Thursday, March 8, 2018

What's an education worth?

This morning I listed to an enjoyably provocative interview with Bryan Kaplan, an economist from George Mason University.

He’s got a book out, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, and so he’s making the circuit, including on Radio West.

A major point of Kaplan's is that education today is much more about signaling than about acquiring knowledge that actually makes you more productive. That is, college is good for your income as an individual because doing well in college makes you stand out from the crowd, but college for lots of people is more or less irrelevant to the prosperity of the country as a whole, because college-educated people aren’t better at useful things than people without a college degree.

That’s a well-grounded argument with a body of research behind it, and some interesting implications—not necessarily good implications for people engaged in higher ed like myself.

Another big piece of his argument is that people are learning things they’re never going to use. I can easily imagine that’s true for many students, but I would argue that’s more the fault of the students than of the educational institution.

I was a double major in music and history. I don’t use my music education in any formal sense, but I do draw on it every time I go to a concert, whether it’s the Czech Philharmonic or Phish. And an underlying sense of form probably shapes how I put together my own classes.

I use my history education continually, as it helps ground my understanding of economics.

I took multivariate calculus because it was the easiest way to satisfy my science requirement. Then I decided to go to graduate school in economics, and it was incredibly helpful that I’d already had that material (though I needed some brushing up after six years of not using calculus).

I took art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, because I needed an honors class to keep my scholarship, and it still informs how I look at buildings and cities.

I took Russian because my sister suggested I write a senior thesis on the teaching of U.S. history in the Soviet Union. I never wrote the thesis, but I did study in Moscow, and then happened to be back there visiting friends during the putsch against Gorbachev, and I could follow what was going on because I spoke Russian.

And learning Russian set me up for learning Czech, which has exposed me to yet another world of ideas and thought.

Kaplan complains about philistinism, but he pushes the idea that we should focus on learning what we’re going to “use.” That sounds pretty philistine to me.

True, we educators may not be able to make our students find lasting value in the range of things they’re learning in college, but I imagine it doesn’t help if professors are characterizing wide swathes of human knowledge as useless.

But the piece that made me sit down and write this was when he talked about the argument that an education makes you a better voter. He says that merely providing an education doesn’t do it.

To make people better voters, “you gotta be much more direct and specific. You would have to give them lessons like, ‘Deficit spending past this amount as a share of GDP is dangerous.’ That might work.”

Which is hilariously wrong in two ways.

First, there is no settled guidance from economics as to a settled level of dangerous deficits as a share of GDP. How could there be? You have to ask first whether they are ongoing or short-term. Are you running large deficits for a few years and then going back to small ones or surpluses? Or are you running large deficits year after year?

Equally important, you have to ask what you’re doing with the deficits you’re running. Are you fighting World War II? Go ahead and spend. Are you cutting the tax base without reducing spending? That’s more of a problem. Are you building needed infrastructure and funding basic R&D? That’s analogous to a company taking a loan to buy an efficient new piece of capital. Are you cutting taxes on the highest incomes and turning around and hollowing out health insurance and pensions? That’s more like going to the Bahamas and putting it on your credit card.

In short, if you took a college economics course, I’d expect you to come away with something a little more valuable than, “Deficit spending past this amount as a share of GDP is dangerous.”

The second reason this is wrong is that he probably meant debts, not deficits, since there is an extensive discussion in the field about what level of debt is dangerous for an economy (a useful sample here), and Kaplan may just have had a brain fart where he meant “debt” but said “deficit.” As a trained economist, he should be clear on the distinction, but we all misspeak sometimes.

But even as debt rather than deficit, the point is absurd.

The most famous work on the subject claimed that there was a red line of danger when debt exceeds 90% of GDP. And a graduate student at UMass found that the conclusion was based on unsupportable exclusion of certain data points, plus an error in Excel coding. (That and other issues discussed here.)

More broadly, there is no consensus in the field as to what level of debt is dangerous. The fairest statement of the case is that there is some level of debt that is dangerous, but it varies tremendously from country to country, depending on factors such as its long-term GDP growth, its immigration policies, or its reputation. And even these are only qualitative indicators. They don’t allow us to determine ahead of time what level of debt is unsustainable for any particular country.

So even if Kaplan meant “debt” when he said “deficit,” his ideal of an informed voter seems to be one who came out of college with a handful of inaccurate simplifications.

You’d be better off with some history so you could set current events into some larger picture.

And a foreign language or two, so you could learn about the world—including your own country—from a different perspective.

You know, an education.


  1. Interesting stuff! Reading it reminded me of a couple things. First, the recent There is no case for the humanities, which perhaps makes the same point in a very different way.

    Second, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's advice about what you should take in college:

    "If you ever took a (dull) statistics class in college, did not understand much of what the professor was excited about, and wondered what “standard deviation” meant, there is nothing to worry about. The notion of standard deviation is meaningless outside of Mediocristan. Clearly it would have been more beneficial, and certainly more entertaining, to have taken classes in the neurobiology of aesthetics or postcolonial African dance, and this is easy to see empirically. Standard deviations do not exist outside the Gaussian, or if they do exist they do not matter and do not explain much. But it gets worse. The Gaussian family (which includes various friends and relatives, such as the Poisson law) are the only class of distributions that the standard deviation (and the average) is sufficient to describe. You need nothing else. The bell curve satisfies the reductionism of the deluded." (I quoted this in a long reflection on Black Swan Anthropology.

    So I think we're pretty much on the same page.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. As often happens, I start a reply to a comment you've left on my blog, and it turns into a post.

      Except in this case it turned into two posts, because the data note at the end itself became post-length. (Link at the end of the main item.)