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Teachers get an appreciation week, lawyers take home $70,000 more per year

It's Teacher Appreciation Week, so everyone's going to be saying nice things about teachers. In a market economy, however, we often show appreciation for people's work by paying them money. So using Bureau of Labor Statistics earnings data, we can see where teachers are really appreciated in a monetary sense.

Here's a look at high school teachers, who generally earn more than the teachers who teach younger kids:

High_school As you can see, teachers are generally most appreciated in liberal states though it's not a strict relationship. Alaska pays a lot to get people to move someplace so cold, and the rural New England states don't follow the rest of the northeast in delivering high pay.

Of course this map isn't as informative as it could be because it has brackets for teachers to earn over $90,000 or even over $120,000 a year and no state appreciates teachers that much. Yet that map coloring lets us compare our level of teacher appreciation to how much the market economy appreciates the work of lawyers:

Lawyers Lawyers are really appreciated. They don't have a special week, but they get a lot of money. The message to college students is pretty clear — society wants you to get a JD not an M. Ed. and to go become a lawyer not a teacher.

Here's the gap in every state:

Paygap By this standard, those liberal coastal states like New York or California maybe don't appreciate teachers that much.

Now of course there are lots of reasons why the pay shakes out this way. But by pretty much any standard the work that an excellent teacher does is positive-sum for society — the more great teachers there are the more well-educated kids we'll have and the better off we'll all become. By contrast the work that excellent lawyers do mostly consists of zero-sum battles to outwit other excellent lawyers. And yet the work of teachers is much less rewarded financially then the work of people in legal and financial occupations that have lower social returns:

If we appreciated teachers a bit more and lawyers a bit less, we might all be better off for it. That's part of the thinking behind a recent paper arguing that higher taxes on the rich would boost economic growth, largely by making college students less likely to take socially useless jobs in law and finance and encouraging them to take socially useful jobs in teaching and research instead.