Sunday, December 4, 2011

socialism in the classroom

I got sent this last night:
Classroom Socialism
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.

(Allegedly & without prejudice)
An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama's 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 Obama's plan". All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an A.... (substituting grades for dollars - something closer to home and more readily understood by all).
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. 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.

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

To their great surprise, ALL FAILED 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.It could not be any simpler than that.

Remember, there IS a test coming up.
The 2013 elections.

It's been doing the rounds for at least the last couple of years. This time I received it from a committee of my denomination that regularly spams us with right wing American nonsense.

I wrote a fairly direct email response to the man who sent it to us, but then changed my mind and sent it to Nathan instead. I still need to get it off my chest.

A few thoughts.
1. This is a bad analogy. Try this one instead.
2. Reforming health care so that the most vulnerable have access to hospitals etc does not make Barack Obama a socialist. He may be further left than you are, but that's mostly because you are a far right self seeking greedy capitalist.
3. Why are you sending this to me, anyway? Do you think I'm on your side? To tell you the truth, I find this kind of alarmist email much scarier than Obama's alleged socialism.
4. What does this have to do with us here in Australia? Nothing!
5. What does this have to do with Jesus or living as a Christian? Absolutely nothing! So don't spam our whole denomination with it!

Yeah. I'm annoyed.


  1. We have a committee that sends that stuff?

  2. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Wish you'd sent the response, Simone!

  3. I too, find it scary that someone in our denomination has the time and energy to forward this on. Totally with you on points 2-5. But I think the analogy has some merit - it somehow needs to be integrated with the one you linked to.

  4. The capitalism analogy you linked doesn't work either though - it puts restrictions on working together, which capitalism certainly doesn't (loads of businesses work together so they can BOTH get better results, rising tide lifting all boats etc).

    The main problem with the socialist analogy you posted is the crap about the election at the end. It drives me nuts when people add those little "so here's the moral of the story" bits, when obviously the moral isn't "be careful who you vote for", so much as "don't let a revolution overtake your country and millions of people be slaughtered for the sake of an academic ideology".

    [I'm not from the US, and I think Obama is far from a socialist (I just think he's a bad president, but again, not my country).]

  5. Ha ha. If only Anglican committees could do anything that interesting! I like how the anonymous author lets him/her self off the hook by putting a disclaimer at the start - the whole story could be concocted. If not, it just shows that neither the teacher nor the students know how to work together. It's a skill that needs to be learnt - everywhere from a classroom to a whole country. Not to mention a church.

  6. Hmmmmm, the whole message of the email is besides the point. That it was sent by a church committee is the point. Political messages are not appropriate. Especially since this does not even relate to our country. Especially as they are potentially email rumours rather than fact. An completely inappropriate use of church email addresses. I would be mad too.

  7. My inbox is full, overflowing actually. If church friends, colleagues, my kids send me anything I didn't request and don't need, I press 'delete' and that frees up not only my inbox, but also my mind to think about the things that are immediately relevant to my life. (Sometimes I even delete things without reading them.)

  8. 1. I agree with RodeoClown - the analogy you link is as problematic as the one that was emailed. The advantage of the emailed analogy is that it does represent some forms of socialism. It's harder to recognize any form of capitalist theory in the analogy you link - you have to already decide that all forms of capitalism are inherently oppressive to 'get' it.

    2. Reforming health care so the poor can access it does not necessarily make you a socialist. Requiring people to buy health insurance probably does make you a socialist. Even more so when it seems that was your compromise position and you wanted something even more government driven.

    I don't really have a problem with that - I like Australia's Medicare and the UK's NHS, certainly much more than being without insurance in the US. I'll possibly concede that those with insurance get better health care outcomes than those of us in Oz or the UK, but I'm happy with that trade-off. I like some socialism in certain fields - education, and health being the two that jump to mind. I think the free market is a powerful wealth creator, but it can't be applied to everything.

    But this is a socialist solution, I would have thought. What other recognizable term would one use to describe it?

    3. Funny
    4. Basically agree, although given America's place on the world stage, almost everything that happens there affects us in some way. If America did go more like a European-style socialist country that would in time have a huge effect, for then we'd arguably be the most conservative Western country, and I doubt we'd want that. In some ways Australia seems to be a fusion between English more socialist solutions, and American more capitalist ones.
    5. Well, not a great deal . But it does have something to do with Jesus and living as a Christian. If a politician campaigned strongly for the abolition of Medicare, and the introduction of a strict 'user-pays' approach to medical care, I suspect you might think the gospel had some implications for the question...

  9. I agree that the analogy I linked to is a bad analogy. But I don't think it's so much worse than the classroom socialism one.

  10. Mark, Rodeo Clown, Simone - isn't it the case that all analogies are bad if they illustrate something we disagree with? An analogy is not a form of argument intended to convince, so much as to illustrate. The interesting discussion happens when you put these two analogies side by side and say "OK, how would you solve this dilemma?"

  11. @Jon, It's perfectly possible for an analogy to just be wrong. But of course we have a bias when it's an analogy is used to attack our beliefs.

  12. Yeah, an analogy can be bad because it doesn't correctly illustrate the point that it is supposed to be illustrating.

    So take the two analogies. Almost everyone who is attracted to socialism is so for the kind of reason stated at the start of the analogy in Simone's post:

    no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

    Socialism promises to iron out inequalities - stop some people getting too rich, and others being too poor (so, for example, increasing the tax rates for higher incomes). Hence a system where no-one could get an A or get the lowest grade kind of works. Socialism also tends to work by removing (or mitigating) a 'user pays' system. People don't take individual responsibility, that is collectivized. So again, averaging all the grades does reflect some forms of socialism - like, say, the NHS here in the UK where everyone pays money in (and differing amounts based on what they earn) but they all get the same 'result' - whatever medical care that money can purchase. So while it is harsh, it is reasonably accurate for an analogy, in my opinion. But, it doesn't reflect all forms of socialism as practiced - not all equalize the outcomes quite that much. The analogy has gone for a soft target - socialism at its most problematic in that context.

    But compare that to the analogy Simone linked. Here there is simply anarchy. Strong people are allowed to beat up, or force others to do their work for them. That's not capitalism, that's lawlessness.

    Capitalism would be more a principle that students were free to enter into any arrangements that they wanted that were not coerced. To create that analogy I think you'd have to come up with a system whereby students could 'pay' each other in grades for doing each other's homework, and getting grades as 'pay' for the work they handed in - and some way whereby the pool of grades could be grown, as capitalism is predicated on the idea that the size of the pie isn't fixed, but can be increased so [almost] everyone benefits over the long term.

    Done properly, there'd still be losers in that system, and others who got good grades far beyond their ability and effort, and you could then highlight that for criticism, but it'd be miles better than the analogy that was linked. That analogy was simply asserting that capitalism works by the strong oppressing the weak - something that most capitalists disagree with, and legislate against - and so the results didn't 'show' that purported weak point so much as guarantee it.

  13. That's a really good explanation Mark. The capitalism described in the anti-capitalist version of the analogy reminds me of Loretta Napoleoni's "Rogue Economics", which describes the operation of capitalism in places like Eastern Europe where governance has broken down and large parts of the economy operate outside the law. It's real, but it's not the whole story.

    The anti-socialist version actually reminds me of working with collective-type organisations in my younger days. Running organisations along these lines requires an incredible amount of skill which most of us don't have, and also a lot of goodwill. I suspect this was part of why the communist experiments in collectivisation didn't go so well - people were told "cooperate or else" which is just not going to work in that kind of structure. The lecturer in the analogy did a more benign version of the same thing - he just imposed a regime of equality, rather than developing one in a deliberate fashion.

    So I guess what I'm saying is that both analogies represent an aspect of the reality they are attempting to illustrate, and they beg the question - how would you solve this problem in your capitalist or socialist system? I think the answer is that neither problem is insoluble.

    Simone I think you should be praising your church committee for sparking such an interesting discussion. Maybe. Don't try too hard to keep the ironic tone out of your voice when you do so.

  14. Just a brief note that communist countries had some very aggressively elitist education systems - show talent, you get sent to special schools and special programs where expense is not spared.

    The problem with both these analogies is a confusion of wealth with human flourishing, and the reason the anti-socialism one sticks in my craw more than the other is the extent to which it assumes money is what life is about. Were there really no students there to learn? They ONLY wanted grades? What nonsense.

    You cannot serve both God and money is a bible verse. The Lord helps those who help themselves is not.

    Some level of socialism might be unsuitable for those outside the church, and fair enough. I don't think we have any obligation to legislate for the godless (see 1 Cor 5:12). It might be unworkable inside the church because the church is pretty crap on the subject of money, witness this email.

  15. Also, hopefully enthusiasts for this email do hold off on voting until the 2013 elections. Heh heh.

  16. Hi Jon,

    I'm glad you liked the analogy, it took me a while to get my head around substituting grades for money. I think to really show the system properly, the next step would be to then require students to have to use the grades they were earning to access everything at the school - coming to class cost some grades, eating lunch, having a uniform, getting access to the library (and which books in the library), being involved in sports, music, and arts etc. Then you'd see the system's features - those at the bottom would find themselves unable to get access even to the basics. Those at the top could use their grade power to get access to unique resources, special tutoring from teachers, and so, if they used it correctly, get further ahead. Those in the middle would have to chose which things mattered to them and which they could do without. And those with special strengths (like maths) could, if they harnessed them, earn grades from other students there to obtain resources to help in areas they were weak.

    I think then we'd see people even less keen for their children to be taught through either analogy's method. Which is good, because learning isn't supposed to run on economic theories anyway. Just creating the analogy is going to 'win' the argument (kind of Andrew's point).

    And I agree about the kind of contexts that a strong socialism works in. The one that comes to mind is the family. It seems to me that families are fundamentally socialist rather than user-pays. Resources, of all kinds (not just financial), are pooled and divvied out according to 'need' - and the calculation for the need varies from family to family. Some invest in the weakest members, some in the strongest, some try and give equal to everyone - much like the variation in socialisms in economics.

    I think it is fairly clear that strong socialist solutions don't work in non-emergency, large scale social organizations (like nations), for precisely the reasons you mention, as well as the ones that Thomas Aquinas outlines in his Summa Theologica:

  17. Two things are competent to man in respect of exterior things. One is the power to procure and dispense them, and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. Moreover this is necessary to human life for three reasons. First because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately. Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed.

    The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. On this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 6:17-18): "Charge the rich of this world . . . to give easily, to communicate to others," etc.

    Human beings just function better when they have personal responsibility for something, hence the need for personal property, seems to be Aquinas' basic point. Socialism tends to weaken it, and that is one of capitalism's primary complaints about this (hence the original analogy).

    Interestingly, Aquinas argues that goods actually are common, but they are possessed personally but not as one's own but as common - and this then is why there is an obligation to use one's property to help others, it isn't just voluntarist charity. I'm chewing it over, but I'm really drawn to it. It also means that Aquinas can hold to the right of personal property, but say that taking what belongs to someone else when you are in immediate critical need for life (i.e. it's that or die) is not theft or robbery from God's point of view - because the right of personal property exists to promote the end of life, it's not an end in itself. And I kind of like that as well.

  18. Hi Andrew,

    Just a brief note that communist countries had some very aggressively elitist education systems - show talent, you get sent to special schools and special programs where expense is not spared.

    Yes, I suppose if that was to be reflected in the analogy, you could give extra educational resources to the best students, but they'd still take the same average grade as everyone else. Or you could take their results and use them as part of the calculation for the average, but siphon off some of it to give everyone in the special class the same, higher, grade (as I think those elites tended to get better pay as well). That'd probably work as well.

    The problem with both these analogies is a confusion of wealth with human flourishing,

    Yes, but that's inherent to the nature of all analogies. You have to compare something to something, and that second something isn't the first something. You've got to take it for what it is, get the educational/rhetorical point, and move on.

    and the reason the anti-socialism one sticks in my craw more than the other is the extent to which it assumes money is what life is about. Were there really no students there to learn? They ONLY wanted grades? What nonsense.

    Well, in both analogies the students were free to learn for learning's sake. Nothing prevented that if that's what someone was into. Just as nothing prevents someone from picking a job for non-economic reasons.

    I'll go out on a limb here and say that I think your own preferences are showing here. Both the anti-socialism and the anti-capitalist analogy assumed that money is what life is about. They kind of have to - they're both economic theories to do with the creation and distribution of material resources. They don't have a place for non-quantifiable components of human life. If you seriously think that that is only the problem with capitalism, and not socialism, then I'd gently suggest it's probably because you like socialism and don't like capitalism. At that point, they're equally guilty.

    I think it was Oliver O'Donovan who said something along the lines that Augustine would have considered a country seeing the basic debate as being between systems over which way to best divide up the resources as a kind of Hell. And he was referring to captalism and socialism. And I think he's right, Augustine would be horrified by (for example) the Aussie tendency to vote simply where one's economic interest is perceived to be. The preferred system wouldn't matter.

    You cannot serve both God and money is a bible verse. The Lord helps those who help themselves is not.

    "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father" is not a Bible verse either, but I think it captures a lot of Biblical teaching fairly well. "The Lord helps those who help themselves" does capture some important elements of biblical teaching - without something like this as one element in your overarching view you end up with some kind of quietism where the right thing to do is just sit and wait for God to prompt you, and until that happens, you should do nothing. Faith and works, personal action and grace aren't always quite so exclusive. The normal way that God gives me my daily bread is through my labor. And if a believer won't work, we shouldn't feed them.

  19. This analogy is truly horrendous! Propaganda at it's worst.

    It might be a better analogy if Obama were pushing for all people to earn the same amount of money regardless of what work they did. But trying to make sure that everyone can afford basic health care is not socialism, it's just compassion for the vulnerable.

    What I see in the attitudes of even some Americans, even Christians, that I know, is that if someone is in a vulnerable position, it's their fault. "Everyone can pull themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps, like Oprah, if they really try. Those who don't are simply not trying and don't deserve help." It's certainly not a Christian idea and it's not far from the Hindu idea that those who are suffering deserve it because they committed sins in previous lives. Heaven help Australia if we go down that path, surely we have more common sense than that?

  20. What does this have to do with Jesus and Christianity? Quite a lot - it suggests that someone on that committee is anti-caring for the poor, the widow, the marginalised. Hmmm.

  21. Laetitia - I don't think it does that at all. I think it just shows that some people believe that generosity, kindness and mercy is the job of individuals (and charities), not of government departments.

  22. RodeoClown - but government departments are made of individuals, directed by other individuals under the orders of elected individuals and it's the elected individuals that the e-mail is targeting with it's implied injunction to not vote for those individuals.

  23. Is it their job to be generous on my behalf though?

  24. If the original email is about Obama, then it is a safe bet that the analogy originated from an American.

    And when working out whether a commitment to an economic theory means that you are "anti-caring for the poor, the widow, the marginalised", you need to look at a larger picture.

    In America, as far as I know, those who are most generous with their time and money (both giving finances, and volunteering their own time) in the aid of the poor and marginalised are those who subscribe to hard-core capitalism. Those who are least generous are those who subscribe to hefty socialist approaches - and it's a wide margin in generosity between the two groups.

    I think in working out who has compassion for the vulnerable (Donna's point), that needs to be factored in. I find something unpalatable about people pushing for higher taxes to fund government run programs, staffed by paid professionals, when they don't give unless compelled to by law. And I find it hard to fault a group for lacking compassion when they actually do give generously of the time and money they have, and their basic 'fault' is that they think that that is a better way to help the poor than through taxation and government run programs.

    It is quite possibly different in Australia, and our fiscal conservatives are not generous, and so we're (merely) guilty of reading Americans' words through our lenses. But I think we have to do better.

    In my experience, most Americans I've met whose views on economic matters are far to the right of mine, have also been aghast at how little Australians/British people do to help their poor and disadvantaged. They diagnose (I think probably correctly) that we think that the social welfare net is there for that and so have discharged ourselves from a sense of responsibility. And they don't like a welfare net because they think that that kind of charity encourages dependency, and so locks people into poverty.

    Those evaluations and theories can be contested (and I've indicated I disagree in places) but let's stop casting Americans who hold those views as not compassionate. Most of them are more generous in practice than most of us. And most American socialists are decidedly less so. It's more complex than anti-poor capitalists and pro-poor socialists when it comes to Americans.

  25. Mark - my comment was aimed at the Australian committee member who passed it on to Simone and others in her denomination. American politics is too bizarre for me - I wouldn't be surprised if their voter turn-out is low - it seems like a confusing system (of course, this is through the lens of someone used to the Westminster system).

  26. Well, I was reacting to Donna's comment as well.

    Given that I assume the member of the committee is a professing Christian, it is possible that the dislike of socialism isn't an expression of an anti-poor stance, but of a different view of how to go about doing it. Especially if they are being influenced by American Christian fiscal conservatives.

    That might not be the case too, but I wouldn't assume that opposition to socialism means lack of concern for the poor, anymore that pro-socialism means that the person is genuinely willing to do something to help that isn't required by force of law.

    I think you've got to look at more than economic theory to make that judgement.

  27. I haven't had time to participate properly in this interesting conversation, but I did want to note that for many conservatives, helping the poor is a matter of charity & generosity, while for many on the left, helping the poor is primarily about justice. And while generosity may not be the government's job, justice is.

  28. I think that's fair assessment, Joanna, which is one reason why I'm drawn to Thomas Aquinas' thoughts in the bit of the Summa Theologica I quoted. He seems to avoid either the idea that it is a matter of justice or a matter of voluntary charity - it has elements of both, but seems to be a 'third thing'.

    I think my two points still stand though:

    1) Disagreeing with socialist solutions isn't necessarily a sign that a person doesn't care about the poor. It might be a sign that they don't think that is a good or right way to go about it.

    2) There is something troubling about someone who thinks that justice demands that people's wealth is redistributed to the poor, but they themselves won't do that until the state requires them to. What kind of justice is motivating you if you don't do voluntary yourself what you are pushing the state to require of others?

    Whether someone is of the left or the right, I'm interested in hearing of how they give of their time and money in assessing whether or not they care about the poor.

  29. Yes, I totally agree with you on both those points, Mark! More broadly, I am wary of either a 'charity' or 'justice' approach that allows one to remain at arms length from those who are being 'helped'. On this I think the liberation theologians have something to teach us!

  30. P.S. I went to hear Peter Singer talk about his incredible insight that it was immoral for us in the west to have so much wealth and not help the poor. It was fascinating to hear a world-famous ethicist explain one of the most basic of Sunday School lessons - and argue that we should all consider giving away 1% of our incomes!