Are A-student Liberals Hypocrites?

May 13, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

On his Overcoming Bias blog, Robin Hanson posted a video of UC Merced College Republicans asking A-students to sign a petition to redistribute GPA points. Students with high GPAs, the top 10%, would give up some fraction of points; those with low GPAs would get those points.

Nobody signs the petition.

As the kid in the video says, the proposal is supposed to be “ kind of like emulating the federal tax structure.” These liberal students favor a progressive income tax to pay for federal programs for the poor, yet they won’t give their own GPA points to those who are poor in GPA. Gotcha.

The students cannot come up with reasons why their positions are not inconsistent. Robin Hanson pronounces them guilty of “Natural Hypocrisy.” Megan McCardle, who slings an even heavier blog than Hanson, smashes the arguments for why GPA redistribution is different from a progressive income tax.

Yes, grades do share certain qualities with income, and students often use the language of money and income when they speak and think about a grade – it’s what you earn by working, and you try to maximize it, sometimes with the least amount of effort (students have to budget their time).

But the analogy is far from perfect. The GPA proposal has only one goal – to reduce grade inequality. But taxes are not primarily intended to be a mechanism of direct redistribution. Taxes are primarily intended to pay for what the government does. Some of those things benefit the poor. Some don’t. (If it weren’t for taxes, those Merced Republicans would be paying double what they are now for their college education.) Over half of the federal budget goes for the military, Social Security, and Medicare – programs whose benefits do not exclude anyone, even the rich. So the question is who should pay how much. Should the rich pay a higher rate?

GPA points, unlike taxes, don’t pay for anything. So students at every GPA level would object to any tax on their GPA, even a flat tax. If you asked the Merced Republicans to sign a petition to lower everyone’s GPA by 10%, you wouldn’t get many signers. Does that mean they oppose a flat tax? Or if they support a flat tax on income but oppose the 10% GPA reduction, are they natural (or unnatural) hypocrites? No, because nobody would benefit from those lost GPA points.

But suppose GPA points actually could buy something useful for the school – improved health services, for example. Would high-GPA students object to paying more of their points while students with fewer GPA points paid less? Would healthy students gripe that their GPA points were going to benefit only the sick and not themselves? I doubt it. Consider the example – a real example, not a hypothetical one or a phony petition – of scholarship programs. These benefit lower-income students while more affluent students pay full fare. Have you ever heard even one full-fare student or parent complain about financial aid going only to lower-income students rather than to a tuition-reduction for themselves? I’ve certainly heard parents and students complain about tuition, but I’ve never heard them complain about financial aid that goes to others. (Of course, I have no idea what college Republicans say among themselves.)

As for reducing GPA inequality, that has already happened thanks to grade inflation. Back in January, I posted (here) a grade sheet from a Harvard class JFK took seventy years ago.** The average grade was C+. In a class of nearly sixty students, nobody got an A, two students got A-. How do conservative students feel about this narrowing of inequality, this inflation that cheapens the value of an A?

How about another petition? Let’s take our camcorder to a campus with mostly conservative and libertarian students and ask them to sign a petition calling for grade deflation. Here’s our pitch: “Right now, the real distribution of grades runs from A to B, maybe B-. We want professors to use the full grading range, A down to F. The student who’s now getting B- would get a D or D+, a C- would probably be an F, those getting a B would get a C or C-. A’s would be really, really hard to get. This will make students work harder and learn more, which is what college is all about. Here’s the petition; here’s a pen.”

Will the UC Merced Republicans sign?

* There are rich people who feel that taxes should be more progressive – very rich people, like Warren Buffet.
** “Where’d you get a grade sheet from 1940?” a friend asked. I said that the professor was a little late turning in his grades. My friend, who had also served as department chair at her school, thought that was a pretty good joke.

4 comments:

rationalrevolution said...

It's total nonsense of course, because grades are all individually earned, incomes aren't. That's the whole friggen point.

If everyone earned an income independently of one another, if there was no capital ownership, or if every person owned an equal amount of capital, and 100% of one's income came from one's own labor, then that would be comparable, because your grades are a pure product of your own labor, or quite close to it.

However, a CEO is someone at the top of a pyramid, whose incomes is a product of the labor of the other employees. The same with hedge fund managers, etc., whose incomes are products of capital gains, which are products of a return on capital, which is a product of the division of the fruits of labor between workers and capital owners.

And so, the incomes of the super-rich are all products of SYSTEMS, not products of individual effort.

This is the big scam of all conservatives, certainly of all students of Friedman, which is to completely ignore the role of capital ownership within capitalism.

They just pretend that there is no difference between a worker and an owner, and pretend that there is no division of rewards among contributors within the framework of a corporation.

The whole issue is all about how do you divide rewards that are produced through collective labor.

We don't produce grades through collective labor, and when we do have collective projects in schools, what we do is we give EVERYONE on the team the same grade!

So if a group works on a project, everyone in that group will get the same grade based on the merits of the project. When a corporation produces a product, however, every employee doesn't get the same reward.

So, once again, it's just a bunch of total nonsense that either intentionality obscures the real issue or demonstrates that they have no fundamental understanding of what they are even talking about.

rationalrevolution said...

An equivalent comparison between grades and incomes within a capitalist system would have to be something along the following lines:

If you could use grade points to buy classes, from which you would receive grade points from the other students in the class. Owners would, in theory, have an incentive to help the people in the classes that they own to study to get better grades, so one could argue that the system would contribute to improvements in overall performance.

On the other hand, the owners of the classes would be getting a portion of the grades of everyone in the class, and it is a zero sum game, such that the students who have no ownership would be giving up a portion of their grade points to the owners.

Grade points would not be assessed as averages, but rather as totals. In this system, owners would quickly amass grade point totals thousands of times greater than non-owning students.

The non-owning students would have to apply for classes through the class owners and the owners would accept or deny students to classes at their discretion, and the students would have to bargain with the class owners on what portion of their grade points they will give to the owner in order for the owner to allow them into their class.

Ultimately the owners wouldn't even be doing any studying or learning at all, they would just be managing their ownership, while they received their grade points from all of the other students.

Some students would become grade point traders, and they would place bets on which classes would receive better grade points. These class speculators would ultimately end up having the highest grade points of all, having hundreds of thousand of times better grade points than average students and even hundreds of times more grade points than the class owners.

The class speculators and the class owners collude to further manipulate who gets into which classes, and would bribe the teacher to fix the grades.

In the end, 95% of students would have grade points thousands of times lower than the owners and the speculators, neither of whom even attend classes or take any tests. All of the grade points of the owners and speculators would come from the students who do attend the classes. Class ownership would be able to be passed down, so alumni could pass their grade points on to their legacies.

Some students would be able to work their way into becoming a class owner or speculator too, but most wouldn't be able to. Some students would be able to buy fractional shares of classes from owners, but even at this rate their ownership stake would be meager and the majority of their grade points would still come from the grades that they earned in class. In the end, the only students graduating at the top of the classes or with honors would be the owners and speculators, while all students who attended classes, no matter how well they performed, would be barely getting by.

Yes, it would be true that some of the owners and speculators started out as good students and got good grades and used those grade points to fund their initial ownership or speculation, and some of the owners would have helped tutor students in their classes, but nevertheless the way the system is setup it can only work if 95% of the student body goes to class while 5% owns and controls the classes, with really only 1% getting the substantial rewards.

98% of the grade points of the owners and speculators would have come from the other students, not from their own performance.

In such a system, redistribution of the grade points from those with high grade points to lower grade points would make sense, because the system itself is a system of redistribution. Those with the most grade points got virtually all of their grade points from redistribution in the first place, and half of those with the most grade points got theirs by virtue of being a legacy to an alumni.

That's pretty much how a university would have to work in order for it to be comparable to our economy.

Elliott said...

believe me, if there's something to be complained about, it's been complained about. for example: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/02/28/texas-college-scholarship-targets-white-male-students/

Phire said...

I read about this on the Society Pages and followed the link here, intent on writing a scathing rebuttal to a totally idiotic and ill-thought-out thought experiment, but I'm glad to see that the most relevant points (the way your SES influences your future earning potential, the purpose of taxes) have already been covered in the post and in the comments. Cheers.