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December 24, 2006


You spent your entire post summarizing the positions so far, and then your new argument is ... "this seems wrong." Surely you can do better than that; how does it seem wrong exactly?

The idea of the post was to see if I could sort out where there was common ground and where there wasn't. As to why it "seems wrong," here are my thoughts. First, the fact that there is as much persuasive commercial advertising as there is shows that firms believe that pushing peoples' buttons affects their behavior a lot, which in turn suggests that the cumulative effects of a lifetime of exposure are large. The fact that there is no reason at all to suppose that the button-pushing that is profit-maximizing is the same as the button-pushing that most benefits the person is grounds for a presumption against leaving that kind of power in the hands of unaccountable entities like for-profit firms. Second, my armchair empiricism (I'm not sure where you'd get good empirical evidence on this), is that most public school teachers, as they actually exist in the U.S. today, are people who have a basically pro-kid agenda. It seems like the best knock against public school teachers is a certain amount of laziness, rigidity, and lack of imagination, so maybe they do too little of the best kinds of button-pushing, and too much just trying to get through the day. But it hasn't been my impression that most of them are in for the anti-kid reasons that Bryan has suggested.

For what it's worth, I would strongly endorse your version of Brian's thesis David.
That thesis doesn't seem even arguably *at all* wrong to me.
I would add that I think it very clear that public educators could get much much worse than they currently are, but that doesn't make them not seem very bad compared to the null state of no public school. (not to mention my preferred state of no specific parental rights and large basic income payments to all citizens regardless of age). I also think that advertisers almost definitely do substantial net harm (commercial less than non-commercial, but both do harm) and that there should ideally be some sort of monitoring of attention flows to compensate for this (say, with the establishment of a phone hotline which anyone can call in order to impose a small fine on any company in order to impose a fine on it for wasting their time with undesired advertising. Obviously, this idea needs work, but something along these lines seems plausibly to be a good idea/), but that I don't see such ideals as worth pursuing given the difficulty of their realization and the probability of more important shifts in society. As things currently are, substantially restricting commercial advertising would have direct benefits, but would set bad precedents for the expansion of state power.

David, your original premise was: "Suppose that commercial advertising increases your demand for advertised products, but at the same time makes you worse off by reducing your ability to appreciate those things that commercial advertisers don't sell." Can you give a specific concrete example of that mechanism? Without it, I honestly don't know what you're getting at.

For instance, are you saying that knowing I might enjoy drinking a Pepsi makes me less /able to appreciate/ the joys of playing with my cat or drinking tap water?

The traditional negative externality argument I'm familiar with (and have some sympathy for) is that advertising encourages envy. Knowing about new products I can't afford might make me sad that I can't have them. But then, knowing about new product I /can/ afford makes me happy that I /can/ have them and may even increase my satisfaction with the products I already have; it's not clear to me the net negative externality would exceed the net positive externality. In any case, that's all very different from being "less able to appreciate those things that commercial advertisers don't sell". So to sum up: "example, please?"

David your elaborated argument is "teachers ... have a basically pro-kid agenda" and are not "in for the anti-kid reasons that Bryan has suggested." This is just not enough detail for us to be able to analyze your claim. *What* about teachers tells you they are "pro-kid"?

The claim about the pro-kid agenda of teachers is an empirical claim and not an argument. The empirical evidence is admittedly limited, but I know a reasonble number of educators, and I have some idea of the tenor of what is taught in education programs. And my impression is that the contemporary educational establishment has absorbed, to a pretty admirable extent, a "pro-kid" agenda consisting of things like: (i) don't harm or humiliate kids; (ii) help them cultivate their talents; (iii) help them compensate for their weaknesses; and (iv) inculcate some pro-social civic norms.

I don't want to idealize any of this. There are plenty of crappy teachers, and many more that are just lazy or unimaginative. And a lot of public education does a bad job of dealing with unusual kinds of kids, whether unusually bright or learning disabled or just odd, which has left a good number of people feeling unhappy and misunderstood. I do think there has been some progress on this front since the people posting here were kids.

David, so your evidence for a pro-kid teacher agenda is "the tenor of what is taught in education programs". You mean that in the classes that people take to become teachers, they talk a lot about how much good they are going to do for students?

David: Judging by your comments here and your remarks elsewhere that 'the harm here is obvious' and 'I could go on', you apparently think that your opinion is obviously true, easily proven and that no reasonable person could possibly disagree with you. I have found that people who advance similar propositions assume the same, indeed, they frequently think that anyone who disagrees with them is either stupid or immoral.

You speak as there is a significant distinction between the sales pitches of commercial enterprises and educational enterprises, but a sales pitch in high-falutin language is still just a sales pitch. You speculate about the goodness of teachers but why should you think the people in commerce are less noble, and why think that teachers are not equally motivated by the pursuit of self interest. After all, they don't do it for nothing.

Just like the nurses' unions, the teachers' unions put out propaganda about the greater nobility of their public service compared to the world of commerce. They consider schools superior to commercial organisations, think that pupils are not customers because 'children are much more important than that' and believe therefore that education lies outside the grubby world of commerce. Likewise, as I'm sure you'll agree, my own work is of *far too elevated* a kind to be properly regarded as a 'job' in the 'market place'; not only should you all be taxed to pay me so I can do what I want to do, but you should all be grateful to me for doing it as well.

The advertisers have to compete on price, variety and quality for my custom. The teachers coerce me on pain of prison into paying for very poor quality education whether I want it or not, and give me no choice where to send my child. The advertisers don't consider themselves morally superior and want to do nothing more than to sell me something. Teachers believe they have a superior view of what my child needs, go on and on about how dedicated they are as if they are moral heroes doing us a favour, and indoctrinate my children with whichever fashionable political ideas they think that only the stupid or immoral could disagree with.

Teachers get away with this only because many people buy the propaganda. But if the schools managed to satisfy their customers wants as successfully as the businesses that you complain about did, education would be in a much better state than it is.

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