Bryan Caplan  

An Ignorant Plot?

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Twitter was angry with me after my Tucker Carlson interview.  The most common accusation was roughly, "Of course Fox News loves The Case Against Education.  Undermining education is a plot to help the Republicans by spreading ignorance."  

I could take umbrage, but I see where the accusers are coming from.  In the last election, the education gap between Trump supporters and opponents was indeed enormous.  Trump - or at least his public persona - is proudly ignorant.  Wouldn't it help Trump's successors if education levels fell?

I doubt it.  While it's possible that Trump has sparked an historic party realignment, the safe bet says that (a) Trump is an outlier, and (b) we'll return to the long-run trend.  And over the long-run, there's surprisingly little connection between education and partisanship.  As I explain in my book:

In the data, the well-educated are only microscopically more liberal.  In the General Social Survey, people place themselves on a seven-step scale, where 1 is "extremely liberal," 4 is "moderate," and 7 is "extremely conservative."  An extra year of education seems to make people .014 steps more liberal.[1]  Taken literally, over seventy years of education are required to shift ideology a single step.  Statistical corrections make education's impact on ideology look stronger, but it stays weak.[2]

If the effect on ideology is slight, the effect on partisanship is slightly perverse.  As education rises, people grow less Democratic.  The General Social Survey's respondents place themselves on a seven-step scale, where 0 is "strong Democrat," 3 is "independent" and 6 is "strong Republican."  An extra year of education seems to make people .071 steps more Republican.[3]  Statistical corrections makes this effect look weaker, but education still appears to mildly boost support for the party that teachers and professors disfavor.[4]

Furthermore, whatever pattern exists likely reflects relative education rather than absolute education.  After all, education has risen dramatically over the last century, but America's partisan composition has been quite stable.  If education matters, then, it matters because - regardless of average national education - people with similar education levels politically cluster together.  In technical terms, education largely works via peer effects - and peer effects are inherently double-edged:

To isolate education's influence on society, however, you must unpack how education sways students.  Is the mechanism "leadership" - planting teachers' ideas in students' heads?  Then education remolds society.  Is the mechanism "peer effects" - sorting kids into distinct groups?  Then education mainly reshuffles society without remolding it.[5]

Suppose you funnel an extra kid into college.  His peer group seismically shifts.  Given human conformity, the freshman will likely try to blend in with his new peers.  College youths are less religious, for example, so one would expect the student to veer in a secular direction.  This does not imply, however, that college makes society less religious.  The existence of college splits kids into two subcultures with opposing peer effects.  If college kids are less religious than average kids, then non-college kids must be more religious than average kids.  Members of each subculture adjust their behavior to locally fit in.  Religious conformity pressure in the non-college pool offsets secular pressure in the college pool.  Net effect on society's religiosity: unclear, even if college demonstrably makes students less religious.

Voter turnout is a clean example:

Voter turnout rises sharply with education. Substantial effects of education on turnout usually linger after statistically correcting for income, demographics, intelligence, and so on.[6]  Despite some thoughtful naysayers, limited experimental data also show extra education boosts turnout.[7]

The catch: Education has sharply risen over the last century, but turnout has gently fallen.  This could mean offsetting factors masked education's pro-voting effect.[8]  But several prominent researchers instead conclude that turnout depends on relative education.[9]  People don't vote because they're educated, but because they're more educated than others.  This once again suggests peer effects: The longer you stay in school, the more politically active your social circle, and the more politically active you become to fit in. 

But what about the effect of education on issue views?  That, too, seems largely driven by peer effects.

Bottom line: I'm delighted to receive favorable coverage from Fox (or any major news outlet, for that matter).  But even if The Case Against Education became the blueprint for radical education reform, there's little reason to think it would reshape the electorate.


1 Results from regressing GSS variable identifier POLVIEWS on a constant and years of education.

2 Chief problem with the simple approach: The well-educated are richer, and the rich are more conservative.  As a result, income conceals some of education's effect.  If you regress POLVIEWS on a constant, years of education, and log family income, one year of education makes you .028 units more liberal - double the estimate from the simple approach.  Further correcting for race, sex, age, and year, one year of education makes you .024 units more liberal.

3 Results from regressing GSS variable identifier PARTYID on a constant and years of education, excluding respondents who support third parties.

4 If you regress PARTYID on a constant, years of education, log family income, race, sex, age, and year, one year of education makes you .029 units more Republican.

5 To surmount this "zero-sum" problem, peers must have non-linear effects in the right direction.  As Burke and Sass 2013, p.58 remark, "[P]olicy can hope to generate aggregate achievement gains only if peer effects are nonlinear and therefore non-zero-sum in their impact on achievement."  See also Lavy and Schlosser 2011, p.4.  Hoxby 2002 discusses the complex empirics of non-linear peer effects. 

6 For overviews of the research and some basic results, see e.g. Burden 2009, Nagler 1991, and Powell 1986.

7 The most notable naysayers: Kam and Palmer 2008, p.612 reports higher education has no effect on turnout after fully accounting for "preadult experiences and influences in place during the senior year of high school."  Tenn 2007 finds immediately after gaining an extra year of education, individuals are no more likely to vote than they were in the previous year.  Sondheimer and Green 2010 examines three sets of experimental evidence on education and turnout.

8 Burden 2009 reviews the contrast between micro- and macro-level evidence, and summarizes the top contending "offsetting factors." 

9 The leading defenses of the relative education theory are Tenn 2005, and Nie et al. 1996.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (13 to date)
roystgnr writes:
education has risen dramatically over the last century, but America's partisan composition has been quite stable

Well, yeah, that's the median voter theorem for you. If one party is consistently getting 75% of the vote, then they're going to think "we can move our policy farther in our preferred direction without losing any elections" and their opponents are going to think "we need to move our policy closer to the center until we stop losing all the elections", and that process isn't going to stop until the vote split is close to 50/50 again.

So, is it true that (A) America's policies been quite stable over the past century, or that (B) they have moved in the directions that more-educated voters currently statistically prefer? At first glance the answer appears to be "B".

E. Harding writes:

"While it's possible that Trump has sparked an historic party realignment, the safe bet says that (a) Trump is an outlier, and (b) we'll return to the long-run trend."

No. The safe bet is that Trump has continued the medium-term trend, which has been the continual widening of the partisan gap between college-educated and non-college educated Whites begun by George W. Bush in 2000, and continued in every succeeding election (except possibly 2012). Look at the Virginia and Alabama elections last year.

"And over the long-run, there's surprisingly little connection between education and partisanship."
Wrong. College-educated were much more Republican than non-college educated in every U.S. election until 1972. The 1950-1990 era in the U.S. was extremely unstable party constituency-wise and is, thus, useless for long-term analysis.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

Bryan, you would do well to read "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections do not Produce Responsive Government" by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. It will change you way of thinking about the American political system and why we are dealing more with tribal loyalties than plain sense thinking.

James Pass writes:

There is higher education and then there is higher education. As Caplan himself states, "education has sharply risen in the last century." Actually, I think it's risen dramatically since the 1980's to the point where today a college degree is seen as necessary to a decent standard of living. Consequently, as a matter of course, millions of liberal and conservative kids are getting degrees and are therefore deemed "well-educated."

I know plenty of people with degrees who are functionally ignorant and oddly incurious about any topic related to science, economics, history, government, etc. Sadly, I have some relatives and friends - for example, a nephew with a newly acquired degree in political science - who possess hardly any useful knowledge or insights about their fields of study.

I don't put much stock in how people with degrees vote; nor do I assume that a degree necessarily means "well-educated." I'm more interested in a more loaded and controversial aspect of the question: How do intelligent and knowledgeable people vote? By "intelligent" I merely mean reasonably intelligent, and by "knowledgeable" I mean a person who can do well on a basic test covering science, history, government, economics, critical thinking and comprehension, as well as a person who can write a coherent paragraph.

By the way, given that some conservatives often complain that college professors and institutions of higher learning are predominately liberal, it's interesting that more higher education is correlated with more Republican leanings, at least among white voters.

Juan Cruz writes:

Education doesn't shift ideology,ok. But aren't Democrats the vast majority of more educated people?

Austin C writes:

Alan Glodhammer,

Bryan cites Aachen and Bartels in his book "Myth of the Rational Voter." You would do well to read it, It will change your way of thinking about the American Political System by detailing how systemic bias leads to bad policy outcomes.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Explanations for enhanced socialism in college:

1) College students are less likely than their working peers to have any clue about business

2) College presents itself as an educational utopia, which enhances utopic visions of economies and politics (this can also explain college libertarian & objectivist groups)

3) College mating strategies may require more intellectualism than those of non-college attendees, and part of that strategy is a signaliling of a desire to “be nice” to others, both to show your potential to nurture partners and to show strength that you can be taxed at high rates but still have money leftover from the salary at your upcoming job at Google.

4) College instructors have clearly not chosen a business career, so they are less informed about business or openly hostile to it.

Antischiff writes:

Dr. Caplan,

The Fox News Network, and Carlson in particular, are basically running propaganda operations for the Trump administration. While regular readers understand that you have many disagreements with Fox show hosts, nonetheless, your interview was used to further their nihilistic propaganda goals.

I wish everyone would boycott Fox, but if they allow you to make your case against immigration restrictions, for example, it would be worth appearing since you're no easy foil.

Hazel Meade writes:

I think antischiff makes a good point - there's more value in appearing in a friendly political forum in order present a view that contradicts their biases, then there is in presenting an argument that confirms those biases. In these polarized times, it's going to take people challenging the biases of people on their own "side" to change minds. Not much is gained by arguing a message that confirms the biases of one's own tribe.

TMC writes:

It's more of a case in the change of the composition of education. In the 'college for all' era education has been dumbed down so much that 'highly educated' is meaningless. I know high school grads that will eat the lunch of 90% of college grads on any intellectual topic. Some kids get out of college actually more ignorant than when they went in.

In a time in which college years do not correlate with knowledge these comparisons are useless.

Mark writes:


"there's more value in appearing in a friendly political forum in order present a view that contradicts their biases, then there is in presenting an argument that confirms those biases."
This means resigning oneself to the obscurity of econlog. Major political media outlets don't exist to challenge the biases of their viewers, quite the opposite. So one has to make a judgment on whether the publicity is worth it.

I have to ask, though it may be tu-quoque-esque, would you equally object if Bryan had gone on MSNBC to criticize immigration restrictions?

Hazel Meade writes:

No, but there would be more benefit to doing it on Fox, since it would get heard by more people that disagree with him.

Jeffrey Eldred writes:

Surely the ideologies of the major political parties are determined by the median voter, not by static policy positions!

If education is an important factor in conservatism vs. liberalism (or for populism vs. elitism), a less educated America would mean a more conservative (or populist) platform for both major parties. And indeed the what it means to be a Democrat of Republican has changed dramatically in the last century.

Even if undereducated populists were to be distributed equally among both parties (I doubt it), they will be continue to be influential within their party primaries.

You seem to recognize in the realm of economics, voters consistently request economically ignorant policies and you also seem to recognize that the average person can become more educated about economics. So clearly education has political repercussions in that case.

I would argue that the same also goes for climate change, accurate history, sensible foreign policy, gender/race tolerance, etc.

Quite possibly colleges and universities are much better at teaching social and political ideas than they are at preparing individuals for employment. Professors have much more incentive to train ideological copies of themselves than they do to find employment for their students.

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