Redistributing Grades

by Don Boudreaux on June 22, 2008

in Inequality

My and Russ’s friend, the mathematician Pietro Poggi-Corradini, has this sensible proposal for "redistributing" students’ grades — sensible, that is, for people who believe that incomes earned in markets should be "redistributed" by the state.

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{ 21 comments }

ben June 22, 2008 at 11:13 pm

As satire goes, it's a little weak on two fronts: 1. most people accept some wealth redistribution, e.g., from parents to children. I'm not sure how this analogy captures that.

2. Many profs embrace grade inflation, which does essentially what you're talking about. It even has the expected ramifications of devaluing the "currency" and making everyone poorer.

CRC June 22, 2008 at 11:44 pm

"most people accept some wealth redistribution, e.g., from parents to children."

Regarding "wealth redistribution from parents to children", I think most people would agree that this form of distribution is voluntary (in most cases) rather than forced (which is the case with most government-based redistribution schemes). Big difference.

Matt June 23, 2008 at 12:39 am

If you are implying a metaphor for government distribution, then try this:

The more of the school resources you consume, the lower your grade.

Students who can achieve scholastic output of high quality without ever bothering to show up to the school should get an A.

Students who spend their time listening to half backed mathematicians should get an F.

Robert Seminara June 23, 2008 at 12:39 am

Hi! I´m an Economy student. I study at the CEMA university in Buenos Aires Capital City, Argentina. Well, I don`t know if you are aware of what ´s going on here. Let me tell you that we have a divided nation because of the dammit redistribution. The goverment beleives that is fair to apply a tax of 30% over extraordinary earnings + 21% profit tax + inmobiliary tax…
The aim? "redistribute the wealth to abolish inequity".
I think everyone should read " Stuffing Evelopes – altruism and economics" an article by Steven Landsburg.
Thank ´s. Bye.. Sorry, my english it´s a little rusty these days.

BoscoH June 23, 2008 at 2:18 am

We had that in high school in the late 1980s. It was called "stick the smart student in a group with stupid people so he'll do all the work so as not to end up with a bad grade because his teammates are imbeciles". I remember laughing at one very left liberal teacher who did this to me because I'd already ensured myself of an A in the course and told him I would be AWOL on the group project. The lesson learned there was when I am rich and the government wants to get punitive with the taxation, I'll take my wealth elsewhere.

David June 23, 2008 at 2:42 am

Pietro was my mentor during the 2005 math REU at K-State! I can't tell from the website, but is Pietro the (sole?) author of the Imaginary Politics blog? If so I think I may have to subscribe.

Speedmaster June 23, 2008 at 7:41 am

Brilliant! ;-)

Slocum June 23, 2008 at 8:01 am

Also posted on the 'Imaginary Politics' site:

Some professors might also spend some points in advance on such things as having students erase the blackboard, etc….

You think this is a joke, but my kids had (public school) teachers who handed out points for things like bringing in extra supplies for the classroom or food for the class. The taxes, however, were only implicit in the devaluation of the currency. They treated 'points' as a pile of money which they could use to buy whatever sort of goods or work from students they liked — and, of course, they could always print more 'points' as needed. And they were truly mystified when some parents raised a stink.

Martin Brock June 23, 2008 at 8:16 am

This professor's grades are authoritarian judgments fundamentally. "Redistributing" the grades differs little from changing the rules whereby he distributes them in the first place.

Per Kurowski June 23, 2008 at 8:52 am

Sorry for the double posting…but the “cause” seems worth it!

This is a splendid initiative that could correct many profound injustices (such as those I have suffered when a victim of grade discrimination) … as long as we can ascertain that the initial grades are efficiently obtained, meaning that they are not already net of some type of taxes; and that the introduction of these progressive taxes would be at levels sufficiently low so as to maintain the marginal propensity for studying; and that a mechanism could be found to control the unfair competition that could come from grade-tax free offerings, in other words from the abusive Lichtenstein’s universities.

By the way, would retroactive taxing be permissible?…intra-generational?… will the professor’s grades also be a source for redistribution? cross-sector redistribution? History grades usable for grades in math? As you see there are a lot of things that need yet to be clarified… but keep going. Grade-victims unite!

Martin Brock June 23, 2008 at 9:13 am

As a student of applied mathematics 20 years ago at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (in Roberts' hometown), I earned a 4.0 grade point average, so I have a different proposal. I want my GPA properly secured, so I'll send certification of the accomplishment to the Federal Treasury, and they'll return securities to me. These securities signify the Treasury's willingness to compel all other students in the United States to pay proper homage to my accomplishment by sending me bits of their grades, however inferior to mine, each year. Meanwhile, the Treasury may use my esteemed accomplishments to wage wars ensuring that similar justice is done throughout the world.

Also, I've drawn lines in the sand and will shoot anyone crossing the lines without my consent. Anyone else with a gun drawing a conflicting line shall be titled "thief". Let it be known.

Charlie June 23, 2008 at 1:33 pm

I wonder if we can push the analogy, should students be allowed to sell their grade points?

Former Student June 23, 2008 at 3:31 pm

Heck, I'd have been happy if professors could write exam questions that students could understand. It's bad enough having to guess at the answer, nobody should have to guess at the question.

Sometimes I think the "Bell Curve" reflects the more or less random results you can expect when teachers write incoherent test questions (particularly on badly drafted multiple choice tests) more than it does the distribution of intelligence or work ethic or whatever.

James Hanley June 23, 2008 at 4:21 pm

"They treated 'points' as a pile of money which they could use to buy whatever sort of goods or work from students they liked — and, of course, they could always print more 'points' as needed."

And it's amazing how few students catch on. I'm a college prof, and I could play this game with students forever without more than 1 or 2 figuring out why it's problematic.

As to the original post, I actually got students rethinking their ideas on welfare and wealth redistribution by proposing to do the same to their grades. A very bright, wealthy, private-schooled and left-leaning young lady immediately objected that it wasn't fair, but by the end of the discussion decided to stick to her principles and staunchly supported the grade-redistribution scheme because she realized that other students had had fewere educational advantages than she. As a prof, I could only applaud her, and other students, for actually thinking the issues through more thoroughly than they had before.

But as the classroom dictator, I refused to implement the scheme. Although I was the one who had emphasized the disparities in educational advantages, I focused more on the disincentives (for both the better and the worse students). Whether that got through or not I wasn't sure.

Martin Brock June 23, 2008 at 5:35 pm

Of course, no one ever starved from receiving a C instead of a B.

Slocum June 24, 2008 at 9:42 pm

And it's amazing how few students catch on. I'm a college prof, and I could play this game with students forever without more than 1 or 2 figuring out why it's problematic.

I heard a story (possibly apocryphal) about a professor who gave assignments with 6-figure point values. Obviously, it made no difference if each test was worth 100 points or 100,000 points, but the advantage for the prof was that no student would come by at the end of the semester to complain that he had missed an A- by only 15,000 points ;)

gappy June 24, 2008 at 10:10 pm

As a paradoxical proposal to show the flaw of taxation for redistributive purposes, this is unconvincing. The analogy with income taxation and redistribution fails because, whereas grades (within a given institution) are purely the effect of effort, income is not: endowment matters. I think that, as a counterintuitive example, Mankiw's tax on height (aimed at taxing an observable proxy for endowment) is more convincing. Having said that I, like Robin Hanson, am willing to endorse the height tax!

gappy June 24, 2008 at 10:31 pm

And of course, an academic grade is not a numeraire. You can't convert it to what you value most unless, as proposed above, one creates a market for grades. One could even create such a market without redistribution. Why not? Instinctively, because grades are useful only as a signal of ability. Trading or redistributing them would negate their value.

It's lovely for a mathematician to make a modest proposal, but for an professional economist to pick it up?.. Everyone hates taxes (and death), but i think that, beyond these cocktail-party arguments against them, no one can seriously argue that they are always intrinsically bad. Even in the shoes of Nozick, I would be willing to pay taxes at least for the effective workings of a judiciary system and common defense.

Martin Brock June 24, 2008 at 11:41 pm

… grades (within a given institution) are purely the effect of effort, income is not …

The distinction is sublimely ironic if my income is interest on a Treasury note, flowing directly from taxation itself. Once the entitlement to consume reaches me, it becomes sacrosant, and any further tug of forcible propriety drawing it away from me is tyrannical. Distribution toward me is not the problem. It's that damnable redistribution.

Sammy June 26, 2008 at 10:20 am

"Of course, no one ever starved from receiving a C instead of a B."

Perhaps they should. Starving is an excellent feedback response to get someone to change their behavior.

While I wouldn't have starved had I received a C, life with my parents would have been more difficult. I earned a lot of freedom and credibility from my parents by demonstrating that I could pull good grades.

Martin Brock June 26, 2008 at 5:55 pm

"Of course, no one ever starved from receiving a C instead of a B."

Perhaps they should. Starving is an excellent feedback response to get someone to change their behavior.

The feedback depends on the extent of the starvation.

My point is that "redistributing" grades is not comparable to redistributing entitlement to consume for any number of reasons, so the analogy is sophistic. Even if I agree that redistributing grades is ridiculous, this conclusion has little bearing on the redistribution of entitlement to consume. It's an apples to oranges comparison.

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