Archive for the 'Status' Category

Why focus only on the lowest 25% of postcodes?

Yesterday my U of M boss, Glyn Davis, gave a speech on the difficulties in reaching the government’s target of 20% of all higher education enrolments being from a low socieonomic status background. The current definition of ‘low SES’ is living in the lowest 25% of postcodes according to the ABS index of education and occupation.

It is well established that socieconomic differences in school results are the major reason why low SES students are ‘under-represented’ at university. However, it was not until I recently analysed 2008 Victorian Year 12 results that I realised that lowest 25% seems like an inappropriately narrow target group. As the figure below shows, while students living in the lowest 10% of postcodes are clearly the weakest performers, those in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th deciles have very similar (and not very good) school results). Very few receive ENTER scores in the 90s, and nearly half have ENTER scores below 50. While results trend upwards after the 5th decile, it is only a modest exaggeration to say that we really have the top 20% and the rest.

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Why neither right nor left support meritocracy

Charles says he believes in meritocracy, and Shem too thinks that admission to university should be based on merit. Polling the CIS did a few years back shows that most Australians also like the idea of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is a theory of desert; that if you have some characteristic – usually linked to ability – you deserve a position associated with that characteristic, most commonly places at educational institutions and particular jobs. Meritocracy’s Wikipedia entry states that this is in opposition to allocation by

wealth (plutocracy), family connections (nepotism), class privilege (oligarchy), cronyism, popularity (as in democracy) or other historical determinants of social position and political power.

But Wikipedia’s list is too short. Both liberals and social democrats support principles of distribution that are at least in tension with meritocracy.

Don Arthur likes pointing this out in the case of liberalism. Liberalism favours distribution by free exchange, and there is no guarantee that this will match distribution according to personal merit. The market is usually too impersonal to judge directly whether people are intelligent, hard-working, or have any other positive personal attribute. Consumers and producers often know little or nothing about each other. People can be stupid or lazy but lucky, and so reap market rewards. And people can be intelligent and hard-working but unlucky, and so go unrewarded in the market (as recent graduates are about to find out, at least temporarily).
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Mixing at school (again)

Commenter Charles isn’t giving up on his claim that country public schools confer particular advantages in tolerance-producing social mixing:

In the country you go to school with the doctor’s kids (unless they are sent off to a private school, in which case the doctor’s kids miss out, they really don’t know what they missed and really aren’t in a position to comment) and the kids of the local drunk. …

I think the issue is important, private schools segregate the student population, in my view it is a real problem and going forward we are going to suffer for it.

There are too few doctors in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes to say anything meaningful about whether they are more likely to send their kids to government schools in the country than the city. But professionals generally are more likely to send, or have sent, their oldest child to a government school in the country than the city, 68% compared to 54% (2005 figures).

I doubt tolerance would be enhanced by the children of doctors and drunks mixing. For the doctor’s kids, seeing the products of social pathology first-hand could be rather more off-putting than thinking about the children of drunks in the abstract, as unfortunate victims of circumstance. And for the drunk’s kids, the doctor’s kids could well seem like terrible snobs.
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Will markets foster higher education diversity?

One of the more curious claims made in submissions to the higher education review is that markets will drive homogenisation rather than diversity. In my submission (pdf), I identify four market design problems that I believe limit diversity:

* access of foreign-owned providers to the FEE-HELP loan scheme is made very difficult (I expand on this here)

* Commonwealth-supported places are not available to most private providers of higher education

* student contribution amount regulations means that all public universities have to operate at the bargain-basement end of the market (though the effect of this has been alleviated somewhat by international student fees)

* a rigid quota system of allocating student places limits the scope for disciplinary specialisation
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Should scholarships be exempt from Centrelink income tests?

One popular theme in the submissions to the Bradley review of Australian higher education policy is that scholarships paid by universities ought to be exempt from Centrelink income tests. The problem is that if the scholarship gives a student on Youth Allowance more than $118 a week it will be caught by the YA income test, and so the scholarship saves the government 50c in the YA dollar. The universities reckon that this provides a disincentive to provide income-support scholarships.

While the frustration of universities is understandable, there should be no special treatment of scholarship income. The main function of scholarships is positional competition between universities. Mostly they compete for the very bright students. Often these students come from privileged backgrounds, but even when they do not their high intellectual ability means that they are likely to do very well in life whether they get a scholarship or not. The public policy case for sending special extra financial rewards their way, through exempting them from welfare reductions that all other students must suffer, is very weak. Indeed, exemption would be a particularly egregious example of the generally regressive nature of higher education subsidies. Read the rest of this entry »

The intellectual uses of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’

In response to my implied criticism of Andrew Leigh for assuming that increases in inequality are bad and decreases good, but never specifying for what level of inequality would satisfy him, commenter Leopold responds:

one could turn the criticism around. Liberals believe in liberty – but how much liberty, exactly?

Leopold’s argument (I am paraphrasing here) is that preferences for greater equality or greater liberty are rules of thumb to be applied to specific circumstances, but there are cases where social democrats could accept less equality and liberals accept less liberty. We can’t always precisely calculate the final overall result of all these complex trade-offs to say what is the exactly right amount of equality or liberty. But this doesn’t invalidate the initial assumption that, all other things being equal, more equality or more liberty (depending on your philosophical position) is desirable.

I think Leopold’s point is reasonable. For example, I say that there should be less tax, and while I have clear pet hates among government spending programmes (eg FTB) that I think should be cut to reduce general tax rates, I never say exactly how much tax I think should be levied or what tax rates I would be happy with.

High-level political abstractions gives us intellectual tools that help organise our understanding of the world, but they don’t necessarily provide answers for specific problems. That requires far more detailed analysis.
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Why is father-son intergenerational mobility stable?

Using data from four surveys over a 40 year period, Andrew Leigh’s latest paper (pdf) argues that father-son intergenerational mobiliity is stable in Australia.

In his conclusion, as reported by The Australian, he says:

“On one view, the absence of any significant rise in inter-generational mobility might be regarded as surprising,” Dr Leigh says in the study report.

“Increases in healthcare coverage, the banning of racial discrimination, the abolition of up-front university tuition fees and an increase in the number of university places are among the policy reforms that might have been expected to increase inter-generational mobility.

“Yet there were also trends in the opposite direction.” These included rising unemployment during the study period and the removal of inheritance taxes in 1979. Dr Leigh said a rise in inequality had been well-documented with the distance between income groups greater in the early 2000s than in the mid-1960s.

I know conclusions are where they let academics off the referee’s leash, but some of this seems a bit odd to me. I’m not sure why improved healthcare coverage would make much difference; in any case claimed ‘disability’ is much higher than it used to be. Nor are bans on racial discrimination likely to have influenced the figures much; such laws are easily evaded and many migrant groups were doing fine long before discrimination was outlawed.

Inheritance taxes, as Andrew L’s own research shows (pdf), took only about 30% of the largest estates – something unlikely to affect the salary data he’s using (though it may affect investment income). And rising inequality is consistent with high mobility (if the poor and the rich swapped places each generation, ie complete mobility, inequality would be unchanged because it is a static, snapshot-in-time measure).
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Why did the middle class shrink?

In his publication Is the Middle Class Shrinking?, Clive Hamilton writes ‘there does not seem to be any survey evidence on identification with class terms’. We all know Clive is no ordinary leftist, but it is remarkable that he became a leading ‘progressive’ thinker despite clearly having read very little about class. There is lots of research on this, going back nearly 60 years.

This research suggests that the long-term answer to Clive’s question is ‘yes’. Though the proportion of people identifying as ‘middle class’ has been trending upwards since the early 1990s, most of the surveys on class identification between 1949 and 1984 found more middle-class people than a 2005 survey. The one exception was 1965, but it was just 1% lower than the 2005 figure of 50% ‘middle class’.

The curious thing about the apparent shrinking of the middle class is that it occurred while many of the sociological markers of the middle class, such as education and professional or managerial occupations, were showing long-term increases. For example, in 1947, just before the first class survey I have, 12% of workers were in professional or managerial occupations. But in 1949, 54% of people thought that they were ‘middle class’. In the mid-1990s, 31% of workers were in professional or managerial occupations, but overall only 45% of people considered themselves to be middle class.

One possibility is that though compared to the past a higher proportion of people have professional occupations, university education and high income, the relativities have moved with them and so the middle class has not grown. Read the rest of this entry »

The starstruck broadsheet press

It’s election time, the season of celebrities and worthies adding their names to open letters and political advertising. A range of them have put their names on an ad designed to pressure Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull to change his mind on Gunns’ Tasmanian pulp mill. And why wouldn’t they? When it comes to this kind of thing the Fairfax press especially is as starstruck as Who magazine’s celebrity-obsessed readers, with The Age giving their opinions prominent front page coverage this morning. According to The Age,

Among the signatories are film director Phillip Noyce, actors Bryan Brown and Rebecca Gibney, playwright David Williamson, celebrity chef Kylie Kwong, Fairfax Media deputy chairman Mark Burrows, Rowena Danziger, a member of the Publishing and Broadcasting board, and Leo Schofield, a former director of the Sydney Festival.

But why should we care what any of these people think about this issue, or indeed on anything else except on things related to their narrow area of achievement or expertise (and perhaps not even that)? Would-be serious papers like The Age should show far more scepticism than they do.

The only signed advertisement I have liked appeared in the SMH a month ago. It was a full-page memorial for Ken Dyers, leader of the wacky Kenja cult, who killed himself rather than face (yet more) charges of sexually assaulting under-age girls. No need for too many tears in this case, I expect. But the signatories were, I thought, unwittingly but amusingly subversive of the whole signed ad phenomenon. Take these examples: Simon Winn, qualified carpenter; Linda Beachley, receptionist; Stevana Geurreiro, Dip, Make-up Artistry; Shane Grant, baker; Chloe Pape, hair stylist; David Pilkington, refrigeration tech; Eoin McGettrick, locksmith. All good, if unintentional, satire on the idea that occupations confer authority on opinion.

Who thinks that they have low status?

If leftists support “political programmes that seek to eliminate status differences or moderate their impact” then the best way to reduce the left’s opposition to free markets would be to sever the link between income and status.

Don Arthur, 10 June.

But how strong is the existing link between income and status? This issue can be approached from two directions. We can ask people what weight they give income when assessing the status of another person – I am not aware of research on this, though I’m sure somebody must have put the question in a survey. We can also ask people how they perceive their own status and compare that self-assessment with their income. A question in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005 asks:

In our society there are groups which tend to be towards the top and groups which tend to be towards the bottom. Below is a scale that runs from the top to the bottom where the top is 10 and the bottom is 1. Where would you put yourself on this scale?

Overall, whatever others may think of them, most people do not think they are on the ‘bottom’ of society. Only 2% rate themselves as ‘1’ and only 18% below 5. If we thought of society as having 10 status deciles, 40% should rate themselves below 5. Consistent with an egalitarian ethos, few rate themselves too highly either. Only 3% of respondents put themselves in the top 20% of society.

Low income is, however, associated with lower status. Read the rest of this entry »