Thursday, July 30, 2009

Public Housing in Atlantis

In Atlantis, there are all kinds of pyramid games. These aren't your usual distributed sales or Ponzi scheme pyramid games, but games that have to do with the distribution of wealth.

I'm a poor boy, and my little apartment in the outskirts of the Swamp was cheap. In fact, I paid for it entirely with the government-backed savings plan. I never touched any of my own liquidity. The price of that apartment has gone up about 70% recently.

Does it mean that people are getting wealthier? No, I'm afraid to think what I think, but I think that it's because the upper middle class are thinking twice about expensive property and are starting to encroach on the cheaper stuff. This is raising the price of the cheaper stuff.

It's the same with education. Education ought to be a public good. But it's become stratified by class to a very measurable extent, both in terms of money as well as in attitudes. It has led to an odd equilibrium similar to that found in schools founded some time in the 19th and early 20th centuries all over the world.

The equilibrium is multipolar. It goes like this. Consider an hypothetical school A.

School A has average teachers but the scions of rich families go there. The senior members of those families sit on the board. They give the school a sense of importance, of national-level destiny. They allow the school to create expensive programmes with (as is the case with many social phenomena) difficult-to-measure outcomes. We don't know if these programmes would work for everyone, or only for the scions of rich families who have too much spare time and energy on their hands.

The 'scion' students in this school would not dream of going to 'real' publicly-funded schools, as you won't find such networks there, or such a brand name. In fact, they look down on other students who do, although they will not admit it (and indeed, it might be subconscious). These scions even look down on students in their own school who haven't the multiple swimming pools, horse-riding lessons, or holiday ranches. However, there is some grudging admiration for brains, since after all this is supposed to be a school.

Actually, most of these scions have been hothoused, so they themselves are pretty smart compared to the national average. And if not. there's always private tuition, paid for at about $150 per hour or more, which is a pittance to their parents (or even, to them). Eventually, none of them actually needs good teachers, and for the price of one good teacher, you can hire maybe two not-so-good teachers. What do you think happens?

Well, as some people once told me, you can get about three new recruits for one 15-year teacher. Quality can be developed and your ROI is better if you invest in new recruits. After all, a good teacher can only be improved a tiny bit, while a new one can be improved by adding rims, spoilers, and a flashy paint job training and development. The absolute quality does not matter. And you can plough the extra cash into aesthetics like pagan statuary.

Eventually, the school is taking in 'students with lives' (as in 'come on, get a life'), who have some brains. You might call their philosophy of education, 'brands and brains'. The school will then label this 'holistic education', since it's quite obvious that these students 'have a life' and 'live it to the full'.

But this is an unfair caricature. Most of the students aren't really like that (although they would be if they could). The school isn't really like that (it could be worse). And the teachers aren't really like that (actually, it's hard to tell what the teachers are like).

And so, the cost of public schooling goes up on the side. Fortunately, public housing and schooling are both reasonably good in Atlantis. But sometimes I think they're a bit too expensive for what they're supposed to deliver.

This thought is a Bad One. It is an Ungrateful Thought. The correct response to such a thought is, "Why are you complaining, after all, your nett value goes up because of all these things, since you are from School A and you also have an apartment that has gone up 70% in value?"

Well, I just hope that people will be able to afford more of the good stuff and that there are more good years ahead for everyone. It's kind of hard to see how this can be when money is buying less and less in terms of real value.

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