The Tale of the Economics Professor

TODAY'S PROPAGANDA EMAIL is in the form of a story:

An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class. That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said ok, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism.

All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A. After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little.. The second test average was a D! No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around the average was an F.

The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great; but when government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed.

Could not be any simpler than that....

I love this one—particularly the final line. "Could not be any simpler..." is a fine capstone on an argument that's presented as a simple story, but is actually a very convoluted and complex system of assumptions, distortions, and manipulations.

So lets take it line by line.

An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class.

  1. First, notice that the professor is not named, but the school is. This should make us a bit suspicious, since it lends an air of credibility without being traceable.
  2. Next, notice that this is a story-within-a-story. The author doesn't actually say that it happened. He, or she, says that the unnamed professor said that it happened.

    This is interesting for three reasons:
    1. It makes the story harder to debunk. It might be possible to prove that no professor at Texas Tech ever did this, but it's not possible to prove that no professor ever claimed they did.

      The effect of this is all in the subtext. You don't stop to think about it when you're just reading the email, but it's there to counter any doubts you might have along the way.
    2. It shifts the point of view. We now are in the position of hearing the professor's own testimony about the story.

      The interesting thing, of course, is that we aren't really—we're still just hearing what the unnamed author wants us to believe. So, by actually removing us one more step from the source (by telling us that the author didn't witness this personally) it creates the illusion that we've actually moved closer (to the teacher who did it).
    3. It uses a well-known hypnotic technique. By folding one story within another, it makes it hard for the reader to be clear on the context, which in turn makes the reader easier to lead.
  3. Finally, notice what the dramatic claim actually asks us to believe: that a teacher who never fails a student individually would actually contrive to fail an entire class.

    Because it isn't just a matter of circumstances leading a teacher to do something out of character.

    The story that follows is the story of a teacher who, because of a political disagreement with students, intentionally creates a situation that will lead to their failure.

This is typical, at one level or another, of many of these emails. It leaves the readers in a liminal state, halfway between truth and fiction, where they are more vulnerable to a misleading argument.

By accepting the story on face value, even while there is ample evidence for rejecting it out of hand, we are already colluding with the author in his deception.

To be continued...

The Tale of the Economics Professor: Part 2

CONTINUING OUR ANALYSIS of a propaganda email, the next line reads:

That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

I have two things to say about that:

  1. The class had insisted...

    I've been involved in education much of my life, I've taught classes on every level from elementary through graduate school, and I have never once had an entire class disagree with me on anything, let alone a topic as divisive as socialism.

    Texas is not the most liberal part of the country. And, even if this weren't Texas, economics classes are not generally known for attracting the most liberal students on any campus.

    The idea that an entire economics class was unanimous, against the teacher, and socialist, staggers the imagination.
  2. But there's another, more interesting, point in the above sentence.

    This is where the idea of socialism is introduced, and the real argument begins in the subtext.

    The word "socialism" is loaded. It's loaded because the entire propaganda machine of the right has been spending a great deal of time and effort spinning the term.

    The result of this spinning is that the word, in common usage, means everything from Obama's efforts to keep the country from falling into another depression to the kind of cruel dictatorship that existed in Russia under Stalin.

    The conservative spinners love this kind of conflation.

    The email makes use of that conflation by simply not explaining what type of "socialism" the class was talking about, as though there were only one type. Republicans are currently making use of the same conflation by labeling a budget that is miles to the right of Dwight Eisenhower on tax policy, and miles more conservative than Reagan on spending, with the same word: socialism.

    The upshot is that this word, introduced here, carries enormous emotional and political weight.

The professor then said ok, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism. All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A.

  1. The author very subtly introduces an authoritarian world-view into the argument. The teacher is the authority, and therefore can do whatever he wants. The importance of this, as a propaganda weapon, is that he's pacing the beliefs of his intended audience.

    This email is clearly aimed at conservatives. It's not going to convert someone like me, and it doesn't attempt to. Conservatives, on the whole, have an authoritarian world-view. They like the idea that there are authorities in charge, and they tend to think that those authorities should be allowed to force their will on others.

    To that audience, this authoritarian behavior actually increases the professor's credibility, making it more likely that they'll justify his future erratic and dishonest actions, and believe him when he pronounces the moral at the end of the story.

    In real life, of course, a professor can't just arbitrarily change grading procedures any way he wishes. While professors do have a great deal of latitude, a professor who tried to do what this professor is said to do would run into all kinds of professional problems when those students complained to the administration, which they would.
  2. Just a mention, but it's worth noting here that this soft-hearted professor, who never failed an individual student, tells a lie at this point to the entire class. He tells them that no one will fail. And, if he had done what he said he was going to do, no one would have. In fact, the only reason anyone in this class fails is because the professor both broke his word, and graded in a very unorthodox fashion.

    One of the things I've learned over forty years as an educator is that most students, and many teachers, don't understand how grades actually work. Especially on the university level, grades are, by their nature, comparative. They don't tell you how much, and certainly not what a student has learned. They only tell you about one student's performance compared to the rest of his or her class.

    Occasionally you'll run into a teacher who is convinced that they "don't grade on a curve". What they mean is something like, "90% to 100% is an 'A', 80% to 89% is a 'B', etc.". But if you watch closely, you'll notice that if all the students do badly on one test, they'll do better on the next one. The teacher notices the trend, decides the last test was "too hard" and adjusts, either consciously or unconsciously.

    That isn't the only way it's done, but the fact remains that virtually every teacher gives a set of grades that mostly average to "C" over all their students. A professor who regularly gave an average grade of even 'D' would not be tolerated for long.

    One may give more or fewer 'A's, another may give no 'F's, but on the whole, the mean is 'C'. And, in fact, under our current system, any other arrangement is simply dishonest , since it would be ignoring the meaning the grades have in our system.

    This becomes important later on.

After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B.

We'll take that one apart next time...

The Tale of the Economics Professor: Part 3

WE'VE BEEN WORKING our way, one or two sentences at a time, through a piece of email propaganda, a short story about an Economics Professor, sent out over the internet. You can read the complete version in the first part, and my previous commentary there, and in part two.

We've come as far as the following line:

After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B.

  1. Unless this is a graduate level class, B is too high an average.

    In fact, the current undergraduate catalog at Texas Tech defines a 'C' as "average". The professor is either grading erratically, or is setting the class up, in order to prove his point.
  2. If it is a graduate level class, then the rest of the story is even more unbelievable, for reasons which I'll explain when we get there.

The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy.

This seems easy enough to believe, until you really think about it:

  1. If this had actually happened, I can believe the first part. A student who worked hard for a grade could be really upset when he or she didn't get it.

    Oh. Except, of course, they already knew what the rules were, so, if they worked hard anyway, it wasn't for the grade!
  2. There's no way you'll get me to believe the second part. Or, to be more precise, there's no way I'll believe the implication in the subtext of the second part, because I have real first-hand evidence.

    In saying that "the students who studied little were happy", the author doesn't mean that they were pleased because the grade pressure was lifted and they could concentrate on learning, or that they were pleased because of their gratitude for the superior abilities of the better students.

    Neither of those would further the argument in the email.

    What the author intends us to believe is that the students who had studied little were pleased that they were getting a better grade than they deserved.

    When I taught high school, I did a little grading experiment myself one year. I told my class that at the end of each grading period they would be grading themselves.

    I reserved the right to change the grade they assigned themselves only in extreme cases, like students who turned nothing in all quarter then gave themselves an 'A'. But other than that I would go with the grade they thought they earned.

    The result surprised even me. I had, of course, kept track of their progress privately, and I knew what grade they would have earned from me.

    (The fact was that I regretted having announced the policy, and I was getting ready to take it back if it was a total failure.)

    The surprises were of two kinds:
    1. First, I only had to change about 10% of the grades. About 90% were already exactly what I would have assigned anyway.
    2. Second, the grades I questioned—the ones I wanted to change—were, in all but one case, lower than the ones I would have given.

      In two cases, after much discussion, I compromised and gave students the average of my, higher, evaluation and their, lower, one, because they refused to accept my higher evaluation.

So I simply don't believe that students who got higher grades than they deserved were uniformly pleased with that fact. And, I might point out, this is important to the argument which has been expertly placed in the subtext.

I might also add that this example doesn't come from some anonymous professor, contriving a situation to prove a point. I was there, you know my name, and the students' reaction was not what I expected.

Next time...

But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little...

To be continued...

The Tale of the Economics Professor: Part 4

IN THE PREVIOUS THREE PARTS, which you can find here, here, and here, we've been working our way through a propaganda email about socialism—a little contrived parable disguised as a true story.

"The best students in any class are exactly the ones who are least motivated by grades."

The next bit gets to the heart of the matter:

But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little...

  1. Now we see the payoff for the propagandist's approach. Having presented this as a real life example, and having gotten the reader to collude with the deception, the author hands us anecdotal evidence in order to back up a rather large assumption about human nature.

    We are supposed to believe that the students who studied little had no sense that they were letting the group down. Not one of them decided to study harder, precisely because they knew the group grade depended on it?

    Not one of them thought, "Hey, I'm getting a better grade than I earned. I should probably do my best to deserve it"?

    This goes against my experience as a teacher, and as a human being. I can believe that a few students may have behaved that way (especially in an economics class ) but all of them?

    In fact, something very much like this "experiment" happens in classrooms all the time. It's called a group project. Several students work together to complete an assignment, usually some sort of presentation to the class, and all get whatever grade the group earns. (Oddly enough, one of my recent examples comes from a class in economics in an MBA program!)

    The result is not the one described in this little parable. On the contrary, the usual result is that most of the group contributes according to their ability.

    The occasional slacker meets the group's disdain, and, if the project takes a long enough time to complete, that person usually shapes up and contributes. But even when they don't, the rest of the group continues to work hard and do their best on the assignment.

  2. As for the good students, it's even harder to swallow. The best students in any class are exactly the ones who are least motivated by grades.

    They're the students who are in the class because they want to understand economics. When a group project comes around, they're the ones who continue to put in their best work no matter what the occasional slacker is doing.

    They might well be ticked because they're not getting the grade they deserve, but they are the least likely to let that influence their level of work.

    And if this was a graduate level class, most of the group would have been there because they wanted to learn.
  3. No. What's being slipped in here, by way of a completely manufactured example, is a distorted view of human nature.

    The hardest, and most productive workers in any company are exactly the ones who are not doing it just for the money.

    The least productive are the workers who are. Those are the workers who should be working somewhere else, somewhere where they really care about the project.
  4. And, by the way, those workers who are unproductive are usually not very happy there, either. "Free rides" are not something that humans, on average, are very content with (remember my students who refused a higher grade?). We like to contribute. We want our work to be valued.

The second test average was a D! No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around the average was an F.

  1. No. It wasn't—not unless the professor didn't understand grades. In a graduate level class it would have been a B. In an undergraduate class it would have been a C. If it was anything else, it wasn't because of the students behavior, but because the teacher was manipulating the grading system.
  2. As for the third test, the only way it could have been an F average was if the professor lied, and simply manipulated the grades to prove a point. Remember his promise about the new policy? No 'A's, no 'F's.

Next time, some conclusions, and a look at the end of the parable, beginning with:

The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.

To be concluded...

The Tale of the Economics Professor: Part 5

THIS IS THE CONCLUSION of an article on a particularly deceptive piece of email propaganda about an economics professor who taught his class a lesson in socialism. To start at the beginning, with a complete version of the email go here.

Before continuing our analysis of the email itself, it's worth mentioning a kind of odd twist in the conservative propaganda world-view which this email illustrates.

Economics is not a hard science. It is, at this stage in its development, a social science, and one that has multiple schools which often disagree, even about how to best approach the topic.

Yet conservative propaganda about economic issues typically puts the conservative point of view in the mouth of an economics professor, who is "right" where the students are "wrong", making the professor an intellectual authority figure.

Contrast this with a field like, say, biology. Propaganda stories about evolution—a theory which is rooted in overwhelming evidence in a field whose progress makes economics look like baby babbling—almost always show the anti-intellectualism of the conservative mind: most typically, a student argues with the professor and comes out on top.

I don't have an easy explanation for this anomaly, but I suspect it has something to do with an even deeper split in the conservative movement itself.

For years now, since Reagan at least, that movement has survived by bonding an aggregate of racism, conservative religion, and homophobia (all of which are anti-intellectual) to a core of capitalist wealth and elitism with a kind of political super-glue.

These interests, and worldviews, are not only different, but often opposed. And the recent election seems to show that the super-glue can't hold forever.

But back to the email in question. The next line reads:

The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.

  1. Really? I would expect the bickering and name calling and blame to be aimed primarily at the professor, for not keeping his word.
  2. As for no one studying for the benefit of others—this is another projection of the author's world-view on a contrived fiction.

    People will study just to learn, people will study to help the group, people will study for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with grades.

    If this story were true, there wouldn't be a single charity organization in the world. How much of what we do is done for others, or just to achieve a goal that we find desirable but gets us, personally, nothing?

All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great; but when government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed.

  1. Notice that "socialism" is still left undefined, so that it can be used to tar the political opponents of the right, who have nothing to do with anything like communism.
  2. The example, being both fictional and contrary to the real world, proves nothing.

    But even if it had been a real example, it would still prove nothing—except that a group of students gave up trying to learn when it became clear that the professor was going to jerk them around, lie to them, change the rules, and generally turn the academic class they had signed up for into a circus, just because he disagreed with them on a political point.
  3. The story, and the argument at the end, are both rooted in a mistaken and simplistic view of human nature.

    We did not survive for millions of years as hunter-gatherers, in egalitarian societies, because we refused to work for the good of the community, or for the value of the work itself.

    We are not robots, or Skinner's chickens, who require a stick or a carrot wielded by an authoritarian in order to be productive.
  4. But there is another, deeper, problem with this story. It makes a fundamental assumption about the nature of motivation.

    It assumes that the primary, and best, motivators are extrinsic—that they are things like rewards and punishments that are not directly related to the work itself, and can be controlled by someone else.

    Grades are an excellent example of this kind of motivator, as are wages. The author of this story would like to believe, and would like you to believe, that this is the only kind of motivation there is.

    It would be very convenient for the wealthy if that were so. The fact that this kind of motivation works at all is what allows them to treat labor (another word for human beings) as a commodity which can be bought and sold and traded.

    But even educators have long known that extrinsic motivation is the least reliable where humans are concerned. We can only be moved so far by carrots and sticks.

    (A point which is echoed from a Christian, and purely religious, perspective here.)

    To really tap into the potential of humans requires meaningful work, and the security to do it well.

I should end by saying that I am not a very socialist type, on the whole. I think we should have a free market wherever that will work, and I think we should use government where that will work.

Nevertheless, this email is a fraud. It's not, in the end, even a serious argument against socialism, and it isn't designed to be.

It's designed to shape the minds of the conservative base, in order to get more Republican votes—to put a push-button in conservative minds, so politicians can get them to vote against their own interests by simply uttering the S-word.

Could not be any simpler than that....

Exactly.

At least, that's what I think today.

For an alternative version of the tale, read on...

The Revised Tale of the Economics Professor

Some time ago I posted a commentary on a propaganda email making the rounds about an economics professor who failed an entire class. It pretended to be a true story, but was actually a fiction, designed to "prove" that fairness in the marketplace would lead to the collapse of the economy.

There's been a lot of interest in those posts. So I thought I would revisit the idea from a different angle—this time providing my own version of the tale.

I won't lie to you, however. What follows is a parable. It never happened in the real world. It's merely a way of making a point.

The first four words should make that completely clear...

ONCE UPON A TIME there was an economics professor...

She loved teaching almost as much as she loved her subject. Like most born teachers, she was much more interested in what her students learned than she was in establishing her authority in the classroom, or assigning grades. She knew that those things are necessary to the task of teaching, and to the system she taught in, but regarded them as tools to be used to increase learning.

One year she found herself teaching a class full of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. They seemed unable to think beyond their ideology, and countered any evidence she presented with economic dogma, which they didn't even seem to have thought through.

"Free markets can be trusted to solve all problems," they said, "economic or otherwise."

"Government regulation will predictably lead to economic collapse," they said.

"Any attempt to introduce enforced 'fairness' into a system," they said, "will only undermine the market forces which make the system work."

The teacher was saddened at their closed-mindedness and narrowness of thought. She considered long and hard how to get them to connect their thinking to the real world, which she knew was much more complex than their political theories.

Finally, she came up with a plan.

She walked into class one day, faced the students, and asked a question.

"Do you see any similarities between our country as a whole and this classroom?"

The students were silent at first, then one raised a timid hand.

"Well, the country has citizens, and the classroom has students..."

"Very good," the teacher replied. "So if you represent the citizens, who symbolizes the government?"

Another hand went up.

"You do."

"Exactly. And what would be the equivalent of currency?"

"Grades?"

"Very good. Would you be willing to undertake a little experiment, in order to test whether government regulation is a good thing or a bad thing, right here in this classroom?"

The students, being a bit cocky, readily agreed.

"Fine. Here's what I propose. I will grade the scheduled exams and papers just as I always have, and assign the grades as usual. However, from this moment forward, I will cease to regulate how you go about writing those papers or taking the tests."

Blinded by their ideology, the students saw no problem with this.

The first paper was due the following week.

Next time: what happened...

The Revised Tale of the Economics Professor - Conclusion

(Continued from yesterday's post...:)

"HERE'S WHAT I PROPOSE," the professor said. "I will grade the scheduled exams and papers just as I always have, and assign the grades as usual. However, from this moment forward, I will cease to regulate how you go about writing those papers or taking the tests."

The students, blinded by their ideology, saw no problem with this.

The first paper was due the next week. Several of the top students turned in their usual excellent work, and were very surprised to get C's when the grades were returned.

They might never have figured out what happened, except that one or two of the students who received A's couldn't resist bragging.

Those students, the others who had received A's, and most of the ones who had received B's, had simply gone to the library and found an article by a professional economist which fit the assignment. They had then copied it, changed the name to their own, and turned it in.

The students who had worked very hard on their papers only to get C's immediately went to the teacher and complained.

"But they cheated!"

"Yes. I know."

"Aren't you going to do anything about it?"

"What would you want me to do?"

"Disqualify their papers. Give them F's. Give us the A's."

"But your papers aren't as good as theirs. You're asking for government regulation. We agreed to let market forces work this out."

The next grade was on a test. By now the class had begun to figure out how the new system was working, so it was no surprise that only the very best students took their own test.

The richest students spent their inherited money to hire other professors from the economics department to sit in for them.

Some of these students were deeply disappointed, since it was mostly the more conservative professors who would agree that the deregulated approach was legitimate, and of course they had the same ideological blinders on that the students did, so they didn't do so well on a fact-based test.

Some students who were less well off hired other students in the department, with mixed results.

Some of the better students in the class dropped out, in order to take exams for wealthier students.

But that was only one exam.

By the end of the course, the market had gotten a lot smarter. Fewer mistakes were made, and consequently students pretty much got the grades they had legitimately paid for.

The richest students formed a corporation and pooled their resources to hire a burglar, who stole the answers from the teacher's office. They got all the A's.

The poorest students couldn't compete, so they dropped out, taking F's.

With a few exceptions, the students in between had grades which generally reflected how wealthy their parents were.

On the last day of class, the teacher asked the students what they thought of the experiment.

Oddly enough, the wealthiest students thought it had gone fine.

The students in the middle ranges, however, weren't so sure. In general, the more competent they were, the less they thought of the system.

And, of course, the poorest students weren't there anymore, and so had no voice.