This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things


I saw this piece in the Washington Post today about the trouble Indiana is having recruiting teachers. What’s the problem? According to the Post :

“Pretty much the same thing as in Arizona, Kansas and other states where teachers are fleeing: a combination of under-resourced schools, the loss of job protections, unfair teacher evaluation methods, an increase in the amount of mandated standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy.”

People with their finger on the pulse of these things can debate the specifics, but my mom was an public elementary teacher for over thirty years, and one of my best friends has been a public high school teacher since 2004 (when my mom retired, coincidentally), so if nothing else I have a pretty good sense of what it feels like to be a teacher. And the long and short of it is that as a society, we had something — public school teachers — that we decided we could yank around and tweak for our benefit, amusement, or popularity. When they complained, we yelled at them and passed laws and told them to shut up, until — WHOOPS! — people stopped wanting to be teachers.

the internet

You know what else was cool? The internet for marketing people during the last ten years. Compared to print media, we could learn way more about different audiences — what they liked, didn’t like, etc., — and even serve them advertisements that fit with what they cared about. Think about how amazing that is!

Like teachers, though, we decided to push the envelope just because we could. We started “optimizing” every square inch of screen real estate to drive certain actions. We cavalierly added multiple tracking systems to everything we made, even if we didn’t really understand how they worked (“just add this code to your page header!”) or how they affected essential things like loading time, responsiveness, or power usage. Finally, we completely outsourced advertising to awful ad networks based on whoever provided the greatest return, again ignoring what those ads looked like, what additional tracking garbage came with them, or how awful they were to experience.

And guess what? People have had it, and now you’re not going to be able to track anything, or even display ads. Enjoy the dark ages, marketing people!

we suck at moderation

I don’t know what causes people, organizations, and entire industries to think this way, but it’s a myopic, arrogant, short-sighted, and often costly way to do things. It doesn’t take some kind of futuristic behavioral model to determine that people with bandwidth-limited cell phone plans are going to eventually reject slow, heavy web pages full of tracking garbage, or that a company like Apple might take steps to fix the problem. Nor does it take a psychology degree to realize that if you turn the work experience of teaching into a financial and organizational nightmare you’d never want to be a part of, you’re likely to run out of teachers (especially good ones).

Remember when the Affordable Care Act was being cobbled together, back in 2010? David Frum (who I disagree with on many things, but seems like a rational, intelligent fellow in general) had an extremely prophetic piece after the law passed, where he cited the obstruction versus negotiation approach of the Republican party as an enormous missed opportunity for conservatives to help define the future of health care policy.

“Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.”

In policy, or business, this is what happens when you press as hard as you can, all the time, in your preferred direction and simply wait for the rest of the world to react. More often than not, you get a giant, sub-optimal mess you could have avoided by employing a ounce of empathy and narrative logic. Not everything is the American Revolution, or the Civil Rights movement — enormous, ideological tipping points where the consequences are less important than the principle. In most cases, the consequences are what really matter, which means you should probably think about them more than you usually do.