Thursday, January 9, 2014

Choice & Cable

School choice is the ultimate education zombie, the argument that absolutely will not die. It has been shown time and again that there are so many things wrong with school choice-- soooooooo many things-- and yet from charter school profiteers to governors of New York, people just keep opening up the tomb and letting the corpse ramble around some more.

There are a host of arguments to be made, a raft of reasons to be debated, but today I'm going to focus on just one idea. We can hack on the limbs of this shambling horror some other day. But the whole idea of school choice is, at least publicly, based on a belief in market forces and how they will bring quality. Here's the thing:

Market forces do not foster superior quality. Market forces foster superior marketability.

We are awash in examples. Does anybody think the beer or soda markets are dominated by the companies who have created the best product? Or would you like to talk about VHS vs. Betamax one more time? But let's focus on a more immediate and instructive example. Let's talk about television.

When cable television arrived, it brought with it an explosion of channels. It was exciting-- 500 channels, and something completely different on each one of them. We had choice like never before. Even tv snobs could find quality channels that served their interest. Slowly but surely, all that changed.

The drive for market share created a slow-motion race to mediocrity. So today, A&E (that used to stand for Art and Entertainment) has dumped broadcasts of Broadway classics in favor of millionaire hicks. The History Channel produces less history, more Pawn Stars. Bravo, also started as a haven for the Arts, now is the home of endless trashy drama. Most famously, nobody wants their MTV for musical reasons any more. Channels increasingly tried to create a marketable brand, aimed at a broader sector.

The marketplace did not produce greater quality. It didn't even produce much more variety, but stamped variety out as channels chased the same market shares. And there's more.

That market can't even sustain itself. It turns out that when you offer too much tv choice, the individual choices aren't self-sustaining. That's why your cable company makes you buy bundles-- because if these channels had to sustain themselves with their share of the market, they couldn't. Cut the market up into enough slices, and it won't sustain any of them.

The other long-term effect of the marketplace is to create Big Winners. Because, of course, your 500 channels are all owned by about five corporations. So as in other marketplaces (like, say, the supermarket), you don't have real choices at all. As much as fans of choice love the marketplace, the marketplace hates choice and over time, in every industry, eventually erases it. No corporation sitting on top of the heap has ever said, "We should be sure not to gain too much control of the marketplace, because then we would create less quality." (That includes, especially, Microsoft).

There's an older lesson from TV as well. Remember the Beverly Hillbillies? They were a huge hit in the late sixties, and when they were canceled they were still ranked 33rd in the ratings. But they were canceled because they appealed to the wrong audience. Advertisers wanted to market to a hipper crow. Popular was not good enough. Popular with the right people was required. Not all customers are valued equally in the marketplace (and the value of hick-mocking TV can change in forty years).

There is no example, anywhere, ever, of  the marketplace creating a drive for higher quality and better products. There is a sea of examples of the marketplace pushing for products that are cheaper, have lowest common denominator cookie cutter appeal, and aim at only some of the customers. None of these are characteristics that would enhance US public schools.


  1. Great comparison with Cable TV... I'll add it to my repertoire whenever someone brings up the school choice debate again. Thanks!

  2. I think the bigger issue with trying to bring the free market to education is it very difficult for consumers to evaluate the quality of education. Hell professional educators have difficulty doing so. This also why reform business is so bad because it tries to use test scores to do this. If you left it to kids most of them would prefer school that was made up of 100% of tv, video games and chatting with friends. I'm not sure where yoir going with choice in other industries especially if you look at its polar opposite which is soviet Russia. The stuff they made was never of high quality and there was generally one to choose from. Btw have you watched old tv? It has always been bad.