Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tazi's Corner #33: The Fallacy Of An Urban Legend

Dear Readers: 

This week, I received the following email – an urban legend that, according to, has been making the rounds since 2009. I reprint it here to publicly respond to my comments on it:

An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama's socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

The professor then said, "OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama's plan". All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an A. (Substituting grades for dollars - something closer to home and more readily understood by all).

After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little.

The second test average was a D! No one was happy.
When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F.

As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.

To their great surprise, ALL FAILED and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.

Okay, so how many of you believe this or think that it “could happen”? To all who raised your hand, please lower them…this is the Internet and I cannot see you. I further recommend you all take a basic economics class in order to learn the vast differences between Socialism and Communism – something an Economics professor would already know – which will also illustrate the huge hole in the plot of the above anecdote. In the meantime, I am here to punch a hole in the rest of the story.

College students do not act this way; they just don’t. Remember, these are people who are paying for their education; depending on that education to assist them in their future careers. But this story is about more than just students; the above story suggests by extension that humans in general will only put out the minimum effort required of them in order to get by, and that they will willingly sop off of others in an attempt to get ahead without actually trying. If this is true, how did America ever become the country of comforts that it is? This leads to the argument that there are two types of people: producers and receivers, and the specious belief that producers are the ones working hard while receivers sponge off of the sweat of society. The problem with this argument is that it leaves out intrinsic values upon which humans depend to succeed in life, whether they realize these needs or not. I will again use the example of the student, and how the reality differs from the anecdote.

Humans, like the animals they forget they are, are pack creatures; following their natural instinct to form a group in times of stress, students will form a study group. In these study groups will be students of impressive skills, students of average skills, and students who have little to offer – just like life in the larger dynamic of the world outside the classroom. The students who have much to offer would appear to have little to gain from a study group, and would appear to be the ones being taken advantage of by their weaker counterparts, but things are not always as they seem. Even the strongest students in a class are still students – meaning, they are still learning the material being taught, just at a faster pace than others. 

The learning journey is a stressful one, and we all need someone to lean on when our motivation flags. Enter, the weaker among us. The weakest students in the classroom are often the most motivated learners; they just need a little more guidance to find the path to the answers, a little more reassurance that they can do it. For a strong student, taking the time to assist a weaker student can often result in a better grade for both, since you haven’t truly mastered a task until you know it well enough to teach another how to do it.  How does this apply to the world of economics?

Let us look at the many programs that would accomplish little if supported by the individual, but accomplish much when we band together and support a program as taxpayers; to start, a free public education. The money the average taxpayer pays to the government would not even begin to cover the cost of educating their child; since a free public school offers future benefits to society in the form of an educated populace, some pay more than others in order to see that all are educated – regardless of whether or not they actually utilize the public school system.

One of my preferred “socialist” or “fascist” programs is municipal garbage pick-up. Who wants to make a weekly trip to the dump with the week’s leavings in the trunk of their car? For the convenience of not doing this, I am happy to pay a little more than my share of the cost through my municipal taxes (I have almost no trash; my litterbox leavings are fully compostable!).

A third and final example of how the whole can be greater than the sum of single parts is the family unit upon which human society is based. An infant, or even a pet for that matter,  cannot care for itself, nor is it expected to contribute some form of financial or economic worth in return for having its needs met. So why care for them in return? Why do people love their dogs and cats so much, to the tune of several billion dollars a year spent on their care and well-being? Could it be that we offer some sort of intrinsic value that cannot be bought? What economic price would you put on your pet if someone offered to buy it from you? What price can be put on the wag of a happy dog’s tail at the end of your long hard day? A price cannot be put on everything, and just as in the classroom, we need others to lean on while in the outside world.

Some may argue that they made their fortune through hard work, without leaning on others; I argue that not all help received was financial. Often times it is not laziness but fear of failure that keeps someone from making a first step towards greatness. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, but those that go the furthest are the ones that have a strong emotional backing from those who believe in them. Those who end up the most emotionally balanced are the ones who are a part of something larger, not as an island unto themselves. Remember that not all great rewards are financial; not all wealth can be measured on the New York Stock Exchange – or in a teacher’s grade-book.

Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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