Bryan Caplan  

Premia and Double Standards

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Why are economists so quick to encourage college and so slow to encourage marriagePascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a good story:
[E]conomists' "cosmopolitan perspective" (as Cowen puts it) makes them not feel good at the idea of public policy that would interfere with personal choices (allowing for a second that getting married is a "personal choice" in a way that going to college isn't). Most economists think that government should not interfere or have a stance one way or another with decisions that feel intimate to people. That is a complete value judgement. And it's a completely defensible one.

But at the level of the economics profession, this leads to bias: much more ink is spilled on, and thought given to the college wage premium than the marriage wage premium. One is mostly praised and interpreted in a certain way, while the other is mostly ignored.
I think Pascal correctly describes the distinction most economists implicitly make.  But as his parenthetical hints, economists who make this distinction are utterly confused. 

In a sense, both marriage and college are "personal choices."  Everyone has his own feelings and beliefs about them, and your mileage may vary.  In another sense, though, neither marriage nor college are "personal choices."  We have good reasons to discount our feelings and beliefs about marriage and college, because our feelings predictably change and our beliefs are often systematically mistaken.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
taips writes:

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Glen Smith writes:

While the argument that marriage is causal to the so-called marriage premium is tenuous at best, the argument that education can generate a wage premium is much stronger.

roystgnr writes:

No mention of the signaling vs ability bias vs human capital theories for the education premium? Only an expansion of the latter effect would lead to increases in society's total utility (or society's future tax revenues), so that's all anybody wants to subsidize.

I'd have assumed that the different treatments of college vs marriage come from the common belief (correct or not) that a significant fraction of the income gains from college are due to increased human capital but the vast majority of the income gains from marriage are due to ability bias.

Finch writes:

Why are economists so quick to encourage people to buy their product and so slow to encourage people to engage in an activity which, if it has an effect, slightly reduces demand for their product?

I don't think it's the whole story, but I think part of the explanation must be that economists are generally academics, and promoting college comes pretty naturally to academics. It worked for them. It provides them with a paycheck. All the good kids they see are in college.

Marriage, on the other hand, is sort of anti-university culture. Academics did well by deferring things like marriage and children so they could concentrate on things like their thesis and their tenure track work. Marriage is also a conservative institution in all sorts of ways. And while economists are conservative by the standards of academics, they're still academics. I'm sure there are no small number who think of marriage as a heteronormative anachronism.

Mitch writes:

When I was working in academia it was pretty common to encounter scholarly and newspaper articles that could be fairly summarized as "College professor advocates more government spending on colleges" or "Going to college still a good idea, says college professor."

It was also common for feminists to assert that marriage helped men economically only at the expense of their wives.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Most academics honestly believe (though it is, of course, a self-serving belief) that college causes high income but high income causes marriage.

Since the direction of causation is wrong, encouraging marriage will just lead to more failed marriages. However, they find it very difficult to believe that encouraging people to go to college will just lead to more failed college years.

Thomas Boyle writes:

It has always seemed to me that "get married and stay married" is advice akin to "buy stocks that will go up; if they're not going to go up, don't buy them".

Unfortunately, "get married and find yourself divorced" is a lifetime guarantee of poverty for anyone foolish enough to do so as a breadwinner (like, you know, people who went to college and have debts to pay off). Outside of disability, it's hard to think of anything else as destructive.

Marriage, for a breadwinner, carries a much bigger implicit debt even than college; meanwhile, marriage and high income very likely go together like BMWs and high income.

dave smith writes:

I'm an economist, and I'd tell an 18 year old to get married and stay married as a way to, at the very least, avoid poverty. (I wouldn't tell them to get married right now, but I would not tell them they had to go to college right now either.)

But I don't teach at a top 20 department, and did not get my PhD from one either.


Sam writes:

Turn that around: why is there no investigation of the signaling vs ability bias vs human capital theories for the marriage premium?

phwest writes:

There is an obvious causal link between marriage and income - children are a significant and sustained expense that most parents feel an obligation to provide for. A single man in his 30s can live quite comfortably on a fraction of what it takes to support a family. There are plenty of parents who put income ahead of personal satisfaction because of what that additional income buys their children.

Economics happens at the margins. Is it that hard to accept that policies that encouraged family formation could increase national income by increasing the willingness of parents to work longer/harder/more dangerous jobs than they would otherwise (men in particular)? Even in the case of those more likely to get married because they have a high income/good prospects, does not a family provide an incentive to pursue an even higher income?

Education may provide a means to do more renumerative work, but children provide a motivation - and motivation universally contributes to income in a way that higher education does not.

Bryan Willman writes:

Other reasons for "the split" (in addition to, not instead of the comments above, most of which I take to be very well founded.)

1. College is for a while. Marriage or marriage and divorce, are forever.

2. Hard work and diligent application can help a marginal student succeed in college. No amount of hard work or diligent application will make an unmarriable male marriable.

3. Marriage is very closely associated with procreation and child rearing, and those are in some sense ultimate concerns in the face of natural selection. Which oddly means they're beyond the sphere of authority of any economic advice. Marriage falls into the realm of religion, culture, and species survival.

[Written by a very well off but childless man who is having a mostly great life but is of course nonetheless a total loser in the arena of Natural Selection.]

Kevin writes:

Empirical differences seem to be the most important. We can think about natural experiments that affect a student's chances at going to college, so we can potentially measure the wage premium. There are less opportunities (if there are any at all) to cleanly identify the effects of marriage. Reverse causation (future earnings potential causes marriage) is probably very important.

What randomly impacts marriage potential but otherwise leaves earnings alone? Very difficult empirical problem...

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