Reflections on Carey at Cato
By Bryan Caplan
Yesterday’s book event at Cato was great fun. Though I had a chance to respond to Carey in person, here’s a more complete version of my reaction to his critique.
1. I’m puzzled by Carey’s claim that colleges are exercising some kind of “monopoly.” There’s a vast decentralized education system in the U.S. While people feel a lot of pressure to go to college somewhere, that hardly means that the system is anything other than competitive. By analogy, does it makes sense to say that “Farming is monopolized” just because everyone needs to eat something?
2. I definitely agree that schools could spend taxpayer dollars far more wisely. I just think it’s highly unlikely. Due to Social Desirability Bias, schools simply aren’t under much pressure to deliver good academic bang for the taxpayer buck. Challenge for Carey: Name three “no-brainer” educational reforms you favor that haven’t happened yet. Suppose none of them have become popular in ten years. Would this convince you to say “Cut education spending” rather than “Reform education spending”? If not, what would it take to convert you to the cause of austerity?
3. Carey objected strongly to my book’s assertion that, “There really is no need for K-12 to teach history, social studies, art, music, or foreign languages.” I realize it’s a strong statement, but Carey doesn’t even seem to see a kernel of truth. Question: Suppose I narrowed this down to “There really is no need for K-12 to teach foreign languages.” Why would that be absurd, given the microscopic share of Americans who learn to speak a foreign language well in school under the current regime?
4. When Carey says that you have to be broadly educated to be a “fully realized human” or “competent citizen,” I’m tempted to agree. But this dodges the tough questions: What fraction of adults qualify as “fully realized humans” or “competent citizens” now? And what fraction would qualify if schools focused on literacy and numeracy? I say we’re talking about <5% of the population either way.
5. Carey is right that education potentially serves an exploratory function. Suppose you study five promising subjects. This could be a fine approach, even if you eventually specialize in one subject and forget the other four. But this is a poor defense of actually existing education, where students study a bunch of subjects almost no one uses or remembers. When I advocate making irrelevant subjects optional, I’m not praising children’s wisdom. But if you’re going to make kids learn something for their own good, their guardians first ought to calmly wonder whether it is for the kids’ own good.
6. Exercising improves your physique; but if you stop exercising, you soon revert to your normal flabby self. Is this a “case against exercise”? Absolutely, if you start out with the false belief that the benefits are durable. The same goes for education. The more rapidly you lose what you learn, the weaker the case for learning in the first place.
7. Carey brings up Schultz’s work on the alleged effect of education on farmers’ productivity. Frankly, psychologists’ work on Transfer of Learning makes it very hard to take Schultz’s claims seriously. At minimum, there’s a heavy presumption in favor of a simple ability bias story: well-educated farmers are smarter, harder-working, and richer, and therefore more likely to adopt better farming methods.
8. If Hanushek’s “effects of math and science scores” are disguised “effects of IQ”, does this mean that all international IQ differences are genetic? Of course not. International IQ differences depend on genetics, educational environment, and non-educational environment. My doubts about the power of educational environment leave both other explanations on the table. Indeed, you can doubt the power of education but still suspect it makes a slight difference, which is probably the most reasonable view.
9. General observation: Unlike most education economists, Carey acknowledges glaring deficiencies in actually existing education. He avoids glib defenses of the status quo like, “If education’s so bad, how come it pays so well?” But he still ultimately trusts the status quo to reform itself even if its funding is secure. What will it take to shatter Carey’s trust? On purely pragmatic grounds, while not cut education spending first, then offer to restore it after the education system earnestly reforms itself?