Frozen North economics: Where supply, demand and distribution are important problems

September 6, 2008

Especially you economics teachers, look at this very carefully:

Six cans of juice, at a store on Baffin Island - photo from Tales from the Arctic

Six cans of juice, at a store on Baffin Island - photo from Tales from the Arctic

How much do you pay for juice at your local market?

“The High Cost of Northern Living” at Arctic Economics points to Tales from the Arctic and “Believe me now?”

How much per ounce?

Kennie (at Tales from the Arctic) features a bunch of unbelievable prices.  Getting goods to towns in the far north of North America, in Canada and Alaska, is a major production.  Transportation and handling kick prices up a bit.

We’ll find out how alert Sarah Palin is when somebody asks her the price of a gallon of milk . . .

More seriously, economics teachers might find some object lessons in these photos, and a good presentation on supply and demand, and the costs of distribution.

Milk at $8.50 a gallon? Even in Canadian currency, that burns.

I wonder:  Do prices like these make economics any easier to teach to high school kids?  Does the urgency of high prices make the subject more relevant?

Tip of the frozen scrub brush to Arctic Economics, of course.


McCain offers to sacrifice American education

September 6, 2008

John McCain’s campaign suggests the remaining weeks of the presidential campaign should concentrate on personalities rather than issues.  Why?

McCain’s issues sound like the failed policies of the George Bush administration, so it should be obvious why he doesn’t want to talk about them.

We have a higher duty, especially on the issues of education.  We need to live up to the challenge of young Dalton Sherman (who gave a more substantial speech than Sarah Palin, I think:  “‘Do you believe in me?’  5th grader Dalton Sherman inspires Dallas teachers.”)

In his acceptance speech Thursday night, McCain promised to continue the War on Education, hurling bolts — okay, aiming sparks — at much of the education establishment, but promising nothing that might actually improve education and help out great kids like Dalton Sherman.

Here I’ve taken the text of McCain’s speech as delivered (from the interactive site at The New York Times) and offer commentary.  For McCain’s sake, and because it reveals the threat to education, I’ve left in the applause indicators.

McCain said:

Education — education is the civil rights issue of this century.

(APPLAUSE)
Equal access to public education has been gained, but what is the value of access to a failing school? We need…

(APPLAUSE) We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice.
(APPLAUSE)

Competition has never been demonstrated to improve education.  In state after state where it’s been tried, we’ve found corruption tends to squander the education dollars, and the education dollars themselves are diluted and diverted from struggling public schools.  If John McCain promised to help New Orleans by diverting money from the Army Corps of Engineers to “competition in the levee building business,” people would scoff.  If he promised to divert money from the Pentagon to offer “competition” in the national security business, he’d be tarred and feathered by his fellow veterans.

We need to make schools work, period.  Taking money away from struggling schools won’t help, and taking money from successful schools would be unjust, and a sin — in addition to failing to help.  40 years of malign neglect of education in inner cities and minority areas should not be the excuse to dismantle America’s education system which remains the envy of the rest of the world despite all its problems, chiefly because it offers access to all regardless of income, birth status, color or location.

Millions of people fight to get to the U.S. because of the opportunities offered by education here.  McCain offers to snuff out that beacon of liberty.  If his position differs from George W. Bush’s, I don’t know where. If his position differs from that of the anti-U.S. government secessionists and dominionists, it’s difficult to tell how.

Let’s remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work.
(APPLAUSE)

The No Child Left Behind Act prompted states to develop brand new, impenetrable bureacracies to grant teaching certificates to people who do not go through state-approved schools of education.  These bureacracies often are unaccountable to elected officials, or to appointed officials.  They were quickly thrown together to regulate a brand new industry of training programs designed to meet the technical requirements of state enabling legislation, and often deaf to the needs and requirements of local schools.

The chief barriers to qualified instructors are low pay, entrenched administration, and a slew of paperwork designed to “expose” teachers in their work rather than aid students in education, which all too often keep qualified teachers from getting teaching done, and discourage qualified people from other professions from getting into the business.  Who could afford to get into telephone soliciting if every phone call had to be documented by hand, with evaluations that take longer than the phone calls?  That’s what teachers in “failing” schools face daily, and it’s a chief factor in the exodus of highly qualified teachers from public schools over the last six years (a trend that may be accelerating).

This proposal would make sense if there were a backlog of qualified and highly-effective teachers trying to get into teaching — but quite the opposite, we have a shortage of teachers nationwide (check out the debates in Utah last year on their poorly-planned voucher program, which sounds a lot like what McCain is proposing).

Has McCain had any serious experience public schools in the last 22 years?  (I’m wondering here; I don’t know.)

When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parent — when it fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them.
(APPLAUSE)
Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have the choice, and their children will have that opportunity.
(APPLAUSE)

Of course, with McCain taking money from the public schools, it will be difficult to find a “better” public school, ultimately.  Here in Texas we’ve experimented for more than a decade with a statewide plan to shuffle money from “rich” school districts to poorer districts, under a plan generally and cleverly called “the Robin Hood plan.”  We still have good and excellent schools in districts across the state, but an increasing number of the designated-rich districts have smashed into tax rate ceilings, and are cutting programs from school curricula, and extra-curricular activities.

Charter schools in Texas are numerous, but in trouble.  Few of them, if any, have been able to create the extra capital investment required to build good school buildings, or especially to provide things like good laboratory classrooms for science classes, auditoriums with well-equipped stages for drama, literature, and general sessions of the entire school, or adequate facilities for physical education and recreation — let alone extracurricular athletics.

Charter schools and private schools often short science education.  A coalition of private schools sued the University of California system to require the universities to accept inferior science education, rather than provide good science education.  (A judge tossed the suit out; the coalition is appealing the decision.) Worse, this coalition includes some of the nation’s best private, religious schools.  When a group claimed as the best plead for acceptance of mediocrity, it’s time to re-examine whether resort to that group is prudent.  When the “best” private schools plead to lower the standards in science, it’s time to beef up the public schools instead.

Worse, many charter schools in Texas and elsewhere are riddled with incompetence, and a few riddled with corruption.  The Dallas Morning News this morning carries a story about a group running two charter schools, one in the Dallas area and one in the Houston area, both in trouble for failing to measure up to any standards of accountability, in testing, in other achievement, in teaching, or in financial accounting.  Economists note that free markets mean waste in some areas (ugly shoes don’t sell — the shoe maker will stop making ugly shoes, but those already made cannot be recalled).  Administration appears to be one area of enormous waste in “school choice.”

Several American urban districts have tried a variety of private corporations to operate schools on a contract basis.  If there is a successful experiment, it has yet to be revealed.  These experiments crashed in San Francisco, Dallas, Philadelphia and Baltimore, from sea to shining sea. Continued hammering at the foundations of good education, calling it “competition” or “peeing in the soup,” isn’t going to produce the results that American students, and parents, and employers, deserve.

Choice between a failing public school and a corrupt or inept charter school, is not a choice.  Why not invest the money where we know it works, in reducing class size and improving resources?  That costs money, but there is no cheap solution to excellence.

Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucrats. I want schools to answer to parents and students.
(APPLAUSE)
And when I’m president, they will.
(APPLAUSE)
My fellow Americans, when I’m president, we’re going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades.

Here we see how out of touch with America John McCain really is.  Does he think that any school system in the nation “answers to unions and entrenched bureaucrats?”  Seriously?  Does he realize the “entrenched bureaucrats” are anti-union?

Seriously.  Think about this.  Texas is the nation’s second largest state.  There is no teacher’s union here worth the name.  State law forbids using strike as a tool for bargaining or negotiation.  Teachers here generally are opposed to unions anyway (don’t ask me to explain — most of them voted for George Bush, before he showed his stripes — but there is no pro-union bias among Texas teachers).  Teachers unions are either much reduced in power in those cities where they used to be able to muster strikes, like Detroit or New York City, or they have agreed to cooperate with the anti-union proposals that offer any hope of improving education.  Read that again:  I’m saying unions have agreed to give up power to help education.

So what is the real problem?  The bureaucracy choking schools today is not the fault of teachers.  Significantly, it’s required by the No Child Left Behind Act.  But even that is not the chief problem in schools, and those problems are not from teachers.

Teachers did not move auto manufacturing out of Detroit.  GM did that.  Fighting the teachers union won’t bring back Detroit’s schools.  Charter schools aren’t going to do it, either.  Teachers didn’t drown New Orleans.  The failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina did that.  Busting the unions in New Orleans has done nothing to improve education, as all of New Orleans struggles, and as former Big Easy residents resist going back so long as the schools are a mess.  Our schools in Texas have taken on thousands of students from New Orleans and other areas hammered by storms — public schools, not charter schools.  In many cases, parents are choosing public schools John McCain wants to push kids out of.  Go figure.

Hard economic times hammer schools.  Teachers didn’t create the housing bubble, and it’s certain that teachers were not the ones who failed to regulate the mortgage brokers adequately.  We can’t improve education if we don’t have the necessary clues about what the problems really are.

Public education is an essential pillar of American republican democracy.  Public education is the chief driver of our economy. McCain appears wholly unaware of the conditions in America’s schools, and he appears unwilling to push for excellence.  Instead, to drowning schools, McCain promises to through a bucket of water, and maybe an anchor to keep them in place.  He’s urging a road to mediocre schools.  Mediocrity to promote political conservatism, or just to get elected, is a sin.

McCain’s running mate brutalized the public library in her term as mayor of Wassilla.  If she has a better record on education since becoming governor, I’d like to hear about it.

Teachers, did you listen to McCain’s speech?  How are you going to vote?


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