Manhattan Institute

Simple Arithmetic

The state school system in Britain systematically produces people lacking the most basic skills.

The British economy continues to grow slowly, but output per hour worked remains stubbornly flat. This means that economic growth can occur only by the employment of ever more people (usually immigrants) or by extending working hours. Neither makes for a happy outcome. 

Why is British productivity so stagnant? Economic journalists puzzle their brains over it. I do not have the definitive answer, but an anecdote recently told me by a man with a small catering business may shed some light on at least one factor.

The caterer urgently needed some carrots and went to a nearby small supermarket to buy them. The supermarket was about to close, and only one bag of carrots was left, selling for £1.20. He took it to the checkout, where the checkout girl noticed that the bag was torn. She said that she could not sell it to him, as some carrots might have fallen out. He said that he did not mind—he needed the carrots and was prepared to pay the full price for them.

Nevertheless, she insisted on calling her supervisor, who said that she should sell the carrots but deduct 10 percent from their price.

“How do I do that?” she asked.

The supervisor said that he did not know, either; and my informant, the customer, offered them £1.00 in place of £1.20, which they accepted with relief because it absolved them from having to make the difficult calculation, with or without electronic assistance.

The main point to note is that the checkout girl and her supervisor had received between them an education lasting 22 years and costing several hundred thousand pounds, yet neither could work out what 10 percent of 1.2 is. 

They were not mentally defective by genetic endowment or by birth accident: theirs was what one might almost call state-programmed mental defectiveness, whether that program was deliberate or an unintended consequence of educational policy. They were far from isolated cases of this defectiveness; employers in Britain are constantly complaining that young people who cannot read properly or perform the simplest of arithmetical calculations offer themselves for work, with credentials from the national educational service. The state-sponsored production of mental defectiveness acts in concert, alas, with a popular culture that promotes, reflects, and almost glorifies it.

A workforce with a large proportion of de facto mental defectives is difficult to train to perform any but the most menial tasks, and even those it will probably perform badly. Their labor will be scarcely worth more than the minimum wage, if that much. Thus, both the economy as a whole and millions of individuals are trapped in low productivity, all the more galling because it has been produced at such great expense.      

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