Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Competition is a Very Bad Idea

I had some conversations recently that reminded me about some very bad ideas that infect many people's minds and create chaos in our civilization. I thought I'd explain one to my readers.



A fellow I know has been asking me a lot about a Canadian institution known as "French Immersion". Canada is an officially bilingual country. This means that the government has mandated that all over the nation everyone is entitled to being served in both French and English. A practical upshot of this is that lots and lots of good-paying government jobs require or strongly recommend fluency in both languages. This ranges from high ranked civil servants down to the woman who sells you stamps at the post office.

This has had a lot of results in our society. One of which was the beautiful mother and young daughter I heard talking away in French when I came back from the Farmer's Market on Saturday. This is a good thing. Another result was the fear from middle class English speakers that their children would never be able to "get ahead" if they weren't fluent in both languages. Since most parts of Canada outside of Quebec are totally English speaking, this created pressure for school boards to create public schools where children from English speaking homes are taught only in French. The result is supposed to be children who are fluently bilingual when they graduate.

This has created several big problems.

First of all, it is really expensive to create a second public school system that parallels the existing one. Second, it costs a lot of money to bus those students who's parents want their children to attend a French immersion school across town. Third, it breaks up communities as children who live next door to each other are often strangers because they do not go to the same school. And fourth, it is the most talented children with the most engaged and supportive parents who go to these French immersion schools. This is a problem because it leaves English public school teachers with a higher percentage of demanding students to look after and the schools lose the students who are often good role models for  the ones that struggle.

In essence, French immersion schools have become elite private schools that are part of the public system.

Space is limited in these public/private schools. This means that the competition for placement in a French immersion school has become intense. Parents sit in cars for days waiting for the doors to open so they can register in the "first come, first served" system. In other districts where people can register by phone, people create "parties" where parents co-operate in order to get to the first. (They all dial until one gets through then the rest pile on and register their children through that connection.) School boards are trying to deal with the issue through creating a lottery. But this doesn't satisfy parents who still want their children to get into the school but fail to win a place.

The fundamental flaw fueling this idiotic situation is the issue of competition for a limited number of positions.

To understand this idea we have to do some thinking from game theory. Let's consider a competition by a population that is larger than the limited number of slots that are open. For example, 100 couples want to get their child into one of 50 slots in a school. If one couple decides to "game the system" by taking extra-ordinary measures---such as sitting out all night in a car so they can be first in line when the doors open---they will end up increasing their chances of getting their child into the program from 50% to 100%. Unfortunately, other parents will see that this strategy works, which means that they will start camping out, which will mean that people have to wait longer and longer periods in order to make sure that they are in line. (According to one article I read, in some areas parents are already waiting for three days ahead of time.)  This is an inevitable outcome in a "first-come-first-serve" system where people are selfishly competing with each other. That's why more and more school boards are using a lottery to assign positions.

But the system gaming for placement is just a minor subset of competitive gaming. The entire concept of a French immersion school system is an attempt to "game" the labour market. Middle class parents who cannot afford to send their children to a real private school are trying to use the French immersion program to give their kids a "leg up" over the others when it comes to finding good jobs when they graduate. Again, the problem with this is that there are only so many jobs where being bilingual will give their children an advantage. So getting your child involved in the immersion program is no guarantee that they will actually get one of those jobs. But one thing we can be sure of, however, is that the more competitive we make the educational system, the more miserable we will make the children who are in it.


One of the big flaws in competition is that people almost never consider the opportunity costs  that flow from it. These can be both personal and communal.

In the case of communal opportunity costs, parents are not considering several things. First, in "gaming" the application system, they are creating a system that makes it harder and harder to go through the mechanics of actually enrolling their child. Secondly, by making such a fetish out of French immersion, they are damaging local English public schools, disrupting the community, and creating excessive and unnecessary costs for all the schools. Finally, by dramatically expanding the pool of bilingual citizens they are making competition for a limited number of government jobs just that more intense.

In terms of personal opportunity costs. The pressure that parents are putting on children to "excel" in their education so they can be more competitive with regard to the other members of their generational cohort lowers the quality of life for everyone. In other nations where society is more competitive than ours, this competition for good schools and good jobs has gotten to a place that most North Americans would find appalling. For example, my ex once explained to me that in India middle class children are usually expected not only to work hard at school, but they are also tutored in their "spare" time in order to get a "leg up" (actually, to just keep up) with their class mates. In addition, they are usually expected to do things like seriously practice a musical instrument (in order to discipline the mind.)

This same intense competition for scarce "entry tickets" to good middle-class jobs also exists in other countries such as China and Japan. Indeed one fairly successful book on this subject is "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". I haven't read it myself, but my understanding that it describes what the author, Amy Chua, calls "traditional Chinese parenting".
Amy Chua: Tiger Mom

There are several problems with this system.

First of all, it puts enormous stress on children and I suspect this damages many of them. Secondly, it is based on the assumption that it is possible to teach a child how to do "everything" or "the important things". I suspect that it is possible to teach or train a child to do many different things, but some of the most important come from unplanned or unpredictable experiences. And those things are by definition unteachable. The child needs some time to spend in an unstructured environment in order to find his or herself. I'd be interested in seeing long term studies that would show how many people who came through this sort of up bringing suffered from some sort of psychological problems in later life. I'd also be interested in seeing how many of them actually became trail-blazers in their fields as opposed to "middle-men" and technicians. I would suspect that the sort of rigorous imposed training in routine and practice costs in terms of creativity and courage.

On a macro level, this intensive pressure on individuals to compete within a system does nothing at all to change it. And that is probably the biggest opportunity cost. Society needs to do something about wealth inequality and the power dynamic that fuels it. Putting huge pressure on our children to become better and better at competing for the small number of jobs needed to support a super wealthy elite does nothing to change the system into something better. For the individual, this strategy might seem to be "more realistic", but for the society as a whole it is suicidal.


When I was young I was taken to a special event at our local agricultural co-op. The guest speaker was a famous Canadian fiddler by the name of Al Cherny. He told a little story about a man who died and when he came before St. Peter he was told that he had been accepted into Heaven. The fellow was a bit of skeptic, so he asked if he'd be able to check out both Heaven and Hell before he made up his mind about where he wanted to go. The saint said that this was OK, so the fellow went off to Hell to check it out.

Being a practical sort, the man went off to the mess hall to see what the food was like in Hell. He said that the devil chefs were serving soup that day and it looked and smelled pretty good. When the denizens came trooping in the door they were all given spoons. But they were strange in that they had impossibly long handles. This meant that when one of the citizens of Hell tried to eat the soup, it all fell out of the spoon and all they got were tiny dribbles of the soup. As you might imagine, this was pretty frustrating.

The fellow thought this was not terribly good, so he then decided that he wanted to see how things fared in Heaven. Again, he went to the mess hall. In Heaven the angels were serving soup too. And surprisingly, when the people of Heaven came in to eat they were given exactly the same types of spoons as the people in Hell! But when they ate they took the long spoons and fed the people sitting across them them at the table. Everyone had lots to eat and all proclaimed the soup was delish.

The point of the story was obvious. If we want to create a Heaven on Earth, we are going to have to help one another instead of competing!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the philosophy is sound and true, I concur with it 100%. the problem is humanity or most of it is stalled in a " survival mode" mentality. and that does not bode well for us. the we who are generous, who encompass this idea of sharing.
through the decades the enlightenment movement as regressed not progressed. we are at the edge of the abyss.
I hate to sound so pessimistic, you cannot trust anyone not even your own blood.