Category Archive for: Universities [Return to Main]

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

'How Higher Education Perpetuates Intergenerational Inequality '

Bad news for those who propose education as the solution to inequality:

How Higher Education Perpetuates Intergenerational Inequality, by Tim Taylor: Part of the mythology of US higher education is that it offers a meritocracy, along with a lot of second chances, so that smart and hard-working students of all background have a genuine chance to succeed--no matter their family income. But the data certainly seems to suggest that family income has a lot to do with whether a student will attend college in the first place, and even more to do with whether a student will obtain a four-year college degree.

Margaret Cahalan and Laura Perna provide an overview of the evidence in "2015 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 45 Year Trend Report," published by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the and University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD). ...
The report offers a range of evidence that the affordability of college is a bigger problem for students from low-income families even after taking financial aid into account. Students from low-income families take out more debt, and are more likely to attend for-profit colleges. Indeed, a general pattern for higher education a whole is that even as the cost of attending has risen, the share of the cost paid by households, rather  than by the state or federal government, has been rising. ...
The effects of these patterns on inequality of incomes in the United States are clearcut: higher income families are better able to provide financial and other kinds of support for their children, both as they grow up, and when it comes time to attend college, and when it comes time to find a job after college. In this way, higher education has become a central part part of the process by which high-income families can seek to assure that their children are more likely to have high incomes, too.

This connection is perhaps underappreciated. After all, it's a lot easier for professors and college students to protest high levels of compensation for the top professionals in finance, law, and the corporate world who are in the top 1% of the income distribution, rather than to face the idea that their own institutions of higher education are implicated in perpetuating inequality of incomes across generations. ...

[He also has a long quote from Alan Krueger on this topic.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Best Investment the U.S. Could Make — Affordable Higher Education

I have a new column. Education is not the solution to inequality, but we still need to a much better job of supporting higher education:

The Best Investment the U.S. Could Make — Affordable Higher Education

[I should add that I wrote this before I saw Paul Krugman's latest column.]

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Self-Selection and 'Liberal' Professors

Dan Little of Understanding Society:

Self-selection and "liberal" professions: Neil Gross stirred up a quite a storm a few years ago when he released a body of research findings on the political complexion of university professors. Conservative organizations and pundits have made hay by denouncing the supposed liberal bias of universities. Gross opens his most recent book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, by confirming that multiple measures demonstrate that faculty members are substantially more likely to be liberal than the general population. But he believes this is both indisputable and uninteresting. What is most interesting for a sociologist is the "why" -- how can we explain the skewed distribution of political identities across this professional group?

Gross positions his work as falling in a tradition of research that included two major survey-based studies in the past 75 years, Lazarsfield and Thielens (The Academic Mind: Social Scientists in a Time of Crisis) and Everett Karll Ladd and Seymour Martin Lipset (The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics). He also finds creative ways of incorporating the GSS surveys. In addition, Gross and Solon Simmons carried out their own substantial survey, the Politics of the American Professoriate survey (PAP).

It will be noted that this is a problem that calls out for a social mechanisms explanation, and a fairly simple one at that. Suppose marbles of two colors in equal numbers are raining down in a thoroughly mixed stream on a pair of urns. Occasionally a marble falls into one urn or the other. When we count the marbles in both urns we find that 65% of the marbles in the urn on the left are green, whereas the larger urn on the right has 50% of each color. How is it that there are a higher percentage of green marbles in the urn on the left? There are only a few possibilities, each corresponding to a different mechanism. (i) The marbles have a degree of choice about which urn they enter, and green marbles have a preference for the left urn. (Or a variant: red marbles have a preference for avoiding the left urn.) We could call this "selection bias by chooser". This is different from two other possible mechanisms: (ii) there is a filter on the left urn, bumping green marbles in and red marbles out ("selection bias by receiver"); or (iii) marbles have a slight tendency to shift color from red to green when they enter the left urn ("environment transformation").

Fundamentally the question is analogous to the "nature-nurture" conundrum in the study of personality. Are universities more liberal than average occupations because they cultivate liberal thinking (nurture)? Or are they more liberal because of some sort of selection mechanism, drawing liberal members more frequently than chance (nature), and liberal-tending new faculty members bring their political values with them? Gross makes a powerful empirical case for the latter possibility.

I develop an alternative account: for historical reasons the professoriate has developed such a strong reputation for liberalism that smart young liberals today are apt to think of academic work as something that might be appropriate and suitable for them to pursue, whereas smart young conservatives see academe as foreign territory and embark on other career paths. (p. 105)

It might be speculated that this distribution exists because the faculty selection process is biased -- conservative candidates are turned away. Gross's explanation is different. He draws on a strong literature studying gendered occupations that finds that the reputation of the profession has a powerful influence on girls and women as they make educational and career choices. Gross extends this reasoning to liberals and conservatives contemplating an academic career. Essentially he explains the political composition of university faculties as a consequence of a powerful public reputation for being a liberal workplace and a distinctly skewed process of self-selection towards this career. The profession is "typed" as being a particularly good career for more liberal young people, and young people make their career choices in consideration of that assumption. Essentially he argues that universities are publicly perceived as being hospitable to people on the left, and liberal-leaning young people are drawn to the career because of this reputation.

The question of political bias within universities is treated using an interesting experiment that Gross and colleagues Joseph Ma and Ethan Fosse conducted to test whether conservative students have a harder time gaining entrance to graduate programs (164). The project involved sending fictitious letters of inquiry to directors of graduate studies in leading departments in a wide range of disciplines. The letters indicated the same level of preparation for the field. One batch indicated no political information about the student, while the other two batches included the phrases "Worked for the McCain campaign" or "Worked for the Kerry campaign." Responses were rated according to the degree of encouragement or discouragement they expressed. The experiment is ingenious but it indicates "no result". There is no statistically significant evidence of bias against applicants who self-identify as conservative. (Gross does report a strong negative response from some of the academics whose potentially discriminatory behavior was tested.)

The study should count as reasonably strong evidence that most social scientists and humanists in leading departments work hard to keep their political feelings and opinions from interfering with their evaluations of academic personnel. (165)

I find Gross's treatment of this topic to be an exemplary use of quantitative survey data in theoretically informed ways. The PAP survey that Gross initiated (along with colleagues and research assistants) provides substantial new information about the political attitudes and social backgrounds of faculty in the United States. Gross makes deft use of this data source (as well as several others) to evaluate hypotheses about what causes the distribution of political profiles among faculty. Gross's question is about both groups and individuals, and the survey data helps to evaluate answers to both. And, incidentally, this appears to be a sterling example of the kind of theoretical work that John Levi Martin calls for (link): careful stipulation of various explanatory theories, accompanied by a rigorous effort to evaluate them using appropriate empirical data.

For anyone who cares about universities as places of learning for undergraduate students, Gross's book is an encouraging one. He provides a clear and convincing explanation of the mechanisms through which a non-random distribution of political attitudes wind up in the population of university and college professors, and he provides strong evidence against the idea that universities and professors exercise discriminatory bias against newcomers who have different political identities. And finally, Gross's analysis and my own experience suggests that professors generally conform to Weber's ethic when it comes to proselytizing for one's own convictions in the classroom: the function and duty of the professor is to help students think for themselves (Max Weber, "The Meaning of Ethical Neutrality,", Methodology of Social Sciences.)

There is an interesting set of replies to Gross in Society here.

Monday, January 12, 2015

'Higher Education, Wages, and Polarization'

Rob Valletta in an SF Fed Economic Letter:

Higher Education, Wages, and Polarization, by Rob Valletta, FRBSF Economic Letter: Holding a four-year college degree gives a worker a distinct advantage in the U.S. labor market. The wage gap between college-educated working adults and those with high school degrees is large and has grown steadily over the past 35 years. This gap appears to be bolstered by technological advances in the workplace, notably the ever-growing reliance on computers, because the skills needed to apply these technologies are often acquired through or associated with higher education. Since 2000, however, this trend has altered. Increasingly, the U.S. labor market favors workers who hold a graduate degree, while the wage advantage for those who hold a four-year college degree has changed little. In this Economic Letter, I examine the potential explanations for this change. I focus on the polarization hypothesis, which emphasizes employment and wage growth at the top and bottom portions of the skill distribution (Acemoglu and Autor 2011). ...

Sunday, November 23, 2014

'Is Economics Really a Dismal Science for Women?'

Since I posted an excerpt from Noah Smith's column, I should also post this response from Frances Woolley:

Is economics really a dismal science for women?: Donna Ginther and Shulamit Kahn have just published a paper that tracks thousands of American academics from the time they first get their PhDs through to their tenure and promotion decisions. ...
Noah Smith ... takes, Ginther and Kahn's cautious and nuanced results, and leaps to the conclusion that economics "seems to have a built-in bias that prevents women from advancing." 
I have never seen a woman denied tenure when a man with similar number and quality of publications was awarded it. I don't deny Ginther and Kahn's findings, but might there be a non-discriminatory explanation of the fact that a woman in economics with X number of publications is less likely to receive tenure than a man with X publications? ...

She goes on to give the "non-discriminatory explanation", and then says:

"Sexism" is not the result of some high level conspiracy. It is the product of millions of every day actions by thousands of ordinary people. ... If a man with 5 publications gets tenure while a woman with 5 publications does not, there must be a reason: either the man has higher quality publications, or higher impact publications, or more evidence of national or international reputation, or better letters of reference.
But a scholar's reputation and impact is determined by ... others: who they choose to acknowledge, who they choose to network with. Every single active academic can, through the citation and other decisions they make every day, influence other academics' reputations - and thus the probability that they will receive tenure or get promoted.  
Who do you cite? If you're like most people, you're more likely to cite the seminal work of some well-known male academic than the work of a female scholar. ...
Do you give women credit for their ideas? Just about every woman has had the experience of sitting in a committee, saying something, and having her contribution ignored. A man will then restate her point, and he is listened to, and receives credit for the idea. ...
How do you word your letters of reference? Do you use the same adjectives to describe women and men? Or are women delightful, pleasant, conscientious and hard-working while men are strong, original, insightful and persistent?
Who do you invite to present at conferences or departmental seminars? If a man, do you turn down invitations to participate in conferences with all-male line-ups...? Do you make it easy for female colleagues to come for a drink in the bar after a seminar by corralling them into the bar-going group? 
The economics profession is far from perfect. I personally don't find it any worse than the world of media (that the Globe and Mail paid Stephen Gordon more than me still burns), or the world of academic administration. But it could be better - and the power to change it lies within every one of us.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'Is (Teaching) Economics Doing More Harm Than Good?'

Brian Lucey:

Is (teaching) Economics doing more harm than good?: Every September thousands of students enter into universities and institutes of higher education. A large number of these take some economics courses. ... Economists also typically teach courses such as statistics, or introductory mathematics for social scientists. And yet, we have no idea whether or not this does any good. Much worse, we have no idea whether or not this does harm. Maybe we should find out? ...

He goes through a large body of evidence showing that "Economists are different," and how student attitudes may be changed by taking economics courses.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

'Thoughts on High-Priced Textbooks'

Tim Taylor on why textbooks cost so much:

Thoughts on High-Priced Textbooks: High textbook prices are a pebble in the shoe of many college students. Sure, it's not the biggest financial issue they face, But it's a real and nagging annoyance that for hinders performance for many students. ...
David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein at National Public Radio took up this question recently on one of their "Planet Money" podcasts. ... For economists, a highlight is that they converse with Greg Mankiw, author of what is currently the best-selling introductory economics textbook, which as they point out is selling for $286 on Amazon. Maybe this is a good place to point out that I am not a neutral observer in this argument: The third edition of my own Principles of Economics textbook is available through Textbook Media. The pricing varies from $25 for online access to the book, up through $60 for both a paper copy (soft-cover, black and white) and online access.

Several explanations for high textbook prices are on offer. The standard arguments are that textbook companies are marketing selling to professors, not to students, and professors are not necessarily very sensitive to textbook prices. (Indeed, one can argue that before the rapid rise in textbook prices in the last couple of decades, it made sense for professors not to focus too much on textbook prices.) Competition in the textbook market is limited, and the big publishers load up their books with features that might appeal to professors: multi-colored hardcover books, with DVDs and online access, together with test banks that allow professors to give quizzes and tests that can be machine-graded. At many colleges and universities, the intro econ class is taught in a large lecture format, which can include hundreds or even several thousand students, as well as a flock of teaching assistants, so some form of computerized grading and feedback is almost a necessity. Some of the marketing by textbook companies involves paying professors for reviewing chapters--of course in the hope that such reviewers will adopt the book.

The NPR show casts much of this dynamic as a "principal-agent problem," the name for a situation in which one person (the "principal") wants another person (the "agent") to act on their behalf, but lacks the ability to observe or evaluate the actions of the agent in a complete way. Principal-agent analysis is often used, for example, to think about the problem of a manager motivating employees. But it can also be used to consider the issue of students (the "principals") wanting the professor (the "agent") to choose the book that will best suit the needs of the students, with all factors of price and quality duly taken into account.  The NPR reporters quote one expert saying that the profit margin for high school textbooks is 5-10%, because those books decisions are made by school districts and states that negotiate hard. However, profit margins on college textbooks--where the textbook choice is often made by a professor who may not even know the price that students will pay--are more like 20%.

The NPR report suggests this principal-agent framework to Greg Mankiw, author of the top-selling $286 economic textbook. Mankiw points out that principal-agent problems are in no way nefarious, but come up in many contexts. For example, when you get an operation, you rely on the doctor to make choices that involve costs; when you get your car fixed, you rely on a mechanic to make choices that involve costs; when you are having home repairs done, you rely on a repair person or a contractor to make choices that involve costs. Mankiw argues that professors, acting as the agents of students, have legitimate reason to be concerned about tradeoffs of time and money. As he notes, a high quality book is more important "than saving them a few dollars"--and he suggests that saving $30 isn't worth it for a low-quality book.

But of course, in the real world there are more choices than a high-quality $286 book and a low-quality $256 book. The PIRG student surveys suggest that up to two-thirds of students are avoiding buying textbooks at all, even though they fear it will hurt their grade, or are shifting to other classes with lower textbook costs. If a student is working 10 hours a week at a part-time job, making $8/hour after taxes, then the difference between $286 book and a $60 book is 28.25 hours--nearly three weeks of part-time work. I am unaware of any evidence in which students were randomly assigned different textbooks but otherwise taught and evaluated in the same way, and kept time diaries, which would show that higher-priced books save time or improve academic performance. It is by no means obvious that a lower-cost book (yes, like my own) works less well for students than a higher-cost book from a big publisher. Some would put that point more strongly.

A final dynamic that may be contributing to higher-prices textbooks is a sort of vicious circle related to the textbook resale market. The NPR report says that when selling a textbook over a three-year edition, a typical pattern was that sales fell by half after the first year and again by half after the second year, as students who had bought the first edition resold the book to later students. Of course, this dynamic also means that many students who bought the book new are not really paying full-price, but instead paying the original price minus the resale price. The argument is that as textbooks have increased in price, the resale market has become ever-more active, so that sales of a textbook in later years have dwindled much more quickly. Textbook companies react to this process by charging more for the new textbook, which of course only spurs more activity in the resale market.

A big question for the future of textbooks is how and in what ways they migrate to electronic forms. On one side, the hope is that electronic textbooks will offer expanded functionality, as well as being cheaper. But this future is not foreordained. At least at present, my sense is that the functionality of reading and taking notes in online textbooks hasn't yet caught up to the ease of reading on paper. Technology and better screens may well shift this balance over time. But even setting aside questions of reading for long periods of time on screen, or taking notes on screen, at present it remains harder to skip around in a computerized text between what you are currently reading and the earlier text that you need to be checking, as well as skipping to various graphs, tables, and definitions. To say it more simply, in a number of subjects it may still be harder to study an on-line text than to study a paper text.

Moreover, as textbook manufacturers shift to an on-line world, they will bring with them their full bag of tricks for getting paid. The Senack report notes:
Today’s marketplace offers more digital textbook options to the student consumer than ever. “Etextbooks” are digitized texts that students read on a laptop or tablet. Similar to PDF documents, e-textbooks enable students to annotate, highlight and search. The cost may be 40-50 percent of the print retail price, and access expires after 180 days. Publishers have introduced e-textbooks for nearly all their traditional textbook offerings. In addition, the emergence of the ereader like the Kindle and iPad, as well as the emergence of many e-textbook rental programs, all seemed to indicate that the e-textbook will alter the college textbook landscape for the better. However, despite this shift, users of e-textbooks are subject to expiration dates, on-line codes that only work once, page printing limits, and other tactics that only serve to restrict use and increase cost. Unfortunately for students, the publishing companies’ venture into e-textbooks is a continuation of the practices they use to monopolize the print market.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

'The Silver Lining in Falling College Enrollment'

At MoneyWatch:

The silver lining in falling college enrollment, by Mark Thoma: College enrollment "declined by close to half a million (463,000) between 2012 and 2013, marking the second year in a row that a drop of this magnitude has occurred," according to a report from the Census Bureau. And it's the largest two-year drop since Census began collecting enrollment data in 1966. Notably, the decline was concentrated in two-year colleges.
It is, of course, desirable to have a more educated population, particularly in an era of globalization and technological change that makes it harder for low-skilled workers to find good jobs. But the report also has a silver lining. ...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

'More Education = More Income'

Eduardo Porter:

A Simple Equation: More Education = More Income, by Eduardo Porter, NY Times: ...the gap between the wages of a family of two college graduates and a family of high school graduates..., between 1979 and 2012...,grew by some $30,000, after inflation. This ... amounts to a powerful counterargument to anybody who doubts the importance of education in the battle against the nation’s entrenched inequality.
But in the American education system, inequality is winning, gumming up the mobility that broad-based prosperity requires. ... Only one in 20 Americans aged 25 to 34 whose parents didn’t finish high school has a college degree. The average across 20 rich countries in the O.E.C.D. analysis is almost one in four. ...
Given the payoff, the fact that many of those who would benefit most are not investing in a college education suggests an epic failure. And the growing cadre of countries that outperform the United States suggests failure is hardly inevitable. ...
Mr. Schleicher told me that, while places like Japan, Singapore and Canada have learned how to educate socially disadvantaged children, in the United States social background plays an outsize role in the educational outcomes. ... “But a lot depends on policy. There is a lot we can do.”
Decimating public education is not to anyone’s advantage...

Monday, July 21, 2014

'The Wage Growth Gap for Recent College Grads'

Via the SF Fed:

The Wage Growth Gap for Recent College Grads, by Bart Hobijn and Leila Bengali, FRBSF Economic Letter: Starting wages of recent college graduates have essentially been flat since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007. Median weekly earnings for full-time workers who graduated from college in the year just before the recession, between May 2006 and April 2007, were $653. Over the 12 months ending in April 2014, the earnings of recent college graduates had risen to $692 a week, only 6% higher than seven years ago. 
The lackluster increases in starting wages for college graduates stand in stark contrast to growth in median weekly earnings for all full-time workers. These earnings have increased 15% from $678 in 2007 to $780 in 2014. This has created a substantial gap between wage growth for new college graduates and workers overall.
In this Economic Letter we put the wage growth gap in a historical context and consider what is at its heart. In particular, we find that the gap does not reflect a switch in the types of jobs that college graduates are able to find. Rather we find that wage growth has been weak across a wide range of occupations for this group of employees, a result of the lingering weak labor market recovery. ...

Monday, June 30, 2014

Education and Inequality

At macroblog, Julie L. Hotchkiss, a research economist and senior policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed, and Fernando Rios-Avila, a research scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College look at the relationship betwen education and inequality:

... There is little debate about whether income inequality has been rising in the United States for some time, and more dramatically recently. The degree to which education has exacerbated inequality or has the potential to reduce inequality, however, offers a more robust debate. We intend this post to add to the evidence that growing educational attainment has contributed to rising inequality. This assertion is not meant to imply that education has been the only source of the rise in inequality or that educational attainment is undesirable. The message is that growth in educational attainment is clearly associated with growing inequality, and understanding that association will be central to the understanding the overall growth in inequality in the United States.

More here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

'The Share of Borrowers with High Student Loan Balances is Rising'

We need to provide more support for education if we want it to be a vehicle for enhanced opportunity rather than a means of promoting existing inequities:

The Share of Borrowers with High Student Loan Balances is Rising, On the Economy, St. Louis Fed: It’s not just the total number of student loan borrowers that is going up. The average balance per borrower is going up as well. And, in particular, the fraction of borrowers with more than $10,000 in student debt is rising.

In a recent Economic Synopses essay, Alexander Monge-Naranjo, research officer and economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, examined the recent growth in student loan debt in the U.S. over the period 2005-2012. As of March 2012, student loan debt stood at $870 billion and had surpassed total credit card debt ($693 billion) and total auto loan debt ($730 billion).

In addition, Monge-Naranjo found that the distribution of student loans by debt levels had shifted, with the share of borrowers with loan balances in excess of $10,000 increasing. Increases were greater at higher levels of debt:

  • Only 3 percent of borrowers in 2005 owed more than $100,000. By 2012, that fraction reached 6.2 percent.
  • The share of borrowers who owed between $150,000 and $175,000 rose from 1.7 percent to 3.7 percent.
  • The share who owed between $175,000 and $200,000 went up from 0.6 percent to 1.5 percent.
  • The share of those owing more than $200,000 went up from 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent.

While Monge-Naranjo noted that “high levels of student loan debt pose no problems as long as the investment in education has high returns and the loans are repaid,” he also indicated that some borrowers may suffer adverse effects in the future, such as difficulty obtaining other forms of credit.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Higher Ed Cuts, Tuition Hikes Worsen Low-Income Students’ Struggles

As a follow-up to the previous post on black-white differences in economic mobility:

Higher Ed Cuts, Tuition Hikes Worsen Low-Income Students’ Struggles: State cuts to higher education have led colleges and universities to make deep cuts to educational or other services, hike tuition sharply, or both, as we explain in our recently released paper.  These tuition increases are hitting low-income students particularly hard, lessening their choices of schools, adding to their debt burdens — and likely deterring some from enrolling in school altogether. ...

Monday, May 05, 2014

'Refocusing Economics Education'

Antonio Fatás (each of the four points below are explained in detail in the original post):

Refocusing economics education: Via Mark Thoma I read an interesting article about how the mainstream economics curriculum needs to be revamped (Wren-Lewis also has some nice thoughts on this issue).

I am sympathetic to some of the arguments made in those posts and the need for some serious rethinking of the way economics is taught but I would put the emphasis on slightly different arguments. First, I  am not sure the recent global crisis should be the main reason to change the economics curriculum. Yes, economists failed to predict many aspects of the crisis but my view is that it was not because of the lack of tools or understanding. We have enough models in economics that explain most of the phenomena that caused and propagated the global financial crisis. There are plenty of models where individuals are not rational, where financial markets are driven by bubbles, with multiple equilbria,... that one can use to understand the last decade. We do have all these tools but as economics teachers (and researchers) we need to choose which ones to focus on. And here is where we failed. And we did it before and during the crisis but we also did it earlier. Why aren't we focusing on the right models or methodology? Here is my list of mistakes we do in our teaching, which might also reflect on our research:

#1 Too much theory, not enough emphasis on explaining empirical phenomena. ...

#2 Too many counterintuitive results. Economists like to teach things that are surprising. ...

#3 The need for a unified theory. ...

#4 We teach what our audience wants to hear. ...

I also believe the sociology within the profession needs to change.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

'Greening Economics: It is Time'

Another call for change in how economics is taught:

Greening Economics: It is time, by Carlo Carraro, Marianne Fay, Marzio Galeotti, Vox EU: ... It took the deepest economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression to provoke an open debate amongst macroeconomists as to whether the ‘economic model’ taught in economics programs is adequate. We do hope it will not take the full realization of the adverse consequences of climate change for the profession to come to its senses regarding environmental economics and the way natural capital is ignored in most macroeconomic work. How many superstorm Sandys will it take? By how much does the sea level have to rise? How many severe droughts and floods (and where) will it take before we come to the realization that ignoring natural capital and its many externalities is simply bad economics?
The difference between the financial and environmental crisis is that we actually do have a good body of work that incorporates natural capital in models of growth. The problem is that it has remained to a large extent the restricted domain of environmental economists. The vast majority of us were able to get degrees in economics without ever reading a single paper on environmental economics or encountering natural capital as an argument in the production functions we studied. We did hear about Pigouvian taxes of course – and so figured the problem had been solved…
Environmental economists have long modified growth models to account for the role of the environment, thus revisiting the conditions that ensure growth, whether sustainable or sustained. Classical references are three 1974 articles by Partha Dasgupta and Geoffrey Heal, by William Nordhaus, and by Robert Solow (though Solow could be hardly defined an environmental economist). More generally, existing work is summarized in the survey chapters by Tasos Xepapadeas and by William Brock and Scott Taylor, both published in 2005. A more recent example that compares ‘traditional’ (brown?) and ‘green’ models of growth is a 2011 World Bank working paper by Stephane Hallegatte, Geoffrey Heal, Marianne Fay, and David Treguer.
As a result, environmental economists tend not to talk about economic growth per se, but about sustainable economic growth. When macroeconomists refer to sustainable growth, however, they usually mean sustained growth. When growth economists study the role of externalities in the growth process they almost exclusively refer to technological and knowledge externalities, and generally ignore environmental ones, even though the latter are likely to become largely more relevant in the coming decades. Even social capital, a relative newcomer in economics, appears better integrated into the growth literature.
Why such disregard for an issue that epitomizes market failures from externalities, common property issues, and whose importance in both growth processes and human well-being is well documented? Sheer ignorance, likely – or a vague notion that innovation will come to the rescue. But why would markets generate the technology to solve a problem that combines both knowledge and environmental externalities?
The teaching of economics
Here is a plea then for an urgent change in the economics curriculum, at both introductory and advanced levels. Growth chapters in today’s macroeconomics textbooks make no reference to the environment – whether as an input into the production function or as a limiting factor affecting the productivity of human or physical capital. This is the case, for example, of David Romer’s textbook, in its fourth edition in 2011; of Jean-Pascal Benassy’s 2011 volume; or those of the Chicago School economists, such as Nancy Stokey, Robert Lucas and Edward Prescott’s (1989) and of Lars Ljungqvist and Thomas Sargent (third edition, 2012); or even that of Neo-keynesian economists such as Olivier Blanchard and Stanly Fischer (1989); or, finally, the very recent example of Michael Wickens (2012).
What is needed is not simply that more environmental economics be offered, but rather that the macroeconomics courses teach that natural capital is a key input into production processes, and that the environment – through massive mismanagement and a chronic failure to apply the basic principles of economics – has now become a serious macroeconomic problem, one that requires a profound and dramatic change in our model of growth. The development model of the industrial revolution (‘grow now and clean up later’) partly worked for a world of 1.5 million people; it simply won’t do for a global population approaching 9 billion.
If introducing the notion and role of the environment is necessary in macroeconomics teaching, it is a fortiori necessary when the student is presented with the theory and models of economic growth. There are a few economic growth textbooks written by well-known growth economists who are very active in that area. Going through the tables of contents, however, one is quickly disappointed. Neither the volume by Robert Barro and Xavier Sala-i-Martin (2003) nor the one by Daron Acemoglu (2008), for instance, consider explicitly the role of the environment in the process and in the perspectives of economic growth of a country. The same holds for the textbook by Olivier de la Grandville (2009), while Charles Jones and Dietrich Vollrath (2013) include a chapter on economic growth and natural resources, which is only a component of natural capital. Only the book by Philippe Aghion and Peter Howitt (2008) includes a chapter – the sixteenth – where the authors study ‘how new growth theories can integrate the environmental dimension, and in particular how endogenous innovation and directed technical change make it possible to reconcile the sustained growth objective with the constraints imposed by exhaustible resources or the need to maintain the environment’ (p.377).
It is remarkable that all textbooks on which undergraduate and graduate students learn the fundamental of economic growth invariably include a chapter on the role of human capital and of technological change, but always miss addressing the issue of the environment and natural capital.
As we believe that it is time to stop teaching that economic growth is uniquely measured by the growth of the production of all goods and services, we also firmly believe that the time has come to teach – from the first steps – that economic growth cannot abstract from the explicit consideration of the constraints and opportunities imposed by the environment and natural exhaustible resources. It is clear from many recent assessments (including the recently released IPCC Fifth Assessment Report) that environmental externalities, constraints on natural resources, and climate change – largely a macro problem – will constantly and deeply affect mankind’s future. The teaching of economics can no longer ignore it.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

'Will MOOCs Lead to the Democratisation of education?'

Some theoretical results on MOOCs:

Will MOOCs lead to the democratisation of education?, by Joshua Gans: With all the recent discussion of how hard it is for journalists to read academic articles, I thought I’d provide a little service here and ‘translate’ the recent NBER working paper by Daron Acemoglu, David Laibson and John List, “Equalizing Superstars” for a general audience. The paper contains a ‘light’ general equilibrium model that may be difficult for some to parse.
The paper is interested in what the effect of MOOCs or, in general, web-based teaching options would be on educational outcomes around the world, the distribution of those outcomes and the wages of teachers. ...

Monday, November 04, 2013

'Women in Economics in the Chronicle of Higher Education'

John Whitehead:

Women in economics in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Kate Bahn ("a doctoral student in economics at the New School for Social Research and a writer and co-editor at in the Chronicle:

So the problem is really twofold: Women have been discouraged and excluded, and those who make an impact anyway have had their contributions discredited. ...

So that’s the state of play. That said, women have made huge gains in the field over the past 40 years..., 35 percent of new economics Ph.D.’s are women, up from about 7 percent in the 1970s.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the signs are less encouraging. ...

A disproportionate number of women remain stuck in certain subfields. ... Women are drawn to those areas where they are already better represented. So while there are pockets of female economists within certain subfields, there’s still a major disparity across the field as a whole. ...

In the coming months, I’ll write more about what this all means, for women and for the field as a whole. For now, I won’t delve too deeply into my experiences as an openly feminist economist and the eye-rolls I get from some of my peers whenever I suggest we hold more lectures and classes on feminist economics. Discussing that subfield just opens up a whole other can of worms, except yuck, girls don’t like worms.

This should be an interesting series.

Twenty-eight percent of our sample of AERE members are women and there are some gender differences on some of the items... I'm not sure where environmental and resource economics falls in the quant to caring field range. Probably closer to caring? Since we *might* care more about environmental issues than other economists?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

'Climate Change, Public Policy, and the University'

Robert Stavins:

Climate Change, Public Policy, and the University, by Robert Stavins: Over the past year or more, across the United States, there has been a groundswell of student activism pressing colleges and universities to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios.  On October 3, 2013, after many months of assessment, discussion, and debate, the President of Harvard University, Drew Faust, issued a long, well-reasoned, and – in my view – ultimately sensible statement on “fossil fuel divestment,” in which she explained why she and the Corporation (Harvard’s governing board) do not believe that “university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise.”  I urge you to read her statement, and decide for yourself how compelling you find it, and whether and how it may apply to your institution, as well.
About 10 days later, two leaders of the student movement at Harvard responded to President Faust in The Nation Andrew Revkin, writing at the New York Times Dot Earth blog, highlighted the fact that the students responded in part by saying, “We do not expect divestment to have a financial impact on fossil fuel companies …  Divestment is a moral and political strategy to expose the reckless business model of the fossil fuel industry that puts our world at risk.”
I agree with these students that fossil-fuel divestment by the University would not have financial impacts on the industry, and I also agree with their implication that it would be (potentially) of symbolic value only.  However, it is precisely because of this that I believe President Faust made the right decision.  Let me explain. ...

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Higher Education and the Opportunity Gap

A quick one on a moderately long travel day:

Higher Education and the Opportunity Gap, by Isabel V. Sawhill, Brookings: America faces an opportunity gap. Those born in the bottom ranks have difficulty moving up. Although the United States has long thought of itself as a meritocracy, a place where anyone who gets an education and works hard can make it, the facts tell a somewhat different story. Children born into the top fifth of the income distribution have about twice as much of a chance of becoming middle class or better in their adult years as those born into the bottom fifth (Isaacs, Sawhill, & Haskins, 2008). One way that lower-income children can beat the odds is by getting a college degree.[1] Those who complete four-year degrees have a much better chance of becoming middle class than those who don’t — although still not as good of a chance as their more affluent peers. But the even bigger problem is that few actually manage to get the degree. Moreover, the link between parental income and college-going has increased in recent decades (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011). In short, higher education is not the kind of mobility-enhancing vehicle that it could be. ...

Monday, October 07, 2013

New Research in Economics: The Return and Risk of Pursuing a BA

This is from Frank Levy at MIT:

I am attaching a paper co-authored with two former students that uses California higher ed data to make stylized calculations of the return and risk of pursuing a BA. The paper makes two main points.
Most studies of the rate of return to college use a best-case scenario in which students earn a degree with certainty in four years. More realistic calculations that account for students who take more than four years and students who drop out without a degree, etc. result in an average rate of return that is lower than it was in 2000 but still exceeds the interest rate on unsubsidized Stafford student loans – i.e. college remains a good investment by the normal criteria.
Most studies present an average rate of return without considering the investment’s risk. Over the last decade, rising tuition and deteriorating earnings for new college graduates (particularly at the bottom of the distribution) have increased the risk of pursuing a BA – e.g. the risk that a graduate at age 30 will have student loan payments that exceed 15% of their income. This growing risk is one explanation for increased  skepticism about the value of a college degree despite the apparently high rate of return. It also underlines the importance of students becoming aware of the government’s income contingent loan repayment plans.
The paper is posted on SSRN.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

U.S. Higher Education Enrollments, Falling Behind

Tim Taylor:

In almost every high income country, the share of 25-34 year-olds with higher education is higher than that for the age 25-64 population as a whole--about 7 percentage points higher. This is the pattern one would expect to see if a country is expanding access to higher education. But the U.S. is an exception, where the share of 25-34 year-olds with with a tertiary education degree is lower than for the age 25-64 population.

More here.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

'Liberal Peking University Professor Threatened with Expulsion'

On tenure:

Liberal Peking University professor threatened with expulsion, South China Morning Post: A renowned professor has confirmed online rumors that his peers will decide whether he will be expelled from China's most eminent university after he made a series of remarks in favor of free speech and constitutional governance. Economics professor Xia Yeliang of Peking University was told by his department that his fate would be decided by a faculty vote, he told the South China Morning Post on Monday. "They told me it's because of all the things I have said and written," Xia said. "They have threatened me before, but this is the first time they will vote on my expulsion."
Over the last years, Xia has been one of the most outspoken liberal voices among Chinese academics. A friend of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, he was among the first signatories of Charter 08, the call for personal freedoms that landed Liu in jail. ...

I wanted to link to his Twitter account, but I couldn't find it:

... Recently, he has been writing critical remarks - on Twitter and Sina Weibo - about party censorship and President Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream" slogan. 
Several, at least seven he said, of his Sina Weibo accounts have been deleted...

Saturday, June 08, 2013

The Toulouse School of Economics

Just a quick note to say how impressed I've been with the progress that The Toulouse School of Economics (TSE) has made in attracting first-rate scholars to their program. They have an excellent department -- I didn't realize how excellent it was until I got here (which, I suppose, was part of the reason to bring me here to the TIGER forum). I talked to Olivier Blanchard a bit about the progress that Europe more generally has made in economics, and he told me that there were some fairly special conditions that allowed Toulouse to make such great progress, and he also cited a few other universities that have also made large strides (again, also due to special conditions, in particular having advocates within the bureaucratic structure). 

But, special conditions or not, it is clear that Europe is making more progress than I was aware of, and it has attracted far more high powered brain power in macroeconomics than I realized (it is highly probable that the same is true in microeconomics, but since I mainly attended the macrofinance seminars at this conference, I can't speak to that first-hand -- but all the evidence points strongly in that direction). The sessions I attended were every bit as good as any NBER session, and the gains that Europe is making is an encouraging development. If the universities that have made the greatest strides continue to be successful, then perhaps lessons will be learned and it won't be necessary to exploit special conditions to the same degree in order for European universities to prosper academically (though there are significant institutional hurdles).

Toulouse itself is also a wonderful place to visit, and some of the sessions/dinners were hold in awesome places (e.g. Trichet's talk was at at the Augustins museum). The hospitality has been unsurpassed (thanks to Paul Seabright for all the tips about places to visit while I'm here, this is my first time to France so I really appreciated that and am taking full advantage of his suggestions). If you get a chance to attend this conference, go for it! I'm looking forward to returning in 2014 (this was their first attempt, and it will only get better in future years).

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Help Students from Low Income Households Attend College

New column:

How a College Education Can Close the Income Gap

The title doesn't quite capture the main topic -- it's a plea to do more to help students from low income households attend college.

Friday, May 31, 2013

'Public Colleges are Often No Bargain for the Poor'

Remember all those calls from both conservatives and liberals for (sufficiently) equal opportunity? How's that working out?:

Public colleges are often no bargain for the poor, by Renee Schoof, McClatchy: Many public colleges and universities expect their poorest students to pay a third, half or even more of their families’ annual incomes each year for college, a new study of college costs has found.
With most American students enrolling in their states’ public institutions in hopes of gaining affordable degrees, the new data shows that the net price – the full cost of attending college minus scholarships – can be surprisingly high for families that make $30,000 a year or less.
The numbers track with larger national trends: the growing student-loan debt and decline in college completion among low-income students.
Because of the high net price, “these students are left with little choice but to take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that lessen their likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full time while enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return,” Stephen Burd wrote in a recent report for the New America Foundation...

There's a graphic in the article that shows the "Average net annual cost of public 4-year schools for in-state students in families earning $30,000" (scroll over a state to see the cost). For Oregon, it's $10,701 according to their calculations.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Cuts to Higher Education Since 2008


Saturday, March 09, 2013

'College Costs & Enrollment for Low-Income Students'

A follow up to the recent posts on college costs:

College Costs & Enrollment for Low-Income Students, by Owen Zidar: According to data compiled by Avery & Hoxby, effective college costs are much lower for low income families at the most selective schools compared to other schools. Despite this fact, many low income students aren’t applying to the most selective schools and end up getting lower quality education and higher student debts on average. This outcome compounds a previously mentioned problem that many potentially high scoring students don’t take the SATs and don’t end up enrolling in college at all. …

Thursday, March 07, 2013

'Public Support for Education in Real Terms'

pgl follows up on the post about education costs:

Public Support for Education in Real Terms, EconoSpeak: Travis Waldron is rightfully worried about the cost of a college education and the diminishing support from the government:
Only 12 states now spend more on higher education than they did before the recession. The decrease in funding has contributed to the six-fold increase in college tuition over the last 30 years.

A six-fold increase? Let’s be fair – consumer prices today are about 2.5 times what they were 30 years ago – so in real terms, college tuition is up by a factor of 2.5 or so. But OK – this is a staggering increase. Mark Thoma highlighted this as well and is getting some comments doubting that government support for education has declined. This table labeled “Table 3.15.6. Real Government Consumption Expenditures and Gross Investment by Function, Chained Dollars” shows that in real terms (2005$), total government spending on education was $690 billion in 2009 but was only $648 billion in 2011. I know that the austerity freaks in the Republican Party want to claim reducing government spending is good for growth but they are wrong on two fronts. Any fiscal restraint now prolongs this Great Recession. And this kind of austerity impairs the creation of human capital needed for long-term growth. It is not just the cutbacks in higher education that concern me but the general tendency for state and local governments to layoff teachers in order to balance their budgets.

'Six-Fold Increase in College Tuition over the Last 30 Years'

Via ThinkProgress:

...CNN Money reports:

Average tuition costs – the amount students paid in tuition and fees after state and institutional aid was taken into account — rose by 8.3% to an average of $5,189 in the 2011-12 school year ,the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association reported. In the previous academic year, students paid an average of $4,793.

At the same time, state and local funding for operating expenses, research and student aid fell by 9% to $5,896, the lowest level in 25 years, said association president Paul Lingenfelter.

The upward trend is likely to continue in 2013, since state governments plan to spend 10.8 percent less on higher education this year than they did in the year prior to the Great Recession. ... The decrease in funding has contributed to the six-fold increase in college tuition over the last 30 years. ...

We're headed in the wrong direction.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

What’s the Cost and Financial Value of College?

Without college, I'd probably be doing what my dad, brother, and grandfather did, work in a tractor store selling parts, and if I was lucky, some day get promoted to sales. College was my ticket out of the small farming town I grew up in, but if it wasn't for the low tuition at California state schools at the time, I probably wouldn't have made it. (Tuition was around $100 per semester, and I could earn enough to pay tuition, dorm fees, etc. working on farms in the summer and at a tractor store selling parts to cranky farmers during school. I also worked at a gas station for a while at minimum wage, and my boss/owner was a real, genuine ass, but I needed the money).

I can't say if it was worth it to society to subsidize my education -- this blog is one result of that investment -- but it was certainly worth it to me and to this day I have not forgotten what the state of California did for me. (I really, really, hated working at tractor stores and the gas station, nobody should have the power over people my boss at the gas station had over me -- he tried to screw me out of overtime, that sort of thing, though once I threatened to report him to the labor board his tune changed a bit -- and the thought of doing jobs like that for the rest of my life was a huge motivation in college. When I'd get to the tractor store in the morning, I'd write "480" on a notepad, that was how many minutes I had left until I could leave eight hours later, and then I'd tick the minutes off the rest of the day. I can remember just wanting one thing, to have a job where I didn't watch the clock all day long, to get lost in my work somehow -- it's hard to explain how much I hated those jobs -- and I was lucky enough to find that.)

I am biased from my own experience, but nobody will ever convince me that college is a bad investment. However, with tuition rising, access to college for naive kids like I was back then is a real issue. It's hard to explain just how naive I was, but when your parents only went to junior college for a year (and then got married at age 19 because you were on the way), and your high school is too small to have advisors to fill in the gaps, it's easy to make bad choices. I had no clue, for example, about how to finance education at a UC school, e.g UC Davis or Berkeley -- my parents simply said "we can't afford that" when I raised the issue, and with no co-signers for loans, and no knowledge about how to get a loan without a parent to co-sign -- it was different then -- the path to anywhere but Cal State Chico was, as far as I could see, closed. I might have found a way if Chico hadn't been so cheap, it would have gone through a JC, but likely not, and I am very grateful there was a path through a four year college for kids like me to take. Still, it was hard to get to a decent graduate school from Chico despite a economics/statistics/math major and nearly perfect grades my last three years, a UC school would have provided much more opportunity, but it was enough to get me here. I only hope that kids today have at least the same opportunity I had, and hopefully even better choices, but I'm not at all sure that they do:

What’s the cost and financial value of college?, Peter Dizikes, MIT News: What’s the right price for a college education? And what is its value? 

Those are crucial questions at a time of rising student debt and high unemployment. But a group of scholars and policymakers at an MIT forum on Thursday suggested that one thing about college remains clear: Expensive though it can be, higher education pays off for Americans as a whole.

Indeed, the much-discussed idea of an “education bubble” — that college costs have soared too high to make a degree worthwhile — is a “dangerous myth that leads people to make bad choices,” said David Autor, an MIT labor economist who has extensively studied the relationship between education and earnings.  

Instead, Autor said, the best evidence shows that a college degree leads to a lifetime earnings increase of $250,000 to $300,000, even after subtracting the cost of higher education. Those returns, Autor noted, apply to graduates regardless of their undergraduate majors: Humanities students benefit just as science, engineering or business students do. 

And all evidence suggests education remains a key to social mobility in America, noted Janice Eberly... Moreover, Eberly said, “These benefits accrue not only to individuals but society more broadly,”...
The forum’s moderator and organizer, James Poterba ... noted in his introductory remarks that higher education is “an extremely important sector of the U.S. economy,” representing about 3.5 percent of the national GDP — but one with an even larger impact on the country’s fortunes, given its centrality of knowledge and its impact on innovation-based growth to the economy.

Yet excellence in higher education requires a solid foundation of secondary education, observed Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University. And while high school graduation rates in the United States soared in the first half of the 20th century, they have been virtually stagnant since about 1970. 

“College completion just cannot advance much when high school completion does not,” Goldin said. 

For those who do go to college, the amount of student-loan debt they accrue has increased, as Autor acknowledged: At graduation, today’s public-university graduates hold $32,000 in student debt, on average, while graduates of private, nonprofit schools owe $46,000, on average. Going into debt always entails risk, Autor said, while asserting that the worst-case scenarios, of students with massive debt and low income, attract disproportionate media attention.

In reality, virtually all college students, Autor said, will emerge with useful work-force skills. ...

A retweet of this link:

Don't ask is it worth it, ask who can afford it? MT “@markthoma: What’s the cost and value of college? - MIT…” — Paul Vigna (@paulvigna) February 8, 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Will Online Education Reduce the Income Gap?

My latest column argues that online education has the potential to help lots of people, but contrary to some claims:

...traditional colleges are not going away, and the potential of online education to reduce inequality is overrated. ...

See: Will Online Education Reduce the Income Gap?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

'Higher Education and Theory of the Second Best'

John Holbo:

... My basic thought ... is that the paradigm college experience is just plain going to cost a lot. Four years being a full-time student at a residential college, say. That’s not going to come cheap. We shouldn’t beat our brains out about how we can do this thing inexpensively... There isn’t some conspiracy to artificially inflate the cost of college. We could do different things. That might cost less. ... But there isn’t any reason to think we can do substantially the same things we already are, just at much lower cost. This is clearly a source of sincere disagreement... Some people think that the rate at which college costs have gone up means that there must be some way to pop the cost bubble and dramatically lower costs back down without sacrificing quality. There’s some conspiracy of incompetence or venality by the administrators/teachers. We need to break the back of that, whatever it is, then things would get better. I don’t really think that’s plausible, but if you think it’s plausible, go ahead and work out your own solution to the problem along those lines.
College is a premium product. A costly good. But a valuable one we want people to have. If the state isn’t going to subsidize its provision, making it available to all, then how will it go?
Option 1: everyone who isn’t rich goes into serious debt to pay for this costly but valuable good.
Option 2: we devise a less premium product. It won’t be as good, but it will cost less.
I distrust Option 1. In fact, I’m paranoid about it, for reasons outlined in this article. I don’t quite drink the full jug of kool-aid. For example, I don’t buy that tuition has skyrocketed ‘because it can’. That is, there’s just a speculative bubble, in effect. I don’t think the growth in administration is quite as sinister as they suggest. It’s largely a function of universities wanting to do so much for students – so many programs and options and choices – which is a good thing. But it creates overhead costs.
I do agree that private for-profit outfits like University of Phoenix are, in effect, trying to get their noses into the huge trough of student loan money. That’s worrisome. The old are eating their young, leaving them holding the debt bag [pardon my mixed metaphor]. I am less worried by things like Western Governors University, which seems genuinely committed to trying to find a way to Option 2. Which makes me sad, but at least it isn’t some private sector trick to saddle students with debt. At least it’s an attempt to keep the democratic ideal of higher education for all alive, even if the dream looks pretty shabby.
Western Governors gives up the dream of a well-rounded liberal arts education. It gives up all the stuff that you can only do hands-on, in person. It gives up college as a formative social experience. It gives up a lot. But what it provides is worth something, and it’s not clear they are charging more than it is worth. It just makes me depressed to look at it, is all. But I can’t really argue with the logic of it, if the alternative is Option 1..., it might be the way of the future. ...

Friday, September 21, 2012

'This Dynamic All But Guarantees a Permanent Underclass'

Laura Tyson:

The United States is caught in a vicious cycle largely of its own making. Rising income inequality is breeding more inequality in educational opportunity, which results in greater inequality in educational attainment. That, in turn, undermines the intergenerational mobility upon which Americans have always prided themselves and perpetuates income inequality from generation to generation.

This dynamic all but guarantees a permanent underclass.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"The Commencement Address That Won’t be Given"

Robert Reich has inspiring words for new graduates:

The commencement address that won’t be given, by Robert Reich: As a former secretary of labor and current professor, I feel I owe it to you to tell you the truth about the pieces of parchment you’re picking up today.
You’re f*cked.
Well, not exactly. But you won’t have it easy.
First, you’re going to have a hell of a hard time finding a job. ... But even when you get a job, it’s likely to pay peanuts. ... Presumably ... when we come out of the gravitational pull of the recession your wages will improve. But there’s a longer-term trend that should concern you.
The decline in the earnings of college grads really began more than a decade ago. ... Don’t get me wrong. A four-year college degree is still valuable. Over your lifetimes, you’ll earn about 70 percent more than people who don’t have the pieces of parchment you’re picking up today.
But this parchment isn’t as valuable as it once was. So much of what was once considered “knowledge work” ... can now be done more cheaply by software. Or by workers with college degrees in India or East Asia, linked up by Internet.
For many of you, your immediate problem is that pile of debt on your shoulders. In a few moments, when you march out of here, those of you who have taken out college loans will owe more than $25,000 on average. Last year, ten percent of college grads with loans owed more than $54,000. ... Loans to parents for the college educations of their children have soared 75 percent since the academic year 2005-2006.
Outstanding student debt now totals over $1 trillion. That’s more than the nation’s total credit-card debt. ... At some point in the not-too-distant future..., College is no longer a good investment. That’s a problem for you and for those who will follow you into these hallowed halls, but it’s also a problem for America as a whole.
You see, a college education isn’t just a private investment. It’s also a public good. This nation can’t be competitive globally, nor can we have a vibrant and responsible democracy, without a large number of well-educated people.
So it’s not just you who are burdened by these trends. If they continue, we’re all f*cked.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Paul Krugman: Wasting Our Minds

College graduates are struggling, and the "war on the young" is "doing immense harm, not just to the young, but to the nation’s future":

Wasting Our Minds, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: In Spain, the unemployment rate among workers under 25 is more than 50 percent. In Ireland almost a third of the young are unemployed. Here in America, youth unemployment is “only” 16.5 percent, which is still terrible — but things could be worse.
And sure enough, many politicians are doing all they can to guarantee that things will, in fact, get worse. ... Let’s start with some advice Mitt Romney gave to college students..., “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”
The first thing you notice .. is ... the distinctive lack of empathy for those who ... can’t rely on the Bank of Mom and Dad to finance their ambitions. ... I mean, “get the education”? And pay for it how? Tuition ... has soared... Mr. Romney ... would drastically cut federal student aid, causing roughly a million students to lose their Pell grants. ...
There is, however, a larger issue: even if students do manage, somehow, to “get the education,” which they do all too often by incurring a lot of debt, they’ll be graduating into an economy that doesn’t seem to want them. ... And research tells us that the price isn’t temporary..., their earnings are depressed for life.
What the young need most of all, then, is a better job market. People like Mr. Romney claim that they have the recipe for job creation: slash taxes on corporations and the rich, slash spending on public services and the poor. But we now have plenty of evidence on how these policies actually work in a depressed economy — and they clearly destroy jobs rather than create them. ...
What should we do to help America’s young? Basically, the opposite of what Mr. Romney and his friends want. We should be expanding student aid, not slashing it. And we should reverse the de facto austerity policies that are holding back the U.S. economy — the unprecedented cutbacks at the state and local level, which have been hitting education especially hard.
Yes, such a policy reversal would cost money. But refusing to spend that money is foolish and shortsighted even in purely fiscal terms. Remember, the young aren’t just America’s future; they’re the future of the tax base, too.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste; wasting the minds of a whole generation is even more terrible. Let’s stop doing it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What is Higher Education For?

Michael Perelman responds to recent comments:

What is Higher Education for?, Unsettling Economics: On Mark Thoma’s blog, Economist’s View, there is an active debate about my post on the Demise of Higher Education.
The comments divided relatively predictable ways, according to whether the commentor were inclined toward Republican or Democratic policies, but relatively little energy was given to the question of the value of higher education. Most people can appreciate the beneficial technologies will that depend upon the scientific training and research that goes on in universities, although not everybody recognizes the debt that society owes to higher education in such developments.
Higher education can mean more than learning about science or classical literature. My own first learning experience in higher education had little to do with a classroom. I found myself in contact with a much wider variety of people that I had ever previously encountered. That in itself broadened my perspective on life. Classes in history, as well as classical music and literature, helped to give me a sense of the life and culture of other parts of the world. My greatest benefit from higher education was a curiosity about the world that I had lacked before.
Let me turn for a moment to an observation about my field, economics. Many of the economists who other economists recognize for making the greatest contributions to their field are people who benefited from exposure to different fields. The winner of the not-really Nobel Prize, Kenneth Arrow, was trained as a meteorologist during the Second World War. Similarly, Nobelist Paul Samuelson worked with mathematicians, engineers, and physicists developing radar during the war. Phil Mirowski’s Machine Dreams is filled with such examples. Of course, scientists have gotten inspiration from similar experiences.
In short, education in general is not something that can be easily measured in objective terms. Ideas, which initially seemed kooky, often later turn out to be crucial for future development.
The me finish by saying that my complaints are not the product of some disgruntled academic, upset over low pay, mistreatment, or any other personal problems. I enjoy what I do. In fact, if I were willing to retire, I could teach half-time for a few years while collecting my pension. If I did, my income would increase but I can only do so [keep teaching] for five years. Consequently, I pay to keep teaching. I have good relationships with my chairman, my dean, and president of the University.
My anger is directed toward the forces that are working to destroy a world, which I love.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Demise of Higher Education in the United States"

Better education may not be the answer to all of our problems, and it won't work for everyone in any case, but worse education is certainly a prescription for disaster. This is from Michael Perelman:

The Demise of Higher Education in the United States, Unsettling Economics: The United States has experienced two major growth spurts in higher education. In 1862, the Morrill Act changed the face of higher education will by granting each state 30,000 acres of public land for each senator and representative. Sale of the land was intended to create an endowment fund for the support of colleges in each of the states. Prior to the creation of the land-grant colleges, higher education was predominantly intended for wealthy students and those intending to serve as clergy. The land-grant colleges expanded higher education to different regions and a different class of students. This expansion, however, was still incomplete.
The second episode was the G.I. Bill, which was not so much intended to promote education, but rather to prevent another Bonus March, in which angry soldiers returning from the First World War demanded early payment of their promised bonuses to help cushion the hardships of the Great Depression. Offering education was expected to channel potential discontent.
The G.I. Bill paid a different kind of bonus. The doors of colleges and universities opened to people for whom higher education would have been out of reach. Their skills proved invaluable during the postwar economic boom. A second unintended bonus flowed from the G.I. Bill. To accommodate the massive inflow of students, colleges and universities built infrastructure to expand their capacity to handle so many students. After the wave of veteran enrollments dissipated, colleges and universities had to choose between letting this infrastructure sit idle or enrolling more students.
Judging from my experience teaching during the Vietnam War, returning these veterans must have made an important contribution to the teaching environment. Although many soldiers were unable to put their lives together after the trauma of war, some came back, totally focused on making something of themselves. Some of their maturity and dedication rubbed off onto the younger cohort of students.
A less dramatic burst of government spending into education came from the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which was a response to the USSR’s launch of Sputnik, the previous year. This time, much of the money was narrowly focused on improving the quality of science and language education.
I have personally experienced the rise and fall of higher education in the United States. I enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1957, a few months before Sputnik was launched then, in 1965, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. This was a time of great optimism about the future. I did not realize that very hard times for higher education were about to begin.
As the student population swelled during the 1960′s, the youth culture developed as a result of demographic changes, the Vietnam War and skepticism about consumptionism clashed with a different kind of pressure: a sagging rate of profit, following decades of unparalleled prosperity.
Under these conditions, the goal became to reverse the gains from the G.I. Bill. Rather than including people in education, who might otherwise threaten the status quo, reining in the University system seemed urgent. In the fall of 1970, Governor Reagan’s aide Roger Freeman, who later served as President Nixon’s educational policy advisor, while he was working at the time for California Governor Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign, commented on Reagan’s education policy: “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective about who we allow to through higher education. If not, we will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people.”
In 1971, just before he was nominated for the Supreme Court, Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer wrote a now-famous memo, “Attack of American Free Enterprise System” for the Chamber of Commerce. Higher education appeared to be at the heart of this attack on free enterprise. He described how the Chamber could gain more control over the educational system.
Although the memo was superficial at best, it sparked great interest among the elites, influencing or inspiring the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. ...
Tax reduction ... also had an important effect on education. Growing budget deficits would ramp up pressure to privatize what had been previously public responsibilities. By largely defunding education, universities became increasingly dependent on corporate money. Administrators became cautious about allowing expression of ideas that might seem upsetting to business. These factors took an enormous toll on higher education.
Tuition began a rapid ascent. Student debt accumulated. University funds were concentrated on programs that cater to business needs, such as biotechnology and engineering, and, naturally, business schools. Visiting Berkeley, I am always struck by the lavish libraries for biotechnology and business, while the other disciplinary libraries were unchanged. The one exception that stood out was public health, which was torn down to make way for a new biotech building and then moved to the basement of an old administrative building.
The educational assembly-line that Mario Savio described during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley has changed, but not for the better. At the same time, leaders in business and politics insist that education is an essential element to a successful economy. Nonetheless, education becomes increasingly unaffordable, at the same time that the quality [is declining]...

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Better Academics Through Chemistry?

Ari at The Edge of the American West wonders if juiced academics are just around the corner, and the competitive implications if they are:

Dopers, by ari: This article in Vanity Fair left me thinking that it’s only a matter of time before performance-enhancing drugs become the norm rather than the exception in the academy. I mean, what happens you realize that the assistant professor that your department just hired can concentrate for hours and hours without taking a break for weeks on end? What happens when you realize that s/he is far more productive than you are because of these extraordinary powers of concentration? And then, what happens when you learn that the secret to her or his success is a prescription for methylphenidate? What are you going to do about it*? As for me, I’ll probably go out for a bike ride and then take a nap. But that’s because I’m old and pretty much past my prime already. But if I could still be a contender — whatever being a contender means — I wonder if I’d think twice and call my doctor. ...
Now wait, before you give the obvious reply, yes, I know this already happens. Eric drinks coffee. I don’t. And that’s the only reason he’s written four books and I haven’t. Really, though, if there were a pill that would allow me to be significantly more productive, I worry that I’d think long and hard about taking it. Actually, I suspect that choice is already here. It’s just that I don’t have the right dealer. ...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"The Prestige Chase Is Raising College Costs"

Slow day so far in terms of finding or thinking of things to post -- maybe this will spark some discussion:

... Because of the bitter competition for ... premium salaries, elite educational credentials are often a precondition for even landing a job interview. With so many applications for every vacancy, many consulting firms and investment banks, for example, now consider only candidates from a short list of top-ranked schools.
Degrees from those schools clearly open doors. For example, more than 40 percent of the 2007 graduating class at Princeton landed one of the most highly sought prizes: a position in the lucrative financial services industry.
Universities have responded vigorously to escalating student demands for elite degrees. Their main strategy has been to bid more aggressively for the most distinguished researchers, which explains not only the rapid salary growth for top faculty members in the last several decades, but also the fact that teaching loads at many elite schools have decreased...
Yet no matter how much universities might spend in pursuit of elite status, only 10 percent at any moment can end up in the top 10 percent. To be sure, the additional expense has not been pure waste. ... Researchers have responded as expected to these incentives. But the additional papers they’ve written have added little value. The economist Philip Cook and I found, for example, that in the first five years after publication, many fewer than half of all papers in the two most selective economics journals had ever been cited by other scholars.
Tying federal subsidies to tuition growth would dampen a university’s incentive to bid for prestige in much the same way that league-imposed salary penalties in professional sports help curb the bidding wars for superstars. But if the starting-salary gap keeps widening between the highest- and lowest-paid college graduates, this remedy’s effectiveness would be temporary at best.
We might consider taking more direct aim at the component of tuition inflation that is attributable to growing salary gaps. Raising taxes on top salaries would be a good idea for American society in general, and not just for higher education. It would not only shrink the effect of salary disparities, but would also generate some much-needed revenue.

If you were all powerful, what would you do to improve higher education?

Friday, March 09, 2012

Paul Krugman: Ignorance Is Strength

Why are Republicans turning against higher education"?

Ignorance Is Strength, Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: One way in which Americans have always been exceptional has been in our support for education. ... But now one of our two major political parties has taken a hard right turn against education, or at least against education that working Americans can afford. ... And this comes at a time when American education is already in deep trouble.
About that hostility: Mr. Santorum made headlines by declaring that President Obama wants to expand college enrollment because colleges are “indoctrination mills” that destroy religious faith. But Mr. Romney’s response to a high school senior worried about college costs is arguably even more significant...
Here’s what the candidate told the student: “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price... And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.” ...
Mr. Romney’s remarks were even more callous ... given what’s been happening lately to American higher education. ... Adjusted for inflation, state support for higher education has fallen 12 percent over the past five years, even as the number of students has continued to rise... The damage these changes will inflict ... should be obvious. So why are Republicans so eager to trash higher education?
It’s not hard to see what’s driving Mr. Santorum’s wing of the party. His specific claim that college attendance undermines faith is, it turns out, false. ... But what about people like Mr. Romney? Don’t they have a stake in America’s future economic success, which is endangered by the crusade against education? Maybe not as much as you think.
After all, over the past 30 years, there has been a stunning disconnect between huge income gains at the top and the struggles of ordinary workers. You can make the case that the self-interest of America’s elite is best served by making sure that this disconnect continues, which means keeping taxes on high incomes low at all costs, never mind the consequences in terms of poor infrastructure and an undertrained work force.
And if underfunding public education leaves many children of the less affluent shut out from upward mobility, well, did you really believe that stuff about creating equality of opportunity?
So whenever you hear Republicans say that they are the party of traditional values, bear in mind that they have actually made a radical break with America’s tradition of valuing education. And they have made this break because they believe that what you don’t know can’t hurt them.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Discrediting Academic Voices

Does college make students more liberal and less religious? Nope:

The Indoctrination Myth, by Neil Gross, Commentary, NY Times: THE Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently ... called colleges and universities “indoctrination mills” for godless liberalism. But is this true? Does attending college actually make you more liberal and less religious? Research indicates that the answer is: not so much.
It’s certainly true that professors are a liberal lot and that religious skepticism is common in the academy. ... But contrary to conservative rhetoric, studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. ... Studies also show that attending college does not make you less religious. ...

I've always thought this is more about discrediting academic voices than the supposed indoctrination itself. The author gets this:

So why do conservatives persist in attacking higher education? There’s no doubt that in terms of overall curricular content and campus culture, most colleges and universities do skew more to the left than to the right. And research by the sociologists Amy Binder and Kate Wood confirms that this can be a frustrating and alienating experience for conservative students, even if it’s not serving to indoctrinate anyone.
But that alone doesn’t explain the intensity of the animus. Doing so requires some historical perspective. Conservatives have been criticizing academia for many decades. Yet only once the McCarthy era passed did this criticism begin to be cast primarily in anti-elitist tones: charges of Communist subversion gave way to charges of liberal elitism in the writings of William F. Buckley Jr. and others. The idea that professors are snobs looking down their noses at ordinary Americans, trying to push the country in directions it does not wish to go, soon became an established conservative trope, taking its place alongside criticism of the liberal press and the liberal judiciary.

Academics provide a powerful counterforce to conservative ideas, both through evidence and argument, and to the extent those voices can be discredited, it benefits conservatives. At least politically. But there is a danger in this as well. Discrediting professors as out of touch, elitist, individuals discredits the entire institution of higher education, and this undermines our pursuit of basic science and education that will be needed to compete in a globalized economy (e.g. by making taxpayers less willing to fund these institutions). Most of the academics I know don't have a political bone in their body, and if they do it does not affect their research in any way. They simply want to find the truth, and discrediting the entire institution of higher education to mute the few who do speak out reduces our ability to solve important problems.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion"

From the NBER:

Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion, by Martha J. Bailey, Susan M. Dynarski, NBER Working Paper No. 17633, December 2011: [open link] We describe changes over time in inequality in postsecondary education using nearly seventy years of data... We find growing gaps between children from high- and low-income families in college entry, persistence, and graduation. Rates of college completion increased by only four percentage points for low-income cohorts born around 1980 relative to cohorts born in the early 1960s, but by 18 percentage points for corresponding cohorts who grew up in high-income families. Among men, inequality in educational attainment has increased slightly since the early 1980s. But among women, inequality in educational attainment has risen sharply, driven by increases in the education of the daughters of high-income parents. Sex differences in educational attainment, which were small or nonexistent thirty years ago, are now substantial, with women outpacing men in every demographic group. The female advantage in educational attainment is largest in the top quartile of the income distribution. These sex differences present a formidable challenge to standard explanations for rising inequality in educational attainment.

There's a more extended summary of the results in the conclusion to the paper.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I Am Worried about My Grade

I've had this conversation many times:

Thursday, December 08, 2011

"A Bluesy Road-Novel with a Lot of Economic Theory and Analysis"

I would have never thought to do this, or had the courage to do it if somehow it did occur to me:

Microeconomics using "The Grapes of Wrath", INET: Stephen Ziliak, Trustee and Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University-Chicago and a member of the INET Curriculum Committee Task Force, teaches introductory microeconomics using The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Here is the syllabus
The Grapes of Wrath was published by its author, John Steinbeck, in 1939, during the worst economic crisis in American and world history. Set in and written during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is a bluesy road-novel with a lot of social and economic theory and analysis. It follows a family of homeless and landless tenant farmers from Oklahoma—the Joads—who’ve been forced on account of foreclosure to leave the farm and land which they labored and lived on for several generations.
Forced by a large bank and absentee owners to leave their home, the Midwestern farmers with little education and no income join other displaced workers on the road to California, in search of jobs, food, and housing—a piece of the American Dream.
Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was for many years censored and banned by governments and school boards made uncomfortable by the novel’s detailed portrayal of economic inequality, hardship, and oppression.
We asked Stephen Ziliak to share his experience teaching The Grapes of Wrath, which he has used since 1996 to form the basis of his intro economics course.
Q: Why, Professor Ziliak, way back in 1996, did you begin to teach to introductory economics students The Grapes of Wrath?
A: I guess my first response is that I eschewed in my own research the one-voiced, monological approach of conventional neoclassical economics. Trained as an economic historian, I’m an amateur poet who had also worked as a welfare and food stamp caseworker in the county welfare department, going door-to-door in the poorest neighborhoods of Indianapolis. When I became an Assistant Professor of Economics, in 1996, I was searching for a teaching method that would open up the conversation to a wider, more realistic set of issues. It only seemed fair to me: given that I myself had philosophical objections to the conventional approach to teaching utilitarian economics, it hardly seemed right to force-feed my students. Plus, many of my students came from working class families but they’d never experienced a recession. I wanted them to know that growth and bubbles do not last forever.
Q: Why teach The Grapes of Wrath and not some other novel?
A: Good question. First and foremost, it’s an incredibly moving novel that—I openly admit—continues to make me laugh and cry. Now laughing and crying are not necessary for good pedagogy. But it seems to me that if a fact-based story about economic history can make a grown man and professor of economics cry, it must have something important to say. The visible hand of class conflict needs to be aired and this novel does it.
Q: You said fact-based. What do you mean—it’s a novel, it’s fiction, yes?
A: Yes, but it’s historical fiction—meaning that Steinbeck, like Hugo, Zola, and others before him, was deliberately depicting real and felt experiences. There are exaggerations and omissions of fact, true—as economic historians and English professors know full well. But in fact, Steinbeck himself spent a year or more working and studying inside of the same temporary labor camps that the fictional Joad family experienced in California.
Q: How do students react? Can you share some insights from the teacher perspective?
A: Really well, eventually. Some are defensive at first, being trained to believe that stories are for novelists and theory for scientists. Still others have been so deeply entrenched with what I call the banking approach to learning—regurgitating facts and equations—they’re afraid of dialogue and a plurality of voices and interpretation. But students tell me it’s one of those life-changing courses.
Q: What about the “quants”? Do quants survive the course?
A: Again, it’s not for everyone. But yes, absolutely. An example is a student who studied with me at Roosevelt University. He came to Roosevelt as a freshman from Puerto Rico on a violin scholarship. He was preparing for a career in violin at our conservatory and, at the same time, he had a passion for advanced mathematics. On a lark he enrolled in my Grapes of Wrath course. Half-way through the term he told me that something was happening to him. The evolution of the protagonist, Tom Joad, from self-interested ex-con to benevolent labor leader, he found fascinating. He thought that he might have to switch from violin and math to economics. I told him no, if he really wanted to switch he could study math and economics—he wouldn’t have to give up the math. By the time he was a junior (a third year student) he landed a job with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. At graduation he was promoted to Associate Research Economist. Now he’s a master’s student in economics and statistics at Duke University but he is not at all bamboozled by the utility maximization-only school.
Q: Do you supplement the novel with other literature or media?
A: Yeah. For example, a particularly fun day of class is when we play music by Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Rage Against the Machine—who’ve recorded songs about Tom Joad. Springsteen himself recorded an entire CD on the central themes.

From the syllabus linked above:

In 1776 three astonishing works of genius were given to the world. One was the Declaration of Independence. A second was Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For many students these two great works of 1776 require little or no introduction. The third work does. Yet some say it is the most important and influential of all. I am speaking of The Wealth of Nations, a lengthy and learned book written by a humble professor of philosophy living in Scotland. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations supplied an intellectual justification for a free and commercial society. It gave new life to a field of inquiry called "economics" and it continues to challenge and to shape the values of economists, presidents, and ministers of finance all over the world.
Smith’s book is central to the economic conversation, true, but it is not the end-all, be-all of economic truth. It would not be wrong to think of our course as a conversation about "How the economists Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Joan Robinson, Milton Friedman, and others have responded to Mercantilism, Romanticism, and the rise and fall of Communism and Fascism."
Mostly, however, the course is an introduction to microeconomic ways of thinking. Our course introduces a new grammar, if you will – an economic grammar of scarcity, competition, relative price, opportunity cost, supply and demand, efficiency, and equilibrium, to name a few. At minimum our course will help you to become an informed voter and a sophisticated reader of The Wall Street Journal. It will certainly invite you to engage in a lifetime of learning.
But microeconomics cannot be learned just by reading The Wall Street Journal or Atlas Shrugged, nor by listening to Green Day or Rage Against the Machine. These will help you care about economics. But to learn how to speak economics you’ll have to solve homework problems, read the books, and participate in class.
Still, the economic conversation is shaped by many different texts and experiences, from novels to music and media. It’s important for economists to learn how to speak to the humanistic sides of the conversation, and, likewise, it’s crucial that humanists speak intelligently about economic theory and facts, and not be bamboozed. To this end and others, we’ll read and analyze the most famous protest novel in American literature, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Set in and written during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is a bluesy road-novel with a lot of economic theory and analysis. It follows homeless and landless tenant farmers from Oklahoma, who’ve been pushed off of foreclosed farms. Forced by large and foreign banks to leave their rented shacks and lean-tos, the Midwestern farmers with little education and no income join other displaced on the road to California, in search of jobs, food, and housing—a piece of the American Dream.
We’ll read this highly relevant novel using in part the lens of economic theory and facts, and likewise we’ll critically analyze economic theory and facts, using concepts and insights we discover in The Grapes of Wrath. Attached to the back of this syllabus is an example of a homework assignment from a previous semester, indicating how we’ll put Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel together with supply and demand.
Finally, throughout the semester, we’ll occasionally read and discuss parts of Tim Harford’s popular book, The Undercover Economist, which supplies many useful, real-world applications of the microeconomic way of thinking. Harford’s book is a great help, especially to those who do not naturally think of price and incentive when analyzing the human condition. ...

Required Texts: Microeconomics, by David Colander, 7th edition...; The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck; The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford. ...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Academic freedom from Hofstadter to Dworkin"

What is academic freedom?:

Academic freedom from Hofstadter to Dworkin, by Daniel Little: Academic freedom is a core value in American higher education. At certain times in our history it is a value that has been severely challenged, including especially during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. But what, precisely, does it entail?

One way of starting on this topic is to consider Richard Hofstadter's writings on the subject. Hofstadter was an historian who did an excellent job of tracking some deep currents in American political culture, including the powerful currents of progressivism, conservatism and paranoia that American politics have embodied over the past two centuries (The Progressive Movement: 1900-1915, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics). (Here is an informative review of Hofstadter's biography in the New York Times.)

One of those currents on the progressive side is the idea of academic freedom. Hofstadter was a champion of the value of intellectual discourse in a democracy, and Development of Academic Freedom in United States (with Walter Metzger, 1955) was a direct response to the attack on the academic freedoms of professors of the McCarthy period beginning in 1953. (The first part of this book was later published as Academic Freedom in the Age of the College (1961), which covers the history of the freedoms assigned to colleges and universities from the European middle ages to American colleges at the time of the Civil War.) The project as a whole is an interesting one. It was funded by the American Academic Freedom Project at Columbia as a response to Joseph McCarthy's attack on universities and professors. Hofstadter's part of the project was to write a history of the evolving idea of academic freedom from the European middle ages through the American colleges of the 1860s. Walter Metzger's contribution analyzed the development of universities and academic freedom in America after the 1860s. Robert MacIver wrote a companion volume, Academic Freedom in Our Time.

What is lacking in Development of Academic Freedom is an analytical definition of the idea of academic freedom. Hofstadter is clearest in his defense of the idea of the independent intellectual, whether in the medieval Italian university of the nineteenth century American university. But neither he nor Metzger give a succinct definition of the concept of academic freedom itself.

So what is academic freedom? And how is it distinct from the other kinds of freedoms we have as either constitutional protections or fundamental human rights -- freedom of association, freedom of speech and thought, freedom of expression? Fundamentally the idea is that the faculty of a university have a more extensive and specialized version of each of these fundamental freedoms, and that their exercise of their academic freedom cannot be used as a basis for dismissing them from their positions within the university. (This is the fundamental justification of the system of faculty tenure.) The employees of a corporation have a right of freedom of expression; but their conditions of employment may set limits on their exercise of that freedom. For example, there are numerous examples of people dismissed from their jobs in the private sector as a result of their comments about the company they work for. The idea of academic freedom is that professors have a special right to think, reason, and express their ideas about subjects relevant to their teaching and research responsibilities without fear of sanction by the universities (or legislatures) that employ them.

A second dimension of the idea of academic freedom is institutional. The university ought to be significantly autonomous from the power centers of society in its internal organization and decision-making. The curriculum, the subjects that are taught and researched, and the processes of appointment and review of faculty should be governed by the processes of the university rather than external powers in society. And most fundamentally, this aspect of the idea depends on the notion that the pursuit of truth should depend on the rational procedures of the disciplines of the sciences and humanities, not on the particular interests of powerful segments of society.

The classical justification for the idea of a form of academic freedom more extensive than the general freedoms that citizens enjoy qua citizens derives essentially from arguments expressed in the nineteenth century in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty: the pursuit of truth requires the untrammeled exploration of and expression of conflicting ideas, so that rational citizens can arrive at a better understanding of the issues. Here is how the 1940 AAUP statement puts the point (link):

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.[1]

The argument is fundamentally utilitarian: Society is best served when it embodies a university system that is fundamentally committed to the the principles of academic freedom.

Here is the classic statement of academic freedom from the AAUP Red Book, drafted in 1940 (link).

Academic Freedom

  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.[2] Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.[3]
  3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.[4]

This statement refers to three zones of academic freedom: in research and publication, in the classroom, and in "extramural expressions" by faculty members in the exercise of their ordinary citizens' rights of expression. Essentially this final point comes down to the idea that a faculty member has an ordinary citizen's right to express ideas that are unpopular to the public without punishment, "censorship or discipline" from the university for this expression. Noam Chomsky's opinions about the Vietnam War or the Gulf War were often unpopular with officials and the public; but his academic freedom assured that he would not be censored by his university employer. An employee of Northrup or Krogers would not have had the same protections. (Note that principle 3 is the most qualified of the three, and sets somewhat vague limits on the content and form of extra-mural utterances by the faculty member.)

The AAUP statement does not separately justify its inclusion of the extramural principle; but presumably it goes along these lines. Determining public policy in a democracy requires open debate among well informed citizens. Faculty members are well positioned to develop their knowledge and arguments about important public issues -- welfare reform, desegregation, war and peace. The public and the common good are well served by a set of arrangements that enable faculty members to speak their minds without fear of retaliation from their university employers. So it is felicitous to extend the protections of academic freedom to expressions by faculty members in the public sphere as well as within the university.

The philosopher of jurisprudence Ronald Dworkin provided a pivotal contribution to Louis Menand's The Future of Academic Freedom (1998). Dworkin argues that the issues surrounding academic freedom have shifted since the 1970s, and that they have as much to do with criticisms of faculty speech from the left as from the right. Here is how Dworkin describes the essentials of academic freedom:

We begin reinterpreting academic freedom by reminding ourselves of what, historically, it has been understood to require and not to require. It imposes two levels of insulation. First, it insulates universities, colleges, and other institutions of higher education from political institutions like legislatures and courts and from economic powers like large corporations. A state legislature has, of course, the right to decide which state universities to establish -- whether, for example, to add an agricultural or a liberal arts college to the existing university structure. But once political officials have established such an institution, fixed its academic character and its budget, and appointed its officials, they may not dictate how those they have appointed should interpret that character or who should teach what is to be taught, or how. Second, academic freedom insulates scholars from the administrators of their universities: university officials can appoint faculty, allocate budgets to departments, and in that way decide, within limits, what curriculum will be offered. But they cannot dictate how those who have been appointed will teach what has been decided will be taught. (183)

In addition to the utilitarian reasons for defending academic freedom mentioned above, Dworkin argues that there is also a principled ethical basis for these institutional protections based on his theory of "ethical individualism".

It seems relatively clear that academic freedom is a fragile value that depends substantially on the willingness of the public to recognize its crucial role in securing democratic progress, and legislatures and elected officials who are prepared to resist the inclination to narrow its scope. And it also seems right that Hofstadter's central intuitions about universities are still the strongest justification for the defense of academic freedom: the integrity of intellectuals and scholars seeking and debating the truth and the contribution they can make to a civil democracy. Here is how Robert MacIver puts this point in Academic Freedom in Our Time:

The search for knowledge, honestly undertaken, is a moral discipline. With the pursuit of this discipline goes the liberation from intolerance. . . Thus the intellectual mission of the university becomes also a moral one. Men sensitive to experience may learn the lesson in other ways, but the institution of learning is a major training ground. . . . Not knowledge itself but the free search for and the free communication of knowledge distinguishes the open mind from the closed mind, and the open society from the closed society.... The attack on academic freedom is an attack on all these values. (261-262.)
Here is a review of Hofstadter and Metzger, Development of Academic Freedom in United States as well as MacIver, Academic Freedom in Our Time. Here is an article in the Journal of Philosophy on MacIver's book, including a fascinating letter by John Dewey to the New York Times in 1949 on the subject of academic freedom. And here is an AAUP piece in Academe on what it regards as a different kind of threat to academic freedom -- from commercial and corporate interests.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Rogoff: Technology and Inequality

In this column, I said:

... I’ve never favored redistributive policies, except to correct distortions in the distribution of income resulting from market failure, political power, bequests and other impediments to fair competition and equal opportunity. I’ve always believed that the best approach is to level the playing field so that everyone has an equal chance. ...
But increasingly I am of the view that even if we could level the domestic playing field, it still won’t solve our wage stagnation and inequality problems. Redistribution of income appears to be the only answer. ...
We’ve given the market economy 40 years to solve the problem of growing inequality, and the result has been even more inequality. Markets do not appear to be able to solve this problem on their own, at least not in any reasonable timeframe. Some people say education is the answer, but we have been trying to reform education for decades, yet the problems remain. The idea that a fix for education is just around the corner is wishful thinking. ...

However, Kenneth Rogoff disagrees: (those ideas are apparently "foolish" and "dangerous")

Until now, the relentless march of technology and globalization has played out hugely in favor of high-skilled labor, helping to fuel record-high levels of income and wealth inequality around the world. ...
There is no doubt that income inequality is the single biggest threat to social stability around the world, whether it is in the United States, the European periphery, or China. Yet it is easy to forget that market forces, if allowed to play out, might eventually exert a stabilizing role. Simply put, the greater the premium for highly skilled workers, the greater the incentive to find ways to economize on employing their talents. ...
My Harvard colleague Kenneth Froot and I once studied the relative price movements of a number of goods over a 700-year period. To our surprise, we found that the relative prices of grains, metals, and many other basic goods tended to revert to a central mean tendency over sufficiently long periods. We conjectured that even though random discoveries, weather events, and technologies might dramatically shift relative values for certain periods, the resulting price differentials would create incentives for innovators to concentrate more attention on goods whose prices had risen dramatically.
Of course, people are not goods, but the same principles apply. As skilled labor becomes increasingly expensive relative to unskilled labor, firms and businesses have a greater incentive to find ... substitutes for high-price inputs. ...
The next generation of technological advances could also promote greater income equality by leveling the playing field in education. ... Surely, higher education will eventually be hit by the same kind of sweeping wave of technology that has flattened the automobile and media industries, among others. If the commoditization of education eventually extends to at least lower-level college courses, the impact on income inequality could be profound.
Many commentators seem to believe that the growing gap between rich and poor is an inevitable byproduct of increasing globalization and technology. In their view, governments will need to intervene radically in markets to restore social balance.
I disagree..., the past is not necessarily prologue: given the remarkable flexibility of market forces, it would be foolish, if not dangerous, to infer rising inequality in relative incomes in the coming decades by extrapolating from recent trends.

It seems to me that "the single biggest threat to social stability around the world" poses asymmetric risks. If he's right, then things might improve "in the coming decades." That doesn't help anyone today, and that's a problem, but at least it eventually goes away. But what if he's wrong?

I'm still really uncomfortable calling for government intervention for reasons beyond those listed above -- I don't think I've fully convinced myself even yet -- but with the "threat to social stability" hanging over us, do we have the time to wait and see if the problem fixes itself?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Grad Students

It's graduation day today here at the University of Oregon. (We do graduation on Monday, which to me is a strange day to hold the ceremony. Having graduation on Monday allows us to host the NCAA Track and Field Championship which ended on Saturday, a money maker for the University. But the Monday graduation is likely to exclude some parents and family, particularly working class families who sacrificed the most to put their kids through school, so I don't like it. We need to make it as conveneint as we can for families to attend the ceremony. It means a lot to people, and students and their families ought to come first.)

I was a marshall at the University ceremony this morning (boring), and we have the Department ceremony later today. Yesterday, I went to a graduation party for my Ph.D. students. One is headed to the Federal Reserve Board and the other to an academic position (both got good jobs - yeah!). So unlike the suggestion in the video below, grad school is not always "a terrible life choice." At least not for everyone:


Tuesday, June 07, 2011

FRBSF: Economics Instruction and the Brave New World of Monetary Policy

John Williams explains why "the Fed has moved away from targeting the monetary aggregates in conducting monetary policy" (this is the first part of a much longer explanation of recent changes in monetary policy):

Economics Instruction and the Brave New World of Monetary Policy, by John Williams, Economic Letter, FRBSF: ...The first major difference between monetary policy today and policy of a generation or so ago is that our decisions have had less and less to do with monetary aggregates, such as M1. This reflects the fact that payments technology has changed so dramatically over the past 50 years. In the 1950s, when June Cleaver went to buy groceries, she probably paid with cash or perhaps a check. If her purse was empty, she had to get to the bank before it closed at three o’clock, wait in line for the next available teller, and then withdraw enough cash to last until her next bank visit. These simple facts of life determined the monetary theories of that day. They even shaped the definition of M1, which has a nostalgic 1950s simplicity about it.
For example, M1, the most liquid measure of money, is defined as cash and coin, traveler’s checks, demand deposits, and similar bank balances. These include the measures of money that June Cleaver used for her transactions every day. In terms of understanding how much cash June wanted to hold, the Baumol-Tobin theory of money demand might apply. In that theory, households calculate how many times to go to the bank to withdraw cash and how much cash to take out based on two things: the inconvenience cost of each trip to the bank and the household’s typical monthly shopping needs.
Let’s now fast-forward 50 years. Instead of driving to the bank and waiting in line, many of us do most of our banking online or at ATMs. And purchases today can be made using a dizzying array of payment options, including credit cards, debit cards, gift cards, and PayPal, to name just a few. Debit cards and PayPal have many similarities to traditional checking accounts and can be fitted into traditional monetary theories. But credit cards present a much greater challenge. Credit card balances are nowhere to be found in the monetary aggregates, even though they make up a large fraction of total U.S. transactions. If you or I drained our bank accounts, we could still shop until we dropped by running up our credit card balances.
How do 1950s theories of cash and checks apply in a world in which you and I can instantly take out a loan of several thousand dollars with the swipe of a card at the cash register? When Milton Friedman first advocated slow and stable growth of the money supply, he didn’t write a word about credit cards, checkable brokerage accounts, or checkable home equity loan accounts. In the 1950s, these innovations hadn’t been invented or existed only in the most rudimentary form.
Let’s take a closer look at the classic quantity theory of money: MV = PY. It becomes very tenuous when traditional measures of M make up a smaller and smaller fraction of the value of transactions. For example, the velocity of M1 was around three or four in the 1950s. Now it is about eight—and that’s down from a peak of about 10½ a few years ago. Today’s economy uses cash and checking accounts much more efficiently (see Goldfeld 1976).
There have been a number of attempts to find a broader measure of “money” that has a stable relationship with nominal spending—that is, a constant velocity. These include M2 and variants of M2 that incorporate the latest financial innovations (see Small and Porter 1989 and Duca 1995). But, despite repeated efforts, like the mythical city of El Dorado, this ideal measure of money has proven elusive. It is precisely because of the volatility of velocity (V) that the Fed has moved away from targeting the monetary aggregates in conducting monetary policy. Instead, for the past few decades, the Fed has targeted short-term interest rates, in particular the federal funds rate and the interest rate on bank reserves. By targeting these rates directly, the Fed bypasses the uncertain and unpredictable link between money and the economy. Other major central banks target short-term interest rates as well. ...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"In Praise of Ideological Openness"

Dan Klein says you shouldn't do what most of us try to do when we enter the classroom -- leave politics and ideology behind -- instead, ideological openness should be embraced:

In Praise of Ideological Openness, by Daniel B. Klein: Many people, some conservatives included, say we need to get ideology out of the college classroom. Some professors say proudly, “my students never come to know where I stand.”
I practice an opposite approach. I tell students that I am a free-market economist, a classical liberal or libertarian. And I am not suggesting that it is wrong to be ideologically reserved. Different styles suit different professors.
And of course some professors go much too far in pressing their ideological judgments and requiring conformity, even forms of activism. But we should not fall into simplistic ideals of neutrality and objectivity. ... One can open up about ideology without falling into intemperance. Here I meditate on some merits of being open about your own ideology, even somewhat outspoken, when teaching a college course. ...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Paul Krugman: American Thought Police

What happens to people who express views that the GOP's hard right doesn't like?:

American Thought Police, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Recently William Cronon, a historian who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, decided to weigh in on his state’s political turmoil. He started a blog... Then he published an opinion piece in The Times, suggesting that Wisconsin’s Republican governor has turned his back on the state’s long tradition of “neighborliness, decency and mutual respect.”
So what was the G.O.P.’s response? A demand for copies of all e-mails sent to or from Mr. Cronon’s university mail account containing any of a wide range of terms, including the word “Republican” and the names of a number of Republican politicians ...

The Cronon affair, then, is one more indicator of just how reflexively vindictive, how un-American, one of our two great political parties has become.
The demand for Mr. Cronon’s correspondence has obvious parallels with the ongoing smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists, which has lately relied heavily on supposedly damaging quotations found in e-mail records. ...
Nothing in the correspondence suggested any kind of scientific impropriety... But ... this fake scandal gives an indication of what the Wisconsin G.O.P. presumably hopes to do to Mr. Cronon. ...
Now,... Mr. Cronon ... has been careful never to use his university e-mail for personal business... Beyond that, Mr. Cronon ... has a secure reputation as a towering figure in his field. ...
So we don’t need to worry about Mr. Cronon... But there’s a clear chilling effect when scholars know that they may face witch-hunts whenever they say things the G.O.P. doesn’t like.
Someone like Mr. Cronon can stand up to the pressure. But less eminent and established researchers won’t just become reluctant to act as concerned citizens, weighing in on current debates; they’ll be deterred from even doing research on topics that might get them in trouble.
What’s at stake here, in other words, is whether we’re going to have an open national discourse in which scholars feel free to go wherever the evidence takes them, and to contribute to public understanding. Republicans, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, are trying to shut that kind of discourse down. It’s up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.