David R. Henderson  

Noah Smith on Education

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Co-blogger Arnold Kling comments on Noah Smith's post on education and Arnold's thoughts, as always, are worth reading. I want to focus on three things in Smith's post, though, that Arnold doesn't highlight.

1. Noah says that schools are prisons. He's right. The difference between Smith and me on this is that he advocates that innocent people be imprisoned and I advocate that they not be.

2. In laying out why parents have too little an incentive to invest in their children's education, Smith argues that because the parents don't get the financial rewards from their children's education, they don't spend on it. He has a very different view of parents and what they care about than I do. I'm not saying that some parents don't feel this way. My impression, based on casual empiricism and on the more-rigorous empiricism of the late E.G. West, is that the majority of parents, when allowed to exercise their caring--that is, when allowed to choose schools and pay for schools without facing government-subsidized competition--do care a lot about their kids.

3. Smith goes from his assertion that parents don't care enough about their kids to his solution: have government spend on education. But how did he make that jump? How is it that parents don't care about their kids but they somehow vote for politicians who, along with all the other things they legislate on, legislate effective solutions that show that they, the politicians, care more about parents' kids than the parents themselves?


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Noah writes:

Hey, David! Thanks for the link.

My responses:

The difference between Smith and me on this is that he advocates that innocent people be imprisoned and I advocate that they not be.

My 12-year-old self strongly agreed with you. I hated my public schools (which were among the nation's best) and fervently wished I could have escaped. But society appears to fear gangs more than it values perfect child liberty.

My impression...is that the majority of parents...do care a lot about their kids.

Hope fully so, but as an economist, I make it a rule never to rely upon the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, the baker, or the American parent when imagining the ideal society.

How is it that parents don't care about their kids but they somehow vote for politicians who...care more about parents' kids than the parents themselves?

That's an easy one: parents are voting to educate other people's kids. Systemic underinvestment in human capital is just like systemic underinvestment in physical capital; it lowers real wages for everyone. By voting to educate other people's kids, parents are raising their own real wages even if it means they have to pay property tax to educate their own kids. It's a coordination problem, and government is a coordination mechanism.

Alex J. writes:

How are gangs the most likely alternative to compulsory education? Surely on the job training and household production are more likely alternatives.

In every real society since the dawn of time, even in North Korea, the benevolence of parents towards their children is what primarily takes care of children.

Coordination is certainly a common rationale for government intervention, but that doesn't mean that's what most characterizes governments' actual actions.

wd40 writes:

The answer to the conundrum raised in point 3 is that a majority of parents care about their own children's education. And a majority of voters also care (albeit to a lesser degree) about the education of children of the minority of parents who do not care about the education of their own children. In wealthier countries, this caring by the majority is sufficiently large that the majority of voters are willing to raise taxes on both the majority and the minority to pay for schooling for all children. There are obviously limits on this caring. For example there is less public support for higher education (not everyone is entitled and tuition is typically paid by the student or the student's family).

Charity is a poor substitute for the above taxation scheme because charity does not force the minority who do not care about their children's education to pay for some of it.

This argument can be generalized to explain a lot of government regulations that the people on this blog do not like. For example, health insurance mandates are ways to force those who do not have insurance to buy it because a majority of people want others without the means to pay for it to get medical care when they need it. That is, a majority of people are not going to say to someone that they should die because they do not have enough to pay for the requisite surgery. Knowing this, some people may choose not to buy insurance in the first place. Mandated insurance forces people to pay for their medical rescue because they will be rescued whether they buy the insurance or not. Same goes for Social Security.

James writes:

Noah,

David isn't suggesting that you rely on the benevolence of parents, I believe. He's citing a body of empirical evidence for a revealed preference. I'm not sure how you missed that.

What evidence leads you to believe that parents vote to educate other people's kids in order to improve their own real wage?

Colin K writes:

Smith writes,

So far, the system of universal public education has been a resounding success, and has probably been a huge factor in the development of rich modern economies.

I think this begs the question, if not in the 19th century, certainly in the later 20th. The returns are diminishing as we go from teaching basic literacy to home ec to fashionable theories in social studies.

According to http://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp, literacy among whites in the US was just shy of 90% in 1870, and increased to ~94% (nearly halving the illiteracy rate) at the same time that school enrollment rates actually fell somewhat.

There is a consistent trend across many nations and the past two centuries that public education starts spreading around the same time that economies begin transitioning away from subsistence agriculture. It is less clear to me which is cart and which is horse.

More importantly today, it is not clear that we are getting a good value from our current investment. Many big-city public schools spend in excess of $10k/year/student, many of whom complete 13 years of schooling with little more than marginal literacy. The question should be, would these children be better off with an iPad and a $120,000 grant to be spent as they and their parents wish.

sourcreamus writes:

Most parents would sacrifice some of their own success to give their children success. Since parents care as much about their children's success as their own most of the gains from education are internalized by the parents. Plus since they only bear part of the financial costs while the children bear all of the boredom and opportunity costs, parents probably over invest in their children's education.
After all the tsouris over Tiger Moms, arguements that parents underinvest in education seem oblivious to reality.

Douglass Holmes writes:

As I pointed out on Noah's site, our society was quite industrialized in the 1940s and 1950s even though a huge portion of the work force was old enough that they had not been forced to complete high school.
Education, especially as provided in this country, looks a lot like a luxury. And parents are willing to provide luxury items for their children. Despite the claim made by orthodontists and others, teenagers do not need movie-star straight teeth, but a huge portion of parents pay for their children (or expect their employers to pay) to get top-of-the-line orthodontia. And many parents are paying extra money to make sure their kids get things that the public schools don't provide, like an adequate grounding in math which has spawned with franchises like Mathnasium, Math Monkey, and Kumon. Then there is the huge number of parents who pay extra for music lessons or even karate lessons. People are willing and able to pay to for their kids to learn.

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