Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Education and Defense in the U.S.

OK thinkers, I've got a thought mulling, and I need some help with it, when you're brain has free time. This gets a bit long.

Defense Department vs. National Education levels.

Posit: The government is in the business of providing public goods. Why? Because public goods are those that the market wont supply, or wont supply at an efficient level because of disincentives.

Ergo, National defense: someone providing it gives it to everyone. BUT it's really expensive, and if one can't isolate the benefits, there is no market incentive to provide it. Hence, the federal government takes defense responsibilities from the states, and doesn't allow private military forces to operate within the U.S.

As a government we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on defense every year. Dozens of major companies, and thousands of small ones, compete for major contracts to design new equipment, deliver it, set up logistics, analyze this or that, and basically make a ton of money doing this. They use that money to recruit and pay some of the brightest minds in our country, and keep them engaged in the "business of defense" of our country.

Basically, (and without judgment), the defense industry in this country is the government pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy in order to get companies to provide us with a public good.

Education: education is also a public good. The more educated an individual is, the more capable s/he is to contribute more to his/her society. In intellectual, artistic, economic, and social ways. Well educated people tend to be healthier, have higher paying (and more economically productive) jobs, raise children who are more successful in school and help diversify their local economic base, mitigating the impact of single-sector market swings.

We leave education as a "state-level" public good, with most states devolving the lion's share of educational authority to county, city, or school-district levels. In part because these levels of government are smaller, in part because they are closer to the electorate, and in part because nearly all of them are constitutionally (state-level constitution) barred from running a deficit, have much less money to dole out to those interested in providing a public good than does the federal government.

This general lack of money (as well as the general conception that if one wants a good school, then one should pay the costs of a private education), has led U.S. schools to mediocre performance when compared globally, and is preparing generations of America's children to fail in an ever-changing national and global situation.

With that caveat that I'm not trying to expand government, and if there is a way to improve education with local-level funding, I'm all for it, I want to ask a question:

Why can't we, as a country, do for education what we did for defense?

National defense started as a bunch of guys pulling their muskets of the mantel and assembling in the town square. It has evolved into an enormously complex industry of professional soldiers, statesmen, executives, and lobbyists. It is not necessarily market-efficient, but it is the most effective military force the world has ever known. The thing about military spending is that it is just that: spending. There is minimal investment when it comes to military--and the little actual investment that occurs does so in the form of training received by soldiers and officers. Spending on education can be either spending or investing. And the returns can be enormous. The returns on teaching young children can be 11:1. Not 11%, but 11 times investment.

Why are we, as a society, unwilling to make that kind of investment in our children, but we are in national defense? Is there a compromise that can be reached? A new approach to government and education?


Kerri said...

Hey kiddo - it's been awhile! Here's what I think - you could ask this same question about health care or the environment or, heck, transportation. I think the difference is life and death. Americans are scared of dying in a fiery, war-like fire ball. But mediocre education is just not as scary. And there are too many priorities - they can't all be funded as much as they could possibly be funded or we'd be broke. So defense gets funded at the expense of "social" spending. My take :).

ramblingbarrister said...

I don't disagree with Kerri-- I think she's on to something, but I'm going to try to expand it.

I think of it this way: defense has tangible costs (as Kerri said, death by fiery, war-like fireball), while education does not have the same costs (enter story about how grandma did something on only a grade school diploma here). That is the simple answer, though not the right one; as an economic perspective on the situation views it differently-- the cost of lack of education is an increased cost in crime, poverty, research and development, and commercial enterprise. Since the disconnect does not happen instantly (the it-can't-happen-to-me-because-I-am/my-kids-are/too-smart syndrome), while a lapse in national defense has been exploited to mean certain painful death to any old Joe.

The market has illustrated that for-profit schools cannot make money, as they go in promising tangible results ("test scores") and come out realizing that the tangible results are either too costly for their predictions or that you can't tangibilize education. The hard part is that we keep putting importance in these world-wide testing standards. So what if kids in Singapore have memorized their mulitiplication tables better than the American ones? The American ones, in our recent (translated: pre-NCLB) have learned how to apply those multiplication tables into real life.

Test scores are, in my opinion, a way to standardize everyone. American success has been the ability to see past standardization. While standardization makes it easy to govern, the ability to think outside the box makes it easy to succeed in capitalism.

Ironic, that the pro-business, pro-rights group is advocating standardization!

pip said...