Op-Ed: As we start a new year of taxes…

April 24, 2013, 1:36 p.m.

I am sure many have seen the viral (and apocryphal) story circulating on the internet about the economics professor who demonstrates the flaws of liberal “socialism” by averaging his students’ test grades.

The gist is this: the professor had a class that insisted that “Obama’s socialism worked.” The professor decided to do an “experiment” in which the test grades in his class would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade. The test scores steadily declined, and everyone failed because the incentive to work hard was taken away. This fable seems logical enough. Indeed I think it would prove true in many classrooms.

I would like to respond to this story and highlight its flaws as a model for society and taxation. I will not respond to the fact that completely averaging grades is far too extreme a model for even the most hardcore liberal. Anyone who thinks liberal Americans are proponents of such a system should not continue reading. They will not be convinced anyway. Rather, I will propose a slightly less inaccurate situation modeling the classroom as society and grades as money.

A calculus professor walks into his class on the first day of school. He decides, before beginning his lectures, to ask about everybody’s background in mathematics. By a show of hands, many of the students are in the right place. They just finished trigonometry the semester before and are ready to go. Some, though, do not have this background. Some are math Ph.D. students and could do this class in their sleep. Even worse, a good portion of the class is very far behind. They are three or four semesters away from studying anything on this level. Unfortunately, though, they cannot drop the class. It is the only class offered, and they have to play the hand they are dealt.

As the first lectures and tests roll by, this stratification does not work itself out. Even the students on track struggle to learn the material. Some do all right, and some do not. The math Ph.D. students ace every test. No matter how many hours the inexperienced students put in, though, they are simply unable to learn calculus. After all, how can you integrate a sine function if you don’t know what a sine function is? As long as the less experienced students have to compete with the more experienced students, they stand little chance of passing.

The professor needs a plan to help the failing students catch up. I would like to emphasize that grades are an extremely poor model for money. Giving people free grade boosts does not help them to succeed, but getting people above the poverty line absolutely helps them succeed. So I will try to make a taxation metaphor that is slightly less flawed:

The university decides to start a remedial math class. With some tongue in cheek, let us call it the middle [math] class. Unfortunately, you cannot simply enroll in the middle [math] class. You must have a certain grade in calculus to get in.

Thus the more advanced students in calculus are asked to give some of their points on each test toward the less experienced students such that they may try to enroll in the remedial class. They are also encouraged to volunteer at the tutoring center (though most do not). The Ph.D. students lose these points but remain at the same letter grade.

How unfair that a math genius should have to give some points to all those lazy freeloaders who never got the chance to learn algebra! Again, these points are not just to boost the grade: They are there to help students get into the middle [math] class.

So as we start a new year of taxes, remember that the system is not in place to make you poor. It is not in place to keep Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron from dancing. It is not in place to make everyone equal. It is there to make sure we all get a chance to learn math.

Matthew Kahane, BS ‘12 MS ‘13

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