Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pay Us More and We will Teach Better
Not one of my instructors.
The subject comes from a public speaking instructor of mine whilst pursuing my BS.  He asked the class for impromptu speech topics and I said, "Instructor effectiveness."  His response was, "Pay us better and we will teach better."  Now, this fellow was no Marxist, at least not on the surface.  He seemed to be on the social conservative side of society and had generally mainstream conservative political views, when revealed.  A bit of a tell there was that he rarely expressed his political views, but when he did they seemed to be more along the lines of a country club Republican.

An interesting exchange it was, short as it was, and I do not recall any further discussion with him on the matter.  However, there is a basic fallacy at work here.  No, it is not the usual Marx' Labor Theory of Value fallacy, it is the notion that all one needs to do to get better stuff out the production end of the factory is to increase the raw materials on the receiving dock.  In this case, a degree factory.

Oddly, even people who have worked real jobs in the real world and shun the life of the academic fall prey to the notion that if you just pay someone more money they will be more productive, or produce higher quality products.  In my brief stints in factory work I heard it all of the time.  "If they want me to do more, then need to pay me more!"  Note, these complaints were never in the vein of operating their own machine while supervising five more lines.  No, it was most always another quality check on their line, or something similar.  It briefly ignores all other conditions, that when queried also experience grand inflation.

Want an example from white-collar world?  I wrote of this situation here before.  When I was working in the Pentagon for the Army Staff, one of the designated Information Technology Portfolio Managers, who was responsible for checking if about 100 training systems were in compliance with various reporting aspects, would have a fit every time I reminded her to check her portfolio.  Her objection was "Unfunded mandate!"  Somehow this GS-12 had gotten the notion that she could not be assigned any duty without an additional increase in pay and she was not going to mouse-check 100 boxes on a computer screen until some additional funding arrived.  The other problem was within her command, since the system "owners" could self report this task (and should have) been spread around to several people more familiar with the individual systems.  She continued with her systems boycott until long after I moved on to other things, and nothing negative happened to her as far as I know.

So, what of this notion that if you just pay someone better, they will do better work?  We all want higher pay, sellers of anything always want to realize a higher price for their goods.  However, it is utter nonsense on its face and we have all seen examples where it does not work.  We have all seen people who do the most menial, low paying jobs in a superb manner without complaining about it.  Right beside them, we see the slacker who views his primary job function as moaning about how he is being "screwed by the man".  We all know which one of them is doing the work of both.

The real bottom line here is, if you do not have the skills to do a job, then it does not matter how much you get paid, you will not be able to do the job correctly.  And who wants to pay for that at all, much less more?

So, back to the public speaking instructor.  His notion was one not far from bumper stickers of the day.  His notion was that students would learn better skills (the effectiveness part) if only their teachers were paid better (the raw materials input part).  So, I shall use myself as an example.  I know my way around a tool box and muscle cars, but I am no expert.  I can teach someone how to adjust a carburetor, but someone else taught me that about six years ago and it was just a Carter two-barrel.  If someone paid me a million dollars, I could not teach anybody how to tune a Holly six-pack, and adding a gun to my head would only result in my son inheriting the million dollars.

Another subtle notion within the instructor's comment was that, perhaps, teachers were actually capable of being more effective but they were just sand-bagging until the public met their demands.  Does this approach work in any other industry?  Of course not.  McDonald's® does not gripe that their products will get better when their customers pay them more.  "Pssst, want that McDouble® to be ten times better?  Meet me at the side door with a sawbuck."  No, they offer what they offer and price it according to what they think will lure you into their store rather than Wendy's®.  Something that McDonald's® and Wendy's® will do that no university will ever do: Give you a refund, or at least a discount coupon, if you don't like what they served you.

Which leads to something else odd about the instructor's notion of increasing pay to increase performance is that if the compensation is unacceptable, why bother perusing that line of work to begin with?  He was a PhD candidate, in something other than education, and graduated a semester or two after I was in his class.  That sort of thing takes a lot of effort!  Why waste years of your life on something you are going to be unsatisfied with wherever you go to work?  I am sure McDonald's® could announce a Kobe beef burger tomorrow, but I doubt there would be very many takers.

Here is some good advice from my mother that I should have followed in my wasted youth, "Do the best job you can and learn as much about it as you can.  Become an expert in whatever you do, even if it is mopping the floors, and learn the job next to you too."

Now, for your video interlude - Debate: It is Smart to Get a PhD in Economics | Block and North:
Dr. Block could have made a much better case for his side.  He uses salary/hours as the primary motivation for becoming a Professor or Instructor of Austrian Economics, a variant on 'money for nothing and chicks for free,' without the chicks.

A more persuasive incentive might be to advance the science of Economics and they pay is gravy. Dr. Peter Boettke made a better defense of becoming a credentialed Economist, by accident, in one of his Foundation for Economic Education lectures on Austrian Econ.
Full disclosure: I did not consider Economics a science until I got deeper into Chicago and Austrian Econ, and I have a Finance degree.

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