I critique Charles Murray’s work on education at the latest Cato Unbound.  My thesis: Murray is great on the facts, but muddled on theory.  He’s one of the few scholars to notice the flimsiness of the connection between higher education and job skills.  But he doesn’t have a clear story to explain it.  My central complaint:

But when he tries to explain how useless studies translate
into big bucks, his story gets fuzzy.  On the one hand, he tells us
that “The BA really does confer a wage premium on its average
recipient, but there is no good reason that it should.”  On the other
hand, he insists that “Employers are not stupid.”  How can both be true?

My harshest criticism:

Even stranger, Murray often talks as if the entire labor market were
centrally planned by university committees.  Perhaps I am being too
literal.  But it is one thing for Murray’s imaginary education task
force to say, “Let’s reify the BA.”  It is quite another for a task
force — even an imaginary one — to say, “We will attach an economic
reward to it that often has nothing to do with what has been learned.” 
What’s wrong with this picture? Universities don’t “attach economic
rewards” to their degrees.  That decision is up to millions
of competing, consenting employers.  Unless higher education convinces
employers that workers with BAs are more productive than workers
without, the BA won’t have any “economic rewards.”

My solution, if you haven’t guessed it:

If Murray can’t clarify his model, no one is going to take his facts seriously.  Fortunately, I can help.  Here’s what Murray should have said: “To a large extent, the BA is what economists call signaling
Individual students who go to college usually get a good deal; so do
individual employers who pay a premium to educated workers.  The
problem is that this individually rational behavior is socially
wasteful, because education is primarily about showing off, not
acquiring job skills.”

How’s Murray going to respond?  Hopefully he’ll takes my criticism in the spirit in which it was intended – a fanboy’s attempt to improve the work of the master.