Saturday, May 21, 2011

The perils of oversimplifcation

Twitter gives you 140 characters to make a point. If I don't break this blog up into little tiny paragraphs, you may skim its words, if read it at all.

Study after study shows that Americans have either shorter attention spans or multitask to the point that they need information quickly and concisely.

Not saying any of this is good or bad... or even that these are new problems. Shakespeare said in Richard III: "Tis better to be brief than tedious." That was back in the 16th century.

But our world of soundbytes seems to have led to hyperbole and oversimplification that, perhaps, are not the best ways to examine what is anything but a simple world.

We can see this all over the place. The recent frenzy over Planned Parenthood's federal funding comes to mind. The soundbyte was "They use funding for abortions." That's interesting when only 3% of Planned Parenthood's operations deal with abortion.

Cutting funding would kinda be like if your doctor tells you to cut salt from your diet and you stop eating entirely.

What was missing in this discussion was other services the organizations provides, in what communities, the root cause of someone turning to Planned Parenthood vs. a hospital, potential consequences of taking that away, etc. For a group of people, it was cut and dry... cut funding and we save the government money.

I was discussing this with a friend not long ago and we got into the myriad issues of what "fixing" our economy might take... and why we might not get there. We can use schools as a good example. Lots of people want to pare back funding to public schools.

A quick aside... I love how people want to cut teacher salaries and benefits saying that teachers are making so much more than average Americans. Instead of getting into the vast problems with this general argument, I love that the reaction isn't "Geez, why can't we all have better benefits and salaries" and is, instead, "I don't think people I pay taxes to support should be better off than me." Instead of trying to make everyone's life better, let's all settle on being collectively worse off. Classic.

But I digress...

Anyhow, sure, let's cut funding to public schools. For a lot of people that means efficiency. Makes people do more with less. All that. Cut and dry.

I'm not so sure. Say you're a good teacher. You can work in a public school for a small salary or go to the nearby private school and make a lot more money. It would be nice to say you're very noble and all, but come on... you're going for the money. At this point, the idea of increasing public school teacher salaries based on performance starts to break down. The best teachers potentially flee, meaning improvement doesn't happen.

Worse, your average family has to start to question public schools. I went to a great public school. A school board candidate running there right now wants to do a number of things to cut collective bargaining for the teachers. He went so far to publish the salaries of every teacher in the district.

I left middle school in the summer of 1993. So, 20 years ago, for all intents and purposes. I looked up some of my middle school teachers. The ones that are still there - who were not necessarily "young" back then - are making 98K.

On the surface that sounds like a lot. But... if you got a corporate job at 30 and were told that at 50, after years of service, effort and who know what else, you would still be making under 100K, who would call that company cheap.

I'm sure some of these teachers, who happen to live in an area where home prices are still between 300K-400K, wonder why they didn't go to one of the nearby private schools.

What I'm saying is that this is already something of an odd compensation situation, yet they are under attack. And do I think the local gentry will want to send their kids to lackluster private schools where the best teachers are not? No. Not one bit.

Fine and dandy. Except what do you tell the half of the school district that lives in an area where median incomes and home prices are far below the other half? They might have the best and brightest kid... but no choice on schools. Private schools cost money.

What do those kids do? How do they get into a good college? What do their job prospects end up as?

I don't have answers. But I do think we owe it to the millions of people who are affected by decisions like this to not oversimplify issues when the consequences are far from simple.

Someone is saying "let's cut funding." We need to ask "What will that really mean?"