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Related to: Choosing the best status games for society
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What do you think are some of the major reasons for [Finland’s] success?
LAUKKANEN: Teachers. They are the most important [aspect of] Finnish success …
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: We’ve also learned that teachers are very well respected and that in fact many people want to become teachers. Is this true in your experience?
LAUKKANEN: Yes, this is. It is very, very true. Because only a small part of those who apply to teacher education can really get there. [There] was some years ago a poll by the biggest Finnish newspaper that found out that for those in upper secondary education, teacher education was the most popular choice.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Really.
LAUKKANEN: Yes. Yes, and it has continued like that. It’s interesting, because I know that in some other countries the situation is such that students first try to have all the other faculties, and those who can’t go to the other faculties, they go to teacher education.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: How do you evaluate teachers in Finland? Is there a strong system for doing this?
LAUKKANEN: No. We don’t have any evaluation of teachers after teachers have been at university…, have their papers and… get their posting in a school. So nobody evaluates teachers. We don’t have that kind of tradition. We had it before, when we had inspectorate in Finland in [the] 1970s and in the beginning of [the] 1980s, but not anymore. Nobody evaluates teachers.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: And this is simply because you trust your teachers.
LAUKKANEN: That’s it. We talk about the culture of trust, and we really can trust [them], because [of] the working morale and the working ethics of the teachers. It’s very high, and we can also trust that they are competent; they know what to do.
In Australia we often hear that education would be better if teachers were more respected (in the view of teachers, starting with higher pay), and judging by the Finnish experience this would indeed lead to smarter and more diligent educators. However, we should look not only at what we immediately see, but also what we don’t. I imagine other fields that in Australia are high status like politics, finance, medicine, law and academia all suffer somewhat in Finland because some very productive people decide to go into education instead. As a general rule it is better to have smart people go into more meta occupations as they can have a bigger impact there. Good teachers can clearly assist many people, but so can good bankers and researchers as long as they have the right incentives. Overall, is it good to have teaching as a high status profession? I have no idea.
I also don’t know whether Australia could get to where Finland is. Status games are hard to change – Finland is in a stable equilibrium and so is Australia. If Australia put in place Finnish requirements (a PhD!), teaching would immediately become more prestigious but we would also lose most of our teachers until bright youngsters entered the profession. The only practical way would be to go slowly, but it’s hard to be consistent in such policies over decades. Making teaching high status would require ruthless elimination of notably stupid or unmotivated teachers who lower everyone’s opinion of the profession. I doubt teacher’s unions will be enthusiastic and incumbents have the most concentrated interest.
Humans have a natural impulse to compete amongst themselves for the esteem of those around them. Social status is a very desirable thing to have as it brings a person attention and power in groups, and attracts the most desirable associates and mates. Status is a free carrot that societies can dangle in front of their members to get them to act in certain ways. Reading the controversy about declining levels of women’s happiness in the Western world over the last few decades got me thinking about what status games are best for a society to set for its members.
Status games have a lot of inertia; it is difficult for individuals and even groups to change the prevailing status games, because refusing to play them is a signal that you are bad at the game and so reduces your status. High status people might be able to lead such change but are succeeding in the current games and so have little incentive to do so. Ignoring this inertia, let’s imagine that as social planners we could sit around a table and choose the ways in which people would compete to reveal characteristics that are desirable for associates: health, wealth, loyalty, bravery etc. What properties would our ideal status games have?
They would be enjoyable for the participants, productive for society and as egalitarian as possible.
1. Enjoyable for the participants.
People naturally enjoy some things more than others. If fighting in duels is what is necessary to ensure status, people may do it even if they find it extremely unpleasant. If duelling could be replaced with a sport that still required bravery, but didn’t result in death for the losers, that would improve the welfare of the participants at no cost to anyone else.
2. Productive for society.
Finding ways to play sport extremely well isn’t especially productive for the rest of society compared to finding better ways to alleviate poverty, raising large number of happy children and inventing useful things. If people are competing for esteem they may as well do so in ways that have the greatest positive externality for others.
A big unknown question for me is whether status competitions around conspicuous consumption are a net positive or negative. On the one hand they cause limited natural resources to be used up more quickly and otherwise result in environmental destruction. On the other hand, hard-working and productive people drive technological innovation, produce surplus for those they trade with and generate tax revenues that can be used to help others, among other things. Expect further posts on this difficult question.
3. As egalitarian as possible.
How can a zero-sum competition for status be egalitarian? It can’t, but some games produce more equal status distributions than others. In popular music and sport, for example, a handful of people attract extreme amounts of status and become huge celebrities while the majority of participants receive comparatively little esteem, an increasingly common situation Nassim Taleb has dubbed extremistan. Other competitions over incomes, kindness, artistic taste and parenting skill, are less dominated by a few very visible high status winners. My guess is that a more equal distribution of esteem makes for a happier population; it’s just not possible for a few people with extremely high status to get so much enjoyment from their status as to make up for the unhappiness they create for a large pool of low status people. In other words, status has declining marginal returns. What’s more, extremely low status people with few prospects of improving their lot will tend to violently reject the social order because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Witness that most violence is perpetuated by low status men with little hope of moving up the social ladder.
Games that promote extreme status highs and lows should be avoided.
What does this have to do with declining women’s happiness? Before women’s liberation, women were strongly discouraged from putting a career before their family and could achieve status just by being good homemakers. The status game women face today actively discourages them from pursuing lives as home-makers without careers. In fact, women now feel pressure to have both of these things in order to achieve society’s esteem and fulfil their own aspirations. This is a difficult task indeed and may work against the natural tendency of some women to prefer child-rearing exclusively. Setting such a difficult status game violates principle one and in so doing may make women less happy. However, if they are inspired to work harder overall in both their family life and work, society may be compensated with extra positive spillover effects. Finally, the fact that the new standards are more difficult to meet means that the few talented women who manage to achieve them receive large amounts of status, perhaps producing a less egalitarian distribution of status among women.
If women are to be made happier society should look to setting them status games which they enjoy achieving and which many of them can succeed at. If we want to get more positive spillovers to society, we will encourage them to do a lot of whatever we think is most useful to others, be that increasing GDP or raising many happy children.