Relevance and unspoken assumptions

In a David Brooks NYT op-ed column (“Après Rahm, Le Déluge”) of a week ago:

The Chicago school system is a classic case of a bloated, inefficient Economy II organization. The average Chicago teacher makes $76,000 a year in a city where the average worker makes $47,000 a year. Rising school costs have helped push the system deep into the red. Meanwhile, the outcomes are not good.

This passage begins by asserting that the Chicago system is bloated and inefficient. The next sentence asserts that the average Chicago teacher makes 1.6 times as much as the average Chicago worker, leaving us to calculate by Gricean relevance that the second sentence follows the first because teachers’ salaries are bloated, bloated implicating that these salaries should be much smaller (perhaps around the average worker’s salary, or even less). All of these are arguable propositions.

By folding most of his argument into unspoken assumptions and implicatures, Brooks has managed to sidestep any discussion of these propositions.

Take the matter of what the salary of a school teacher in Chicago should be. Most people reason about such questions by considering what they take to be the relative worth of certain sorts of work. What they come up with as answers shows their attitudes about the work and the nature of the people who do it. (Twenty years ago I polled non-academics about what they thought the appropriate salary would be for a senior college professor with a long and varied history of teaching, administrative experience, a long publications list, an international reputation, and a substantial list of honors and awards — I was more specific than this — and was dismayed to find that the wisdom of crowds said that such a person should be paid about what the average starting salary for an elementary school teacher was at the time. Well, that’s certainly a democratic answer.)

I don’t even know that Brooks would approach the question this way. It’s entirely possible that he believes that judgments of the worth of certain kinds of work are beside the point and that pay should be determined only by what unconstrained competition between individuals would settle on. But we can’t tell what he thinks; all we have to go on is his implicature that these particular salaries are too high.

There’s a lot more to be concerned about in Brooks’s rhetoric. The column begins with a bald assertion of a simple economic dichotomy (introducing “bloated” and “inefficient” along the way):

Modern nations have two economies, which exist side by side. Economy I is the tradable sector. This includes companies that make goods like planes, steel and pharmaceuticals. These companies face intense global competition and are compelled to constantly innovate and streamline. They’ve spent the last few decades figuring out ways to make more products with fewer workers.

Economy II is made up of organizations that do not face such intense global competition. They often fall into government-dominated sectors like health care, education, prisons and homeland security. People in this economy believe in innovation, but they don’t have the sword of Damocles hanging over them so they don’t pursue unpleasant streamlining as rigorously. As a result, Economy II institutions tend to get bloated and inefficient as time goes by.

What follows from this? A prediction and a proposed solution:

If Economy I is great at generating output without generating employment, Economy II is great at generating employment without generating output.

The problem is that the bloated Economy II is becoming a burden that Economy I can no longer carry. Unless we reform Economy II and control its spending, the bloat will crush us. National productivity will slide. The economy will stagnate.

Republicans have a direct answer for this problem. Reform Economy II so it looks more like Economy I. Introduce vouchers and other consumer driven market mechanisms to health care and education.

Here it looks like Brooks is assuming that the nature of (global) competition requires that all economic activity should be governed entirely by streamlining, that is, by reducing costs in every way possible (so as to undercut the competition). Some routes to streamlining:

(a) fire as many workers as possible; (b) as much as possible, replace experienced, higher paid workers by younger, cheaper ones; (c) as much as possible, turn full-time jobs into part-time or temporary jobs (thereby saving the cost of benefits and overtime); (d) extract greater productivity (without additional pay) from all workers; (e) eliminate benefits to those workers that have them, or at least reduce the benefits; (f) institute pay cuts, or at least slow pay raises; (g) wherever possible, use unpaid volunteers

What I don’t know is whether Brooks really thinks that offering services is just like producing and selling goods, that all kinds of services are the same, or that streamlining is the only relevant consideration in these matters. (I note in passing, once again, that in this view artists and scholars — and, for that matter, scientists — have a place only insofar as they can find buyers for their work on the open market.)

2 Responses to “Relevance and unspoken assumptions”

  1. Jens Fiederer Says:

    Usually the “bloated” here refers to administrative overhead rather than salaries (based not on the specific article here but rather on many other articles discussing public education), so the first “implicature” does not seem like an implicature to me.

    As the rest goes, I’d probably have to read the whole article to judge…the excerpted parts seem valid but uninspiring….while having a sword hanging over you by a thread probably DOES improve efficiency, most people are willing to give up a certain amount of efficiency to live a life with that damnable sword.

    On the other hand, maybe he wants to stimulate demand for anxiety counseling.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      “Usually the “bloated” here refers to administrative overhead rather than salaries …” Yes, I wrestled with ways to formulate what I wanted to say, and what I ended up with is decidedly imperfect; I wanted to talk about workers, managers, and administrators together, since many of the streamlining strategies can be used with any of these groups.

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