Friday, June 02, 2023

The General Theory Of The Second Best


It is well known that the attainment of a Paretian optimum requires the simultaneous fulfillment of all the optimum conditions. The general theorem for the second best optimum states that if there is introduced into a general equilibrium system a constraint which prevents the attainment of one of the Paretian conditions, the other Paretian conditions, although still attainable, are, in general, no longer desirable. In other words, given that one of the Paretian optimum conditions cannot be fulfilled, then an optimum situation can be achieved only by departing from all the other Paretian conditions. The optimum situation finally attained may be termed a second best optimum because it is achieved subject to a constraint which, by definition, prevents the attainment of a Paretian optimum.  ~General Theory of the Second Best (R.G. Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster)

There is an artist who hangs-out in the Center of the Universe named Fawzi "Benny" Benhariz. This guy's artform is to balance rocks. Some of his pieces are staggering in their apparent impossibility, large stones, perched atop one another on points no larger than the tip of your pinky, balanced there where even the slightest breeze could topple them over. I swear it looks like a magic trick, surreal and beautiful and as close to perfection as a human being can get. 

But sooner or later the rocks always fall. Or at least I assume they do because of what I know about the world: perfection will not be abided. Something always happens to even the most wonderfully balanced of systems, and when rocks fall, especially big rocks balanced precariously between a well-traversed city sidewalk and a well-traveled city street, they can result in damaging or injurious consequences, which is why the city wants Benny to get a street use permit that would require carrying liability insurance, something beyond the reach of a man who is unhoused and mentally ill. So he's become a sort of outlaw artist, loved and hated, and not only because he points out by his very existence there on the streets of Fremont, that the rocks will always come tumbling down.

In 1956, a pair of economists, one Canadian, the other Australian, published a paper in which they detailed their General Theory of the Second Best. Essentially, they proved that in any theoretical economic system, if even one of the "optimal conditions" cannot be fully met for whatever reason, then it makes moot all the other conditions required to balance the system. In other words, when it comes to making economic theories work in the real world, it's all or nothing. Close enough doesn't count, and according to the theory, if one persists in still trying attain those other conditions, one can in fact create disastrous consequences. Indeed, the second best option probably requires none of the conditions that would have been required to fulfill the first option, sending everyone, in a rational world, back to the drawing board.

I'm not an economist, and I have no doubt that there's a lot more to this idea given that the authors expanded it into an entire book (which I've not read), but I see the basic principle at work every day even in areas apparently unrelated to economics, so I'm inclined to accept its essential truth. It's why fundamentalist dogma of any sort (economic, religious, educational) always becomes dangerous when it comes into contact with reality and why, when faced with the real world, advocates, unwilling to give up on their other optimal conditions, have to instead resort to increasingly draconian measures to keep the faithful in line, usually with the excuse that this is just a phase through which we must pass in order to get to their utopic promised land.

And that brings me to the systems-based education reform types (e.g., education dilettante Bill Gates) who believe that if they can only inject public education with the kind of systematic rigor, carrot-and-stick accountability, and bottom-line focus of their neoliberal "Paretian optimum," then, by the magic of the "invisible hand," our schools will invariably tend toward perfection. They are undaunted by the fact that the real world keeps right on toppling their rocks, crushing toes and denting cars, because, they tell us, "this is just a necessary phase." We'll see they were right when we finally get to the other side. In the meantime, we're going broke paying doctors and mechanics, with no real hope of meaningful reform.

From the moment a child is born into our bright, cold, noisy world, she knows it is an imperfect place. I know it. You know it. And Bill Gates knows it. And all of us, given that sure knowledge, seek the next best thing, which is to get as close as we can to our ideals, even while knowing that perfection is impossible. The perfectionists among us bang their heads against the wall, but the rest of us scramble and scheme and shrug our way toward a "good enough" or "as good as it gets." And we know to append that with "for now," because we also know that everything important requires constant re-balancing, re-organizing, re-assessing: that the ever-changing world and fallible humans will always upset our best laid plans, unsettle what we thought was settled, and break what we've recently mended. We get up each morning and wrestle life back into shape, knowing we'll have to do it again the next day and the next. We have all always known this.

Yet there are those who persist in devising "general equilibrium systems," which are often fascinating, even inspirational, but that are mere thought experiments designed for the two-dimensional world of paper. In the proving ground of the 3D world, however, they fall apart the moment it becomes clear that  the "optimal conditions" cannot be met. Their tendency is to persist in balancing those rocks, striving to come as close as possible to the ideal, but they do so at inevitable peril because the General Theory of the Second Best always comes around to bite everyone in the ass.

When Benny, in the moments when he isn't drunk or throwing rocks at people in fits of rage, talks about his art he says he is "playing with rocks." I've seen him playing with them, a true tinkerer: gently, carefully, focused, a man who is fully present. There is no system or dogma that can balance a rock. Only a human at play can do that. 

I do appreciate that there is right now such a focus on education in America, and indeed much of the rest of the world. The talk is of reform, of progress, of improvement. This is the conversation to be having, but not because our current system is a bad one, but rather that it's been neglected for too long, and from what we all know about systems, no matter how beautiful they look on paper, someone needs to be constantly messing with them, playing with them, tinkering with them, or the whole rock pile comes toppling down. All that the so-called reformers are trying to do is replace one ultimately fallible human system with another, their version made particularly dangerous by "invisible hand" fundamentalism.

Education reform is something that should be happening every day, in every classroom, as teachers, parents, administrators, and students play together, wrestling their world into a newly, temporarily balanced system. Then we do it again tomorrow. That's how we make the best schools possible, not with an invisible hand moved by pretty formulas that live only in the fantasy world of thought experiment, but with our own hands, our many hands, the only ones capable of balancing those damn rocks.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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