Empathy in public policy increases risk

Paul Bloom thinks we use too much empathy in policy decisions and not enough reason. Taking a person in particularly difficult circumstances and explaining how a policy will affect them – in order to create empathy with that person to ultimately garner or dissuade support for a particular policy – is damaging, according to Bloom. Here’s one way it is damaging in education. If we empathise with the poor, struggling student during a debate over school funding, we will be extremely hesistant to vote for cutting education funding. How could you? Do you not care about the disadvantaged? But if we continue to increase funding, in order to attempt to help this student, or at least not be seen to be dismissive of his/her needs, what we end up with is a government budget increasingly geared towards education spending. And it is hard to cut such spending. If this occurs across other domains, such as welfare and health, what we get is a government budget dedicated increasingly towards recurrent spending on social programs that cannot be cut. The budget is now geared such that the government is a quasi-insurance agency, offering risk management services to those in need. The budget has less room for discretionary spending for projects of need at a particular time, rendering it under-resourced when we may actually need to fund discretionary spending to get us through a crisis.

Such is the argument by Tyler Cowen in his latest book, The Complacent Class. He worries that by moving the government to act as an insurer, we diminish its ability to play a proactive and helpful role during a crisis. This is but one way that empathy and, frankly, weakness, on our parts has led us astray and risked our prosperity going forward. Our budgets and systems should be robust to negative shocks, but at the moment we are heading down a path of fragility. We need to broaden our view of public policy making, and fight this shift towards empathy as public policy. We have gotten weak, underpinned by a focus on victimhood instead of empowerment and reason. We need to rebalance our focus.

The present ideological climate

Part of the reason this blog has not yet ventured into the weeds of education policy is that there is a bigger fight to be won. If you consider politics for a moment, what you see is only the tip of the iceberg. The real stuff that matters is the ideological climate, particularly that within the major institutions. (Of course, on election day that goes out the door, as we saw with Donald Trump, but on a day to day basis, politicians seems particularly constrained by the ideological climate.) That ideological climate is like the submerged part of the iceberg – it’s not so apparent, but it’s powerful. It controls what those in power – even conservatives – can do. And right now, a progressive ideology dominates the media, the education establishment and the chattering class. There is little prospect for shifting from the status quo to something more dynamic without influencing this group. The 2014 Federal Budget, while somewhat botched in execution, received excessive derision. It is a case study in the difficulty of delivering needed reforms. It showed that any cut to any sort of entitlement is seen as bad, regardless of whether it should be in place. The recent penalty rates decision by the Fair Work Commission was meekly defended – and only after some time – by the Coalition government. If they cannot fight for a small cut to an obsolete set of penalty rates, there is little hope for significant reform in education. The Coalition should be philosophically on board education reform and penalty rate cuts. They know it would be effective, and therefore don’t exactly need huge support from policy wonks designing possible systems (though it’s useful to have one on the shelf when needed!). Really, the problem is that they cannot pull the trigger. They need an appropriate intellectual climate to allow them to do so without excessive political cost. Therefore, this blog is aiming not at the weeds, but at the 7/8 of the iceberg that influence the 1/8 that we see everyday.

Right now, a reform movement featuring freedom and choice is almost non-existent, it seems. The progressive status quo based on excessive compassion and empathy with those less fortunate is handicapping progress. This is not to say that we shouldn’t improve the situation of those struggling. Let’s not confuse means with ends. I’m arguing for different means to achieve similar outcomes (although, I am probably less optimistic about true egalitarianism and equity, which dominates the education establishment in Australia).  Anyway, the current direction is not conducive to reform, and the intellectual climate needs to be improved.

But more importantly, there needs to be genuine innovation. The extent to which it may happen here is limited by regulation, but it may be that a new way of educating comes along that forces the government’s hand. I honestly think that this will be more effective than trying to win the battle of ideas. I think humans are more geared to a socialistic tendency than a capitalistic one (the only reason capitalism continues to fight is that it works), which limits the extent to which the education establishment would relinquish control. So, it is down to the entrepreneurs. Until I’m in a position to do that, I will continue to blog.



The curse of the successful student

Consider the student for whom school is easy. He succeeds at everything he does, he never has conflict that he needs to resolve, he doesn’t know what it is like to be lost. It is possible for this student to go through his schooling without having to do the work of becoming an individual. The world around him caters so perfectly to his strengths that he can just go along with it and not have to do any hard work on his identity.

Skip forward to when he’s 23. He’s just finished university, and he’s making decisions about his life: what should he do for work, what type of person does he want to be, what is he into? It’s quite possible that such a person has a long journey  of self-discovery ahead, for he has not had to start it until now.

Compare this person to the person for whom schooling and adolescence were difficult. He had conflict throughout his teen years, he had to build a different identity and find what worked for him. He built a foundation a lot earlier than the successful student, and failed earlier too, which means he built stronger resilience. He can thus take more risks and become more truly free in his adult years. If the successful student finally attains such a state, it will be years later.

The successful student is likely to have a quarter-life crisis, a moment of realisation that he does not know who he is, has no foundation and has to start living more consciously. Or he may drift along, searching and not knowing that it was his conformist and successful years in high school that had stunted his development.

The biggest mistake in policy discussion – part 2

Yesterday I mentioned one of the big mistakes – confusing means and ends. Today, it is confusing the positive with the normative. Many argue for how education should be (normative), while clashing with people who consider how education actually is (positive). Of course, there should be interaction between the two. Indeed, a lack of balance is often the main issue, where one perspective crowds out the other. Positive analysis can draw accusations of heartlessness and self-interest, which is similar to those in part 1 who consider that some people favour elitism when they argue against certain interventions aimed at boosting the lower achieving. Much of education ideology seems to be normative in thinking, aiming for values like equity and inclusion. I’m not against these values, and they have their place, but it doesn’t seem to be balanced by positive arguments to provide grounding and perspective. When positive analysis tries to enter into the debate, people can interpret your analysis as meaning you are in another camp with respect to values. Perhaps, to some extent, you are. But it is a mistake to jump to this conclusion. Perhaps these concepts should be taught at school…

The biggest mistake in policy discussion – part 1

One of the biggest mistakes when discussing policy is confusing means with ends. Often, people may agree on the end goal, but disagree on how to get there. This can lead to people saying: ‘why do you hate children?’ or ‘why do you hate the poor?’ when, in fact, the other person simply doesn’t believe that aiming directly at a goal is what is best for achieving it. For example, implementing certain teacher training or accreditation course and certificates. This is likely to turn into a compliance activity, with only minor improvements in teaching. When someone argues against certifications, they’re probably not against people being qualified and capable. It is just that they disagree with the means of achieving that goal. Compliance through certification does not equal a qualified teacher who is held properly accountable. Modern compliance is the inevitable consequence of a large system with diffuse and distant accountability mechanisms. A more natural accountability mechanism would be school choice, local control, and free entry into the market for teachers and schools. These means of achieving accountability are not direct means, but nonetheless should be more effective than compliance. Or teaching students to love a subject as a way of getting them to perform well in the final exam. This is much more effective for education than rote learning and teaching to the test. But for that statement to be entirely true, the students have to believe it too. And this is where we need to think about the incentives they face and the information they are given.

Socioeconomic status and education

The overwhelming focus of the teaching industry seems to be on equity – providing extra support for those in need to provide ‘fairness’ in education. While this is well-meaning, it is a questionable practice. Consider that certain poor groups (Jewish, Chinese, Japanese) in America rose out of poverty in the Twentieth Century, while others did not fair as well (the Irish, Ulster Scots, black Americans). Therefore, it does not follow that poverty is the major hurdle to be overcome, and that more funding is the solution. The common element in the groups that did emerge from poverty was a strong work ethic and a high value placed on education. The solution must come from within.

Critiquing vs building in education

It’s easier to tear something down than build it. Yet in schools we tend to focus on critiquing the work of others, and not on creating things of value. Ultimately, the adult world cares what value you can create. So, imagine if we spent more time in classrooms on building things – websites, businesses, experiences, relationships. How would that change our world?

Australia’s education establishment…

…seems to be overly empathic and focused on data. Empathy is useful and important, but perhaps it’s gone too far. When we channel empathy in our public policy, negative consequences can arise, as Paul Bloom writes in his recent book on the topic. An overly empathic policy arena is a negative consequence of an otherwise positive development that is the rise of women in the world. No doubt they brought balance, but that has gone too far.

Overly focusing on data lead us to forget that people are more than data points to be manipulated. And when we focus on the things that we can measure, we forget the things we cannot measure, which are often more important. Such as the student’s mindset and the familial and societal educational culture.

Our educational establishment is also overly concerned with control. It does not have the confidence in an organic emergence of new institutions to solve problems. It makes the mistake of thinking that intention equals outcome. On an intimate level, this can often be true. But in the extended order society in which we live, they are often opposites.

I acknowledge that innovation is allowed in the system, and there is some degree of competition. We are allowed to design new courses, we have independent and Catholic schools sectors, we have a degree of flexibility in our schools. But our system is still, to a large extent, controlled from the centre, which makes it vulnerable and stifles innovation. Like other domains in society today, we have a quasi private sector that is still, to a large extent, controlled by government, giving government the power to take credit when things go well in the private sector, and blame greed and profit when things go badly. We also do not have a society sufficiently appreciate of private industry. Profit and wealth are still the subject of opprobrium (at least in education), and innovation, instead of being praised as a source of renewal, is seen as a source of widening inequality and exclusion. The truth is far from this.

We need more rational thinking and less emotion. More bold thinking and less control. More experimentation and less reaction.Education establishment: the ball is in your court. To succeed, not only does the establishment have to believe in innovation and freedom, but also convince others to do so. Thus, researchers, public intellectuals and politicians need to internalise and sell this message. Otherwise we drift into along as the sand shifts beneath our feet, and we get caught off guard and are forced to adapt hurriedly and painfully.

The nature and focus of teacher training

One of the striking things about my university teaching education is the emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity. Much of the time in class is spent focusing on the issue of equity – aiming to help those different from most students gain the same level of access to education as the mainstream. This is a worthy goal, but it puts the cart before the horse. The university courses focus on difference, without teaching much about the mainstream. What does the researcher community have to say on IQ, for example? We didn’t learn that. But if we are considering the extent to which we can improve the educational attainment of underachieving students, surely an understanding of the basics of IQ would be a good starting place? Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is presumed that educational attainment and IQ is sufficiently malleable to achieve the noble aims of the government and it’s education institutions. A future blog post will ponder the extent to which our educational attainment can keep up with the demands of the workforce for ever-higher human capital.

On another note, one of my lecturers mentioned the outcomes we needed to achieve as being dictated by government priorities. It is a worry that those in research, who are supposed to be the experts, are being guided by politicians and bureaucrats, on the advice of well-meaning but often misguided technocratic advisers. Granted, this way the government is an intermediary between schools and universities, and if there is no feedback to universities from schools on the quality of university graduates, the government can play a bridging role. But surely an even better way to gain accountability and appropriate skills would be for schools to be able to directly hire people wishing to become teachers, who then complete on-the-job and university or equivalent training, while increasingly taking up more teaching responsibilities. The schools would choose the training that best equipped their teachers, and the government would fund this training. It would help if schools had choice over other issues as well, such as the priorities they considered worthy of investing in, rather than what the government of the day fancies. However, such a system requires not only autonomy, but school choice. And therein lies a tricky issue for another time.

Human dignity

Yesterday I mentioned the importance of self-help in improving lives. While government policy is  critical, public discussion needs to rebalance, by bringing into focus the ways in which we can help ourselves

Policy and individual choices interact in interesting ways, one of which is the propensity for well-intentioned policymakers to diminish the dignity of others, which then affects the latter’s outlook and decisions. Whether it is viewing people as being in need of help, or  actually trying to help them, policymakers undermine peoples’ dignity, much to the detriment of society.

As government diminished the need for those who support us by providing risk management services, it reduced the consequences of bad decisions. We now seem to have a dysfunctional working class, beset with problems such as drug abuse, obesity, unemployment and government dependency, culminating in a dignity deficit.

As people sought safety, security and stability (and government provided it), we sacrificed the opportunity to be of value to others. We shifted our dependence from family, friends and community to the government, emancipating us from obligations (both good and bad). (It seems that independence, space and privacy are normal goods, meaning we want more of them as we become richer, and we have been willing to pay for them. If we cannot pay for them ourselves, the government has provided it.)

A major cause of the loss of human dignity is the social scientist working with the politician (collectively: ‘planners’). The social scientist sees humans not as agents of their own destiny but as data points to manipulate, and politicians have public choice influences on their decisions. The result is that an ordinary person turns into the means of achieving a planners’ end. There is no dignity there, no matter how good the planner’s intentions.

Many commentators say that planners have ignored the working class. But this is not quite true. We have certainly thrown money at it, which is attempting to help people (e.g., the War on Poverty in the US). But planners have also seen them as people that need helping, which strips them of their dignity. Instead of offering a positive message, planners offer a negative one.  They haven’t ignored the working class per se, but they have stripped them of their dignity by attempting to save them.

Planners have also focused on less relevant issues than basic economic opportunity and human dignity, while imposing regulation that blocks opportunity. So, the pretense of care shown by planners is shallow and selective. Their actions are actually a sign weakness and selfishness, the former because they meekly wilt in the presence of hardship, and the latter because they need to allay their own guilt and seek righteousness and redemption. It is about the working class’s need to be saved (and the planners’ divine need to be a saviour (see Joseph Bottum’s thesis on the shift from seeking righteousness through religion to seeking righteousness through politics)).

The focus in public debate should shift from what we can do for other people to what we can do for ourselves. It should also shift to providing an environment that is incentive-compatible with dignity. And we should also not view people as pawns to be manipulated in accordance with our vision of the world.