Eggers vs. Supply and Demand

Dave Eggers, accalimed author of works of genius, has written an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the relatively low pay of teachers (click here). Here’s a representative excerpt:

The first step to creating an education system full of the best teachers we can find is to pay them in line with their importance to their communities. We pay orthodontists an average of $350,000, and no one would say that their impact on the lives of kids is greater than a teacher’s. But it seems difficult for everyone, from parents to politicians, to shake free of a tradition in which teaching was seen as something of a volunteer project for women whose husbands brought home the real money. Today’s teachers need to, but very often can’t, support a family on their salaries. They find it difficult or impossible to buy homes, to save money, to live comfortably, and, in wealthier areas, to live in or near the towns where they teach.

Eggers misses a basic point about work: The salary one makes is determined by supply and demand. A price doesn’t indicate how important the job is, or even if people think it is important. Take a simple example: water – it’s cheap because there is plenty of it, not because we don’t think it is important!

Same goes for work – the price of someone’s labor – their salary – is the result of how badly people want the labor and how many other people do the job. People want education for their kids – they pay thousands of dollars in locals taxes, have significant college savings accounts and the most prestigious colleges can harge over $30,000/year. Seems like the demand is there.

So why the low pay? Teacher’s low pay is due mainly to the fact that there are tons and tons of teachers! There is a huge supply of teachers. Education schools have huge enrollments – and surveys routinely report that education is one of the most popular majors in the country. Click here for a short Yahoo article reporting the most popular intended majors among incoming freshmen in 2002.

Some solutions for low teacher pay are non-starters. For example, simply demanding higher pay for public school teachers isn’t going to cut it because that means shifting money from other public services. There is a political solution – limit by fiat the number of teaching certificates awarded each year. That’s why the orthodontist makes a lot of money – there are few orthodontists relative to the demand for nice teeth. This might have undesirable consequences. Wealthier school districts might employ all the teachers. Perhaps the best response to low teacher pay is to realize that it’s a signal that fewer people should go into teaching. Next time you see someone express a desire to be a teacher, just tell them that we have too many!