Saturday, November 5, 2011

Idiot Hunting OWS

The squirmy nature of Occupy Wall Street makes fair criticism a difficult task. Because there's no official list of demands, critics can pick the views expressed by the stupidest supporters and go to town on them, as if that disproves the entire movement.

I don't want to break my own rule on idiot hunting and prop up the ignorant as living straw men to dismantle. That's too easy.

For example, early on everyone was looking for a list of official demands and a list from the official website got passed around. Now it has a snarky introduction saying it's a forum post, not an official list. The intro criticizes people who interpreted the list as official, but the web design was so poor that it was impossible tell it was a forum post. It said it was a real list.

The list featured some silly ideas like declaring a minimum wage of $20 an hour, making huge government programs, canceling all student debt and outlawing credit reporting agencies. I could snap these ideas apart in my sleep, but that doesn't actually prove anything.

The real ideas to target are the calls to end corporate personhood, increase regulations and lower the income gap. That is real engagement and the only way to seriously combat this movement is to strike its strongest points. Kicking infants doesn't prove anything.

I've been more than fair in making the distinction between the violent bomb-throwing anarchists who started the protests from the liberal supporters who tolerate them. I personally wouldn't want to support a movement that overlooks calls for violence and illegal behavior, but that's their mistake to make.

It's also hard to make criticisms of the idiots stick, as the movement is so fragmented most supporters will just say they don't believe in that idea or move the goalpost to another issue if they do. Idiot hunting won't defeat OWS.

I will, however, mock stupid ideas when they make their way to the front of the pack. Take the idiot who left a cushy tenured position in the NYC school department to get a masters degree in puppets. He wanted to get an extra $10,000 annually by exploiting the salary guidelines, but the job was gone when he finished playing with puppets.

This person is clearly a fool, not a victim, and it would be pure idiot hunting to single him out as a typical Occupy Wall street protester. That is, it would be if The Nation hadn't done just that in a sympathetic piece written by their executive web editor.

It's not idiot hunting when the claim makers are the ones propping them up as a fair example. The Nation is about as disinterested and seperate from this movement as Nintendo Power is from Nintendo. This is completely fair game.

He thought he could use the teacher salary guidelines as a loophole to make an extra $10,000 a year with the puppets at the public's expense. That is, he got greedy, took a risky venture that backfired and now wants us to bail him out. As Angus put it:

If you decide to "pursue your passion" in an un-economic area, don't be surprised when the economic system doesn't value you highly, and don't think that the problem is the system; the problem is you.
Christ. Puppets? What an idiot.


  1. What are you talking about? Nintendo Power is a completely unbiased publication. Your remarks are libelous, and I am bringing this to the attention of Nintendo's crack legal team.

  2. well, one thing to bear in mind is that the same court that claimed corporate personhood is the same one that did separate but equal

  3. Mike, I love your posts and tend to agree with your opinions. I had a few problems with this article, though.

    I think your argument about Puppet-Man is a bit misleading. You call him getting a MFA an "exploit" to make 10,000 more per year. I personally wouldn't consider getting a Master's Degree, and getting a better salary because of it, "exploiting" anything. A lot of schools, at least my high school anyway, actually pay for their teachers to get a masters degree.

    I feel as though you saw puppets and jumped at a chance to mock OWS. Sure, they had an article about him, but I read it and it wasn't as if he was expecting to get paid to teach puppetry. He's a drama teacher and while it is a bit on the fringe, I can see puppets as falling under his educational purview. The article was less about puppets and more about how he left to pursue a Master's for a few years then returned to find his position no longer existed.

    If he'd gotten a Master's in Drama would you still feel he was exploiting taxpayers? Is a physical education teacher who gets a master's in Phys Ed to get a better salary exploiting the public?

  4. Puppets should be under no ones educational purview.

  5. Good sir, I'm going to have to call you Michael 3.0 because there are a few commentators named after the warrior archangel.

    I say he was gaming the system. Graduate degrees do not actually make better teachers, but the unions still have the salary bonus for teachers who get them. This encourages teachers to get degrees they otherwise wouldn't. He thought he was going to get to fulfill his puppet dreams and be rewarded handsomely for it.

    That's what I meant by exploit. I said he exploited the guidelines, not the people, which isn't as harsh as you read it. He was going to do something for his own gains that wouldn't make things better for his students, but would cost the taxpayers more. I wanted to paint that in the language commonly used for rich bankers. This was about private gains at the public's expense.

    So as to your point, yes. I feel that teachers who get masters degrees to capture a higher salary are exploiting a loophole - and there's no evidence that it makes them better teachers.

    My point was that it's not useful to pick on the slow-witted OWS protesters because it won't stick to the movement, but this guy was being propped up as a fair example by a sympathetic supporter.

  6. Michael (the original),

    I don't understand this POV:
    "I feel that teachers who get masters degrees to capture a higher salary are exploiting a loophole - and there's no evidence that it makes them better teachers."

    Two points I'd like to make:
    1 - The statement they are 'exploiting a loophole' is a completely unfounded blanket assertion. You cannot speak for all the teachers out there or their motives. While some may be doing it for pay, others may be doing it for personal reasons, or to remain competitive in the job market.

    2 - Certainly there is never any guarantee that education makes for better teachers. I've had terrible teachers who have PhDs. I'd like to read more about the 'studies' that show no correlation here, but all I've found so far is a bunch of opinion pieces that talk about how it's been debunked, but without linking anywhere. Perhaps I missed it.

  7. I think if you're expecting more money, the burden of proof falls to you to prove that it makes you a better teacher, not on your opponents to prove it doesn't.

    I can't imagine that being a skilled puppeteer is worth $10,000/year over what he was providing before.

    Also, I think the fact that a university can offer a $35,000 masters degree in puppetry and actually get students makes a counterproductive argument about the prosperity of our country than OWS offers.

  8. I don't see 'better' being well defined anywhere. Does it mean that your students perform better on tests? It could also mean that you widen your skill set and therefore are able to teach a wider diversity of classes, or classes that you didn't have the expertise before. This would not be well quantified by the purported studies that look at student performance. If the school can pay one teacher 10K more and it means they don't have to higher a separate part-time teacher then it would be a good investment.

    As always, I think the situation is more nuanced and deserves more then just calling them idiots and blaming unions.

  9. "Also, I think the fact that a university can offer a $35,000 masters degree in puppetry and actually get students makes a counterproductive argument about the prosperity of our country than OWS offers. "

    Really? What does it say? To me it says we live in a great country where all sorts of vocations and skills are valued and can be taught. Why *not* puppetry?

  10. That evaluation is made by the employer. This guy works for a school district, which is run by a superintendent but funded by taxpayers. So there is a disconnect on that evaluation system in this case, and I think Michael and I are simply making the case that in our districts, from our taxes, we wouldn't be impressed with someone assuming that their MFA in puppetry makes them more valuable to the education of the community's children by $10,000/year.

    As for the case you provided, in this instance it's irrelevant. They actually have more teachers than they can afford, and somehow I doubt elementary school puppetry is a requisite in that district.

    And who in this country is valuing his vocation and skills? A university sold him something, so HE valued that education, but that doesn't mean that people should be forced to value his new skills. If this country values him so much, he'd have a job as a puppeteer.

  11. I guess I'll chalk this one up to the undervaluing of education in our society. Puppet-Masters man not-withstanding, why is his hope to make 10,000k more per year for teaching more outrageous than a baseball player making millions to hit a ball around a field? I'm not a teacher, but I do think they deserve more credit, and they certainly don't deserve a lot of the calls for salary cuts, etc that come their way considering their salaries are on the whole more modest than the outliers critics love to wave around.

  12. I might agree that teachers don't get paid enough, but I think the people who pay their salaries deserve to decide that question as directly as possible, rather than be taxed and forced to accept the decision of the superintendent.

    The baseball player analogy contradicts the one principle most government supporters love: value to society. Sure, you might think their job is easier than teaching, but baseball players bring entertainment to millions of people at a time. Teachers give a very nice service to 25 kids at a time, many of whom don't want to be there and many more who will only remember half the material when they come back from summer break. If 600 teachers could educate 50 million people at a time effectively, I'm sure they'd make hundreds of millions.

    My mom is a teacher, I'm a tutor, and I'd like to be a teacher someday. But the stats I see people throw around are aggregate statistics, the average yearly wage, average hours/year. And they really aren't that bad. I know a lot of people with similar levels of education who work at crappy jobs (even through the summer) to make a teacher's wage. When you start comparing them to the English major who runs your local Subway instead of elite athletes, you get a slightly different perspective.

  13. Considering you only work 9 months out of the year, I don't teachers make too bad a living. Add to that the typically generous medical and retirement benefits, the near impossibility of being fired as long as you show up and the student loan forgiveness that is common, teachers whine a lot over nothing.

  14. A person's wages are not a measure of their value in society. The metaphor I like is comparing water to diamonds. Clearly, water is more important to our everyday lives, yet diamonds cost more.

    The reason is it's easy to find more water. It's also easy to find a public school qualified teacher. It's hard to find a professional-level athlete.

  15. I disagree with your metaphor. Water is more valuable than diamonds, obviously, but the utility brought by a single diamond is much greater than the utility brought by a single bottle of water. A single diamond is more valuable to society than a single bottle of water. That is the effect of scarcity.

    And in the same way, education may be much more valuable than baseball, but a teacher is much less valuable to society than a star baseball player because a star baseball player brings greater total utility.

  16. Two caveats to the value to society statement, however, are: Wages simply measure the value of a person's career, not entire life. But career is obviously what we're talking about as it is what all teachers have in common and what baseball players have in common. Also, especially considering heavy government involvement in the market for teachers, a snapshot of the market at this point in time may not be a completely accurate picture of real value, because of government bias, information problems, and opportunity. It's simply a better picture of value than "I think teachers should make more money."

  17. Ben, we're going to have to disagree on this. You're suggesting that price signals indicate how much one individuals are worth to society by their wages, but I stand by my point that the marginal cost to get one of that type is all wages reflect. My view is based on scarcity as well.

    The utility brought by a diamond is NOT more valuable than a bottle of water. Imagine yourself on a spaceship and I offer to give you one for free. They are available in equal amounts.

    By the way, you can find plenty of teachers in every town or city. You can't find a great baseball player with equal abundance. A televised baseball game enjoys economies of scale that classroom teaching does not. It's scarcity, baby.

  18. I should have clarified I meant marginal utility. In space, of course a bottle of water is more valuable, but space isn't our society. In our society, where the average citizen has access to more water than he could ever drink, the marginal utility of a bottle of water is very low. Diamonds, as a sign of great status and class, and being very rare, have a very high marginal utility. A diamond has a higher marginal utility than a bottle of water, in my current status it is more valuable to me, and if I ever found a fool willing to trade it for a bottle of water, I would take that in a second.

    In the same way, here on earth, in the United States, we value education higher than we value baseball. But the marginal utility, the value, of one teacher is something like $45000. The marginal utility of a great baseball player is somewhere around $20 million. This is based both on scarcity and production volume. A teacher provides a valuable service, education, but is limited in scale AND subject to fierce competition. A baseball player provides a much less valuable service, entertainment, but is able to produce it in such a volume that the total is far more valuable than the output of a teacher. The difficulty in replacing him is a factor but a much smaller one than you would think.

    If your concept of value is not based on marginal utility, I'd like to know on what it is based.

    If a year's education is worth $1,000 to each student, and a baseball game is only worth $1, but the teacher can only teach 25 students when a baseball team can entertain 25 million, a baseball team is still 1000 times more valuable than a teacher.

  19. Hmm, I don't see how our ideas are mutually exclusive.

    I agree that education is more important for our society than sports entertainment, but you make a strong point that the individuals are more valuable, but its an apples and oranges comparison because of economies of scale with baseball.

  20. Yes, I think our discussion might be more misunderstanding than disagreement, but I'd like to try one more time.

    I believe you are comparing two of the same thing: marginal utility. The fact that education is far more valuable than entertainment is already represented by the price. If I were to offer to you, for free, an education worth $1,000 or a chance to watch the Red Sox on TV worth $1, you'd be foolish to not take the education.

    If you were to make the same proposal to 25 million people who value both services at that same rate, they would also be foolish to take the baseball game.

    But the teacher can only teach 25 people at a time, which means 25 people get a value of $1,000, and 24,999,975 people get nothing.

    The Red Sox can entertain all 25 million people, bringing a value of at least a dollar to every paying fan.

    The teacher has created $25,000 worth of value. The Red Sox have created $25,000,000. In this example, it makes sense to me that to say one person's education for one year ($1,000) is more valuable than one person's enjoying of a baseball game on TV ($1). It does not make sense to me to say that a year of education for 25 people ($25,000) is worth more than the entertainment from a baseball game for 25 million people ($25,000,000).

    (Please excuse the obvious but irrelevant flaw in my metaphor, which is that a baseball game is played by 18 players, not 1. Each player is paid from the revenue created by their collective service, just as the teacher is paid from the tax revenue collected by the government based on their evaluation of his or her service.)