Education and marriage

How do marriage and education relate to successful societies?

Recently I’ve been toying with some ideas that seem contrarian, but perhaps that merely reflects my ignorance of the literature.  Marriage and education are highly correlated with positive life outcomes, in many dimensions.  Many people believe the causation runs from marriage and education to better life outcomes.  Some believe that policies that improve education and encourage higher marriage rates will lead to better societies.  This is where I become a bit skeptical.

Steve Waldman has a post that does an excellent job of explaining why encouraging more people to marry is a bad idea, especially where their marriage options are far from optimal.  Perhaps economic success causes higher marriage rates. Ross Douthat has a long commentary on the Waldman piece, which is equally brilliant.  When I read those two I’m sort of like the pillow that has the impression left by the last person who sat on it.

Here I’d like to make a Waldman-type argument for education.  I’m not wedded to this hypothesis (and I also have an open mind on the utility of marriage) but I think it’s at least worth considering.  The argument I’d like to make is that good educational systems don’t cause good societies; rather good societies cause good educational systems.  I’m going to cheat a bit in my definition of “good societies,” both by leaving it vague and allowing that it might to some extent apply to a poor place like South Korea circa 1970.  In other words societal quality is related to many variables beyond income, including social cohesion, low levels of violence, lack of tribalism, liberal attitudes in the broadest sense of the word (such as empowering women and allowing dissent), etc.

Why are so many intellectuals attracted to the idea that better education can help solve society’s problems?  Partly because they are intellectuals.  Partly because at the individual level better educated people do better on average, in many respects.  Partly because the idea appeals to both liberals and conservatives.  They might disagree about precisely how the educational system should be improved, but can at least agree that an improvement would significantly improve society.

Here are a few reasons why I am skeptical:

1.  I’ve never met anyone who’s life outcome seemed strongly linked to the quality of their schooling, particularly the parts of education that get all the attention (quality of structures, teachers, curriculum, etc.)  I’ve known people who dropped out of high school, or chose not to go to college when they could have, but in no case was their decision in any way related to a dysfunctional school system.  Nor have I ever participated in a discussion of another person not present (i.e. gossip) that attributed that person’s failings to the schools they went to.  It’s always personal qualities, or a tough home environment. I can imagine that there might be cases where education was to blame, but typically those cases are associated with attending schools with a climate of fear, a lack of respect for learning, and a non-supportive home environment.  I.e., things that are not easily reformed through public policy.  FWIW, one reason I support vouchers is that I believe that private schools would be less likely to be dominated by a climate of fear.  So I’m not saying policy has no effect.

2.  Bryan Caplan recently discussed some studies that show how efforts to improve education in poor countries often produce disappointing results.  Students often attend schools for many years, and still have weak academic skills.  This obviously fits in with my hypothesis.  In my view the educational failures of countries like Afghanistan and Haiti are more likely to reflect the dysfunction of society than a lack of spending on schooling.

At one level my message seems pessimistic, not much can be done in backward areas.  But you can also interpret my hypothesis in a much more positive way.  If “success” can be brought to those rural villages then they will start improving their educational systems.  What do I mean by “success”?  Among other things I mean more income and more liberal attitudes.  Global media outlets can help instill more liberal attitudes, and better economic policies can help bring more income.  India and China are examples of the latter. When society becomes more liberal and richer, it will choose to offer better education (and better health care and other social services.)

Is there any evidence in favor of my hypothesis?  You would want to find some places with “good institutions” in general, but which for some quirky historical reason abandoned good schools and marriage.  If I’m right, those places should still be highly successful.  After all, I’m claiming that success leads to good schools and successful families, not vice versa.  An implication is that if some quirky historical factor blocks the normal “success –> marriage/education” outcome, then the success will still be there.  So where is this contrarian utopia?

Utopia means nowhere, but it seems to me that Sweden comes close.  I’m told that the “hippie generation” ruined Sweden’s school system with very lax policies.  I’m not sure if that’s true, but they do score relatively low on international rankings, far below neighboring Finland.  Yet Sweden is one of the richest countries in Europe, indeed richer than Finland.

Sweden also has fairly low marriage rates.  The counterargument is that many Swedes have stable partnerships without being married.  But I see that as supporting my point.  In a successful society you can remove an institution that Douthat believes is essential, and still achieve success.

To be sure, Sweden’s schools are still light years ahead of those in Afghanistan and Haiti, and you do need a certain amount of education to have a successful society.  But as I observe my daughter go through the 9th grade in a highly rated public high school, I am struck by how much of what she learns will have no useful role to play in her future career.  Some of the math homework is geometric problems that even engineers would rarely see, or endlessly solving various arcane algebraic relationships.  A skill that would never even be used in most technical fields, but will help on SATs.  There is lots of stuff on things like agricultural techniques in the Middle Ages.  I’m not trying to be critical, it’s great that they are already studying concepts like Acemoglu’s extractive/inclusive distinction in the 9th grade.  I’m an intellectual too.  My only point is that a society can be full of reasonably happy productive people even if they only learn 1/2 of what my daughter learns (please no one tell her.)  Sweden has happy productive people with a school system far inferior to that of Finland.

It seems to me that a mediocre school might make it harder to become a doctor or lawyer.  But are there actually people who didn’t learn enough to find middle income jobs like electrician, nurse, cop, plumber, etc., simply because the schools weren’t good enough?  Or was the actual problem that they didn’t study hard enough? (Perhaps due to a nightmarish home/neighborhood environment””I’m not interested in blaming the victim here.)  If I’m right, how will fixing our schools solve poverty?

Are there arguments in the other direction?  I recall there is a Heckman study showing that having good teachers when young can produce lifelong benefits.  I’d be interested in hearing other views.  I’m not wedded to my skeptical views of marriage and education.  I’ve been married for 20 years and am a teacher.  

PS.  Being a contrarian I was attracted to the idea of doing this post partly because the marriage skepticism puts me on the liberal side, whereas my views on education seem slightly at odds with a popular liberal solution to society’s problems.

PPS.  I also wonder if China is an example of my hypothesis.  At least until recently, they spent relatively little on education.  It seems to me that China’s economic growth is causing education to improve, more than the reverse.

PPPS.  One problem with the otherwise excellent Waldman post is that he describes an America split between the rich and poor.  I doubt this is true; the vast majority of Americans are probably in the middle.  At least if you accept the assumption that income is the right way to measure inequality.  I don’t, so I’m still willing to consider the two societies hypothesis.  But where is the evidence?

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66 Responses to “Education and marriage”

  1. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    21. May 2014 at 19:13

    Human well-being and happiness is predicated on one thing, and one thing only: Freedom. Freedom is predicated on philosophy, which is predicated on a respect for reason. It all goes back to reason.

    Reduce initiations of violence and coercion against the individual (this includes coercion in the form of central banking), allow individuals to use their reason, and growth in material prosperity, education, and quality of home life will be maximized.

    Inflation, even “stable” inflation, is destructive to human life and has a progressive negative effect. Inflation allows for persistent government deficits. Persistent government deficits saps the lifeblood of a growing economy: REAL savings and REAL private investment. Deficits redirect real resources away from the market and into government control, where waste, fraud, and mayhem are rampant. Inflation also encourages the belief that the government is a source of prosperity. One of the most destructive myths imaginable is the myth that the government is not a coercive redistributor of wealth, but a creator of wealth. Inflation has encouraged this myth. Inflation allows demagogic politicians to lead people to think of government welfare programs only in terms of their alleged benefits, with little to no regard for the costs. They have been able to depict the alleged benefits of one government program after another as though no costs were involved. And at each Fabian socialist step, they have depicted the opponents as ill-willed curmudgeons. After all, if the programs were free, then there could be no other reason to be against them.

    With some exaggeration, but not much, the public has become convinced that the government is Santa Claus.

    The effect of this delusion is a massive expansion of the state. If the state only relied on taxes, the overwhelming bulk of existing government programs would rightly be viewed as far too costly.

    Add to this the delusion that rising prices is caused not by the government, but by greedy businessmen, and you have yet another source for anti-capitalism and growth in government.

    Inflation also enables far more bridge to nowhere boondoggles and war mongering. It facilitates the delusion that wars are not as costly as they really are. Government inflation enables governments to avoid raising taxes to finance war. That leads the public to believe that even war is costless. And, the rising prices that result from it, can still be blamed on greedy businessmen.

    At a deeper root still, inflation enables socialists to convince more and more people of the illusion that the average individual is helpless, and the government is benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent. On the one hand, the individual has unmet needs. On the other hand, there is government, with funds not derived from individuals but miraculously created outside the economic system, out of thin air. Thus it becomes possible to perceive the government in actual practise in accordance with the socialist’s fundamental view of it as an all powerful, merciful, redeeming father.

    It should not be forgotten that Lenin wrote that inflation is the surest way to destroy capitalism.

    Keynes’ advocated for inflation to lower interest rates via the liquidity effect, and so destroy profit and interest, i.e. the “euthenasia of the rentier”, which was designed to achieve the goals of Marxism without revolution.

    Inflation financed deficits also foster the warped practise of burdening future generations of net tax paying individuals who are made responsible for debt that they had no say in the matter of creating.

    Adam Smith pointed out that war should not be financed by inflation, government deficits and borrowing, because while the effect would be to make wartime taxes less than they otherwise would have been, its effect is to encourage and prolong wars and to shorten the periods of peace and capital accumulation. Smith pointed out that the effect would be peacetime taxes become as high as wartime taxes would have been without the deficits.

    Inflation also redistributes resources away from wealth generating activities, to wealth consuming activities. It undermines capital formation in at least five different ways.

    1.It reverses the safety between stocks and bonds. It makes all long term contracts denominated in a fixed sum of money utterly meaningless, because it places the value of them totally at the mercy of the government officials and pressure groups. It would be like contracting to receive “one ton” of iron or wheat next year, without the word “ton” having any objective meaning and subject to the whims of whoever has their fingers on CTRL-P on the counterfeiting terminal who would define “one ton” any way they want. The only thing people can be certain of, is that when they do receive the fixed payments, they would be worth substantially less than they are now.

    Yet fixed payment contracts are vital. They are valued by individuals not willing to bear substantial risk or search out more complicated investments like common stock. Inflation has encouraged unsophisticated investors to pour money into the stock market, having little to no clue what they are getting themselves involved in.

    2. It leads to firms paying more taxes that eats into their ability to replace capital. Inflation increases profits almost all of which are necessary to replace the higher priced capital used up in production. And yet the government taxes those profits as if they represented higher real profits. This has encouraged a gutting of the industry of the US and turned it overseas where competing countries have far less of an opportunity to attract resources via inflation and who must compete more on quality and quantity. They don’t have the curse of their fiat currencies being the de facto world currency.

    3. Overconsumption. Inflation breeds the illusion of prosperity purely because of higher nominal profits statistics, irrespective of real variables. That encourages more consumption and lower capital accumulation.

    4. Malinvestment. Don’t need to explain this in detail.

    5. Withdrawal of wealth. Spending newly created money must create losses somewhere in the economic system equal to the unearned gain of the spenders. Inflation enables spenders to draw wealth out of the economy without putting any wealth into the economy. Individual businessmen may not be aware of this fact, because they can reexchange the money for goods and services of others. But the losses must fall somewhere.

    All of the above effects serve to impoverish the wage earning class as well.

    Sorry to say, but MMs really don’t seem to appreciate all the effects of inflation on society. There seems to be purpseful blinders put on to not have to deal with these issues. Maybe it’s because they have studied it for so long, and have lived with inflation all their lives, that inflation has become like water in a fish bowl, and they are fish. It’s extremely difficult to detect the effects of inflation when there is no counter-example to compare to, anywhere in the world.

    To improve human life, the government must be deprived of the power to inflate money for itself.

    Psychologically, introducing inflation introduces a reversal of monetary dependency. Instead of the government depending on the people for money, the people become dependent on the government. This cannot have any other effect but the destruction of division of labor. We’re seeing this every day in the US, and around the world. Ever growing government, and MMs are there, clamoring for more of the cause of the problems.

  2. Gravatar of Joel Aaron Freeman Joel Aaron Freeman
    21. May 2014 at 19:32

    If Caplan’s signaling hypothesis about education is correct, then subsidizing schooling would probably reduce the marriage rate. The more you subsidize schooling, the longer people stay in school and the later they develop a trade and the later they achieve financial security.

    If the average young person finished school at age 16, then by age 26 they’d have ten years of savings and work experience under their belt. I bet that would make 26 year olds a bit more attractive as prospective spouses.

  3. Gravatar of LK Beland LK Beland
    21. May 2014 at 19:38

    Concerning the two societies, there seems to be evidence that Gibbs-Boltzmann distributions describe the income of the bottom 97% of earners, while Pareto distributions apply to the top 3 %.

  4. Gravatar of LK Beland LK Beland
    21. May 2014 at 19:39


  5. Gravatar of Jonathan Jonathan
    21. May 2014 at 20:26

    Jewish Ashkenazi children who survived the holocaust hiding or in a concentracion camp were still able to have successful careers.

  6. Gravatar of Ironman Ironman
    21. May 2014 at 20:41

    The best argument that one can make that the two societies hypothesis might be correct is a demographic one. If you first consider the typical lifetime income earning trajectories earned by Americans at different education levels, and then factor in the age distribution of the U.S. population, you’ll find a very large population (Baby Boomers) at the topmost end of the income earning spectrum, and a very large population (Millennials/Generation Y) at the lowest end. Sandwiched in between is the much smaller middle-income earning segment of the population known as Generation X.

    It’s this combination of factors accounts for the two societies perception. Actually three, since Generation X is being ignored. As usual.

    I should note that this age-income distribution is something that retailers have had to adapt to in developing their marketing strategies.

  7. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    22. May 2014 at 01:47

    I sent you an email yesterday at about 4PM. I’m just curious if you received it.

  8. Gravatar of Mikael Mikael
    22. May 2014 at 04:20

    Some would say privatization destroyed Swedish education. It turns out people, children in particular, are very poor customers of education. Easily swayed by teasers, such as free laptops and iPads, people don’t in fact shop for good education but rather for tangible goods or the notion of an attractive lifestyle which are more easily evaluated, both ex ante and ex post, than education.

    But again, it’s all politics. Libertarians have to believe individuals are the best customers of the goods and services consumed by themselves. There can’t possibly be any benefit in collective action and public goods, it just have to be the hippies.

  9. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    22. May 2014 at 04:21

    Interesting post.

    Related: When I was young (I am same age as Scott Sumner) it was optional to go to kindergarten. My parents were “progressive” so I went. I liked it,and had fun. Mrs. Sweeting (then we used Mrs. and Miss) was a great teacher. But many peers simply showed up for first grade, usually at age six, but sometimes at age seven for much of the year, depending on when born.

    Later, pre-schooling became all but required and what I would call pre-pre schooling was next. Now, they talk about “your child may not be ready for pre-school at 2 1/2 years.”

    In Finland students can start at age 7 in first grade.

    Is there any evidence this early “schooling” does anything?

    Switching over to the other end of the spectrum, I have also wondered about MBAs. Sure, there is spreadsheet work in the real world. But any estimate of profits relies heavily on estimates of sales, and then estimates of some costs that are not controllable. Try estimating sales. I ran a cabinet-furniture company for 20 years. Sales did what they did.

    Most of thèse profit projections can be done with hand calculators or simple Apple computer with enough accuracy, given the wild inaccuracy of predictions.

    So much of running a successful business depends on something undefinable: What products will sell, gaining clients (often through charisma), hiring good people. Hiring good salespeople. Working government regs, civic relations. They can teach that in MBA School? Steve Jobs says the most important thing he ever did was drop LSD.

    In the end, I think people should go to college as it will be a rare stretch in your life in which you are free to read great works of literature, or study art, get down into the basics of science engineering and math. Meet other people thrilled to be on the learning path with you. Unless you are lucky enough to stay in academia, that won’t happen again.

    But I doubt education does much to make businesses or economies run better, beyond making sure everyone can read and handle a calculator, and shows up for work with something like a work ethic.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. May 2014 at 04:49

    Joel, Good point.

    LK and Jonathan, Interesting.

    Ironman, Yes, I’ve often argued that age plays a big role in income distribution data.

    Mark, Yes I did, unfortunately these days I am very slow to respond to emails.

    Mikael, You said:

    “Some would say privatization destroyed Swedish education.”

    I have two comments on this:

    1. The privatization was quite recent. And most Swedes still go to state schools. So the argument is highly implausible for two reasons.

    2. I was not aware that Swedish education was “destroyed.” Indeed since I don’t believe test scores are a good way of evaluating education, I am skeptical of all claims about the quality of education. What is your evidence that Swedish education was “destroyed?” And if true, can we infer from the success of Sweden’s economy that it doesn’t matter if education is destroyed, and you might as well treat the students like customers, and keep them happy?

    Ben, Very good points.

  11. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    22. May 2014 at 04:51

    Argh, I hate posts like these. It’s almost impossible not to get suckered into commenting. So, a short comment on marriage.

    NPR recently had a story about a Bangladeshi immigrant who was shot by a white supremacist.

    The story is relatively straight-forward. It was rather the ancillary comments of the author, Anand Giridharadas, which caught my attention.

    He says something to the effect that the ultimate inequality is not having a family–a father in the home. He speaks of rural America as a revolving door of transient living arrangements, without stability or security. He says, paraphrasing, “You know, all those well meaning coastal elites want to go to India or somewhere to do good. Maybe they should go to Kentucky instead.”


  12. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    22. May 2014 at 04:55

    Scott –

    Why not do a post on the comparable scores of public and success charter schools in Harlem. Talk about eye-opening.

  13. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    22. May 2014 at 05:05

    Thanks, it included a large attachment so I just wanted to make sure it made it.

  14. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    22. May 2014 at 05:11

    Alternative education: The American Boychoir School

    My sons attends the American Boychoir School here in Princeton. It is, for all intents and purposes, a professional choir for 5-8th graders. It is arguably the country’s premier treble choir.

    Here’s their partial schedule this year (including a movie with Dustin Hoffman):

    Sept: two weeks choir festival tour in Korea
    Oct: record “Journey On” album
    Oct: regional tour (8 states)
    Nov: sign Britten with Boston Symphony Orchestra at BSO Hall (carried live on WGBH)
    Dec: Christmas concert with Canadian Brass; sing at Metropolitan Club in NY
    Feb: Southern tour- Delaware to Florida
    Mar: Film “Boychoir” with Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates
    April: Sing with Bette Midler at Bunny Mellon funeral in Va
    May: Regional tour PA to Michigan
    May: Record soundtrack to “Boychoir”
    May: Road trip to France for jazz festival and regional tour

    The boys will have been on the road 100 days; 70 days overnight of state. They will have sung perhaps 100 performances. They are hard core professionals–and they know it. You get the sense of how the Beatles must have been after that early stint in Germany.

    There are a couple of camps (overnight) for the Boychoir during the summer. If you have children in the 5-8th grade, I strongly recommend it. It’s the kids’ favorite summer camp in Princeton. I’d add that my son was recruited out of camp. He didn’t have a prior singing background.

    It is learning by doing, and I can assure you, you will never see a more professional bunch anywhere in the world.

  15. Gravatar of Daniel Daniel
    22. May 2014 at 05:12

    > “You know, all those well meaning coastal elites want to go to India or somewhere to do good. Maybe they should go to Kentucky instead.”

    Yeah, but that’s not status-raising.

  16. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    22. May 2014 at 05:16

    I blogged:

    In Support of Reparations

  17. Gravatar of Benjamin Lockwood Benjamin Lockwood
    22. May 2014 at 05:30

    For evidence on the causal impact of good teachers (which is different from, but related to, the question of the quality of the education system as a whole) check out Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff (2011):

    The study uses administrative data and a quasi-experimental research design.

    “Students assigned to high-value-added teachers are more likely to attend college, attend higher-ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in higher SES neighborhoods, and save more for retirement. They are also less likely to have children as teenagers. Teachers have large impacts in all grades from 4 to 8. … Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.”

  18. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    22. May 2014 at 05:37

    @Benjamin Cole
    Benjamin, studies have concluded that pre-k education is a very poor indicator of future success. I’m still a fan of it because those are very difficult and expensive years for parents, and I like the idea of lessening the burden on parents, particularly single parents. Anecdotally, as a parent of elementary and middle school children. The skill gap among first graders is startlingly wide (with boy vs. girl be the largest distinction), but it completely reshuffles by fourth or fifth grade. I think children should go to kindergarten because it gives the parents a rest, saves the parents money and it’s a great way for children and parents to make friends. As for college, I agree that it’s all about signalling. I don’t consider applicants without degrees because it’s an easy way to filter out a lot of flawed candidates.

  19. Gravatar of Alek Alek
    22. May 2014 at 06:11

    Benjamin Cole,

    There is evidence in both directions about the impact of early childhood intervention. Most importantly it matters how it is implemented. Heckman has lots of research that shows that simply playing educational games with kids, etc, has long term benefits. These are not necessarily measurable in IQs or grades, but rather in things like prison outcomes.

  20. Gravatar of Wonks Anonymous Wonks Anonymous
    22. May 2014 at 06:49

    My understanding is that in cross-national comparisons, economic growth precedes education rather than the other way around.

  21. Gravatar of Tom Tom
    22. May 2014 at 09:22

    Recommendations for improving education generally is of the “can you send more children to college?” variety. Alternatively, matching skills to abilities can be more productive. Technical high schools were ubiquitous in NY as recently as the early 1990s but I don’t know of any now in VA (and those prepare students for the sort of productive careers that you mentioned).

  22. Gravatar of Dan W. Dan W.
    22. May 2014 at 10:41

    What is the recipe for a “good” life: It is the values of work and responsibility and the common sense to avoid activities that risk leaving one dead or incarcerated.

    Education and Marriage signal a person has these values. But the values come first and without them both education and marriage are likely to disappoint.

  23. Gravatar of Joseph Joseph
    22. May 2014 at 14:47

    I think the debate about the common core serves as a counter argument to your first point. Specifically, how math is supposed to be taught with an emphasis on understanding numerical relationships at a fundamental level and not just algorithms for doing arithmetic.
    I think most people who deal with numbers on a day to day bases have a good “number sense” in that if you ask them add list of 3 digits numbers that is 100 numbers long, in the head, they can without too much trouble because they are not really just adding the numbers up one by one like most people would. Most people cannot do that type of math, and can’t imagine doing that or seeing why they should know how to do that, but having that skill is a huge advantage/necessity in a lot of jobs.

    By a similar argument, if someone’s school was bad when they were kid, but he still did well by the standards of the school, I would imagine it would be hard for him to imagine how a better a school would have helped him latter in life.

    P.S. here’s a link to a Vox article that gives an illustrative example of a common core based math problem causing a lot of hoopla but which seems to me like what everyone should learn.

  24. Gravatar of Mike Sproul Mike Sproul
    22. May 2014 at 15:16

    A good topic for twin studies (e.g., Behrman, Pollak and Taubman, JPE Feb 1982). They found that the twin that went to college earned 10% more per year that the twin that just graduated High school. Of course if you factored in the 10% reduction in work life caused by 4 years of college, the premium is even smaller.

  25. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    22. May 2014 at 15:19

    Thanks for your comments…you mnow in 40 years of asking how people really use MBAs, I have never received a good answer. Some people do say pre-schooling has benefits, usually social in nature…it is a curiousity of our culture that we have “higher” living standards than the 1960s but parents are stereotyped as too bedraggled by work obligations to take care of their own kids…

  26. Gravatar of john malpas john malpas
    22. May 2014 at 15:48

    my but economics makes people talkative.
    I thought that education was decided by the current power groups. In WW1 and WW2 it was needed to make machine gunners out of yokels.
    Now the unions use it to create support need for themselves.
    Ande so it goes.

  27. Gravatar of Catherine Catherine
    22. May 2014 at 16:58

    The Race Between Education and Technology Goldin & Katz

  28. Gravatar of Catherine Catherine
    22. May 2014 at 17:02

    Goldin & Katz: first research to show that working class with more education fared better in working class jobs than working class people with less education. They didn’t “need” more education to do their jobs. But they did their jobs better nonetheless.


  29. Gravatar of Catherine Catherine
    22. May 2014 at 17:13

    Also: E.D. Hirsch.

    The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have them

  30. Gravatar of Catherine Catherine
    22. May 2014 at 17:21


    correct link:

    The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D. Hirsch

  31. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. May 2014 at 18:51

    Steven, I think charter schools are fine, but I doubt that test scores tell us much about the quality of education.

    Benjamin, If that holds up it certainly undercuts my argument.

    Wonks, That’s what I would expect.

    I agree with most of the other comments–lots of good points. But no time tonight.

  32. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    22. May 2014 at 21:52

    Depends what you mean by “education.” A poor American will still get a vastly superior informal education than, say, a poor Pashtun or poor Chinese person. There are levels of ignorance that are hard for Westerners to fathom.

    Steven — it’s an interesting story, but it’s also the kind that NPR loves to tout. I’m not sure oikophobia is morally superior to xenophobia.

  33. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    22. May 2014 at 22:33

    @ Tall Dave

    “I’m not sure oikophobia is morally superior to xenophobia.”

    In this case, xenophilia seems the better opposite and more appropriate to the story told. I’m pretty sure that it is superior to xenophobia. Philias normally are morally superior to phobias because they do not entail, necessarily, hatred or dislike.

  34. Gravatar of Vivian Darkbloom Vivian Darkbloom
    22. May 2014 at 22:47

    @Tall Dave

    This is what you get from reading from the bottom up. The story about Choir Boys and their travels—an entirely different thing!

    If you are referring to the absent fathers (or mothers) I’d agree.

  35. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    23. May 2014 at 04:06


    I suspect causation runs in both directions, to some degree, when it comes to education and having a good society. The best education can only take a society so far, if charging interest is illegal, for example, or entire other industries are suppressed for the sake of primitive, economically arbitrary morality.

    And, of course, otherwise good societies can only do so well economically, if there is a shortage of well-educated people, although presumably immigration can help with that problem in some cases.

  36. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    23. May 2014 at 04:13


    By the way, it just occurred to me how little understanding and trust people have about markets when it comes to education. Shortages of properly skilled or educated workers should lead to rising salaries, which helps solve the problem, yet, as many point out, even the US has a supposed shortage of STEM workers.

  37. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. May 2014 at 05:28

    TallDave, Didn’t Mark Twain say he tried to avoid letting schooling get in the way of his education?

    Scott, Good points. When I read people claiming the US has a “shortage” of STEM workers, it makes me think we need to do a better job teaching the distinction between scarcity and shortage.

    Everyone, I’m surprised no one has offered any views on the Swedish/Finnish comparison. Why is Sweden richer despite having a (supposedly) inferior education system? Is education really as important as we assume? Should we focus more on making students happy, and less on how much they learn?

  38. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    23. May 2014 at 07:25


    I know next to nothing about the Sweden/Finland comparison, but I do think citizens in the US should focus more on being happy, which is why I favor something like Friedman’s negative income tax idea, except I wouldn’t hope inflation would just erode it over time.

    I might be fine with vouchers for American students, but I am concerned about the number of parents who might opt for schools that will reject teaching science, teach chauvinistic American history, etc. Would vouchers work in countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan, where some large percentage of parents might like to send their kids to very close-minded, even militant religious schools? I don’t know the answer. Maybe parents would put they perceived as the financial interests of their children first.

  39. Gravatar of Mikael Mikael
    23. May 2014 at 07:40

    Scott – Semantics. I only used destroyed as a synonym to your use of ruined, when you said “I’m told that the “hippie generation” ruined Sweden’s school system”. English is hard for a swede sometimes;o)

    I personally don’t think Swedish education is ruined nor destroyed. However, It’s obvious to me that the profit motive is orthogonal (or almost) to the incentives which creates for good education. Every textbook failure of free markets is present in the market for education.

    The process of making Swedish kids customers of their own education started at least 15 years ago, escalated eight years ago with the new administration.

    You said: “…and you might as well treat the students like customers, and keep them happy?”. – Surely, not even you can truly believe it’s a good idea to make kids customers of their own education. No kid wants to go to school and do homework, but every grownup wish they’d paid more attention in school.

  40. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    23. May 2014 at 07:49

    I just sent you an email about an urgent matter. Please read it as soon as you are able.

  41. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    23. May 2014 at 08:36


    “However, It’s obvious to me that the profit motive is orthogonal (or almost) to the incentives which creates for good education. Every textbook failure of free markets is present in the market for education.”

    How can a total falsehood be believed as “obviously” true?

    And what free market in education? Are you talking about in stories?

    Both theory and history suggest that the quality and quantity of education has declined because of government coercion and interference.

    Government activity is perfectly orthogonal to a good education.

  42. Gravatar of Peter Drake Peter Drake
    23. May 2014 at 13:39

    Scott, I share your doubts about test scores. Too easy to teach to the test without imparting the important things. To me, schools should be teaching learning and thinking skills, and whatever knowledge is considered important in the society (history, literature, etc.) and of the two the first is the most important.

    If a school does a good job on the learning and thinking skills then the scores will follow. For example, profiles a teacher at a disadvantaged school that does an exceptional job of educating his students. Apparently the whole school is awesome. To dispel confusion, Catholic schools are publicly funded in Ontario, as are French, and French-Catholic.

    My favourite quote from the article is “We had a new student join our class and on her first day, I handed her some textbooks. One of my students leaned over and whispered, ‘We never really use them.'”

  43. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    23. May 2014 at 21:51

    Younger middle school kids might not want to do homework, but their parents might want them to. Also don’t you remember having a class that you were passionate about and a teacher that was so interesting that you didn’t mind, even relished the challenge of homework

  44. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    23. May 2014 at 22:21

    Scott, Ive been meaning to ask you, whats yor take on the South Korean system of hagwons? There’s a profile in the online wsj called the “4 million dollar teacher.” The hagwon system is as close to a free market in education as Ive read about

  45. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    24. May 2014 at 14:05

    “Last year, Harlem Success Academy 5 (better known as Harlem 5) received two thousand six hundred and sixty-five applications for a hundred and twenty-five open seats. That’s an acceptance rate of 4.7 per cent, lower than that of any Ivy League university. Like all New York City charter schools, Success-school administrators select students through a random lottery.”

    So, 1 in every 20 applicants get into Harlem 5. What do you think Harlem parents think about the quality of that charter school, Scott?

    “The city’s most well-known charter schools also have remarkably high test scores, although it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons. Last year, sixty-four per cent of Harlem 5’s third graders passed the state English exam and eighty-eight per cent passed the state math exam. At P.S. 123, the Mahalia Jackson School, which is located in the same school building as Success, only eighteen per cent of students passed the English test and only five per cent passed the math test. (Citywide, charter-school students outperformed students in traditional schools in math but were slightly behind in English, according to state-exam data from last year.)”

    In building comparison: Harlem Success Charter vs PS 123

    English: H5: 64% pass rate; PS 123: 18% pass

    Math: H5: 88% pass; PS 123: 5% pass

    You don’t think that’s worth a story, Scott?

    What’s happening in PS 123 is horrific. If you’re in H5, you have a chance at a normal life. If you’re in PS 123, you’re already the refuse of society.

    There is a casual racism stemming from the Democratic Party. Because blacks and Hispanics are inherently inferior, so the assumption goes, and indeed unable to cope with the everyday tasks of society, they need to be kept on the dole, as students, as adults, as the elderly.

    And then along comes Harlem Success, and lo!, these very same people can perform at typical suburban public school levels. Yes, I think it’s a very big deal. Not every school is Success Charter, but Charter demonstrates that it can be done, and causal racial prejudices built into long-standing Democratic policies are just that. Prejudices.

  46. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    24. May 2014 at 16:27

    Mike Konczal:

    “The FT Gets Piketty’s Capital Argument Wrong”

  47. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    24. May 2014 at 16:48

    Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote “The Case for (Slave) Reparations” and it’s getting a lot of attention……

  48. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. May 2014 at 17:42

    Scott, Some schools will have a conservative anti-science bias, others will have liberal anti-science bias. That’s the beauty of free society. If government sets the agenda then every single school will make the same mistakes.

    Mikael, I’m afraid I disagree with almost everything you said. I was told that the problems in Sweden started in the 1960s. As far as vouchers, I think the market does a better job of delivering quality than the state. Competition works very well at the college level in the US.

    And I don’t think we’d be better off if kids did more homework. We’d be better off if schools made education more interesting. Lots of students are bored. I was bored stiff by school. There is plenty of time in the school day to learn all you need to learn.

    Edward, Don’t know much about their system, from the outside it seems they study too much. But obviously I’m not qualified to say anything more.

    Steven, That sounds quite promising.

    Travis, Interesting stories.

  49. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    24. May 2014 at 21:44

    Matt O’Brien is now at Wonkblog (Ezra Klein’s old site):

    Meanwhile, more on Piketty:

  50. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    25. May 2014 at 06:25

    Travis, in support of reparations:

  51. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    25. May 2014 at 06:40

    Scott (and Mark), other too…

    I get into it a bit here:

    Economists talk about Labor and Capital.

    I want to talk about Coders

    Labor has always been about atoms. Even where it was ideas driven, those ideas were replicated onto paper and plastic and moved around with muscle.

    Capital is $ or means of production.

    What we have now however is the fastest growing sector of the economy, indeed software is eating all the other sectors… is CODER labor.

    And coders each year needs less of others labor and less capital to generate wealth.

    If one kid sits down and codes something that is played by 500M people daily, and he borrows no money, Economists would have to call that a return to labor?

    Does that mean that when WhatsApp sells for $19B, that all the founder and employee wealth is considered a return to labor?

    Are all the Google employees counted as a return to labor?

    Obviously it’s not a return to capital… but I don’t think Piketty is counting correctly.

  52. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    25. May 2014 at 08:43

    Dave –

    The NPR story does not deal with rural America per se. The rural aspect was really a passing remark by the book’s author.

    We’ve seen some increasing coverage about problems in rural America, eg, NYT Magazine piece on heroin in Hazelton, PA (where is that?) and the NPR story.

    The story flagged for me that there are potentially important issues out that that the media are not covering. We rarely hear about rural America, except in terms of natural disasters like coal mines, train explosions, tornadoes (and their uncanny ability to find trailer parks), and floods.

    Maybe we should pay more attention, including to the status of the family in rural areas.

  53. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    25. May 2014 at 08:46

    As for choir boys:

    The American Boychoir sang at the Normandy Memorial in France, today.

    That’s also a way to learn history.

  54. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    25. May 2014 at 08:57

    “Steven, I think charter schools are fine, but I doubt that test scores tell us much about the quality of education.”

    At the top, I agree. That’s where being well-rounded matters.

    At the bottom, I most heartily disagree. If 82% of the students at PS 123 fail the state English proficiency exam, when 64% at H5 charter pass, that’s a huge difference. Those coming out of 123 have a very good chance of ending up in jail. I think something like 1 in 4 black men at some time are incarcerated. We’re not talking about whether Harlem kids can deconstruct Catcher in the Rye. It’s about whether they become useful, independent and responsible members of society.

    If you attend H5, you have a pretty good shot at a normal life. That’s why H5 has more applicants per seat than Harvard.

    They do drill at charter schools. Absolutely. I was once on the 2/3 subway line coming down from Penn Station to Wall St. This same line runs to Harlem. A bunch of kids, maybe 4th graders, all black or Hispanc, were drilling math with their instructor. All the hands shot up when she posed a question. And they were doing 2×2 multiplications in their heads (eg, 27 x 45). I can’t do that, and all those kids could. I was really astounded.

    I bet they were from one of the Harlem charter schools.

  55. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    25. May 2014 at 21:27


    Krugman has a new article about labor particpation in France

    Your thoughts?

  56. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    26. May 2014 at 00:51



  57. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    26. May 2014 at 00:54

    “Recent Taiwan Data Suggest China, Rest of Asia Will Soon See Pickup”

    “Historically, Taiwan’s export orders for overseas factories “picked up well the turning points in China’s exports, and tended to lead the evolution of China’s exports by around two months,” RBS economist Louis Kuijs wrote in a recent research report.

    April export orders rose 8.9% on-year – their fastest pace in 14 months – and showed growth to all regions.

    China’s exports have also shown signs of stabilizing, after a slow start to the year.

    The result “bodes well for a modest trade rebound” in the second quarter, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Marcella Chow wrote of the Taiwan export-order reading. It also “reinforces recent indications that a gradual recovery in the developed economies is gathering pace.”


    “Aside from its implications for China, the recent Taiwan data suggest the West’s recovery increasingly is feeding through to Asia.

    April industrial production surprised on the upside, with Barclays Capital citing notable strength in personal computers and mobile phones, segments that had been weak for the past two years.

    “The strength suggests that Taiwan’s until-recently narrowly based recovery led by semiconductors is broadening to finished consumer goods, and bodes well for the sustainability of the recovery,” Barclays’ Wai Ho Leong wrote.”

  58. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    26. May 2014 at 01:00

    Re: the story above, is Taiwan’s surge in industrial production due primarily to:

    (A) Higher demand from China, or

    (B) Higher demand from wealthy western countries?

  59. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    26. May 2014 at 09:33

    Does this make any sense at all?

    “We Told You We’d Be Talking About Inflation…”

  60. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    26. May 2014 at 15:30

    Steven, boys choir for everybody on earth!

  61. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    27. May 2014 at 12:18

    Prof. Sumner,

    Do Market Monetarists like Paul McCulley? I know Krugman does.

    “PIMCO Just Made A Great Move In Re-Hiring Paul McCulley To Be Its Chief Economist”

  62. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. May 2014 at 16:29

    Steven, I would not deny that there is some correlation, particularly when you compare really good schools with really bad schools.

    Edward, I’ll do a post on that.

    Travis, I’d guess Taiwan tells us a bit about both. I don’t know anything about that Pimco guy you linked to.

  63. Gravatar of TravisV TravisV
    27. May 2014 at 18:02

    David Glasner wrote a fantastic new post:

    “Interestingly, present-day opponents of monetary stimulus (for whom “Keynesian” is a term of extreme derision) like to make a sort of Keynesian argument. Monetary stimulus, by raising the price level, reduces the real wage. That means that monetary stimulus is bad, as it is harmful to workers, whose interests, we all know, is the highest priority – except perhaps the interests of rentiers living off the interest generated by their bond portfolios “” of many opponents of monetary stimulus. Once again, the logic is less than compelling. Keynes believed that an increase in the price level could reduce the real wage, a reduction that, at least potentially, might be necessary for the restoration of full employment.

    But here is my question: why would an increase in the price level reduce the real wage rather than raise money wages along with the price level. To answer that question, you need to have some idea of whether the current level of real wages is above or below the equilibrium level. If unemployment is high, there is at least some reason to think that the equilibrium real wage is less than the current level, which is why an increase in the price level would be expected to cause the real wage to fall, i.e., to move the actual real wage in the direction of equilibrium. But if the current real wage is about equal to, or even below, the equilibrium level, then why would one think that an increase in the price level would not also cause money wages to rise correspondingly? It seems more plausible that, in the absence of a good reason to think otherwise, that inflation would cause real wages to fall only if real wages are above their equilibrium level.”

  64. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. May 2014 at 18:45

    Travis, Yes, good post. I’ve found the same inconsistency in some of the stuff I read.

  65. Gravatar of Chuck E Chuck E
    30. May 2014 at 09:03


    Did you ever receive a response from Coates on your GI-CYB proposal?

  66. Gravatar of Major_Freedom Major_Freedom
    1. June 2014 at 13:38


    “But here is my question: why would an increase in the price level reduce the real wage rather than raise money wages along with the price level.”

    It happens if and when wage earners are not the initial receivers of newly created money. When wage earners receive new money with a time lag, after prior spending has already increased consumer goods prices from other wage earners and capitalists, then those wage earners suffer a decline in purchasing power.

    Monetary inflation does not affect all incomes equally.

    You know, on a side note, I am often amazed at the lengths of denial those who want more inflation will go to pretend that inflation cannot reduce anyone’s purchasing power. It’s almost as if you believe every individual gets checks from the Fed in exchange for their assets.

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