June 14, 2010

Should Atlas Shrugged have been about teachers instead of businessmen and inventors?

Prophets of social revolution often get the future wrong, the most obvious example being Marxism. Marxists believed the communist revolution would occur first in the capitalist economies like Germany, not in the backward peasant societies like Russia or China, because the iron laws of history said that feudalism had to first be replaced by capitalism, which would in turn be superseded by communism. Hence all of the left-wing support for the communist revolution in Germany at the end of WWI, since that's where the transformation was destined to take place, and the relative lack of interest in the communist revolution in Russia around the same time, since they didn't even have a capitalist system for the workers to take over and run by themselves. And about the state withering away once the communist revolution had succeeded -- wrong again.

On the other side of the political spectrum, we have prophecies about how the world might unravel if people don't heed the warnings of libertarians. Most notable here is Ayn Rand's dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. In it, creative and entrepreneurial types gradually get so fed up with state coercion generally, and in particular with being conscripted into an army of self-sacrificing helpers, that they start to withdraw from the system. With the inventors, scientists, businessmen, and other pillars of the economy slowly pulling away, the whole thing starts to keel over -- that'll teach the state to bite the hand that feeds!

With over 50 years of experience after the novel's publication, we see how wrong was Rand's vision that coerced self-sacrifice among creative types would ruin the system. To consider a timely example, look at how much regulation the banking industry came under during the 1990s and 2000s to serve the interests of social justice by giving out more mortgages to poor and Non-Asian Minority home-buyers. Rather than bankers individually growing weary and ultimately withdrawing from their calling, they as collective corporations dove into coerced self-sacrifice headfirst and for years swam around in big bucks. And if somehow the pool's drain opened up, someone else would keep them afloat -- I mean, people aren't just going to let saints go under for serving the cause of social justice, right?

Researchers, inventors, and artists too resent having to comply with state regulations such as meeting affirmative action targets -- e.g., when appealing to the government for grant money, having to detail how some expensive piece of equipment will be used in equal measure by men and women, as well as by whites / Asians and NAMs. Or having to detail how some community arts outreach project will target all demographic groups equally, if a financially strapped arts group wants state funding for it. Nevertheless, as annoyed as they may be, on the whole the members of these professions are not in revolt, do not even give off the smell of stewing in resentment, and don't suffer from the high burn-out rates that Rand would've predicted.

It is rather another group of professionals pressed into the populist posse who are the most likely to drop out and tell society to go fuck itself -- the teachers. Most people who go into teaching start out with something of a passion for it, though not necessarily at the level of those who join the Peace Corps. They like interacting with people, seeing their students "get it" and enjoy the teacher's favorite subject, and helping otherwise helpless young people reach their full individual potential. They could care less about making sure as many little girls go into engineering as do little boys, or that there be an equal fraction of their white students as of their NAM students who they help get into the Ivy League.

They merely want to push each student to pay attention and do their best. In their view, they are cultivating a group of seeds none of whose secret blueprints they can read beforehand -- they only want to provide the soil, water, and light to help these seeds blossom into whatever shapes they were meant to take on, to improve the world in their own humble grassroots way.

As Steve Sailer discusses in a recent column, against this desire fights a coalition of parents, politicians, voters, employers, and academics who are all agreed on one thing: teachers are to blame for how screwed up society is. If only the teachers would bla bla bla, our social fabric would not be stained by inequality of outcomes across racial groups, women would be equally represented as men at all levels of influence throughout Silicon Valley, "troubled youths" (wink wink) would not turn to a career of crime, and teenagers would never get pregnant, drunk, or hooked on TV and video games. The rest of society charges teachers with curing all of these diseases -- after taking care of that easy stuff like babysitting 35 hell-raisers without raising your voice or the back of your hand.

Turning to the first of the over 300,000 google results for "teacher burn-out" (more than four times as many as for "banker burn-out"), we see that a good deal of their stress is related to meeting "increasingly strict standards of accountability" and "expected numbers" (i.e., regulations related to Closing All Gaps), and that the highest attrition rates are for teachers in "minority" (i.e. NAM) schools. With these chilling gales blowing against the teachers' spark of purpose, it's no wonder they feel burned out.

Are current or would-be teachers looking for somewhere better to teach, where their work would be less interrupted and hijacked by such regulations? You bet. New teachers would love to get a cushy job -- behaviorally, not financially -- at a private school that didn't require so many hoops to jump through. There's also been an explosion in the private tutoring business (here's an NYT feature from 1993), some of which includes test prep but is more general. I worked in that industry for several years, and the main appeal for me was not having my time and energy sucked dry by teacher-blamers. I know it was for most of my co-workers too.

If you're a college grad, or even in college, are smart (shown by test scores or GPA), show up on time, and get along with kids and teenagers, you're hired. If you want to tutor specific subjects like high school math or the SAT, you have to take a quick test to prove your competence, but it costs nothing other than a little time. No pointless certification process.

And since most of your work is based around the company's materials or is free-form based on the student's homework that day, you don't have to take classes on how to make lesson plans, complete with all the theoretical balderdash about how to make them effective for all demographic groups, etc. You have a basic idea of what works, use a little trial and error for a given student if that doesn't work, and end up with whatever seems effective for that individual. No one is going to track whether the female students you work with do as well as the males, or NAMs and whites, or rich and poor. You're free to help each student do their personal best, and the devil with the demands of the Ministry of Social Justice.

This is not merely a hatred of credentialism, since most burnt-out teachers are certified! It has to do instead with the larger coerced self-sacrifice that teachers are subjected to.

What Rand fundamentally miscalculated was the ability of inventors, businessmen, etc. to not just slip out of their regulatory fetters but to then form them into lashes with which to whip their competitors, a phenomenon known as "regulatory capture." Look again at the bankers' profits even after they were charged with making crummier loans. Maybe one or two stubborn strands remain to hinder their movement, but that just makes life annoying rather than intolerable. It ends not in a revolt but a muttering.

Although it would sound somewhat callous, a banker could get away with saying, "Hey, it's not my fault that you poor people don't have any money." And an artist could be pardoned for saying, "Hey, it's not my fault that you untrained guys can't make good art." But in a society where the blank slate ideology dominates, nurturers cannot excuse themselves from the problems of their charges. A teacher cannot say, "Don't blame me if your kid is an idiot and a hell-raiser." Of course we should -- after all, nobody's born stupid or evil.

This prevents teachers from getting away with regulatory capture. The banker can say, "You poor people don't really deserve these mortgages, but you know what, we're going to be generous and give them to you anyway," expecting the tax-payers to save the banker if this act of forced generosity blows up in his face. In contrast, the teacher cannot say, "You dumb students don't really deserve this A, but you know what, I'm going to be generous and give it to you anyway." Unlike the banker who has succeeded in "serving the community" by making loans to poor or NAM borrowers, the teacher who attempts regulatory capture by doctoring test scores, or making the test so easy that any dolt can ace it, has failed to Close All Gaps (just wait a little while to see) and will not be bailed out if his students end up doing horribly later on. In fact, he'll probably be fired or have his school shut down if there's evidence he tried to co-opt the regulations.

Unlike bankers and scientists who can have their cake and eat it too -- present plausible evidence of serving social justice while co-opting regulations for their own benefit -- teachers cannot. The very attempt to give dumb students good scores proves that the teacher isn't really trying to Close All Gaps, in which case doctoring the scores would not be necessary. It is this inability to undo all the various restraints on them that makes teachers the most likely group of necessary professionals to slowly pull out from the system and tell the parents, politicians, and philanthropists to all go to hell without them.


  1. "Hence all of the left-wing support for the communist revolution in Germany at the end of WWI, since that's where the transformation was destined to take place, and the relative lack of interest in the communist revolution in Russia around the same time, since they didn't even have a capitalist system for the workers to take over and run by themselves."

    Really? I have the impression there was quite a lot of interest in the Bolshevik Revolution at the time. It's true, there would have been even more interest in a successful German revolution: that's because a German revolution would have been objectively more important. It would have led to a much earlier communisation of Eastern Europe (maybe Western Europe too).

    "And about the state withering away once the communist revolution had succeeded -- wrong again."

    You need to remember that the Communists never claimed to have created a communist society. According to ideology, they were constructing socialist societies that would develop into (stateless) communist societies sometime after the world revolution. This was made very clear to anyone travelling to an Eastern Bloc country (as I did in 1982).

  2. Maybe I'm misunderstanding you, but aren't teacher's unions (in "blue" jurisdictions, anyway) a classic example an industry group capturing the regulatory apparatus?

  3. "I have the impression there was quite a lot of interest in the Bolshevik Revolution at the time."

    But that's not where the standard Marxists like Lenin and Trotsky were truly interested. They knew the revolution in Germany was going to be the real deal since there was all that capitalism to take over vs. a feudal society to take over.

    "but aren't teacher's unions (in "blue" jurisdictions, anyway) a classic example an industry group capturing the regulatory apparatus?"

    In some respects maybe, like turning the regulation for credentialing into a weapon against would-be entrants, boosting their wages as a result.

    But I'm talking about the regulation to Close All Gaps. They can't capture that one the way that lenders captured their mandate to make crummier loans and rode it all the way to the bank.

    It would look like teachers giving every student the same passing grade and getting higher compensation for thus Closing All Gaps. When it was revealed that these grades were worthless and threaten to close down the schools, the teachers would get bailed out by taxpayers and not lose any of those big bucks they made during the grade inflation for having Closed All Gaps.

    In reality, grade inflation can only go so far, and teachers don't get rich off of it or use it to deter would-be teachers from entering the profession. If somehow it reached a grand scale, the teachers would be chased down and hanged by a mob, not bailed out.

  4. Great Post! (I don't have anything smart to say, but I liked it).

  5. Lenin theorized that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism, which was allowing it to persist (and even become wealthier, bribing the proletariat into becoming anti-revolutionary) in the most advanced countries. It was the more backward (but still possessing an urban proletariat) countries that had the most revolutionary potential in his book. Remember, he was a Bolshevik rather than a Menshevik.

    The Overton Window has shifted a lot from the 40s/50s. People often say Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" was proved wrong by the success of the welfare state in avoiding totalitarianism, not realizing that in that same book he endorses a welfare state which includes even universal health-care! Back in that time the issue was not regulations altering the incentives of businesses, but stuff like the Steel Seizure cases. F.D.R was openly declaring his hostility to the business class, destroying crops and cartelizing industry while arresting a man for growing wheat on his own property. At that time it was plausible to imagine an American Mugabe.

    Regarding teacher burnout, it's a good thing they don't matter!

  6. Tons of homeschool moms are actually certified public school teachers who would rather invest in their own kids than the NAM's.

  7. And tons of homeschool moms are NAMs who'd rather invest in their kids than continue supporting SWPL policies in public schools.


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