neatly hooks a codfish circling the tidal basin of Misapplied Scope in the Sea of Almost Euvoluntary Exchange.
[T]he watchword for many conservatives and Republicans is "accountability," which in practice appears to mean top-down control over schools using test scores as a metric.
"Compared to what" is the verbal round economists have chambered at all times, with the hammer cocked and the safety off. "To whom" ought to sit ready in the holdout pistol, particularly when the discussion is about responsibility and accountability. To whom is a vendor accountable? Who bears responsibility for so-called externalitites?

In the case of education, it strikes me as likely that "to whom" educators ought be accountable is parents and students. It's kind of peculiar that the political elite is unwilling to allow people who are empowered to participate in the process of electing them the simple sovereignty of determining appropriate educational standards for their kids. If they're so incompetent at this important task that is so near and dear, why trust them with electoral franchise?

Equal protection under the 14th Amendment unless you're poor, I suppose.

But this idea extends way past mere education. We've got a Uniform Commercial Code and an ADA and OSHA and an EEOC and many more agencies that usurp the accountability implicit in a euvoluntary exchange and put it on a fast train to Union Station ( that's in DC, for those of you who don't live in the area). Thanks to the ubiquity and universality of these government agencies, should we assume that in expectation, no commercial transaction is euvoluntary? Or have we fireless smoke in this instance? Do government agencies provide some other important function other than to shift the burden of accountability from firsthand bargaining parties to third parties with no stake in the outcome of the trade and a set of incentives that may or may not be well-aligned with the outcomes of the transaction.

Is there any reason, pardon my French, to assume that anyone in the National Education Association gives two furry craps about Fort Wayne, Indiana second-grader Kimmy P. Chizzle's progress with spelling, particularly after adjusting for her innate ability, and exceptionally so when compared to the people that actually know and care about her! Education is no more about aggregate test scores than economic performance is about GDP per capita.

Ditto for all these other things. Economics tells us to do stuff where the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost. You can type this with six keystrokes (assuming you hold the shift key down the whole time) on a standard QWERTY keyboard. Actually performing the calculus of decision is hard without local knowledge and impossible without relative prices. Heads of DC agencies have neither. It seems dreadfully irresponsible to assume the appropriate scope of accountability is national, especially in a country whose contiguous landspace spans four time zones and hosts more than 300 million people.

Accountability is a vital element in protecting the euvoluntarity of exchanges. It assuages ex post regret, promotes prudence in contract, and cements the socially beneficial bonds of trust and reciprocity. Blithely reassigning accountability without extremely judicious use of the precautionary principle is reckless.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?