Within economics, the idea that education has a larger effect on income than productivity is vaguely right-wing.  Why?  Because economists realize that this premise undermines the textbook efficiency case for governments’ massive education subsidies.

Outside economics, however, the idea that education has a larger effect on income than productivity is vaguely left-wing.  Why?  Because non-economists realize that this premise undermines the legitimacy of the status quo – which they think of as “capitalism.”

For an excellent example, notice how much Thomas Frank’s latest Salon piece on education sounds like me:

Perhaps those universities exist to educate, too. Perhaps professors
here and there still concern themselves with whether students understand
epic poems and differential equations. But that stuff is incidental.
The university’s real purpose, as just about every modern college
entrance guide will confirm, is to make graduates wealthy.
Not too many employers really care what you studied there, or how well
you did; they only care that you got in and that you got a diploma, our
society’s one-and-only ticket into the middle class. Graduate from
college and you have a chance of joining life’s officer corps. Quit
after high school and it doesn’t matter how well you know your
Nietzsche; you will probably spend the rest of your days as a corporal.


…what those professors teach doesn’t matter. This is also why people who fake their college degrees
often lead long and successful corporate lives without being
detected–because the stuff you actually learn to get a liberal arts
degree isn’t important in the corporate world. Only the diploma itself
has real meaning in the marketplace, and only the marketplace has real
meaning in America.

The main difference between me and Frank: He never clearly addresses the question, “Would employers be more profitable if they ignored educational credentials?”  My answer is no; while credentials do little to raise productivity, they genuinely signal it.  Frank, in contrast, tries to straddle two conflicting positions.  He’s eager to ridicule college degrees for their classist humbug:

Just think of the salutary effect such “classism” warnings would have on
the elite colleges themselves, where students are in a frenzy of
self-love brought on by the success of certain very rich
graduates–success which everyone attributes to college-certified merit,
of course.

At the same time, though, Frank seems to take the greed of the business community for granted.  But if “college-certified merit” is really a myth, replacing overpaid college graduates with equally able but vastly cheaper non-graduates is a no-brainer. 

I am a sincere fan of Thomas Frank.  His What’s the Matter With Kansas? ably debunks the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis.  His writings on education ably debunk Human Capital Extremism.  It’s unfortunate, then, that Frank is so eager to lash out at economics:

Maybe we can take it a step
further and string yellow “classism” warning tape around the perimeter
of the economics department, which in many places exists in order to
prove that what’s good for the wealthy is what’s good for the world.

If Frank studied economics more closely, he’d discover much common ground.  Yes, most mainstream economists blithely equate “sitting in classrooms” with “acquiring job skills.”  But plenty of economists – including Nobel prize-winners Michael Spence and Kenneth Arrow –  dissent from this Panglossian consensus.  Even more surprisingly, though, the economists most likely to share Frank’s doubts about modern education are the free-market economists he’s most eager to condemn.

Left-leaning non-economists and right-leaning economists have never been close.  But when such different groups look at education and see similar ills, it’s time to calm down and listen to each other.