Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Average is overrated

In Singapore in the early 1980s some bright spark in the Ministry of Transport decided that the old Singapore Bus Service needed competition; so they started one up, Trans-Island Bus Services, and then they proceeded to divide up the routes: one for SBS, one for TIBS, another one for SBS, and so on.

Of course it isn't really competition. There are now the two companies, each pretty much dependent on government to tell them what to do, where to do it, and how it should be priced. The price is great, too, and of course there are more routes than there otherwise would be, and probably additional jobs as well, so nobody is losing anything. But nobody's gaining anything from that famous market discipline, because you can't tell the SBS driver to go stuff it and take the TIBS instead, because the TIBS (nowadays, SMRT) isn't going to your stop, and the prices aren't going down because the government likes them where they are.

The only real good it does to have two bus companies in one town is when Tom Friedman comes to visit and he can get it into the Times that this little country is so terrific it's introduced market mechanisms into the local bus service.*

Which brings me to Tom ("Average is Over") Friedman, who's hawking some more tests this week as the ticket to getting the whole country to the Lake Wobegon condition of having all our kids be above average. This time it is the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA, made by OECD, which is going to rank all the 15-year-olds in 70 countries;
“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says [OECD staffer Andreas] Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ”
And then what? Are you moving the family to Finland, as the superintendent kneels at your feet, hugging your knees and begging you not to go? Or do you think there's going to be a SMRT school you can threaten to go to, with a teacher turnover rate of under 40% and God-free biology classes?

It's never going to be competition until (a) there's a real excess of supply over demand and (b) parents ("customers") have real economic power. An alternative, trying to make all the schools good, isn't happening either as long as you want to do it on the cheap. (Do you think they go around threatening to close schools and fire everybody in Singapore or Finland, by the way?) Otherwise, average is not going be over at all—

"But you wouldn't know about that, would you? Little thing called regression to the mean?"

*In general, privatization is necessary because socialism in Singapore works so well it's deflationary; gotta leak some of that surplus value out into the public.

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