Arguing All Sides: Propriety and Ethics in Business and Education

Morton J. Marcus is a former Prof of IU’s Business School (it has a corporate sponsorship but I’ll exercise my freedom to ignore it).  He was director of the Indiana Business Research Center (IBRC) for more than 30 years, having retired from the university in November 2003.

He is published every Friday in the Bloomington Herald-Times.  He is, one supposes, one of the Bloomington elite and as such he is offered a platform to share the wisdom of his many years in Academia.  He is also published in many other local newspapers.  He has, then, a chance to speak and be heard.  What does he say?  Though he often seems reasonable, if not risible in his use of fictional dialogues between interlocutors who serve as idiotic foil to the wise narrator, he always stands for capital innovation encouraged and protected by institutional systems.  In this he is like any other prophet of the entrepreneurial salvation.  The entrepreneur is not salvation per se; it is the modus through which the spirit operates, above which the spirit hovers.  In this way the spirit alone is all that is needed and no judgment need be rendered on any “good” proposed as long as the proper spirit is in force.  In this way, no work needs to specific and no proposals need consider the good for all involved.  This is the invisible hand that will set all things aright…eventually…for someone.  This is akin to saying the sun will eventually solve all our problems by imploding.  Voila!

Here, though, from a column in 2008 (“Eye on the pie“), is Mort’s truth.  This is the pep-talk successful academics like Marcus parlay in their roles of message managers for the economic masters.  It’s not very peppy, but it shifts the blame wonderfully from the masters to the citizenry.

For years all we had to do was wait. Now the concern is that all we can do is wait. That is not true, but the era of letting others attend to your future is over. If your economic status is going to improve, it will require that you (employer or employee) change how you approach your company or job.

Ask yourself, “What can I do with the skills I have to make more money”? Stop seeing yourself as a victim of something beyond yourself. True; you probably don’t know all you need to know, but for today, that’s how it is. Right; you don’t have enough money to do what you think needs doing, but today you have time to do something more than you did yesterday.

While the enthusiastic words of motivational speakers will not transform your life, self-pity is a non-starter. The problem is no longer the politician, the boss, the union, the market, NAFTA or your DNA. The problem is you, your inaction and your indifference to your degenerative social disease: sloth.

Without the “genius” innovation the parasitical class exemplified by Marcus cannot make anything.  Business profits off of ideas that it claims ownership on.  They system steals from your genius in this way.  How does it cultivate your genius?  By calling you a lazy ass and firing you so your lean and desperate I guess.  Or, like in Bloomington, it sets up a center for entrepreneurship in a public post-secondary institution.  First you pay to attend seminars and then your ideas are “encouraged” until they become useful to corporation who might give you a job with health benefits in exchange for your genius

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On his profile page at the IBRC it lists a book he has authored (Tightrope to Tomorrow) “about pensions, productivity and public education” which may offer some more concrete answers and so I will seek it out.  But in answer to “What does he have to say?” he offers his talents in these terms:

With a relaxed and humorous style, Marcus brings difficult concepts into focus, makes sense of government policies and provides new insights into complex trends. He will take today’s headlines and put them into the context of our times. In his hands, economics is not the dismal science, but the art and fun of prospering responsibly.

Mr. Marcus is a dynamic speaker, at ease with large or small groups. He regularly addresses fourth grade classes as comfortably as he testifies before legislative and regulatory groups. He can give a sermon to a church conference on the Moral Foundations of Capitalism, an inspirational pep-talk to a Chamber of Commerce annual meeting or explain the mysteries of local property tax bills to anxious homeowners.

A man for all seasons.  I love the line about economics, don’t you?  I mean that’s how I think of it–“the art and fun of prospering responsibility.”  Marcus may have real fun prospering on the Board of the Indiana Secondary Market for Education Loans.  Debt is fun for everyone after all.  Wasn’t it “founder” Benjy Franklin (as Poor Richard?) who said, neither a borrower or a lender be?  Who cares about about words from the 18th century!  Was that ever a customary way to be in America?  This land seems founded instead on innovative debt schemes.

And Yeshua said unto them, “do not hide your talents and worry over expenditures…have fun and prosper responsibly…for those who prosper responsibly will squeeze right through that needle eye.”

Unfortunately, as ought to be apparent to all by now, economics is the art of creating formula to get your way.  It is the true friend to the Innovator and Improver.  MJM’s ideal “class” of movers and shakers.

To this reader Marcus’s ready ability to say anything to anyone at anytime and without the real responsibility that comes from making a point clear and then challenging the rest of us to meet his assertions with arguments for or against or distinctly different proposals is why he is representative of the class that serves power while mildly chastising it as a way to exonerate his own comfortable position.  His is a risk-free platform offering no light (or if light, that without heat) but further obscuring the issues.  Read over time you understand that Marcus, like any business establishment academic, is against government unless it serves business.  This can be done in any number of ways, of course, and it allows for a man to seem to be on “your side” as a tax payer and citizen.  But he believes that business is the primary motivator of all that is good.   Arguing all sides in order to manipulate the outcome–this is the easy contradictory nature of economics: the very reason it is so useful to the powerful.

But, let’s focus today on this occasional remarks on school systems and as I have archival access to the H-T I’ll just pick and choose and try to characterize what he’s offering.


Column: School vouchers raise questions about propriety

I have no inherent opposition to school vouchers. The idea that parents should be able to choose what schools their children attend is fine with me, within limits. That the state should pay for education stirs no primitive animosity in my soul.

In some places, existing school corporations are failing their students, although they may allow them to earn certificates for endurance. In these cases, competition from charter or private schools may be beneficial. The student’s formal school district is expected to pay the charter or private school for the education it provides.

It’s a really simple idea that becomes very complex in practice. Who is to decide which charter or private schools are acceptable to educate our children? The parents? That would be an open invitation to fraud that would make Medicare fraud look pristine.

We must require schools to meet basic standards of inputs (teachers, facilities, etc.), of procedures (teaching, discipline, safety, etc.), and of outputs (test scores, for example). Without standards of performance, taxpayers sign blank checks while children are set up for future failures.

[Ed.  Here is “propriety” defined: 1. conformity to established standards of good or proper behavior or manners.  2. appropriateness to the purpose or circumstances; suitability.  3. rightness or justness.]

This column ends this way and I offer it because it’s indicative of the “Marcusian” position:

Hoosiers have an extraordinarily complex school financing formula to equalize payments by the state to the public schools. Perhaps we need to go a further step and ask, “How prepared is this student for the curriculum of its class?” Ideally, the better prepared the student, the lower the payment to the school because it has fewer impediments in teaching the child.

There is concern that schools will want to take only the students easiest to teach. If vouchers are based on incremental performance, student-by-student, then the “more difficult” students will be more attractive to school admissions officers.

It opens with, “I have no objection…” and ends with “complexity is too readily manipulated.”  So, perhaps he has an objection or perhaps only an objection to this kind of complexity?  I do like the paradoxical example (in today’s testing/achievement agenda) of providing lesser funding for good students.  It’s amusing to consider the testing goal to then really only be for students to gain mediocre results because if too high, no funding; if too low, failure and take-over.   Laugh out loud funny.


Evils of public sector employment revealed in Indiana and Wisconsin

Yes, we want strong schools, but why must we pay so much for them? Where is the spirit of public service? Yes, we want good police and fire services, but paying men and women above average wages and pensions to perform difficult and dangerous jobs goes too far. Yes, we want good public hospitals, but do we need to pay taxes to support them? In fact, why can’t all public services be on a for-fee basis?

That’s the trouble with public services, they are provided free or at small cost to the users, while the taxpayers get the bills. In this brave new world, let’s reduce taxes and use the model of our efficient and effective private sector: charge user fees.

Education is the leading example. Let the families of students pay for schooling. Naturally, the poor will not be able to afford the services available to the rich, but if the poor really value education, they will find the money. Public hospitals should be the same. It is most evident that the rich and the poor are different. The rich are rich because they produce value for society while the poor, well, you know all about the poor… sloth.


Sometimes, it’s better to fix what’s broken

[L]arge inner-city school corporations are under attack. The fact that such schools are the depositories for society’s poorest and most afflicted populations is well understood, but not forgiven. Instead of seeking to improve these schools, we rush to put them out of business.

A proposal before the Legislature offers vouchers for use in private schools. For students from households with less than $42,000 income, the vouchers would be worth 90 percent of the per-pupil state aid formerly received by the school the student leaves. Statewide, such vouchers would average more than $6,000 per student per year. In the Indianapolis Public Schools, the amount would be in excess of $7,800 per student for private tuition.

The amount of the voucher (and the commensurate decrease in state aid to the public school) goes down as the student’s household income rises. For a student from a household with income from $42,000 to $84,000, the voucher is 50 percent of per-student aid, falling to 25 percent when the student comes from a household with income between $84,000 and $105,000. This insidious idea presumes a school with poor students can give up a larger part of its state aid than can a school with a wealthy clientele.

This program destroys the public school economy. If 10 students leave an elementary school, how much less money is needed to run that school and its buses? Will the heating costs decline for the building? Will fewer teachers be required?

We don’t like the performance of inner city schools, so we devise a program to destroy them. We don’t approve of the behavior of township officials, so we legislate them out of existence. We don’t feel comfortable with the assessment of our homes, so we dismiss township assessors.

If it doesn’t work, break it. If it is broken, throw it out. Never fix anything. Will that be the next motto on our license plates?

Who can fix what is broken?  The Management Class!  And of course, masters of economic development.  Bad State: Good Corporation.

High schools are undervalued assets

To be effective, a high school must have a clear mission based on its individual circumstances. The state and the school district must leave creating the mission and the means to accomplish the mission to the individual school. This requires principals who have the vision, the will and the authority to mold programs that will work in their schools. In too many cases, today’s principals shuttle among the superintendents, teachers, parents and students attempting to maintain calm. They are intermediaries, not leaders. Principals must be educated and empowered leaders, not just administrators.

Aggressive programs to prepare young people for adult responsibilities will require additional resources. Over the past three decades, Indiana school corporations have been reduced to dependencies of the state. The state sets standards, dictates curriculum, denies adequate funding and licenses unprepared teachers.

Where will the money come from to support more innovation in our schools? One source could be the local Economic Development Income Tax. But the money should be used to supplement specific programs and not dumped into the schools’ general funds. In effect, those local officials who control the allocation of EDIT monies should buy specific services from the schools.

But wait…what kinds of managers?  Innovators!  Entrepreneurs!

Infrastructure, high schools key to economic development

Investing in high schools does not mean vast increases in budgets. Instead, it requires a restructuring of educational expectations with revised demands on students, teachers and parents accompanied by extensive state oversight. This might mean trading some tournaments for more teaching and learning.

Yet, this is but the obvious. Beyond a sincere effort to improve high school education, we require massive retraining of our business leaders and managers.

How could this be? Those who run businesses are the rocks upon which we build our communities. The manager sent here from elsewhere to run the branch plant is an exotic catch for the board of a local not-for-profit organization. The owner of a local business is esteemed if it is believed that he has made even a modest fortune and has a low golf handicap.

While I know several thoughtful and innovative managers and business owners, the numbers are not overwhelming. More numerous are the staid, unbending advocates for the past, poor managers and weak leaders who do not examine the role they play in Indiana’s economic stagnation.

New ideas and methods are too often ridiculed. Fresh directions are viewed as personal assaults. But how does a state revive its business sector?

Are we to establish local chapters of Mis-managers Anonymous? Does the governor exhort increased innovation? Does the General Assembly fund a Department of Business Regeneration?

The Legislature? .. Regeneration? Now that’s funny.

So, ultimately, like all priests of profit, Marcus offers a paean to the past (why throw it out?  Fix it!) while promoting an entirely radicalized future–let the innovators be free to alter all things at all time.  And he gets you finally by acting the good overlord and promising that this innovation can be “fettered” to the good by “extensive state oversight”–but who will do that?  The legislature he mocks at every turn?  And who’s going to “retrain” these old managers to become new managers?  Teach For America?  Perhaps just the sheer amount of technological innovation itself will retrain the minds of the managers.  (Except, don’t you know, the real elite managers are trained entirely outside the current proposed way those spirited edupreneurs suggest will serve the general population.)

But, it is of no consequence really.  If all can be done in the proper spirit (one that passeth understanding), then it will all work out right in the end.


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