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Insights 11: 5 April 2019
Matt Burgess argues in NBR that for a problem like emissions, top-down policy is an especially poor instrument
New report: Switched on! Achieving a green, affordable and reliable energy future
Auckland Event: Lecture with international guest speaker Barbara Oakley on the science behind how we learn

Hubs raise unanswered questions
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
The question of how to help schools face challenging circumstances was a key focus of Monday’s Tomorrow’s Schools review discussion held jointly by the Initiative and Victoria University’s Faculty of Education.

The Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce is clear, and the Initiative agrees, that there is a serious and stubborn problem of underachievement among students from certain ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

According to the taskforce, one of the key causes of this inequity in outcomes is the way we organise our education system: 2,500 boards of trustees operating independently with no mechanism for scaling success.

Under a truly devolved system, success would scale up organically as popular schools grew and even took over the management of struggling schools. But the Tomorrow’s Schools system is not truly devolved, and less control is not what the taskforce wants.

Instead, the taskforce aspires to bring all schools under the control of a new tier of bureaucracy – 20 education hubs. These hubs would not only manage and monitor and support the network of schools, they would also assume all the legal responsibilities and liabilities of boards of trustees. The list of tasks that hubs are being lined up for reads like a governance meteor shower, or even an accountability black hole.

Nonetheless, some schools and principals have welcomed the proposals. They reason that hubs would ease some of the operational burden of school leadership around property management, HR, etc. The decile 1 school principal on Monday’s panel – Michelle Whiting – described compellingly how her to-do list extends well beyond areas normally expected of a principal. She believes this is because she fills the gaps left by her trustees.

Whiting’s is indeed a serious issue that must be addressed, for example, through inspections that identify such problems, and schemes that match qualified volunteers with schools needing expertise. Appropriate levels of equity funding are also important. 

However, on the same panel the chair of a decile 10 school – Neil Paviour-Smith – described the threat that the hub proposals pose to the myriad activities many boards undertake, for free and with local accountability, year in and year out.

After two hours of discussion, Paviour-Smith’s question hung ominously and unanswered in the room. Why, when self-governance works for most schools, give it all to hubs to subsume?

The value of everything
Dr Bryce Wilkinson | Senior Fellow |
Oscar Wilde once quipped that a cynic was “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

That saying has since migrated to refer to economists.

Allegedly, our depraved profession values only money. But for our widespread incompetence we would all be rich.

In fact, deep down economics is about value, not cash. Economists do not loaf around in universities and government agencies to get rich. We contribute to public policy debates because we want to do good.

Non-economists have a problem believing this. Look at a report published last December by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), an Auckland-based charity.

In Reform of the Resource Management System, the EDS claims: “An economic approach to environmental ethics tends to reduce the natural and physical world to monetary terms.”

That statement is stark and misleading. Economists study what people value. We study the choices and trade-offs that confront communities.

Imagine a small country with three problems: a polluted river, unsafe roads and high infant mortality. If you were Prime Minister, what would you do?

Voters will pressure you to fix all three problems, pronto. Clean up the river, make all roads safe and ensure that no baby dies.

But your Finance Minister tells you there is not enough money in the budget to do all three. You must choose. Of course, you will do so on the basis of relative values for the people in your community.

Being Prime Minister, you ask your advisers to assess the relative values. To do so they must use a common yardstick. The choice of yardstick should not make any difference to the ranking. You can tell who is tallest whether your measure is yards or metres.

Money values are a convenient yardstick. Money prices are a good start to assessing relative values in a community. Of course, money prices do not exist for many valuable things. Think of the value of a human life, clean air or an endangered species.

Economists have a toolkit that can help assess what value people put on such things at the margin. They will sacrifice something, but not everything. That might seem horrible and unethical, but it is what humans do. They make trade offs.

Economists study prices because they care about values. Only cynics do not.

A beautiful broadcasting anachronism
Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
For those of us of a certain age, part of the thrill of staying up late as a kid was getting to see and hear things on television that did not air during afternoon cartoons. Before 9pm, one set of rules applied. After 9pm was the so-called ‘watershed’, well, things were different – especially on the French version of Canada’s public broadcaster.

None of the words you’d hear on late-night television were new, but there was still a thrill to hearing them on television.

In Canada and America, you were never quite sure who decided what counted as offensive, or why. That’s why I simply loved New Zealand’s system when I first learned about it a decade ago.

New Zealand’s broadcasters belong to the Broadcast Standards Authority. The BSA decides which words are too spicy in which contexts. Where America might turn to an expert panel of prudes to decide what constitutes ‘community standards’, New Zealand is more sensible.

The BSA runs a survey.

BSA pollsters phoned up hapless respondents and read them a series of words and phrases to suss out just how offensive each term might be in different contexts. Would you find this term offensive if used during a breakfast radio programme? How about during a sports broadcast?

Perhaps there’s a bit too much of South Park’s Eric Cartman in me, but reading a list of really offensive words to potentially prudish people and asking them to rate how offended they are – I would pay to have that job. Oliver never lets me use the fun words in print.

The hardest part would be avoiding inventing new and more offensive combinations to add to the survey list, trying to get a high score. Perhaps that’s why the BSA shifted to an online survey a few years ago.

The 2018 edition of the BSA’s “Language that may offend in broadcasting” survey finds continued declines in offence-taking. The most offensive word, since 1999, has not changed. Where 79% of respondents in 1999 found it totally or fairly unacceptable, only 63% did in 2018.

It’s all a bit anachronistic now. What does a ‘watershed’ even mean when everyone has switched to streaming? But we can still enjoy a frisson of the forbidden from reading about it in the Broadcast Standards Authority’s survey.

On The Record
All Things Considered
  • Graph of the week: The race to become Britain’s next PM.
  • The beginning of the end between Turkey and the West?
  • Why the EU wants to stop moving the clocks forwards and back.
  • Make your daughter practice math. She’ll thank you later.
  • The outlandish story of Ollie’s: A $5 billion retail empire that sells nothing online (but is beating Amazon).
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