Enlightened self-interest

A colleague of mine, a university professor here in the U.S. who is originally from India, told me recently about a program he is involved with back in his native state in India. Throughout the state, which has a population of about 50 million, in every town and village the top one percent of kids are identified by academic achievement. These kids become eligible for a program in which the state government pays for their college education.

One thing you might note right away about this plan is that there will be a huge disparity between the top one percent in a major town and the top one percent in a poor rural village. In the latter, even the best and the brightest may be practically illiterate. If you were simply to put all the kids in the same classroom, the ones from the richer areas would vastly outperform their counterparts from the impoverished countryside.

And so the plan contains the following provisions: If you fail your first year of college under the plan, you get to take it over, and the government will continue to pay. If it takes you seven years to finish college under the plan, the government will still pay. Also, after you graduate, the government will reimburse itself by automatically deducting a certain percentage from whatever job you take, for a certain number of years. But here’s the kicker: If you don’t get a job after you graduate – for whatever reason – there is no penalty. None whatsoever. The government simply swallows the loss.

My colleague reports that the plan is quite successful. Not only are the top one percent of students thriving in the program, but a number of top students selected from impoverished and relatively illiterate regions are making it through college as well, gradually gaining the skills they need as they go – albeit more slowly than the students from more well-off backgrounds. And the great majority of the students who graduate go on to well paying jobs.

It’s clear what the state is doing here. This program is not being done as some sort of favor for these kids. This is an act of pure self-interest on the part of the state. Find the students with the best natural ability, structure things so that the debilitating effects of even the most enormous economic disparity can be overcome over time, and do it all in such a way that there is no risk to the student – ie: no reason not to enroll in the program.

What you end up with is a sieve to discover your very best natural talents, and to make sure that as many as possible of those talents will be directed toward improving the state’s economy. If you end up with a few bad eggs along the way, that’s an acceptable level of loss, given the return on investment to the state’s economy coming from those students who thrive under the program and become financially successful.

What struck me when I heard about this plan was that (1) it’s brilliant, and that (2) it would never be tolerated in the U.S. Why is that? Because it would make people uncomfortable – the idea that somebody might be getting something for nothing. The idea that you might pay for a student’s education on the basis of pure potential, and then not punish that student in any way if they do not succeed, would be anathema in our society.

And the irony is that the real beneficiary of such a program is not the student, but rather the state – ie: everybody else. A program such as this is an engine for success precisely because it aligns with the state’s own enlightened self-interest. Find potential engines of the economy, nurture them and help them to reach their full potential. Your state will become richer and more competitive within the global marketplace.

10 thoughts on “Enlightened self-interest”

  1. That is definitely an interesting idea, one I think I could support. However, I only partially agree with your reasoning with respect to why it might not be accepted here. It seems to me that people get upset with those in the bottom 99% who want something for nothing, the throwing money at a never ending hole is the frustration. Using money with an obvious return on investment is much easier for most to accept. This program requires achievement to be demonstrated *before* the award is given. I’m starting to talk myself into being more optimistic about it than you.

    This is the kind of thing I can envision a state or group of connected states enacting. It is much easier for a state to do this as a test project, versus a national initiative. To a great defree, that is an intentional structure of our country, states rights; states have the ability to do these things without the federal gov’t doing it, or at least they are supposed to have this right. It if can be demonstrated successfully within a state or region, it might have a chance on a national scale.

    There are a lot of other thoughts in my mind about this, not all cohesive at this point; how would this affect current academic based scholarships, role of athletic scholarships, various other disadvantaged programs we already have in place and etc.

    But that is just what I think…

    Dean M.

  2. Wow, replacing the caste system with a system of natural selection… Darwin would be proud. Only the smart will survive…

    Now, instead of a financial disparity between the haves and the have nots, we have an intellectual disparity between the thinks and the think nots…

    I like it…

  3. Dean, I agree that it might be good to start small. But I’m not sure there needs to be any discussion of state’s rights here. Such a program could be tried on a state level, but also within a city, a geographic region, or on any other workable level. As you suggest, perhaps a consortium of states. Whatever is most likely to be manageable, effective and verifiable.

    Troy, as I understand it, eveyone survives. The state – including the other 99% of the population – stand to benefit from the increase in industry and productivity that accrues from not missing a genuine talent just because the kid happened to be born into the wrong family.

    Also, don’t we always have an intellectual disparity between the thinks and the think nots? Just as we always have an appearance disparity between the pretty and the pretty-nots. This doesn’t change any of that. It’s just trying to harness more brain potential for the benefit of tje nation-state’s total wealth (presumably at the expense of competing nation-states that don’t take such proactive steps).

  4. I wasn’t being critical… I like it. I think the most talented should be the most cultivated. And, I like the Reaganomics similarities on an intellectual level….

  5. I know you weren’t being critical, but it occurs to me that one reason such a program might not fly in the U.S. is that it can be misidentified by various camps as “Clintonomics” or “Reagonomics” or “Goldwateronomics” or whatever. And then discussion about it falls prey to the same “us” versus “them” politics that seems endemic in this country.

  6. Ken : yes, you are correct. After re-reading your post, I’d kind of mis-translated “U.S.” to “Federal Gov’t”, which is not what you were saying.

    I’m still favorable to the idea, but I have considered reaction to it and am now more pessimistic to how it would be received. I envisioned scenarios where a family might move from a big town to a small community to ensure their kid is in the top 1% and eligible for the grant, etc.

    Still, interesting to consider the possibilities, on the various aspects of the concept.

    Dean M.

  7. Unless we become a large, bland society of clones, there will always be an “us” and “them”…

    There will always be those who think we should reward the exceptional, and those that think we should treat everyone equally, and those that think that the unexceptional require more attention… Equal opportunity for all or, more opportunity for those that can do more with it?

    Personally, I like supporting the survival of the fitest. I like your utopian idea where the top performers across the board get the most attention. And their successes enhance the rest. We are not the same, and we are not meant to be the same. How boring would that be?

    But, as in your example, and as in Reaganomics, supporting the exceptional should trickle down and uplift the masses in an indirect but demonstrable way.

  8. I see your point, but I also see a contradiction. I’m talking here about social engineering. Big government social engineering. There are important ways in which this goes against some of Reagan’s most strongly held tenets. He argued, quite forcefully, that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” What I’m discussing is contrary to that philosophy.

  9. Yes, contrary on an institutional level, but, the same on a philosophical level.

    You are talking about a supported institution that will cause good for the many as it is trickled down from a direct benefit to the few. So, on the institutional level, yes, it’s big government, but…. trickle down systems actually work, as you suggest… This was one of the truly brilliant Reagan institutions that ended up making him one of the more popular American presidents. Damn Contras had to take that all away… 😮

    Most of my points are contra-dictory… 🙂

  10. I see your point, but I’m not sure that Reagan and I would have agreed on *which* few we’re talking about, and I’m not sure that it’s accurate to describe this sort of government program as “trickle down”. It’s more of a “trickle across”.

    Reagan’s “trickle down” philosophy tended to optimize for stable centers of economic privilege – if you are rich, your family tends to stay rich. This stable concentration of wealth is justified by the economic argument that what you are able to do with that concentrated wealth helps everyone.

    Not only won’t these one-percenter kids start out with wealth, many will have direct cultural and loyalty ties to underprivileged regions and ethnic subcultures that contain their families and neighbors, and so they may put their efforts into helping to make those regions and subcultures more economically competitive in ways we’re not so used to seeing in this country. It may be quite disruptive – in the sense that it’s not at all what we are used to here – but it also might be quite beneficial.

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