Of Budgets and Books

While most Americans remain relatively ignorant about public policy, there are two areas in which they, nevertheless, have fairly strong opinions. These opinions/beliefs/thoughts are based upon limited personal experience in education and managing their own personal finances. There is simply no other subset of public policy that falls prey to so-called common sense.

Ask anyone on the street their opinion about taxes or public budgets and you’re likely to get a number of very confident responses. Many will say that a government budget is just like their own. You can’t spend money you don’t have and other platitudes will be trotted out as gospel truth. Of course, this misses several realities. First, we are a nation of debtors, generally speaking. Very few people actually limit their spending to what they earn. Part of this is due to consumption patterns (intertemporal smoothing, PIH, etc.) that tend to be stable over time, despite fluctuations in income. But, especially in more modern times, is simply individuals living beyond their means.

Further, there are many instances in which we, as individuals, make rational decisions to go into debt in order to invest- whether in physical or intellectual capital. The government does the same thing, especially the federal government which is unique in its ability to run deficits. But also because the federal government is able to play such a large role in the American economy, it is expected to use its fiscal policy to promote economic prosperity. (I am purposely leaving aside monetary policy for this discussion.)

Much of the current sentiment against the ARRA or an additional stimulus is this idea that we ought to run the federal government like our own household budget. As already noted, there are some fundamental problems with the premise. But, even if we accept that most people do balance their personal budgets in a way that does not result in long term debt, there is still an obvious flaw- the government is not like a person or like a business (one of the other whoppers you often hear). Not only does the demand for many of the services government provides increase during tough economic times, but in time such as the present, when monetary policy is ineffectual (zero lower bound, etc.), the only way for government to improve economic conditions is to spend. We do not expect individuals and businesses to go into debt in order to rescue our economy, which is another way in which these analogies miss the mark.

Another area in which the “man on the street” seems to have a very fixed and certain opinion is the public schools. Generally speaking, due to compulsory education laws, most people have at least 10 years of experience in the elementary and secondary education system. Based on these experiences, nearly everyone claims to be an expert. But it’s a bit like saying that since I have owned a car for over a decade, I am somehow qualified to either fix it or become CEO of a car company.

This is not to say that experience as a student does not provide a view of the education system. But it is just that- a view, a glimpse even. Students do not know the inner workings of the education system. They are not well-versed in pedagogy. And the same can be said for parents. Simply having a child, or children, in the public schools does not make you John Dewey. Sure, you have a perspective and one that should be heard and respected. But your limited engagement with the schools does not qualify you as an education expert. No one is going to knock on your door and ask you to become their superintendent.

But there is this pervasive notion, captured by the old saying- those who can, do; those who cannot, teach. For whatever reason, there exists in this country, a misguided belief that teaching is easy, that anyone can do it. And that helps to explain why nearly every adult in America seems to think they have something important to say about education.

The above argument should not be construed as an argument against public input into fiscal or educational policy. Rather, it is a warning of the dangers of placing too much importance on non-expert beliefs, many of which are unfounded, misguided or counterproductive.

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2 thoughts on “Of Budgets and Books

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Though, personally, I just feel like I’m in this strange limbo. I have a lot of respect for the difficulty of teaching and honestly would prefer it to be professionally better respected, paid, and supported.

    However, I also, think teacher’s unions have entirely too much power and as a sentiment – however widely shared – it’s popularly irreconcilable with “support for teachers.”

    I’d throw in that teaching also provides a particular view of education. The deference we give to, “teacher knows best,” in my mind, horribly undercuts the value that should be given to the needs and role of classified and administrative employees.

  2. I tend to think the best thing we could do for public education is to blow it up and start again from scratch. Then again, all the years I have spent in education may have made me jaded. I’ve been a school board member, teacher, state policymaker and covered the issue in the think tank world. Suffice to say that I do not have a great deal of confidence in any education interest group to reform education.

    This is where my ideas are probably most heterodox. I like charter schools, provided that we follow through and close failing ones. I also want to do away with the single salary schedule and replace it with something that reflects the labor market and a teacher’s value to the educational process. Yet, I am not opposed to tenure as I think it can play a role in insulating teachers from arbitrary administrative decisions. The reality is that an administrator or district that is intent on firing someone for poor performance can do it. Sure, it may not be easy, but it’s not the impossible task that many tenure opponents portray it as. I’d also like to see education finance reform- no reason to continue funding schools the way we did 100 years ago.

    Yet, there are powerful interest groups on every side of those issue who simply refuse to consider policies that do not fit with their preconceived notions. Maybe it’s this way with all policy areas, but education really seems the most intractable.

    I need to stop before I turn this into a diatribe.

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