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Good Magazine: Philanthropic Condescension, Teacher Salaries, and Truthiness

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I subscribe to a lot of magazines, sometimes just for the hell of it. I have a long standing interest in the genre… And many of them don’t cost very much. So I signed up for Good Magazine after I took a look at the first issue. This was especially easy since, remarkably, 100 percent of the cost would be donated to a charity of my choice… No lose situation… What the hell, right…

Good is a strange bird, but one fully in sync with the times. Here’s the editorial statement:

We see a growing number of people tied together not by age, career, background, or circumstance, but by a shared interest. This revolves around a passion for potential mixed with fierce pragmatism and creative engagement. We sum all this up as the sensibility of giving a damn. But to shorten it, let’s call it GOOD. We’re here to push this movement and cover its realization.

While so much of today’s media is taking up our space, dumbing us down, and impeding our productivity, GOOD exists to add value. Through a print magazine, feature and documentary films, original multimedia content and local events, GOOD is providing a platform for the ideas, people, and businesses that are driving change in the world.

The word “business” sticks in the craw a bit, but who cares, right? Sounds like a good idea, even if the statement doesn’t inspire much confidence as far as a predictor of hard-hitting content. One imagines post-partisan up-beatness, neo-liberalism restrung as greenish good will plus tech innovation etc…

But looking back, I probably should have seen what was coming up the pike. I was shocked today when I opened up the newest issue arrived and I flipped through to the following infographic feature at the center of the magazine. (Please excuse the poor scans – hopefully you’ll be able to make them out… Click to enlarge….)

Scan 74223225 1

Scan 742232115 1

I nearly choked on my dinner when I saw this page, which is a state by state chart of how much higher the average school teacher salary (well, not quite… wait for a second) is than the average “white-collar, nonsales employee” in the US. So we’re not even talking teachers vs. proles and farmers here. This is teachers vs. executives, managers, administrators, (nonsales) service and clerical workers.

The numbers are shocking. The average teacher in Connecticut makes 43.1% more than the average white collar worker? In New York, it’s 37.7%. Vermont, 53.9% And in Florida, we’re talking a whopping 65.2%. Teachers must stock the upper-echelons of the upper-middle class, giving doctors and lawyers and corporate vice presidents a run for their money! Wow! We’re not even talking college teachers here – just plain old high school, middle, and elementary school instructors.

Of course, this is just so much bullshit. The first clue is the lead name in the list of sources for the infographic. That’s right, the good old Manhattan Institute, an organization renowned for its slippery use of statistical analysis – a Scaife and Olin funded right-wing think tank in the classical mold pledged to “develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.”

So what is the trick of the MI study upon which the Good pages are based? The oldest and silliest trick in the book when it comes to knocking teacher pay: the comparisons are based on hourly earnings rather than yearly salaries. So, because of the summer and other breaks, as well as the short formalized work day (8-2 or 9-3 clock in and out), yeah, obviously teachers’ rate of pay looks ridiculously impressive. Basically, when presented this way, the average teacher in the US, who actually makes $47,674, is factored as making the equivalent of something like $57,000 per annum.

Which of course they don’t make. They make $47,000 per year. The Manhattan Institute explains their deceptive method in the following way:

One of the significant benefits available to public school teachers is that they work fewer weeks per year. Teachers can use that time to be with family, to engage in activities that they enjoy, or to earn additional money from other employment. Whether teachers use those free weeks to make additional money or simply to enjoy their time off, that time is worth money and cannot simply be ignored when comparing earnings. The appropriate way to compare earnings in this circumstance is to focus on hourly rates.

Um, sure. This is true. But let’s be clear. School teachers are not going to, as a rule, find work during the summer months (and mid-semester breaks, for god’s sake) that compensates them at the same (ridiculously high – that’s the point, right?) level. Anyone who has been a Ph.D. candidate in need of summer cash can tell you that the summer temporary work options generally include, what, landscaping, summer camp counselor, barista, lifeguard, supermarket bagging – all minimum or in some cases subminimum wage type positions. Over the summer, one might expect to pull in, oh, $1500 or so before taxes. Of course, teachers can “be with family” or “engage in activities they enjoy,” sure. More likely, teachers do some of that type of thing and a lot of class preparatory groundwork, etc. But the one thing they can’t do is go into cost-reductive hibernation for the summer months, abandoning rent, mortgage, car payments, eating, and the like. The cost of living runs on a, yes, twelve month cycle. The salaries, yes, are for a twelve month cycle. In casual parlance, it’s usually called a year, and there is no option to stay alive and hungry only during a fractional part of it.

OK. Well and good. The MI study is dishonest, cherry-picking a set of data to work with that paints an inaccurate picture of the situation. But we expect that of the good folk at the Manhattan Institute. Still, why didn’t I just write a post arguing with the MI? Why bother with Good?

I bother with Good because they dishonestly made things even worse. Take a look back at the scans above. While the Manhattan Institute paper is careful to ground its claims in the proper nomenclature – they are careful to at every point describe the comparison as one of mean hourly earnings, which is the right word for the numbers compared – in the Good graphs the comparison is erroneously stated as one of salaries. “CT 43.1% above avg worker’s salary.” No one, speaking proper English, uses the word “salary” to denote an hourly wage or hourly earnings, or really anything other than the total amount of money one is paid for a job over the course of an entire year. (Just in case anyone is unclear on this point, take a look at what comes up when you search for the phrase hourly salary on Google – a whole bunch of calculators for converting your yearly salary into an hourly wage.) This error on Good’s part smacks of hyperbolic, inflationary dishonesty. Far fewer of its readers would be all that stunned to learn that teachers have a relatively high rate of pay per hour – the graph is only provocative because it suggests that the yearly salaries of teachers is that much higher than other white collar workers.

(xposted to Long Sunday)

I imagine the reaction of the average reader would be something like Holy crap! Teachers make that much money and they don’t even have to work summers!!!! Overpaid bastards!!!! Which is exactly not the case. The word salary, in other words, allows Good to score twice against teachers for a single strike…

I’m sure the reaction of Good would be that this was a fact-checking error, a non-intentional slip. But of course it isn’t – the proper language is right there for them to take from the MI piece, and the fact is salary sensationalizes the piece, makes it seem provocative and convincing in a way that mean hourly earnings does not. You can hear the number crunching, the figure forcing in the latter – the former seems to be clear as day, a simple calculation.

So why would the good folks at Good play the truthiness game? Why would they take up this issue, which seems a bit distant from the overall focus of the magazine, in the first place? Go take a look at some of the press on the founder, and I think the picture starts to clear up a little bit, especially in regard to his family foundation’s investment in teaching entrepreneurship in the schools. (Hint: public sector teaching jobs are not very entrepreneurial… But privatized, deunionized schools, well, that would be a different story… Hell, while we’re at it, why not scrap the whatever shreds of public sector infrastructure are left in the world, as tech savvy scions of media capitalists with their checkbooks + 25-40s with their green and good intentions (organic eats etc) would do a far better job at this whole taking care of poor folks than the… You get the point.)

It’s a shame, really. The magazine, in general, seems like a partly noble gesture. But it is hard to see how this infographic jives at all with these philanthropic intentions. (Even if schoolteachers were overpaid, which they of course aren’t, not by a longshot, this is an issue that Good thinks is worthy of attention, among all the other very grave problems there are in the world?) And above all else, we suffer from far too much bullshit in the realm of politics and popular sociology, far too much fact bending and bad faith argumentation, which makes this sort of thing, in the end, truly unforgivable.

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 3, 2007 at 1:26 am

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