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yesh omrim

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Thinking outside the beis medrash

29 January 2010

I’ve seen a lot of angst in the Jewish blogosphere over the ever-rising cost of day school tuition; this article, linked by someone on my LJ-friends list, is the latest example of the genre. The problem has a tragic dimension, because of a little-known wrinkle in economics called the Baumol effect.

James Surowiecki explains:

When Mozart composed his String Quintet in G Minor (K. 516), in 1787, you needed five people to perform it—two violinists, two violists, and a cellist. Today, you still need five people, and, unless they play really fast, they take about as long to perform it as musicians did two centuries ago. So much for progress.

An economist would say that the productivity of classical musicians has not improved over time, and in this regard the musicians aren’t alone. In a number of industries, workers produce about as much per hour as they did a decade or two ago….

The rest of the American economy functions differently. In most businesses, workers are continually getting more productive and can produce a lot more per hour than they could ten or twenty years ago. In 1979, workers at G.M. needed forty-one hours to assemble a car. Today, they need just twenty-four…. Because companies are producing more for less, they can hold down costs, and when times are good they can raise wages without hiking prices. So, in the late nineties, as productivity rose, wages did, too, though inflation lay dormant.

Generally, productivity growth is a boon, but it creates problems for non-productive enterprises like classical music, education, and car repair: to keep luring talent, they have to increase wages, or else people eventually migrate to businesses that pay better. Instead of becoming nurses or mechanics, they become telecom engineers or machinists. That’s why teachers are getting paid a lot more than they were twenty years ago. (The average salary for an associate college professor has risen almost seventy per cent since the early eighties, and that’s if you adjust for inflation.) To pay those wages, schools and hospitals have to raise prices. The result is that in industries where productivity is flat costs and prices keep going up.

So if we want to keep Jewish education accessible, instead of letting it consume an ever-increasing proportion of each family’s income, we have to think about ways to make it more productive. How could our community achieve at least some of the goals of Jewish day school without hiring one full-time teacher for every fifteen to twenty-five children?

I’ll offer one idea: A team that knows something about Judaism and programming could set up a Jewish-themed online role-playing environment, where Jewish kids from all across the country, whether or not in day school, could meet like-minded folks, socialize, and take lessons in Jewish religion and culture in the form of quests for honor and treasure. We could call it “World of Frumkeit”.