EYE ON THE PIE: Waiter shines light on education

I spent most of a recent weekend in the hospital, but no one seems to want to hear that story. It wasn’t much of a story, as it turns out, but the bill, which will fall on you, will be enormous.

My part of the bill will be small because I am covered by Medicare and private health insurance. This means you will see my use of the health care system reflected in your future taxes and in your future health care premiums. Thus, your interest in my hospital stay should be centered on the necessity of it.

Did my chest pains justify going to the emergency room? Medical professionals told me it was a wise decision, given my age, weight, lack of exercise, smoking history and general health profile. But in retrospect, after hours of tests and observation by the cardiac staff, wasn’t my appearance at the emergency room little more than an elaborate paranoid fantasy on my part?

Perhaps, if health care had more sophisticated screening techniques, none of those resources need have been used. I never did find out why I had chest pains. I am prepared to believe they were the result of indigestion or sore muscles from lifting a heavy bag of dog food.

Now you know more about my weekend adventure than my dinner companions the night I left the hospital. They could not be induced to listen to a detailed rendition of my experiences, my imitations of hospital personnel, or my intensely intelligent comments about the nature of the U.S. health care system.

Our dining table was attended by three most delightful young people. Young in this case means they were under age 30. There were three of them because the restaurant was not busy, not because they were neglecting others to serve us.

As is the case when older people meet younger people, we felt it necessary to interview them and give instruction on how they should conduct their lives. We were generous in providing encouragement based on our perception of their individual merits. Unless you flatter young people by telling them how superior they are, most of them will not stay around to hear your advice.

One of the young men, a father and an aspiring comedian, proved to be more inspired than any of us older patrons. It was he who suggested parents should be rewarded for participating in the education of their children.

As they exclaim in the ads for Guinness beer, “Brilliant!” Here we are, a society that wants its children to read and write, and we neglect to provide incentives for those who have the greatest influence on students -their parents. Erroneously, we believe that virtue (here taken to be education) is its own reward.

We tell children they had best behave themselves or Santa will not visit, yet at the same time we tell them to “be good for goodness sake.” These mixed messages are, without question, the basis for our nation’s heavy spending on psychological services and pharmacological solutions for our anxieties.

But now we see the light. In fact, our good waiter actually suggested that schools pay $20 toward the light bills of parents who meet with their children’s teachers. In this society, where rewards must be tangible and cannot be deferred, higher pay for teachers is not the entire answer to improved student performance.

We need to pay the students, or their parents, if we want to see higher levels of attainment in the primary grades. Forget higher starting salaries and lifetime earnings. Forget the joys of literature, music and the arts. All those little voices (and the voices of their guardians) are crying out, “Show me the money!”

And to think that some folks don’t believe economics can contribute to solving social problems. Now all we need do is determine how much money it will take to leave no child behind.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.

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