Think of the starving children!

by w3woody

MacLean on Nutter and Buchanan on Universal Education

In yet another negative review of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, we get the following quote:

MacLean takes “cheaply and efficiently” to refer to the level of state support provided. Nutter and Buchanan clearly use that phrase to refer not to the level of state support per se, but to the ability of any system to use resources wisely to produce a given quality of education. Her reading makes it seem like Nutter and Buchanan think that “all that matters” is that state support be “cheap and efficient.” But what they are clearly arguing is “all that matters” is which system delivers the desired level of universal education using the fewest resources.

Nutter and Buchanan are using the economist’s notion of efficiency – how to generate a desired outcome at least cost – whereas MacLean can only think in terms of a supposed desire to spend a little as possible in and of itself.

(Emphasis in original.)

This is a subtle point that Professor MacLean (author of “Democracy in Chains”) misses in part because she is not an economist–and professes as such: “MacLean has, by her own admission, very little knowledge of economics.”

But it is also a subtle point many people seem to miss when reading through conservative arguments for or against certain policies.

The goal of economic efficiency is not to reduce cost–but to get the biggest bang for the buck. Efficiency is something we intuitively grasp when we wait for a sale before buying new shoes. But it is something we often miss when discussing public policy–as if there was an unlimited amount of cash floating around, and if we can only pry it from the greedy we can educate and feed our children.


The problem, of course, is that resources are not unlimited. I read somewhere that if you were to liquidate the private wealth of every single person in the United States, it would only fund the United States government for a few years. All the cash Apple is hoarding (all $200+ billion) would only fund the federal government’s $3.8 trillion dollar budget for around 20 days.

Another way to think of the limit on resources is to consider the percentage of people working directly or indirectly for the government. If we want the government to do more, that means more people will work for the government than for private industry–and that leaves us fewer people to build homes, make cell phones, grow food, work at hospitals to care for the sick, and ship goods to and from China.

So the question of just how much can we do given the limited resources we have available is a constant and pressing one–not just for individuals looking for sales on shoes, but for companies and countries alike.


One way to crystalize this question is the following observation: every dollar we spend on education is a dollar less we can spend feeding the poor. If we can figure out a better way to educate our children which saves a dollar, that’s a dollar more we can spend on the hungry.

And economic efficiency is the desire and exploration of ways we can educate the most children we can with the highest quality we can for the least number of dollars we can–so we can spend those dollars somewhere else, like with feeding the poor.


It’s a shame this subtle argument about economic efficiency gets reduced by the likes of Professor MacLean as the desire to spend the least regardless of the consequences. Because conflating the mean notion that we need to cut people off at the knees who need it with the desire to help the most people we can with the resources we have does some serious thinkers a huge disservice.

Though I suspect she doesn’t give a flying fuck. She has an axe to grind.

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