Friday, November 22, 2013

A Proof That College is Unnecessary

Ever heard of the marriage premium? It amounts to a basic observation – that married people make significantly more money than single people (on a per worker basis). I am guessing that this is an observation that controls for age and education, but I am not sure. Is it causal – does getting married make you more productive? Or is it a selection bias – are more productive people just more inclined to get married? My bet is selection bias, but I can also see an argument for marriage forcing more responsibilities on people, which makes them more responsible in all spheres of life, and hence worth more to an employer.

The marriage premium is roughly equal in magnitude to the college premium – the extra earnings that are associated with a college degree. And yet few people ask the same question about the college premium – i.e. whether college schoolin learns you up to the point where you can make more dough, or if instead the higher earnin is due to the fact that those inclined to go to college are already equipped with the skills necessary to bring in the Benjamins. I think most people see the college premium as causal. But consider this thought experiment – take your average non-legacy C student from Harvard (i.e. one that got in on his own merit), and ask whether his observed superior earnings to the average A student from Sam Houston State is selection or causation? If we see the Harvard kid earning significantly more ten years down the line (as I expect we would), is this because the C student learned so much more scraping by at Harvard versus the A student at Sam Houston State, or are we simply comparing one kid whose SAT scores are double that of the other?

If the college premium is a matter of selection, and not due to a story about value-added in the four years of college, this would imply that the vast sums of money spent on college tuition are a colossal waste of money. I once read about studies regarding the complete inability of employers to predict future job performance in certain jobs on the basis of interviews with the candidates. And yet employers think that they have just such an ability. It’s a classic case of “substitution” – the question of who would be best at a given job is hard to answer on the basis of a 30 minute interview, but it is easy to answer the question as to who do I like, or who reminds me of my own bad self as a youngster, and that is who we likely end up picking.

If as a white collar employer you know the interview is worthless, you would just pick recent grads on the basis of GPA and prestige of school, not necessarily in that order (assuming difficulty of the major is controlled for by the nature of the job – i.e. no one is looking to hire an English major for an engineering job). However, given rampant grade inflation has compressed the range of GPAs both within and across schools to be very narrow, you can safely ignore the GPA (assume “pay your fee, get your B”), and you are left making decisions on the basis of the prestige of the school.
Now take this one step further, and regress back to what determined who got into Harvard versus Sam Houston State. It was no doubt a bizarre combination of parental lineage, SAT scores, and the number of oppressed groups a candidate could claim membership within. For a legacy, subtract 200-300 points from the average SAT score for that school; similarly, subtract 200-300 points for each historically oppressed group the candidate claims membership within. If the job candidate is Asian, add 200 points – if this is literally off the chart for the SAT score, you are probably still underestimating his intelligence. Or, better yet, ask them directly what score they received on their SAT. And there you have it – if you are looking for the smartest kid to hire, do it exclusively on the basis of comparative SAT scores. No need for them to go to college. In fact, no need for college.

No need for college? That is correct, I just proved it mathematically. QED. Ergo! Caveat Emptor! Ever heard of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle? Morons. Actually, they were kinda smart, but you don’t need to go to college to know that. As a matter of fact, you can probably download all of their writings in various different English translations onto a $50 Kindle for free. Well, so maybe reading all of that stuff without the context added by a tweed jacketed guy who constantly rubs his bearded chin while striking a philosophical pose is a grossly inefficient way to learn what you need to know. (I don’t mean to be sexist – there are plenty of tweed jacketed women in academia who also rub their beards). If that is your cup of tea, you can go to college and take a course with a guy who smells of pipe smoke and waxes philosophic. If you go to a college with a $40K tuition, you can take a 3 credit course that provides you approximately 37.5 hours of instruction at an hourly rate of approximately $106 per hour. You might say that’s over-estimating it, as surely there are cheaper colleges. But then again, MIT certainly costs that much, and rather than moving to the dismal climate of Boston, you could just get a $40 per month internet connection and watch the MIT lectures for nearly every class online at no additional cost. From your couch. While eating bon bons in your underwear. Education is an information good, and the cost of information has basically dropped to nothing, but there you are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a fictional earnings premium. Look at that - I’m proving the superfluity of college again with completely different math.

I can hear your objections right now. But Hatcher, if we shut down all of the colleges, how are kids going to be able to learn how to drink in excess, do recreational drugs, and learn the nuances of having meaningless sex? I can say on the basis of personal experience that college has no guarantee of providing such knowledge – I only mastered the first of the three, and felt obligated to get a Ph.D. to complete my education, and still came out 1 for 3 (although to my credit, I did become mediocre in foosball during graduate school). But nonetheless, even for those convinced they will get a more rounded experience of debauchery than me, there is a very simple answer. Get a plane ticket and rent an apartment in Amsterdam for your kid for one month, stake him with an extra $10K for spending, and he can do all those things legally for one-tenth of the cost and one fiftieth of the time required to send him to college.

But Hatcher, if we shut down all of the colleges, all of those crazy leftwing humanities professors will escape the ivory walls we’ve managed to encase them in and spill into the streets. That is a legitimate concern, but it is not hard to predict what ends up happening. Suppose, for example, they tried to simply go on doing research and writing articles with titles like “The Flintstones and American Misogyny,” and then tried to drum up people to pay for them to lecture to them about similar topics. Do you think they’d have willing buyers? They do within the confines of the “ivory tower” due to a few factors: 1) the sales value of the fiction of the causal college premium; 2) they collusively with the students keep the course less than rigorous so as not to get in the way of kids learning to drink to excess, do recreational drugs, and have recreational sex, and therefore the kids never tell their suckers … er, I mean parents… what kind of crap they are paying for; and 3) heavy government subsidization. Take away these factors, and leave these people to their own devices to shop their wares on the streets of your community, it will take all of two weeks before the extent of their lectures amounts to “Welcome to Starbucks, can I take your order?” Although they will be working for a multinational profit-driven corporation, they can pat themselves on the back for only selling fair trade coffee. And finally they will providing a useful service. It’s a win-win for everyone.

But Hatcher, what about the vital things we learn in these classes that prepare us for the work world? Cue crickets chirping. Bwahaha! Like I said before, if you are wise enough to pick a major that has actual real world applications, just fire up ye olde internet and suck down a course or two a week if you are so inclined. The bonus for you is that no one will require you sign up for a certain amount of credits in the college of liberal arts in order to make you a “well-rounded” student (which is code speak for – we cannot convince enough people to actually major in this crap to justify keeping these aged hippies employed, so you gotta take a couple of these courses from these freaks). This is the business genius of the college model – for a course you could literally see every lecture for on-line in the course of a week, they stretch it out for 15, make you take other courses you don’t want to take in combination, and require that you be in near proximity so that you end up purchasing your food and lodging from the company store. Once upon a time such was necessary, but now it’s just admirably ingenious larceny.

For those who set out to college to study Post-Modern Feminist Pedagogy and similar inane studies, the good news for you is that the elimination of colleges doesn’t mean you will be missing out on learning any pliable job skills. Those majors are the pride of the university system, because after pouring $200K and 4 years of your life into learning how to express your scorn for your parents using big obscure words that your parents don’t understand from the made up vocabulary those fields are famous for, your only option is more schooling. Either you head off to law school (as the dean licks his lips over three more years of high tuition), or you decide to get a Ph.D. in said field and become a professional crank. Don’t even think about medical school, because they generally want some knowledge beyond reading at a tenth grade level as a prerequisite for entry (because they’re fascists!).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The War Against Children, Educaton Spending, and Speech Therapy for Your Drunk Uncle

One of the more depressing aspects of the most recent presidential election was the success of the “war on women” meme, which improbably worked in convincing a bunch of 20-something women that Mitt Romney had a deep and abiding interest in taking away their birth control (or, perhaps more precisely, simply refusing to pay for it). The success of this campaign was probably bolstered by the fact that few of these women could get a job in the Obama economy (women’s employment and workforce participation rates are down significantly under this President), and therefore spent much of their time getting their freak on and worrying about the potential consequences therefrom. (The alleged desire to take away birth control was the only new aspect to “women’s issues” – the dividing lines on abortion were no different in 2012 than they were in 1980. It was only after the election that we’d find out about the butcher Gosnell’s murderous abortion clinic, and the complete indifference to women’s safety displayed by the agencies responsible for regulating Gosnell’s house of horrors.)

And so a national election literally turned on a non-issue invented by George Stephanopolous with one question in a Republican primary debate, and the petulant whining of a law student whose contribution to the proud history of women’s liberation was to convince her cohort that it was grave injustice that they themselves, or in combination with their partner, would actually have to foot the bill for knocking the boots. It’s a sad testament to the power the media has to “frame” the issues that become important in an election. There is no doubting that this had a discernible effect on the election, and it is hard to imagine a more frivolous election issue, but such frivolity was necessary to distract people from the failure of the Obama administration to make any headway with the economy, let alone in its foreign policy, which is something of a joke, at least to our enemies. If future historians ever wish to point to a turning point that displayed the utter lack of seriousness in our political culture, they need not look further than the 2012 war on women.

A more serious issue that will be increasingly part of the media “frame” for current and future elections is income inequality. There is no doubt that the degree of income inequality is rising, both in the U.S. and in most developed countries. The fact of income inequality is likely to redound to the favor of those who seek to rectify the inequality by simply moving dollars from one hand to another. Obama famously told Joe the Plumber it’s time to spread the good fortune around in 2008, and followed that in 2012 by telling successful business owners your success is owed to someone else who built your fortune, and by extension now has a claim on your income through the coercive power of government to redistribute as it sees fit. More recently, the newly-elected Communist mayor of New York city lectured that it is only fair that the richest among New Yorkers (many of whom will soon be New Jerseyans) give a little more (a quaint euphemism for having more taken from them in taxes at the penalty of prison) to create more equal opportunity.

Income inequality and equality of opportunity are not one and the same. Greater redistribution presumably has two mechanisms to address income inequality: 1) the direct way is by simply thinning out the rich and giving directly to the poor, which may or may not have an ancillary effect on equality of opportunity; and 2) alternatively, the higher tax revenues can be used to improve educational opportunities for impoverished youth, which may directly provide more equality of opportunity, and indirectly might improve income inequality. And this is where the never-ending demands of the public education establishment come to the fore. Who can deny a kid an equal opportunity? Someone who opposes the latest increase in school spending, no matter the lack of evidence that higher spending improves educational outcomes – that’s who.

Are we shorting poor kids in education spending? In 1970–1971, the per-pupil expenditures were $5,593, and in 2006–2007, those same expenditures are measured at $12,463. In contrast to the spending, test scores haven’t risen since the early 1970s (Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation).

Of course, this is only average per pupil spending, and there may be significant and growing differences in spending per pupil in rich versus poor school systems. But while this may be true in some states, at the national level Washington D.C. is second only to the state of New York in per pupil spending, at close to $16,500 per kid. Here’s a little secret about Washington D.C. – there are a lot of very rich white people who live in Northwest D.C., who being card-carrying liberals dutifully pay their taxes and don’t complain about the schools. There is a reason they don’t complain about the schools – they wouldn’t be caught dead sending their kids to any of the public schools, because the schools are a disaster. They exist to serve the middle class administrators and teachers, and more importantly the union that represents them, and educational outcomes are a non-factor.

Compare the DC figure to the Leander school district in Texas, a state that ranked 43rd out of 50 in education spending in 2010, when the per pupil spending in 2010-11 was approximately $7,300. (This appears to be roughly in line with the average in Texas). My kids attend Leander schools. Prior to attending Leander schools, they were all enrolled in Arlington County schools in Virginia, which boasted per pupil spending of over $18,000 in 2012. At that time, my first and fourth graders were in classes with 25 other kids; that equates to an astounding $450,000 per classroom, but don’t expect a fifth grader in D.C. to be able to make that calculation. Hands down, the Leander schools we attend are superior to the Arlington schools we attended. My kids are challenged in every class here – they do far more writing, have much higher study demands, and have more inspirational teachers with more energy (it helps, I think, that the schools they attend here are less than 8 years old, and there is little deadweight in the form of tenured teachers who are total slackers, which we definitely saw in the older more established Arlington Middle School my kids attended).

How is it that the Leander schools with half the budget are so superior to the nationally recognized Arlington schools we attended? How is it that the D.C. schools, despite spending that is roughly in-line with the nationally recognized Arlington schools, are such a disaster? There is a simple reason, and it relates to the overall investment in the education of kids in these different districts. In my neighborhood in Texas, there are very few single parent families – I know of none personally, and I am a pretty social guy; moreover, the norm here is the more traditional single income family, typically with mothers staying at home to care for the kids. In Arlington, within our school district, there was more economic diversity, and a non-negligible portion of single family homes; additionally, many of the more well-off in the neighborhood were dual-income families, where both parents had significant work demands. And finally, in D.C., there is a very high proportion of single parent households left with no other option than the D.C. public schools.

If there were a way to measure the overall investment in the education of kids in my current neighborhood versus Arlington and D.C., I think you’d find we are spending more per-pupil by a wide margin. (Or, alternatively, if the direct parental investment is small in actual dollars, it is nevertheless necessary for the school spending portion to yield any success.) This means that not only are our kids coming in prepared for class, their classmates are as well because their parents, like us, are cracking the whip at home, helping with homework when needed, encouraging and rewarding their childrens’ efforts, and seeking opportunities outside of the traditional school environment to enhance their childrens’ education. With classmates prepared and motivated to do well, the peer group effect kicks in to reinforce the parents’ efforts at home. A motivated and prepared student body attracts better teachers. Maybe the parental investment is small relative to the per-pupil spending, but it appears to be necessary for educational success, and can clearly more than overcome any shortfall in per pupil spending.

I’m not sure if the inferiority of the Arlington schools we attended is due to the dual-income households, or the relatively higher proportion of single-parent households. Maybe it’s a little of both. Many of the dual-income households I knew personally were very vested in their kids’ education, but honestly having seen the work required of parents in our Texas schools to keep their kids on track with the higher homework demands I see here, I am not sure that increasing the workload for kids in Arlington would be met with much fanfare, especially since everyone in Arlington is already convinced that their schools are top notch.

Take my anecdotal comparison for what it’s worth, but I think there is a simple underlying truth – you can throw as much money as you want at educating kids in single-parent households, but these kids are generally more prone to lacking any corresponding investment in their education from home. And even if their single mom (the typical case) is making Herculean efforts to stay vested in their education, the likelihood is that she lives in a school district surrounded by other single-parents not so invested, and so her kid is still surrounded in school by a peer group that thinks doing well in school is not so cool. It’s hard to learn if the kids surrounding you are throwing paper airplanes past your nose, while your teacher pops another anti-anxiety pill.

If these observations aren’t self-evident to you based on your own experience of parenting, wanna trade kids? And if they are self-evident, isn’t it time to acknowledge that the source of inequality of opportunity is not a failure to support public school spending? I don’t doubt the earnestness of many public school teachers in these beleaguered school districts, but I’d be surprised if many of them believe that the educational outcomes of their students could be significantly improved by increased spending. Who believes, for example, that a doubling of per pupil spending in DC would change anything? Democratic politicians always beat the drum of increasing public school spending, which serves them directly through support of the very powerful teachers’ unions. But the increased spending is usually so disconnected from educational outcomes as to be laughable.

If you want to increase equality of opportunity, a worthy goal indeed, you have to address the fact that 40 percent of children born today in America are born to a single-parent household. For these kids, there is no over-coming the deficit they face relative to their more fortunate peers who go home to Mom and Dad. This is not the fault first and foremost of “society”, and it certainly isn’t the fault of capitalism; it is most directly the fault of one or both of two parents who purposefully screw over their kids.

So here is a little “framing” for ya – there is no war being waged in our culture, political or otherwise, against women. This is a fiction of the liberal imagination. In contrast, there is a war against children being waged primarily by their own parents, and the opposition to children in that war has the full support of a popular culture that is wedded to the notion of sexual freedom without judgment, and a political culture that is wedded to the welfare state as a means of spreading the cost of the cultural capitulation. The war pits parents against their kids, and there is no doubt which side the cultural and political left sides with.

Fifty years ago, if you were unlucky enough to be born to a single-parent home, you were one of 25 in that position, and so you were surrounded in your classroom by kids much like those who surround my kids in their current schools. But as that number grew to 4 in 10, very naturally the other 6 in 10 gravitated to separate neighborhoods, so that now the 4 in 10 have little experience, even indirectly, of successful marriages. One in twenty five can be chalked up to accidents will happen; four in ten is a sign of deep cultural crisis. For those four in ten, their first lesson in life, fully supported by the popular culture, is a duty to making yourself happy – if marriage and parenthood is an obstacle to that duty, no one blames you for walking away from both. They are damned to repeat that lesson for their own kids. And yet, when election time rolls around, we are asked to ignore the elephant in the room, as if the stork has just randomly ramped up delivering babies to unsuspecting single woman.

Chances are that if you are reading this, or if you are involved or interested in the debate over equality of opportunity or income inequality, you were raised in a stable two-parent family. The President himself is a notable exception, but I think we can all safely agree that the odds of most kids abandoned by their father parlaying a memoir replete with composite white girlfriends into leadership of the free world are exceedingly small. And yet one side to this debate doesn’t notice the key factor that distinguished who is engaged in the debate versus who the debate concerns. It is as if a completely sober nephew is going to great lengths to get speech therapy for his uncle who slurs his speech because he’s drunk all the time. It’s called enabling.

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