Bryan Caplan  

What Does Education Signal? The Case of Edward Snowden

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A striking biographical fact about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden:

By his own admission, he was not a stellar student. In order to get the credits necessary to obtain a high school diploma, he attended a community college in Maryland, studying computing, but never completed the coursework. (He later obtained his GED.)...

After that, he got his first job in an NSA facility, working as a security guard for one of the agency's covert facilities at the University of Maryland. From there, he went to the CIA, where he worked on IT security. His understanding of the internet and his talent for computer programming enabled him to rise fairly quickly for someone who lacked even a high school diploma.

I've repeatedly argued (here, here, and here for starters) that education signals conformity.  Question: Is there any tendency for whistleblowers to have atypically low credentials?

Note: While prudent organizations put a high premium on conformity, wise moralists do not.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Emily writes:

I don't know about credentials, but there is some literature on whistleblowers and personality traits. See "Predicting proactive behaviour at work: Exploring the role of personality as an antecedent of whistleblowing behaviour": "The results suggest that personality, in the form of high extraversion and dominance and low agreeableness, do play a role as antecedents of whistleblowing." However, whistleblowing is defined at a pretty low level, and I suspect that's going to be the case for the literature in general.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

You miss the fact that CRUCIAL information is missing -- without which interpretation is impossible.

HOW does one go from "working as a security guard for one of the agency's covert facilities at the University of Maryland" to "the CIA, where he worked on IT security"?

The answer to how this transition was accomplished, outside the usual channels, is well worth investigating. Quite possibly, it holds the key to why our present system is so wasteful, inefficient, and structurally flawed.

Mike W writes:

@Glen S. McGhee, The answer to how this transition was accomplished, outside the usual channels, is well worth investigating.

I suspect that question has already been investigated.

"His mother, Wendy, is the chief deputy clerk for administration and information technology at the federal court in Baltimore, a court official told NBC News."

Randall Parker writes:

Methinks unwise moralists far outnumber wise moralists.

Ken P writes:

Bryan, over the past year you have increased my respect for the role of conformity signaling via education in hiring. I was initially pretty confident in the role education plays in skill development. Plus, I tend to have more respect for independent thinkers, than conformists. I think hiring independent thinkers encourages an organization to be more like a fox than a hedgehog.

Computer jobs seemed to be one of the better counter examples. There are many cases of the degree-less guy landing a great computer job. I think that skill has a lot to do with that, but now I wonder if it's partly the case that conforming to the rogue computer nerd stereotype helps them land their job.

Susan writes:

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Act that your principle of action might safely be made a law for the whole world?

[comment was accidentally lost and has been restored--Econlib Ed.]

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Thank you, Mike W!
Social networks have yet to be addressed by economists as a crucial component of job finding.

But the common perception is, social network factors trump all others -- "It is who you know, not what you know." So much for human capital.

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