Andrew Sullivan predicts that the assertion below from Robin Hanson, glossing a video in which students struggle to answer why students' GPA shouldn't be "redistributed" as pay is by taxation, will "piss off some liberal readers." Boy is he ever right -- and Andrew, doesn't it piss you off? Just what was your position on the PPACA, or on the extra revenue called for in Bowles-Simpson? In any case, here's Hanson:
Most people believe that redistributing money within a nation is good, but that redistributing GPA within a school is bad, and if asked why these should be treated differently, have little to say. My point isn’t to say one can’t come up with reasons to treat these differently. One could, for example, argue that we prefer differing school signals to help employers sort people into jobs, to achieve higher productivity so that the pie is bigger when we redistribute money. My point is that most people can’t think of such reasons, making it pretty unlikely that such reasons are the cause of their opinions...I should proceed with caution here, because I get the impression we're dealing with a very smart (if smug) cookie. Still, in response to this challenge from Hanson added as a postscript...
We humans are much better at coming up with reasons for opinions than at choosing coherent sets of opinions – we clearly have a powerful inbuilt capacity for hypocrisy.
Those who think it unfair to evaluate what students said on the spot, how much better do you think the reasons would have become if the students were given an hour to think about it by themselves? A week?Let me grant myself an hour. And I'm happy to share whatever grade I get.
1. GPA is more tightly tied to individual performance than earnings are. Granting that a) grading is an imperfect measure of the quality of student input, and b) earnings bear some relationship to performance, it's still true that student performance bears a closer relationship to grade than the social utility of the average person's work does to that person's earnings. Also, we have the right as a community to take some pay back as price of admission, and no right because no motive to take GPA back. Collectively, we pay someone for performing a service because we want what they're selling. Taxing back a measure of that payment is as organic to human society as paying it out in the first place, since tax of one kind or another is the price of admission to any human community. "Taxing" the measure of school performance, on the other hand, only makes sense if you regard GPA as a commodity rather than as a condition for further learning.
2. As Hanson intimates, developing one's value in the workplace is largely dependent on learning things in school. You cannot progress adequately through our educational system without having your performance measured. Even if you want to imagine more optimal performance measures than what schools now use, you cannot learn all you need to know to equip yourself for further learning (and in some cases, for the occupation of your choice) without some performance measures -- you cannot progress without ascertaining your prior progress. Earning certain grades equips you, or certifies that you are equipped, to progress to doing something more complicated. Earning more money simply equips you to enjoy yourself more. (Well okay, earning more money does equip people to invest more. But the really large individual investors in our society are not going to lack for capital because of oppressive taxation.)
3. Income redistribution in the U.S. is very moderate. No one who makes a lot of money has cause to complain that the state is depriving him or her of the fruits of labor. And by multiple measures of national well-being, humans thrive best in societies that invest in commonwealth, that is, do their utmost to provide the conditions for a decent life to all and to moderate without eliminating disparities of wealth.
4. While objectively it's all but impossible to identify any of our accomplishments as products of free will and therefore merit -- IQ is as much a matter of luck as the material wealth of the family we're born into-- we have to live as if individual effort matters and reward the fruits of that effort; we have to motivate achievement. That's true both in school and workplace: good work in school should lead to opportunities to learn more, and ultimately to do responsible work, and good performance at work should lead to more responsibility and the chance to perform more complex tasks. This necessitates tying GPA to individual performance -- and, to a degree, as the failure of communism has taught us, pay to individual performance. But the latter relationship is not absolute, because each of us also has an interest in being part of a commonwealth, per point 3 above, and because each of gets more than merely financial rewards from work.
Finally, it irks me that Hanson seems to think that it's hypocritical for students to hold a moral intuition the underlying logic of which they can't readily articulate. When a student says that GPA is "not the same" as monetary reward, that's a moral intuition. And I bet a lot of them could come up with reasons within a week, or an hour. Some of them probably considerably better than mine.
Response to McArdle