Monopoly!

My friend Mark Safranski leads a dual life online, running the fantastic honest-broker site Zenpundit that focuses on military-security issues, and critiquing education reform on twitter from the perspective of a labor activist. Recently on twitter Mark made the following comment [edited to account for twitter’s telegraphic character limit):

There will be no evaluation of test quality, barring a PR disaster. Education publishers are dividing the market – i.e. forming a cartel – not competing.

I think the general principle behind this comment is that any organization in a monopoly position is unconcerned with quality. This viewpoint is generally held, and wrong.

Monopolies differ from other competitors in three primary ways:

1. They are able to exploit massive economies of scale
2. They are able to extract an “economic profit” from their business
3. They are regulated by the political-economic system, rather than just by its subset, the economic system

“Economy of scale” refers to the decreasing per-unit costs experienced when a given fixed cost is split over a larger production run. This is a well known concept, and I won’t talk more about it here.

“Economic profit” refers to the difference between the revenues of the firm and the total costs (including opportunity costs) of a firm. Under perfect competition in settled markets, economic profit is impossible, because the presence of economic profits would simply drive more competitors to enter a market until the economic profit returned to zero. That is, if it is worthwhile to be in a market, someone will jump in, making it no longer worthwhile. Because monopolies create barriers to entry into a market, they are able to earn an economic profit in the long-term.

The third point is the most important here. All firms can fail by lack of understanding — that is, thru the economic system — whether they are monopolies or not. Both GM (a monopoly) and Wang Laboratories (not a monopoly) saw their position decline because of terrible product and marketing decisions. While monopolies have a greater buffer and farther to fall (because of their economies of scale and economic profits), sustained stupidity can still do the monopoly in.

Monopolies, however face an additional risk. They can fail by lack of empathy. A monopoly that fails to flatter sources of political power can be broken through political means, regardless of economic realities. The Bell Systems, for example, flouted the ideal of unregulated competition (thus alienating a radicalized political right) at the same time they were a major supporter of hard sciences research and engineering (thus alienating a radicalized political left). Even though AT&T consistently understood the market’s desire for a reliable, predictable, and always-on communication layer undergirding business, AT&T’s monopoly was destroyed due to their lack of empathy.

In the education sector, the monopoly held by teachers front organizations. By failing to provide the services they were supposed to provide — educating the young  — the teachers drove parents into debt, employers into the immigration debate, and States into powerlessness over education policy, teachers displayed a lack of empathy. This unconcern for the well-being of other stakeholders has consequences.

Publishers are as self-interested and greedy as teachers. They also, like teachers, aspire to monopoly bargaining power. But this does not mean that publishers won’t create tests, evaluate tests, or even improve tests.

Ultimately, the correct way to view the publishers v. teachers debate is structural. Teachers are focused primarily in protecting the interests of the teaching labor force, and as such are hostile to techniques that would cause some teachers to lose their jobs or miss out on pay increases. Publishers are focused primarily in protecting the interests of shareholders and management, and are thus indifferent to the quality of teachers or tests.

I’ll take indifferent over hostility any day.