Education and the Economic Way of Thinking: Another Test Case
By Bryan Caplan
More educated people think more like economists. It’s one of the big findings in my piece in the 2001 Journal of Law and Economics. And that’s controlling for income, income growth, job security, gender, ideology, and party. It’s a big effect, too: Every step up a 7-point educational scale matters about 9.3% as much as an economics Ph.D.
Those of us who hang around universities (well, other than GMU) find this hard to believe. “All the Ph.D.s I know are socialists!” This is a classic case of selection bias. Left-wingers with lots of education hang around universities; the rest get out while the getting is good.
I recently came across yet another study confirming that the well-educated think more like economists than their fellow citizens. It’s a Hearst Report on “The American Public’s Knowledge of Business and the Economy,” dating from around 1984. Table 48 caught my eye.
The question: “Which of the following statements do you agree with in regard to the minimum wage?”
8th grade/less Some High School H.S. Grad Some College College Grad No one should 76 66 69 59 41 be paid less Ought to be 21 27 30 41 57 exceptions
My interpretation: More educated people are a lot more likely to favor exceptions because they grasp, in a rudimentary way, the fact that pushing up the wages of low-skilled workers causes unemployment. Of course, this insight is so unpalatable that most well-educated people support the existence of the minimum wage anyway. But their support is plainly less dogmatic than that of their fellow citizens.
I suspect that most economists would interpret these results differently. Why not just say that people who earn well above the minimum wage are less supportive of the minimum wage out of self-interest? I only have the summary tables, so I can’t prove this alternative theory wrong. But in every case where I’ve had individual-level data on both income and education, it turns out that education does the work, not income. I don’t see any reason not to interpret the Hearst results in light of all the other data.
Incidentally, one important question I have NOT been able to resolve so far is whether education is simply IQ in disguise. My research assistant Steve Miller is already hard at work on this question. What will he find? Stay tuned.