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Last Friday’s post may have been uninteresting, but thinking about the grading process reminded me of another “argument” that is presented to me as counter-evidence to some labor market information I present at times. A surprisingly small share of Americans earn the minimum wage or less. When I query students about this, I routinely get answers from students that are in the 33% range – meaning that the average response by my students to the question, “what percentage of the American labor force earns the minimum wage or less” would be about 1/3. I receive as many answers over 50% than below 10%. In any case, even amid the Great Recession only 4.3 million workers are paid at or below the minimum wage. In a labor force of 154 million people, this means that 2.8% of the labor force earns the minimum wage or less.

This is NOT a post about the minimum wage. Among the most frequent responses to this data is that, “yeah, but how many people make 1 cent more than the minimum wage?” To which we offer up two observations:

  1. Regardless of what level the minimum wage is set at the same observation could be made. If the minimum wage were set at $21.87 per hour, then we’d still not be fully capturing how many people make “around” that wage. So what do we learn from the point that, “yeah, more people make a little bit more than this cutoff?” I’d suggest we learn nothing.
  2. The same exact reasoning can be used in the other direction, yet like when it comes to my students and their grades I have never ever seen it employed. For example, if I were to tell you that 20.1% of American households earned $100,000 per year or more of income, how often have you heard people argue against it? Could one not use the same “argument” to defend these numbers as vastly understating how well off Americans are? No one who makes $99,999.65 is included in the data, so therefore we should just dismiss the data as containing little information.

I wished I had a theory to explain why such reasoning is popular. I’ve heard it employed by all sorts of people – not just by folks who seem hostile to the use of data or folks not hostile to the use of data. Whatever the reason, the point does not really say anything at all.

One Response to “Does Your Point Make the Point You Think It Makes?”

  1. Rod says:

    I used to hire teenagers to work on the farm, and the starting wage was a dollar an hour until the kid learned how to do anything — anything — without being told every move to make. I gave the newly-hired kid a raise to $3 an hour as soon as they showed me they could do at least one simple task. At the time, the minimum wage was under $3.00, but I judged the market for reasonably sharp kids to be $3 an hour to start. The qualifying task was usually “feed the heifers and calves in the old barn,” something that tested not just how well they remembered what everyone got fed, but also whether they would close the doors and gates and not let the heifers run to Allentown. All my kids got a raise on the first day. Then, when they turned 16, many sought employment elsewhere where they could earn enough to buy a car and take girls out on dates.

    Note: a penny or two more or less did not provide any meaningful motivation.

    I suspect working at McDonald’s works much the same way. A few deadheads will wallow at the bottom of the heap, but anyone with any moxie will figure out how to get a promotion and a raise. Few people flip hamburgers for a living.

    As for grubbing for grades, I think this is behavior learned starting in first grade when students and their parents understand the importance of getting ahead on the backs of one’s fellow students. In our local public schools they have a “gifted” program that goes along with getting the best teachers and being put in the top academic group. By and large, kids in the non-gifted sections are not challenged academically and have little chance of being exposed to any advanced topics in their subjects. I bet it’s the same in most public schools. When the kids reach high school, class rank becomes very important, as it is in college. Indeed, affirmative action and all that goes with it began in California when hard-working asian students were filling up the top universities at the expense of black and hispanic students. And the theory goes that one’s career prospects are doomed if one does not get accepted at elite graduate schools (this may be completely false, but it sure sells grad school slots).

    This is not to say that Professor Wintercow should create a circus of whiners every time he posts grades. If the students have the meat, they will get A’s. Perhaps a stint in the outside world working for a living would change their attitudes. I remember thinking how I might have gotten straight A’s in college if I had worked half as hard as I did my first year teaching English. That tenth of a point could easily be explained by the proof of the alcohol a student imbibes on Friday and Saturday nights.

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