Teachers and Councilors

S030409JB-0043.JPGThe White House has dispatched Christy Romer, a distinguished economist and chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, to rustle up support for emergency spending to keep teachers employed. Her piece in the Washington Post is remarkable for a complete absence of arguments in favor of spending this money on teachers as opposed to say, plumbers or cab drivers or pharmaceutical researchers or computer programmers or minor league ballplayers. (See for yourself.)

So why the singular focus on teachers? The answer, of course, is that unlike plumbers or cab drivers or pharmaceutical workers or computer programmers, teachers, through their unions, were major contributors to the Obama campaign.

All victorious politicians engage in the unsavory practice of diverting spoils to their most vigorous supporters at everyone else’s expense. In this, the current administration may be no more blameworthy than any other. But I’m pretty sure that sending out the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors to defend these political payoffs marks a new sort of low. Traditionally, the Council is composed of first-rate academics whose job is to give good counsel and remain above the political fray. Shame on the President for debasing that noble mission, and shame on Christy Romer for going along with it.

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28 Responses to “Teachers and Councilors”


  1. 1 1 mike hansen

    could it be no more than the importance that teachers exhibit over and with kids , more so than cabbies or pharmaceutical reps?

  2. 2 2 libfree

    She does say “And the costs of decreased learning time and support for students will be felt not just in the next year or two but will reduce our productivity for decades to come.”

    I don’t personally buy the argument. First, one would have to assume that children only receive education in school. Second, that the marginal value of that learning time is very high. I’ve seen at least two studies recently that suggested that cutting back on school time actually increased test scores. Kind of a Laffer Curve of school time to test scores.

  3. 3 3 libfree

    Sorry, I see you mentioned that but I think that she assumes that decreases in education are never “made up”. Like it’s a one shot deal, either you learn when Washington crossed the Potomac in 5th grade or your never going to learn it.

  4. 4 4 Henry

    There’s another factor beyond the “seen and the unseen”. If there are fewer cab drivers, that hurts drunks, one-night stands and other disapproved-of groups. If there are fewer teachers, that hurts our precious children.

    Now clearly much private spending benefits approved-of groups and some public spending benefits pariahs, but there’s certainly a net “sin tax” by stealth going on.

  5. 5 5 Dan

    Christy Romer used to be a teacher. She sees the value in it because that is what she did.

    You probably want more economists in congress because you understand the value of economists.

    Granted her reasons are quite dumb (there are much better reasons out there to give money to teachers) just means that she is dumb or that she things the majority of people are dumb enough to buy these “reasons”, in which case she may know what she is doing.

    Either way to immediately jump to corruption is unreasonable. I’m rather disappointed in today’s post.

  6. 6 6 Mike

    Dan, I’m not sure that I understand your argument. If Christy Romer used to be a stripper would she then argue for that because she understands the value that it brings to the community?

    One assumes that the value of teachers is education, and teachers are truly just a component of the education process. So really what you’re saying is that there are better reasons to give money to education. However, we could do that a number of more efficient ways than just paying teachers. We could restructure the Dept. of Education, we could privatize educations, we could give full tax credits for private schools, we could create voucher programs, etc.

    If your argument is that the better reasons to give teachers money is anything beyond “so they can better educate” then it probably falls into the “why not a plumber” category. And Landsburg wasn’t calling it corruption (that I saw) just kind of sleazy because he was upset that an advisory position was now being politicized for the gain of a vested interest.

  7. 7 7 David Pinto

    I have no doubt there should be more money for minor league baseball players, especially the ones who aren’t good enough to play for the Orioles.

  8. 8 8 Æternitatis

    Christy Romer is *not* dumb. But that she is still willing to write (or at least have published under her name) such dumb argument makes me think less of her. Were previous CEA members less pliable or are the current ones just subject to greater pressure by their political masters?

  9. 9 9 nobody.really

    Dan, I’m not sure that I understand your argument. If Christy Romer used to be a stripper would she then argue for that because she understands the value that it brings to the community?

    Here’s a stimulus plan worthy of it’s name!

  10. 10 10 Harold

    I wondered how big a donor the teachers were. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1989 – 2010, National Education Asociation was 7th largest donor, and American Federation of Teachers was 12th. Overall, that has got to add up to a fairly major input. Over the same period, the pharmaceutical / healthcare donations were 3.5 times as much, so I don’t think you can lump pharmaceutical workers in with the plumbers here. Their jobs are protected by their employers’ donations.

    There are two ways you can view donations –
    1)one party believes what you believe, so you support them to get them elected. They would have done this anyway, your money is only to help them get elected.
    2) You pay money to a politician in the hopes that if elected they will do what you want. They will change what they do in response to your money.
    In case 1, you will only support one party. In case 2 you will support all parties. The unions are over 90% for the democrats, suggesting type 1, in contrast with AT&T, who are roughly 50/50, suggesting type 2. (These contributions are over a 20 year period).

    Obviously, there is potential for the “tail to wag the dog”, and the politician to try to make sure they keep the donor happy, even if it is what I call “type 1″. I have a feeling that Obama is not worried that the teaching union is going to switch allegiance to the republicans, although they could stop or reduce contributions if he does not do what they want.

    The whole issue of political funding is very dodgy, and just because it might be favoring a group with which I have sympathy does not make it any better. I do not know the best system, but the current one is clearly open to abuse.

    The piece refered to suffers from all the criticisms you mention – most of the economic benefits would accrue if plumbers were employed rather than teachers. But, these observations are to show that the total cost will be less than the “sticker price”. The article has the wrong emphasis, but the line “And the costs of decreased learning time and support for students will be felt not just in the next year or two but will reduce our productivity for decades to come.” is the clue. It is possible that the costs of not educating our young is much greater than the cost of not fixing the plumbing, because we will suffer from the lack of education throughout their lives. This is, of course, the main argument, and it is not made in the article. Perhaps the author feels (erroneously) it is so obvious that it does not need to be made. However, I think a good case could be made for it, which questions the assertion that the motivation is only becuase of the donations.

    The article should follow the points
    1) It is going to be very expensive in the long run if our children are not properly educated and the return on the investment is worth more than alternatives, therefore
    2) It is worth us making sure that their education is continued by pumping in some extra money and
    3) The money we put in will have these other economic effects which will decrease the price by 20-40%

    The article seems to have it back-to-front.

  11. 11 11 Seth

    I’ve always failed to see what others see in Ms. Romer and wondered if it was just me. I hope this helps others see that it wasn’t just me.

    I agree with your take. I also think this is a good example of government causing more government.

    “Because of continued high unemployment, state and local budgets are stressed to the breaking point.”

    That government plays a role in the high unemployment is the unseen. Fixing it with more government is seen and remarkably stupid.

    We can’t socialize every loss. We can’t continue drinking through the hangover.

  12. 12 12 Harold

    Just as an aside, the only two groups in the top 107 with donations to Republicans of over 90% were Amway and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. You can see why these could support the Republicans from an idealogical perspective.
    http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php?order=A

  13. 13 13 neil wilson

    It is good to know that everything Obama does is wrong and everything he does is for crass political gain.

    Of course, it is true, these type of decisions have never happened before.

    Shocking!!!

  14. 14 14 Steve Landsburg

    Neil Wilson:

    Of course, it is true, these type of decisions have never happened before.

    Do you *ever* read these posts before you respond to them?

  15. 15 15 Dave

    Steve re Neil Wilson: Exactly right.

    “All victorious politicians engage in the unsavory practice of diverting spoils to their most vigorous supporters at everyone else’s expense. In this, the current administration may be no more blameworthy than any other.”

    Ironically, Neil Wilson is being the exact kind of reactionary that he thinks he’s accusing you of. I will choose to ignore him going forward.

  16. 16 16 Ken

    Neil,

    I guess when Steven said “All victorious politicians…” he really only meant Obama and that “these type of decisions have never happened before”. I must have misunderstood the meaning of “all” my entire life. But hey we had a sitting president question what the meaning of “is” is, so why not have some boob in a comments section on a weblog question what the meaning of the word “all” is.

    Hope you learn to english soon so you can join the grown ups in the discussion.

    Regards,
    Ken

  17. 17 17 Bob

    Dave: “Neil Wilson is being the exact kind of reactionary that he thinks he’s accusing you of.”

    He can’t possibly be; after all, look at how he rejects your hide-bound capitalization rules! neil is kewl!

    “I will choose to ignore him going forward.”

    Why weren’t you ignoring people during the Bush/Cheney years, you hypocrite?

  18. 18 18 Dave

    Bob: ROFLMFAO

  19. 19 19 Harold

    “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” – the meaning is sometimes different from the sum of the words. Whilst stating that this administration *may* be no worse than others, this is followed by the assertion that it has reached a new low.

  20. 20 20 Uncle Maury

    The independent voice of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) has been successively eroded since 1989. Its original charter establishing its independence from political influence no longer is abided by. One might only wish that Romer would move forward to speak with an independent, rather than politically manipulated, voice. Likely she is just responding to the incentives she faces in her downgraded job.

    Starting in 1989, under George H. W. Bush (Bush-the-first), the Chairman of the CEA (Michael Boskin) was not offered membership in the Cabinet. The previous CEA Chairman had been a cabinet member, so this reflected a deliberate change in the Presidency’s view of the CEA’s role and the importance of independent economic thought for the President. During his tenure, Boskin responded by changing the role of the Council to focus–within the rules of its charter–on accomplishing the President’s political ends rather than providing independent economic analysis.

    But, in 1993 under Bill Clinton, the National Economic Council (NEC) was established as an intentionally political arm of administration. Likely one reason was because the political role of the CEA is officially limited by its Congressional Charter. Subsequent administrations have continued to make influential appointments to the NEC, such as the current Chairman, Lawrence Summers. Summers’ appointment to the NEC has often overshadowed Romer’s appointment to the CEA.

    In 2009, President Obama further established the Economic Recovery Advisory Board and appointed former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker as Chair, with Obama’s political campaign economics adviser, Austan Goolsbee, also on the committee.

    The current CEA Chair, Christy Romer, is listed as cabinet rank on President Obama’s .gov website. That is an upgrade for the CEA Chair, considering the history since the 1990s; but it is difficult to imagine anyone in that chairmanship achieving cabinet rank any more without sacrificing some independence of thought to politics.

    As such, it’s almost laudable that you can describe Romer’s piece as

    “Her piece in the Washington Post is remarkable for a complete absence of arguments in favor of spending this money on teachers as opposed to say, plumbers or cab drivers or pharmaceutical researchers or computer programmers or minor league ballplayers.”

    Perhaps she is doing her best to speak good, independent economics while under the thumb of being required to be a political tool.

  21. 21 21 Ken B

    All the arguments she gives equally suggest we should continue paying the salaries of teachers fired for incompetence or misbehavior.

  22. 22 22 Æternitatis

    @Uncle Maury

    Your historical points are interesting, but isn’t your argument about cabinet status the wrong way around? Cabinet status may enhance the political prestige of the CEA chair, but would increase, rather than decrease, CEA politicization. If you want a CEA chair who can speak his or her own mind, rather than serving as administration mouth piece, you want them outside the cabinet.

  23. 23 23 Steve White

    I agree that teachers get special treatment in the Democratic party because of their votes/contributions.

    But think Romer does have an argument unique to teachers. Unlike plumbers and cab drivers, there isn’t a real market for primary and secondary school teachers. Since its a monopsony, the government has to determine the right quantity (and price). Most Democrats thought that before the recession we had too few teachers (maybe because they are union lackeys) and the potential layoffs would make that worse; as Romer says, “the costs of decreased learning time and support for students will . . . reduce our productivity for decades to come.” She also makes the case that its easier to spend the funds fast, which is important, if they go to teachers (“such aid would be very cost-effective. There are no hiring or setup costs”).

    I’m not fan of teachers unions, yet I find those arguments persuasive.

  24. 24 24 Uncle Maury

    Æternitatis said:

    “If you want a CEA chair who can speak his or her own mind, rather than serving as administration mouth piece, you want them outside the cabinet.”

    One would think that. But there have been other long-standing equilibria, and the CEA is one. What’s been forgotten about the CEA was just how its originally chartered incentives let it speak as a relatively non-political voice prior to the 1989 downgrade. For example, in one notorious prior incident, a respected academic CEA Chairman left to even greater academic renown after pointing out that the facts about Social Security being underfunded weighed heavily against the Treasury Department’s rosy picture. An independent voice for the CEA was respected not only within successive prior U.S. administrations, but also by economists of all political persuasions, and also internationally. Japan at one point modeled one of its own government economic councils after it, striving for an independent voice.

    Prior to the downgrade, the CEA regularly and competitively attracted top academic economists for every one of its 9-12 positions. The top three positions were and remain political appointments. But previously, those top three also knew that they could only attract the best academic minds to the remaining senior positions if they promised to not compromise their research, independence of thought, and ability to disagree. Senior economists at the CEA could expect to continue their academic careers afterwards. The credential of serving at the CEA has since mutated into a political stamp for those who serve there, not an academic one.

    It takes a strong leader to actually want to hear an occasional independent voice among his advisers. Or, an institution such as the CEA that, once commissioned by Congress precisely to be such an independent voice, earns and then retains that respect administration after administration. Once undermined, that fragile balance of respect is difficult to reinstate.

  25. 25 25 ThomasH

    This seems like a perfectly acceptable partial aproach to the problem that we do not have a good set of automatic stabilizers for the finances of S&L governments. Too bad she did not make that argument

  26. 26 26 Frank

    “Teachers are important, children will suffer”.

    You can use that statement to fund unlimited growth in education, results aside.

    The fact is that teachers in the public sector earn more than their private counterparts, the results are worse (in my area private schools are a class above public)and in the last 10 years spending on public education has almost doubled, way beyond inflation.

    I ask those who say that over spending is best cured by more spending. What are your suggestions for cost controls on public education and do you see a conflict of interest when an employer (government) has the ability to take money from people to give raises to its employees who keep it in power? Seems to me that liberals don’t care one whit about budgets and they use emotional (think of the children!) blackmail.

    What incentive do public school teachers have if their jobs are not based on merit? As a parent I can’t choose another school so if the one we are stuck with is bad, what then? No wonder why unions oppose charter schools.

  27. 27 27 Russell

    Before we accept the argument that children will suffer if a bunch of teachers lose their jobs…someone please point me in the direction of data that prove that hiring these extra teachers in the first place somehow benefited children.

  28. 28 28 Harold

    Russel: at an extreme, if there were no teachers, there would be worse education. Expensive private schools have a very high teacher to student ratio. It is not unreasonable to expect some sort of positive correlation between number of teachers and quality of education. There is strong evidence that class size is important, although not the only factor.
    http://www.classsizeresearch.org.uk/aera%2008%20paper.pdf

    The alternative to larger classes would be less class time. Given the response to students spending time in gardens rather than the classroom, that would not seem to be a universally accepted route to better education.

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