Home > Uncategorized > Can Economists and Reformers Ever Be Friends? Based on John Lancaster’s New Yorker Article, Absolutely YES!

Can Economists and Reformers Ever Be Friends? Based on John Lancaster’s New Yorker Article, Absolutely YES!

August 13, 2018

I just finished reading John Lancaster’s New Yorker article titled “Can Economists and Humanists Ever Be Friends” and was struck by the similarities between the thought patterns of the economists described in the article and the “reformers” who seek to improve public education. The article, which appeared under the “Critic at Large” heading, was essentially Mr. Lancaster’s reaction to several books written by economists who attempt to quantify and codify “laws” of human behavior and use these codes to determine the economic efficacy of various decisions. In the process of doing so, however, these economists tend to overlook the humanistic consequences that flow from their decision making models. The hard core economists who use these decision models assert that once human interaction is reduced to a mathematical algorithm based on the assumption that the economic concept of “utility” is the ultimate “good”, the humanistic consequences are immaterial. The problem from Mr. Lancaster’s perspective is that “utility” is an amoral metric.

Here’s the case of a study conducted by the World Bank’s economists that Mr. Lancaster describes how “utility” ignores a major benefit to a group of human beings suffering from a crippling disease:

In the nineteen-eighties, Schapiro—who today is the president of Northwestern University, as well as a professor of economics—was part of a team that put together publications for the World Bank. One of their books had a chapter on onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness. It is a parasitic disease that has cost millions of people their eyesight, and is endemic in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In 1974, seven West African nations got together, contacted donors, and set out to create the Onchocerciasis Control Program, overseen by the World Health Organization. The program was a huge success, in that it prevented hundreds of thousands of people from going blind, but there was a problem: the economists involved couldn’t show that the venture was worth it. A cost-benefit analysis was “inconclusive”: the people who were being helped were so poor that the benefit of saving their eyesight didn’t have much monetary impact.“There are humanitarian benefits associated with reducing the blindness and suffering caused by onchocerciasis,” the World Bank report allowed. But “these benefits are inherently unmeasurable, and we will not account for them here.” In other words, the very thing that made the project so admirable—that it was improving the lives of the poorest people in the world—also made it, from an economic point of view, not really worth doing.

This conclusion immediately brought to mind the consequences of using standardized tests as the sole metric for “quality” in schools, a metric beloved of the economic quants who advocate their use for rating schools and teachers. Another metric the Obama administration advocated for measuring the value of post-secondary education, earnings, is equally useless. Both test scores and earnings are “utility” metrics that, like the World Bank’s metric, overlook benefits accrued by schooling that “don’t have much monetary impact”. They also overlook the fact that most of the benefits children get from public education and undergraduates get from college are inherently unmeasurable… but “reformers”, like economists, would contend that since they are “unmeasurable” there is no need to account for them… and the legislators and general public at this point seem to agree that anything that can’t be measured isn’t work considering when determining the efficacy of schooling.

As long as the public agrees that the only things worth teaching in public schools is content that can be measured in norm-referenced standardized tests and the only reason to attend post-secondary school is to earn more money than, say, a truck driver or construction worker, we will be stuck in the rut we are living in today.

Mr. Lancaster concludes his article with this observation:

The project of reducing behavior to laws and the project of attending to human beings in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed.

To paraphrase this to public education, I conclude that

“The project of reducing the measurement of the worth of public education to tests and earnings and the need  of attending to the humanity of students in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed.”

Anything schools can do to improve the emotional and psychological well-being of students is a huge benefit, even if it is inherently unmeasurable.

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