It can be argued that the system that produces this result has something important going for it, some procedural virtue that speaks in favor of keeping it in place despite results like this one. Maybe this is the system in which individual liberty in production and consumption choices is maximally respected without wholly undermining the future of society. Consumers are free to indulge their maladaptive sweet tooths, and resourceful business people are free to make a killing by fueling the propensity for such overindulgence--while basic education is provided by something other than the free market, and hence without the chance at generating extravagantly excessive rewards for education providers, in order to ensure that all children have a shot at being productive citizens, even the children whose parents wouldn't be able to buy a decent primary education for their children if it were provided through the free market, or whose priorities would lead them to neglect their children's education in favor of buying crap they don't need.
But even if the social disparities we see in our society are the outcome of systems possessed of procedural virtues, it doesn't follow that we shouldn't be troubled by outcomes that are so troubling in their own right. I think most of us woud agree that our education system is doing something far more crucial to the long-term health of society than is the soft drink industry. I think we can agree that even if the soft drink CEO worked very hard to become a soft drink CEO, it remains troubling to contemplate the enormous disparity in incomes between the hard-working teacher entrusted with a crucial social role and this CEO whose "social role" is to indulge a sweet tooth that it would be better for all were it not indulged to nearly the degree that it is.
Here's a deeper way to think about the problem: Education succeeds to the extent that it develops intellectual virtues and virtues of character. Education isn't just about shoving necessary information into people's heads. It certainly isn't about teachers somehow taking over the hearts and minds of their students and developing their potential for them. Education succeeds by helping students develop the intellectual skills and the habits of character that enable them to focus on developing their own talents and abilities for themselves. Education ideally aims to turn students into mature adults who defer immediate gratification for the sake of more meaningful good and long-term goals, people who develop themselves and use their talents as opposed to primarily indulging their preferences-of-the-moment.
But businesses in the free market often are most successful to to the extent that they tap into dominant preferences-of-the-moment, capitalizing on our difficulties with resisting temptation.
What's the result? Here's how George Scialabba puts it in a review of Why America Failed:
According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.And I suspect we'd find similar statistics relating to food consumption choices. The pattern is this: Choices that express or reflect the pursuit of self-cultivation--of our talents, abilities, knowledge, and tastes--are far less common than choices which don't place any real demands on us.
I'm not trying to be elitist here. I'm not saying there's something essentially wrong about enjoying something that it takes no effort or training to enjoy. The point is that much of what's best in life does take effort or training to enjoy. There is a level of satisfaction that comes from developing a talent and then using it well, or developing a capacity for discernment that enables you to appreciate excellence--and it is a level of satisfaction that outstrips the satisfaction you get from satisfying your sweet tooth or watching a movie where lots of things blow up.
A life in which we develop some of our talents and our capacity to discern excellence is a better life, overall, than one in which we don't. And it isn't just better because we're likely to make more money with which to indulge our desires-of-the-moment. It is better because we can enjoy more rewarding things. A life characterized by the pursuit of excellence and the appreciation of excellence is, simply put, a richer life.
If we want to have access to these goods we need to develop our capacities. And to do that we need to cultivate character traits like perseverence, diligence, focus, and commitment. That doesn't happen when we spend most of our time watching TV shows...and the commercials that aim to feed into our baser appetites and desires, channeling them towards consumerism. The statistics Scialabba cites are disturbing precisely because they indicate a society that has prioritized immediate gratification over self-development.
Put another way, the CEO who is pandering to our baser preferences is winning out over the school teacher who is trying to help us cultivate ourselves. And the social injustice here isn't simply that the CEO is richly rewarded while the school teacher scrapes by. The deeper social injustice is that the system is set up to more richly reward (in overt material ways) the person who panders to baser preferences than it does the person who provides the foundations for a life of self-cultivation. While I believe the inner rewards of the school teacher are more profound, the visible system of overt rewards symbolically conveys a message about social values and priorities that is turned upside down.
So what do we do about this?
We can't solve the problem simply by letting the free market do its thing. Free markets can do lots of things well, but they are designed to reward those who are (a) good at meeting existing demand and (b) good at manipulating consumer psychology to magnify demand for what they have to sell. The former does little to develop character, and the latter shapes character in ways largely indifferent to what is best for those whose character is being changed. If society is ruled by unregulated free markets, the result will be a society mostly indifferent to what is perhaps the most crucial requirement for a flourishing society: the wise character development of its citizens. And so we need institutions that aren't ruled by the laws of supply and demand--institutions that, instead, shape how the laws of supply and demand play out because, in shaping character, they help shape what people want and hence what is in demand.
We need, in other words, a system of comprehensive public education that is funded by something other than free market forces. And of course that's what we have. But the public resources devoted to compensating our teachers leave the disparity noted above intact. The upside-down message persists.
Much of the problem here is an issue of degree. We already impose upon the free market a taxation framework in which some of the wealth generated by those who largely pander to existing preferences is transferred to those who cultivate collective preferences in accord with virtue--in other words, those who teach our kids the basic intellectual and moral virtues that offer the foundation for a life pursuing and appreciating excellence. And no politician or political party that I know of is advocating that we do away with taxes or public education.
But in the political tug-of-war in our society, there are pressures to prioritize "business development" over public education--to cut taxes on the supposed "job creators" (as if there were no public sector jobs that aren't thereby threatened) and then cut salaries and positions in the public schools to compensate for this. And this strikes me as a move that should be presumptively resisted. Because it seems to me that we should be going in the other direction--that the symbolic affirmation of what our schools and our teachers are doing needs to be greater than it is.
In times of comparative austerity, it seems even more important to stress, through our policies, a set of social priorities and values that lift self-development and intangible goods above the consumerist satisfaction of desire.
In other words, when the economy gets tight, invest in education.