Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Why I Tend To Use Year-to-Year Changes, Instead of Month-to-Month Changes

The following chart shows the (black line) annual percentage changes (January-to-January; February-February; etc.--shown in black) and the month-to-month (January to February, February-to-March; expressed as an annual percentage change--shown in yellow).  Month-to-month changes are much more volatile, and thus tend not to be representative of what's happening.  In this chart, I've used the percentage changes in payroll employment (which is a monthly series), seasonally adjusted.  I think looking at the year-to-year changes is a more accurate way of depicting how employment has been changing, and is a much clearer representation of those changes.

Of course, if your point is to point out how volatile month-to-month changes are, that's different.  Usually, my concern is to capture more clearly whatever underlying patterns exist.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

A World Without Public Support for Education Is Not a World for Me

In a new book (The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money), Bryan Caplan (an economist at George Mason University and a self-described libertarian) argues that education should serve one of two goals [1]:

(1) Providing students with “useful job skills or

(2) Providing students with a satisfying educational experience.

And his policy recommendation is to eliminate publicly-funded education (at least at and above the level of secondary education) and to allow families or individuals identify the types of education that they want and are willing to pay for.  He argues—and it’s not a new argument—that what education (above the elementary level, which he does not really discuss in the interview) consists of “signaling”—letting potential employers (or, by extension, spouses) know that you are the sort of person who can successfully complete an educational program and are, therefore someone worth hiring (or marrying). [2]  For that matter, he states that "Kindergarten through 8th grade tends to serve as a daycare center for kids while their parents are at work.

His entire position seems bizarre to me, but, given what I did for a living, that might be expected.  (Given what he does for a living, I wonder what he thinks he’d be doing for a living if  his policy recommendations were accepted.)

Let’s begin with maximum Kaplan—an end to public education.  Those schools that continue to exist will need to raise revenue for teachers and facilities by charging tuition sufficient to cover the costs.  Now at some level what those costs are is difficult to define.  But let’s suppose that it would be roughly equivalent to current spending on elementary, secondary, and higher education (per student).  Right now, that’s about $11,800 nationwide for elementary and secondary education, and $27,000 for higher education. [3]  So consider, if you will, the consequences of eliminating public support for education. 

The first consequence is that children in families with income less than the U.S. median family income [4]—about $60,000—will become those least likely to receive any formal education.  And children in families with incomes less and $30,000—about 35% of all children—will be especially disadvantaged.  What this means for basic literacy and arithmetic skills is difficult to contemplate, but most people learned those things in actual schools.  Caplan might find that unproblematic, but I think it would be catastrophic, not just for those children, but also for the U.S. economy.

Second, consider the consequences for current adult workers who have young children.  Given that he considers elementary education to be, essentially, “child care,” eliminating elementary education means either private provision of child care, or large numbers of adults leaving the labor force to care for children, or large numbers of unattended younger children.  (Anyone see a fourth choice?)  And, while this is not inevitable, it seems likely that much of the burden of this would fall on women.

Third, consider the consequence for preparation for work.  Many occupations do require some—often a lot—of formal education.  This starts with people entering professions like medicine or law; engineers; accounting; business management; almost any of the “professions.”  Beyond that, the ability to use (and to learn how to use) advanced technologies in increasingly important an an increasingly wide range of jobs.  Even the ability to read and perform calculations would be implicated.  And making the choice of a career, or among alternative jobs, probably requires a period of exploration and, yes, learning.  And this is more easily accomplished in a formal setting in which a student has the opportunity to explore one’s options…which we might call a “school.”

So we disadvantage (still further) children in lower income families.  We reimpose disadvantages on adults (again, probably mostly women) who drop out of the labor force to care for children.  We disadvantage (over time) everyone who needs the opportunity to explore alternative cognitive and intellectual interests as a preliminary to determining what they want to do to make a living.  We disadvantage (over time) everyone who needs skills (either general or specific) in order to get and keep a job.

Caplan’s agenda seems to me to be about as destructive of the US economy and of the quality of the lives of millions of Americans as anything I can think of.  The argument that education is largely about signaling has been around for a long time, but it remains a hypothesis being adopted—and pushed—by people whose ideology is of a society composed of people who are unconnected to each other, who have no obligations to others, in which helping create opportunities for others is irrelevant, and for whom inequalities of opportunity can be shrugged off.

I personally see no support for Caplan’s beliefs about education; even if I did, I would fear for the consequences of his policy proposals.

[1] To be clear, I have not read the book.  This is based on an interview he gave to Sean Illing at Vox (

[2] He does not explicitly address the issue of marriage, but it seems implicit in the rest of his argument.

[3] I’m skeptical of the higher education number.  According to this source, that spending is considerably higher than spending on comparable levels of education in OECD countries.