Archive for the ‘economics’ Category
Last month, Howard Aldrich made—as he often does—a good point in the comments:
There’s been an interesting subtle shift in the rhetoric regarding whose responsibility it is to pay for an individual’s post-secondary education. My impression is that there was a strong consensus across the nation 50 years ago, and certainly into the late 1960s, that governments had a responsibility to educate their students that extended up through college. However, I perceive that consensus has been under attack from both the left and the right….Liberals argue that much of the public subsidy goes to the wealthier high income students whose parents don’t really deserve the subsidy. Conservatives argue that as students benefit substantially from their college education, they should pay most of the cost.
This month, I’ve been writing about the history of cost-benefit analysis. (Why yes, I do know how to have a good time.) On the surface, it has nothing to do with universities. But there are important links to be made.
One of the arguments I’m playing with is that economic thinking—here just meaning a rational, cost-benefit, systematic-weighing-of-alternative-choices sort of thinking—has been particularly constraining for the political left. On the right, when people’s values disagree with economic reasoning, they ignore the economics and forge ahead. On the left, while some will do the same, the “reasonable” position tends to be much more technocratic. Think Brookings versus Heritage. Over time, one thing that has pulled “the left” to the right has been the influence of a technocratic, cost-benefit strain of thought.
Yes, I know these are sweeping generalizations. But stay with me for a minute.
There are a couple of big economic arguments for asking individuals, not the public, to pay for higher education. Howard’s comment gets at both of them.
One is that while there is some public benefit in educating people, individuals capture most of the returns to higher education. If that is the case, it makes sense that they should pay for it, with the state perhaps making financing available for those who lack the means. Milton Friedman made this argument sixty years ago, and since then, it has become ever more popular.
The other is that providing free higher education is basically regressive. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to attend college (check out this NYT interactive chart), and relatively few who are poor benefit. Milton Friedman made this argument, too, but it is particularly associated with a 1969 paper by Lee Hansen and Burton Weisbrod, and continues to be made by commentators across the political spectrum.
Both of these arguments have become economic common sense (even though support for the latter is actually pretty weak). Of course it’s fair for individuals to have to pay for the education that they benefit so much from. And of course it doesn’t make sense to pay for the education of the upper-middle class while the working poor who never make it to college get nothing.
Indeed, these arguments have been potent enough that it has become hard to argue for free higher education without sounding extreme and maybe economically illiterate. Really, it kind of amazes me that free college is even being talked about seriously these days by President Obama and Bernie Sanders.
But even the argument for free college now depends heavily on claims about economic payoff. The Obama proposal headlines “Return on Investment,” arguing that “every dollar invested in community college by federal, state and local governments means more than $25 [ed: !] in return.” The Sanders statement starts, “In a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world.” The candidate who is a self-described socialist relies on a utilitarian, economic argument to justify free higher education.
So what’s the problem with thinking about college in terms of economic costs and benefits? After all, it’s an expensive enterprise, and getting more so. Surely it doesn’t make sense to just wantonly spend without giving any thought to what you’re getting in return.
The problem is, if the argument you really want to make is that college is a government responsibility—that is, a right—starting with cost-benefit framing leads you down a slippery slope. Benefits are harder to measure than costs, and some benefits can’t be measured at all. All sorts of public spending becomes much harder to justify.
Now, this might be fine if you generally think that small government is good, or that the economic benefits of college are pretty much the ones that matter. But if you think it’s worth promoting college because it might help people become better citizens, or increases their quality of life in some difficult-to-measure way, or you just want to live in a society that provides broad access to education, well, too bad. You’ve already written that out of the equation.
If you really believe there are social benefits to making public higher education freely available, then cost-benefit arguments will always betray you. But rights, on the other hand, aren’t subject to cost-benefit tests. Only a moral argument that defends higher education as a right—as something to value because it improves the social fabric in literally immeasurable ways—can really work to defend real public higher education.
Seem too unrealistic? Think about high school. There’s no real reason that free college should be subject to a cost-benefit test when free high school is not. Individuals reap economic benefits—lots of them—from attending high school, too. And high school is at least as regressive as college: the well-off kids who attend the good public schools reap many more benefits than the low-income kids who attend the crummy ones. It only makes sense, then, that families should pay for high school themselves, right? Perhaps with government loans, if you’re too poor to afford it.
And yet no one is making this argument. Because we all still agree—at least for now—that children have the right to a free primary and secondary education. We may argue about how much to spend on it, or how to make it better, but the basic premise—governments have a responsibility to educate students, in Howard’s words—still holds.
So I support the free college movement. But I’d like to see its champions stop saying it’s because we need to be globally competitive, or because it’s got a huge ROI.
Instead, say it’s because our society will be stronger when more of us are better educated. Say that knowing higher education is an option, and an option you don’t have to mortgage your future for, will improve our quality of life. Say that colleges themselves will be better when they return to seeing students as students, and not as revenue streams.
Say it’s because it’s the right thing to do.
Every October when the Nobel prize in economics is announced, you hear the same trite and hackneyed things. Already, the Guardian has one of those tedious “economics is not a science” articles just to prepare for tomorrow. To help you save time, I’ve collected the following cliches so you can just clip and paste them into your tweets, Facebook messages, and blog posts:
- Economics is not a science.
- Actually, there is no Nobel Prize in economics.
- The so-called Economics Nobel prize.
- This prize refutes the policies of [insert politician you hate].
- This prize supports the policies of [insert politician you love].
- This prize is long overdue.
- This prize rewards [my favorite field].
- This prize rewards free-market fundamentalists.
- This prize proves that free-market fundamentalists are wrong.
- This person did not deserve the prize.
- This person deserved the prize.
- This is a rather mathematical/statistical prize for a technical point that I can’t summarize here.
- This prize is for proving the obvious.
- I predicted this all along.
- I am completely surprised by this.
- I can’t believe they gave this to a non-economist.
- I can’t believe they gave this to a person not from [circle one: Harvard/MIT].
- Harvard is slipping, straight to toilet.
- Steve Levitt does/does not know the work of these prize winners.
Actually, I have a Granovetter post ready to go if he ever wins, since he is the sociologist whose work is most known in economics. Add your own cliches in the comments.
Economics is fun to criticize, but hard to replace. Everybody thinks they can do better. How many times have you read an article lampooning the rational actor model or slamming the efficient markets hypothesis? Well, another research group has appeared that tries to offer a replacement. From New Scientist:
Earlier this year, several dozen quiet radicals met in a boxy red building on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany, to plot just that. The stated aim of this Ernst Strüngmann Forum at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies was to create “a new synthesis for economics”. But the most zealous of the participants – an unlikely alliance of economists, anthropologists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists – really do want to overthrow the old regime. They hope their ideas will mark the beginning of a new movement to rework economics using tools from more successful scientific disciplines.
Drill down, and it’s not difficult to see where mainstream “neoclassical” economics has gone wrong. Since the 19th century, economies have essentially been described with mathematical formulae. This elevated economics above most social sciences and allowed forecasting. But it comes at the price of ignoring the complexities of human beings and their interactions – the things that actually make economic systems tick.The problems start with Homo economicus, a species of fantasy beings who stand at the centre of orthodox economics. All members of H. economicus think rationally and act in their own self-interest at all times, never learning from or considering others.
The article then goes on to describe how they are building new set of models that have social rather than selfish actors. They are going to use models from biological theory to model large groups of economic agents.
More power to them, but here’s the deal with economics – it survives because it has a number of very strong features:
- A basic micro-economics that makes sense (e.g., supply and demand curves, marginal utility etc)
- Rational actor models are just short hand for “has goals, which can be selfish or altruistic.” My friend, rational does not mean what you think it means.
- A good grasp of various statistical methods.
- A good recipe for normal science (define utility functions, apply Langrangian, etc)
For an alternative economics to win, it needs to be so incredibly awesome that it overwhelms these very important features of existing economics. That is why various challengers, such as feminist economics or modern Austrian economics, are limited. They sometimes have valid criticisms, but they simply don’t do well when it comes to offering a real alternative. So, good luck, my biological friends, but don’t get lost in the weeds.
Two years ago, President Obama announced a plan to create government ratings for colleges—in his words, “on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”
The Department of Education was charged with developing such ratings, but they were quickly mired in controversy. What outcomes should be measured? Initial reports suggested that completion rates and graduates’ earnings would be key. But critics pointed to a variety of problems—ranging from the different missions of different types of colleges, to the difficulties of measuring incomes along a variety of career paths (how do you count the person pursuing a PhD five years after graduation?), to the reductionism of valuing college only by graduates’ incomes.
Well, as of yesterday, it looks like the ratings plan is being dropped. Or rather, it’s become a “college-rating system minus the ratings”, as the Chronicle put it. The new plan is to produce a “consumer-facing tool” where students can compare colleges on a variety of criteria, which will likely include data on net price, completion rates, earning outcomes, and percent Pell Grant recipients, among other metrics. In other words, it will look more like U-Multirank, a big European initiative that was similarly a response to the political difficulty of producing a single official ranking of universities.
A lot of political forces aligned to kill this plan, including Republicans (on grounds of federal mission creep), the for-profit college lobby, and most colleges and universities, which don’t want to see more centralized control.
But I’d like to point to another difficulty it struggled with—one that has been around for a really long time, and that shows up in a lot of different contexts: the criterion problem.
Planet Money had a fun podcast a couple of days ago about Eric Meyer, the young founder of Haystack, a Baltimore-based app that allowed people to auction off their (public) parking spot to the highest bidder. MonkeyParking, a similar app, got attention last year in San Francisco.
The founders, in both cases, focused on the time-saving, traffic, and environmental benefits of such an app. Clearly there are real costs to people spending long periods of time circling the block in search of parking. UCLA economist Donald Shoup has argued that 30% of traffic in central business districts results from people looking for parking.
But these apps quickly generated enormous hostility. People used words like “disgusting,” “evil” and called it “JerkTech”—all to the apparent surprise of Meyer, at least. Within months, Boston and San Francisco had passed ordinances forbidding the selling of public parking spots. Haystack and MonkeyParking were basically shut down by the end of the year. (MonkeyParking has since retooled as a way to sell the parking in your driveway.)
This is a familiar story to economic sociologists. Some area of life that was previously outside of the market is suddenly brought into it. Violent feeling erupts, as such transactions are seen to challenge the moral order. (See Zelizer, Healy, Quinn, Chan, etc.) Generally, the market wins, and morality adapts.
There aren’t too many things—humans, organs (though even that’s eroding)—where a bright line still forbids buying and selling. Why, then, do Haystack and similar apps generate such hostility?
I think there are a couple of independent things prompting the hostile reaction.
1. Something that was, at least superficially, free, suddenly comes to cost money. People really don’t like being charged for things that used to be free, even if they were always paying for it somehow. (See: airline fees.)
2. Someone is making money by selling public property. This one is probably more important to city officials than city residents. From this perspective, the problem isn’t selling the spot, but who’s receiving the gains. Indeed, some of the same cities that reacted so negatively to these apps (I’m looking at you, San Francisco) have introduced dynamic pricing of parking, which allows prices to fluctuate with demand. (Think: Uber surge pricing.)
3. Now only the well-off can afford to park. This objection is to my mind the most legitimate. And while I fully recognize that it is really wasteful to have people circling around looking for parking, I don’t think it can easily be dismissed.
Now, I don’t want to stake any big claims around the inalienable right of Americans to park their cars. After all, you have to have a certain amount of money to have a car in the first place. And in general I think policies that discourage driving are good.
And it’s the very basis of capitalism to accept that there are things that some people can afford and others can’t, and to make one’s peace with that. But the thing about price caps (whether the cap is zero, as for street parking, or some flat rate, as with taxicabs) is that while they are inefficient, they are also democratizing. Yes, you may have to circle the block for 20 minutes. But dammit, so do the tech entrepreneurs who are pricing you out of your apartment. There are some things you can’t buy your way out of.
We live in a society in which inequality continues grow. At the same time, technology is improving our ability to make people who are willing (and able) to pay a lot do just that. That may be efficient. But it further reduces the sense that we’re all in this game together. And that’s the issue we don’t have a good solution for.
The mathematician John Nash recently died as the result of an taxi accident in New Jersey. His importance as a scientist is based mainly on a very productive period in his early 20s before he was crippled by the onset of mental illness. His two main scientific contributions are the discovery of the Nash equilibrium for finite games and an extremely important theorem in differential geometry, which essentially states that there exists a vector space where you can embed a smooth surface without self-intersection in a distance preserving fashion.
Here, I want to focus a little on why Nash’s game theory work became so important. He was not the first to study competition within the framework of game theory. Before Nash, a number of economists and mathematicians had worked on game theory, but they got stuck. Some ran into technical problems and could not get beyond the concept of zero sum games. Other had a lack of imagination. The great mathematician Johnny Von Neumann, for example, focused on cooperative games.
Nash’s approach was simple and deep. If you could write down the pay-off matrix of a game, you can come up with the “best response.” If A follows strategy X1, then B’s best answer is Y1. Similarly, if A plays X2, then B will play Y2. It is not hard to see that you can parameterize this argument – you can continuously move from X1 to X2 and thus the other player will move from Y1 to Y2. The profound idea is that having an equilibrium means that the “curve” connecting X1 to X1 intersects the curve connecting Y1 to Y2 and the intersection always exists due to a super-deep theorem called the Kakutani fixed point theorem.
Nash’s approach is ingenious on many levels. It turned an economic modeling problem into a geometry problem. It is very general and works for any game with a finite number of moves. And it spurred the search for equilibrium concepts in even more general settings.
So yesterday I offered some pointers to the neighborhood effects literature, which is relevant to the new research on social mobility that is receiving extensive coverage in the NYT and elsewhere. Commenter Robert Park (it’s good to know that earthly departure does not preclude keeping up with orgtheory) mentioned additional work worth highlighting (links added by me):
On the efficacy of residential mobility programs, I’d note the work of Rosenbaum and Rubinowitz “Crossing the Class and Color Lines” which studies the Gautreaux program, on which MTO was based, and more recently, “Climbing Mt. Laurel” by Doug Massey and colleagues and the work of Stefanie Deluca.
I know I have not mentioned many significant scholars, which I hope will be read not as a slight but as a reflection of how deep and rich this literature is in sociology.
But today I want to add a few comments on the question of why Chetty and Hendren’s work is getting so much attention when related work in sociology has not.