“You Get What You Pay For…

— 1 Comment

and you don’t get what you don’t pay for.”

This quote has been on my mind since reading The Org: The Underlying Logic of The Office  a book full of insight about the economics of organization theory that provides a variety of history, industry, and real-world examples. If you have ever wondered why things are the way they are at work, this book may have some helpful answers for you.

Back to the original comment though – getting what you pay for. Here are some examples:

  • Apple Products
  • German cars
  • The NFL
  • War
  • Education

Education? Yes! Higher education is exploding and so is its cost. Though there is some debate to the value of this ever increasing cost – no one will refute the power and worth of education. And the fact is people are willing to pay for it. Markets are efficient and clearly there is sufficient demand for an expensive education. On the flip-side – the state of the union of our pre-university public education system is in dire need. Sure, there are excellent schools and school systems. I think we all agree that as a nation – we are missing the mark.

What if we were getting exactly what we paid for in our public system? What if we’re not getting the things that we aren’t paying for too?


Money by Tax Credits at FlickrCC

Working in a school as a teacher with a non-education background has been an eye-opening experience. First, I have so much respect for teachers, how much the great ones work, the things they deal with outside of the classroom, and the impact they have on young men and women.

As I think about my background in business, my experience teaching, and my relationships with teachers I wholeheartedly believe this to be true concerning our education system. We are not getting the things that we are not paying for. My wife and brother and sister-in-law have all worked in the public school system and, now, they have all moved on. These were excellent teachers, who poured their souls into the work. Without putting words into their mouths, they moved on to areas where they could make a more intentional impact. Their effort was getting lost in the cold and murky seas of bureaucracy and indifference.

What if we started over? What if we rethought its purpose and redesigned the whole experience? If Microsoft, one of the biggest companies the world has ever seen, can reogranize why can’t our government systems follow suit?

Yes, it would be difficult. Yes, people would lose jobs. Not everyone. In fact, there would probably many new opportunities too. The notion of “too big to fail” as our government decided about many of the industry giants a few years ago is ridiculous. Applying the same line of thinking to government is a shame too. In fact, the system is failing now – dropout factories are a prime example of this.

So, we don’t live in a perfect world…but we can choose to pursue excellence. We do it with vigor and investment in one facet of governing. The US Military-Industrial complex is one of the most effective war making and war winning organizations in history. Is it unrealistic to wonder why this same level of efficiency and commitment cannot be applied to Education, Healthcare, “Corrections”, Poverty? These are huge social issues and long-term concerns. Perhaps, much more significant than the threat of war and terrorism.

What is the legacy of a nation that can wage and win wars (is there really a winner?), but cannot build the  infrastructure to help its citizens cultivate resilience and strength and intelligence. Even as I write these words the thought that a nation can do this for its people feels silly.

Nations don’t do things. People do things.

People, on behalf of their nation, can (must) create systems and processes and incentives that subtly influence and encourage decision-making. People respond to incentives. The complexity of creating efficient markets and systems and incentives is incredibly difficult, but we have the wherewithal to do it.

Maybe it is that we just don’t pay for it.

Dan Oliver


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