By now you’ve probably seen the economically ignorant, Ed Asner‐narrated polemic from the California Federation of Teachers that “explains” how the rich hurt everyone because they are just so darn greedy. At one point in the original version the already loathsome Richy Rich actually goes so far as to relieve himself on the middle‐ and lower‐class people above whom he rises on his pile of cash. Don’t look for that “trickle down” visual now, though. It seems the CFT has edited it out after getting, shall we say, less than positive reviews for it. The rest of the tedious allegory, however, isn’t much more subtle.
It’s the reality‐denying hypocrisy of it all, though, that is so grating. You see, teachers and unions want to profit just as much as reviled “Wall Street fat cats.”
“What?!” I can hear the teachers reading this scream. “I don’t do this for the money! How dare you, sir!”
Mr. and Mrs. Teacher, please bear with me for a moment. I mean you no harm.
First, undertsand what profit is. Basically, it is making more from providing something than it costs to produce it. So if you are a teacher and use your earnings to buy food, housing, cable television, garden gnomes, airplane tickets, plastic surgery – anything — you are making a profit. And on an hourly basis likely a good profit, outpacing accountants and auditors, insurance underwriters, registered nurses, and other professionals. And that is without considering quite generous benefit packages public school employees often get.
Those concrete things, though, are not the compensation limits. There’s also substantial job security that comes with tenure, and in conjunction with teaching not being especially hard to break into, relatively little personal risk. Contrast that to entrepreneurs — you know, people who sometimes become fat cats — who often risk much of what they have to try new things that often end in failure. Such risk is a huge cost teachers simply don’t deal with.
In addition, while working with children is often very challenging, it can also be very rewarding. Who doesn’t get a kick out of the antics, questions, and comments of little kids? (I mean, they say the darndest things, right?) Or enjoy seeing their smiling faces. And when they get older, it can be very gratifying to guide them or inspire them as they contemplate what they want to do with their lives. In contrast, running a business involves often stultifying detail work such as running payroll, securing office space, keeping “the books,” dealing with detailed government regulations, etc.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is nothing wrong with making a profit! Indeed, being profitable is generally the key to knowing that what you are doing is in demand — that you are providing something that makes other people better off — and, because you are earning more than the cost of production, you are doing something sustainable. So teachers, don’t disdain profits — embrace them!
Perhaps, though, be concerned about how you are getting them.
While there is far too much crony capitalism at work — businesses enriching themselves through government and politics — in general, companies can only make profits by earning the voluntary business of customers. In other words, they have to provide something people want, at a cost they are willing to pay. Payers have to feel they are better off.
Not so for public school teachers. Rather than getting paid by voluntary customers, they are ultimately paid with money extracted through government. Whether taxpayers like it or not, they are forced to pay for public schools. Which is, of course, why teachers’ unions are so deeply involved in politics. They want to take people’s money no matter what.
The real irony is that many teachers could probably get paid more — in Korea some get MUCH more – were free enterprise rather than socialism allowed to reign. But we have a government monopoly, which is ripe for union control. One system, without any real competition, is best suited to have one employee rep. Allow people to freely choose among autonomous schools, however, and schools would have big incentives to pay the best teachers well because providing a great service — not throwing around political weight — would be the key to success.
Teachers, ultimately, are human beings, and on the whole almost certainly enjoy profit as much as anyone else. That’s not a problem. The problem is how they — and much worse, their unions — make it.