People respond to incentives. Behavior in many spheres is radically changing. How are the incentives changing? What are they changing us into?
My thesis is that many systems have suddenly acquired similar incentive structures and are thus forcing fundamentally different people and institutions to adapt in converging ways. Essentially, given the current environment, unrelated people and institutions are all becoming crabs because the crab form is adapted to the environment. This thesis will be supported over a series of posts with reference to internal and external pressures.
High Modernism isn’t cool right now, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t win. One of its characteristic modes of thought is Taylorism: you turn work into “tasks”, then figure out how to do the tasks more efficiently. Initially, it just meant making workers work harder and timing each task with a stopwatch. This is characteristic of early 20th-century thinking generally, with its suspicion and austerity. Bosses were worried that workers were cheating them by not working hard enough: “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean“. However, if all you’re doing to increase production is dialing up labor inputs, you don’t have any increase in labor productivity. No wonder that Communists were fans of Taylorism — it’s a systematization of Stakhanovism (which was in any case a fraud and symptomatic of the universal economic falsity of the USSR).
By contrast, the vast increases in human power produced in America during the postwar period were based on a virtuous circle of engineering, fundamental research and manufacturing. Bell Labs alone produced the transistor (there are several billion of them in your pocket), the cell phone, the solar cell, the laser, Telstar I, digital signal processing, and the infrastructure of most contemporary systems programming. Obviously the impact of these far exceeds any possible benefits to working twice as hard with 1930s technology.
Unable to multiply labor productivity as the Americans had, but facing bold growth targets from the top of the political system, the USSR resorted to a parasitic, shadowy combination of industrial espionage, the aforementioned ideology of hard work, and systematic reporting fraud. If you have growth imperatives, but not a system capable of producing growth, you don’t have any good alternatives and will probably get fired for failing to meet an impossible target (link to original in pasted text). Reforming Soviet economics was impossible so long as price signals were ideologically off the table. Prohibited from perceiving demand, Soviet producers responded to political signals instead of price signals and focused on elaborate plans for producing X more of Y year over year, which is why Gosplan was calculating with abacuses in 1988 (it’s easier for someone specializing in “psychology and management” to issue directives that amount to “make more abacuses” than to permit the degree of self-management that enables productivity increases at the level of small-group collective initiative).
As to modern society, does it seem more like post-war America or more like the USSR? I believe we’re becoming the latter, with various twists, and will make my case in this post by considering the behavior and incentives of schools. So let’s start with something elementary.
Primary schools have now adopted an ideology of disruptive transformation. Somewhat like in the Chinese state, general slogans are promulgated from misty summits of power; these purport to get cashed out into concrete actions by mid-level administrators whose implementing policies may seem totally unrelated. How does “Embrace mistakes as room for growth” become “failure to attain KPIs will lead to salary cuts“?
The political imperative at work is the elevation of persistently low-achieving students. There is nothing longer-lasting in American politics than education reform. Indeed, from the Clinton to the Obama presidency, a span of 24 years, education reform was a constant. Is education reformed yet? Federal reforms don’t fully capture the degree to which education reform continues to be a locus of state-level agitation. American schools cost $11,000 per pupil per year (in other words, about 106% of the taxes paid by the average American), yet we are informed that education is grossly underfunded, so we might also ask when education will be properly funded for, evidently, the first time in the history of the universe. But then, in the Soviet system, reform and funding increases were also constants.
At some point, we have to ask whether schools are even relevant to educational quality. To speak just to the funding issue, some states are strong performers despite low per-pupil spending. But then, looking abroad, we see no causal relationship between educational outcomes and prosperity. Rich Norway and egalitarian France come in below the United States, the “Start-up Nation” can’t keep up with moribund Russia, and pride of place among Europeans belongs to the backward hicks of Estonia. Beyond the money, mighty yet chill Finland has no tests and no stress, while the suicide-wracked “Hell Joseon” had to ban all-night tutoring sweatshops. My conclusion from all this is that policy as a master key to educational quality is just something that people believe because they have to believe in something. It’s necessary for psychological comfort, but it doesn’t provide any useful guidance for people who want their kids to learn things.
Once we understand that educational reform is a system imperative, we can understand why educators are simultaneous managed by metrics and managed by objectives. The objectives are, like the baffling slogans emanating from Xi Jinping, so opaque as to be actively confusing, and there is no obvious relationship between them and their purportedly implementing actions. What’s more, all this management produces nothing discernible in added value. The amused, uncomprehending condescension of Finns when faced with the churning hive of American education is, I imagine, not unlike that of a talented athlete or musician watching a dolt like me fumble around. “Why doesn’t he just do it right, like this?”
Of course, failing to take action in a crisis is how politicians get fired. And we live in perpetual crisis. Next post: convergent crises in education, business and personal finance.