Thursday, April 13, 2017

Public Education and the Libertarian Nirvana Fallacy

Art Carden tweeted a link to Arnold Kling’s blogpost What I Believe About Education
This is what Kling believes (in bold)

1. The U.S. leads the world in health care spending per person, but not in health care outcomes. Many people look at that and say that health care costs too much in the U.S., and we should be able to get the same our better outcomes by sending less. Maybe that is correct, maybe not. That is not the point here. But–
2. the U.S. leads the world in K-12 education spending per student, but not in student outcomes. Yet nobody, says that education costs too much and that we should spend less. Except–
3. me. I believe that we spend way too much on K-12 education.
4. We spend as much as we do on education in part because it is a sacred cow. We want to show that we care about children. (Yes, “showing that you care” is also Robin Hanson’s explanation for health care spending.)
5. We also spend as much as we do because of teachers’ unions. They engage in featherbedding, adding all sorts of non-teaching staff to school payrolls (and adding more union members in the process). In Montgomery`County, last time I looked, there was one person on the payroll for every 6 students, but there were more than 25 students per classroom teacher. That is why I do not think that cost disease, as discussed recently by Scott Alexander, is the full story. It’s not just that it’s hard to raise productivity in teaching. It’s that teachers’ unions cut down on productivity by continually getting schools to add non-teaching staff.
6. If I could have my way, the government would get out of the schooling business.
7. If we wish to subsidize education, we should do it through vouchers. Note that this could be done on a progressive basis, with the size of the voucher a declining function of parent’s income.
8. I do not expect educational outcomes to be any better under a voucher system. That is because I believe in the Null Hypothesis, which is that educational interventions do not make a difference.
9. However, a competitive market in education would drive down costs, so that the U.S. would get the same outcomes with much less spending.
A few additional notes:
10. When parents seek out schools with good reputations, they are going after schools where most of the students come from affluent families. The schools themselves do not do much.
11. Even within income-diverse school districts, affluent parents figure out a way to keep their kids from being surrounded by poor children.
12. I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the leftist ideology preached in government schools.

At the risk of offending Art, and probably some other people, I do not agree with most of what Kling believes. Actually, there isn’t much in it I can find to agree with. Kling’s statement isn’t an argument. It is a creed, with statements like “I believe we spend way too much on K-12 education.”

Even the premise isn’t consistent with the available evidence. These numbers from the OECD show that U.S. does not lead in spending on K-12. As a percentage of public spending the U.S. is right around the OECD average. The results of that spending are more difficult to compare. The usual rankings based on test score comparisons are really not very informative, because many of the differences in scores do not reflect statistically significant differences. The Brown Center Report shows that relatively few countries have scores that are significantly higher those of the U.S. In other words, the United States spending is near the upper end but not at the very top, and the results are at the upper end but not at the top. The story that American public education is outrageously expensive and appallingly ineffective is simply not supported by the evidence.

Moreover, you would only expect spending the most money to get you the best education, or best health care, if you think that spending is the only determinant of educational or health performance. I don’t know anyone who believes this. In addition, evidence of relative cost and performance is only evidence against public education generally if the countries that perform better are ones that do not rely on public education. I don’t know of any evidence to that effect.

There is, on the other hand, more than a little evidence that education matters for both individual earnings and economic growth.Measured outputs of education are associated with economic growth. To the extent that inputs do not improve outcomes they are not associated with economic growth. People with more knowledge about how to produce things produce more things, if producing things is rewarded.
Easterlin, Richard A. "Why isn't the whole world developed?." The Journal of Economic History 41, no. 01 (1981): 1-17.
David Mitch Education and Growth a EH.Net Encyclopedia
Race based differences in educational quality have also contributed to differences in earnings between blacks and whites in the United States. See

Or you can watch Marianne Wanamaker present the research here

Education matters and public education has, at the very least, been consistent with long run economic growth. If recent elections are any indication, public schools do, however, appear to be failing at preaching leftist ideology.

Kling’s creed about getting government out of education is an example of libertarian Nirvana fallacy. The Nirvana fallacy is generally used in economics to refer to a situation in which people compare an imperfect market with a perfect (Nirvana) government solution that has never actually existed. It, however, makes no more sense to compare an imperfect government action to an idealized market outcome that has never actually existed.

Taken to the extreme libertarian Nirvana fallacy produces things like Rothbard’s Power and Market

“Let us, then, examine in a little more detail what a free-market defense system might look like. It is, we must realize, impossible to blueprint the exact institutional conditions of any market in advance, just as it would have been impossible 50 years ago to predict the exact structure of the television industry today. However, we can postulate some of the workings of a freely competitive, marketable system of police and judicial services. Most likely, such services would be sold on an advance subscription basis, with premiums paid regularly and services to be supplied on call. Many competitors would undoubtedly arise, each attempting, by earning a reputation for efficiency and probity, to win a consumer market for its services. Of course, it is possible that in some areas a single agency would outcompete all others, but this does not seem likely when we realize that there is no territorial monopoly and that efficient firms would be able to open branches in other geographical areas. It seems likely, also, that supplies of police and judicial service would be provided by insurance companies, because it would be to their direct advantage to reduce the amount of crime as much as possible.”

This isn’t economics; it is speculative fiction. This is what you are able to do when you free yourself from the onerous constraint of evidence. You can state with certainty that we can get rid of government support for education, law enforcement, or even national defense, which have been associated with long periods of rapid economic growth, becauseyou just know that a better private solution will emerge. By the way, Rothbard does suggest that people underestimate the private provision of law in history but see Edwards and Ogilvie and Ogivlie and Carus argument that people actually underestimate the role of the state in the examples that Rothbard provides.

On a personal note, I have nothing against private schools. My family has used both public and private schools. My wife went to Catholic schools in St. Louis, our youngest son goes to a private school here in Fredericksburg. Our two older children went to public schools in Fredericksburg. I went to a lot of public schools: Longfellow Elementary (Hastings, NE); Holstein Elementary (Holstein, NE); Minden Elementary (Minden, NE); Sherman Elementary, Potrero Hill Junior High, Galileo High School (all in San Francisco); and senior year at Port Angeles High School in Washington. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Some big economic history

Elis, Haber and Horrillo attempt to explain why different patterns of political and economic development since about 1750 appear to be geographically clustered Climate, Geography, and Political and Economic Development 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

two meetings, a list, and review

Business History Conference and the Economic History Society are meeting. Both have programs posted, with links to some abstracts and papers. Naomi Lamoreaux’s paper on Culture and Business History for the opening plenary session at BHC is available.

A List:
Pseudoerasmus has posted a great list of economic history papers and blogposts. The list is a great resource for anyone interested in economic history, which should be everyone. Most of the papers in the U.S. section are ones that I have used in my economic history class. In addition to presenting important arguments, many of the papers are very accessible. You do not need a Ph.D. in economics to read the papers by Wright, Meyer, or Temin.
Pseudoerasmus notes that the list is a work in progress. Some papers I would consider adding

Rousseau, Peter L., and Richard Sylla. "Emerging financial markets and early US growth." Explorations in Economic History 42, no. 1 (2005): 1-26.

Hanes, Christopher, and Paul W. Rhode. "Harvests and financial crises in gold standard America." The Journal of Economic History 73, no. 01 (2013): 201-246

And, even though it is quite old, I still like
Goodrich, Carter. "The revulsion against internal improvements." The Journal of Economic History 10, no. 02 (1950): 145-169.

A Book Review:

EH.Net has a review by Gavin Wright of Slavery’s Capitalism edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. Here is my take on the book. Thanks to Tom Maloney for bringing the EH.Net review to my attention.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Fraudulent Publishing

The New York Times reports on one effort to uncover fraudulent journals and conferences. 

Although these journals have been referred to as predatory, I am inclined to agree with Jeffrey Beal’s assessment

Dr. Beall, who until recently published a list of predatory journals, said he believes many researchers know exactly what they are doing when they publish there.
“I believe there are countless researchers and academics, currently employed, who have secured jobs, promotions, and tenure using publications in pay-to-publish journals as part of their credentials and experience for the jobs and promotions they got,” Dr. Beall said.

Although the Times article does not mention it, my colleague Margaret Ray published similar research last year

Ray, Margaret. "An Expanded Approach to Evaluating Open Access Journals." Journal of Scholarly Publishing 47, no. 4 (2016): 307-327.

She found numerous “journals” that were happy to publish (for a price) papers written by her daughters and their friends for 8th to 10th grade classes. “One of the writers described her paper as ‘not some of my best work.’”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Do It Yourself Video Course on Modern Economic Growth

This is just a bunch of videos and a few papers related to the topic of modern economic growth.

For a long time, the Industrial Revolution was the central concern of economic history. Economic historians attempted to explain why the people in England began to develop new sources of power (the steam engine) and ways to replace human effort with mechanical effort, like the spinning jenny. Marxists, and later institutional economic historians, tended to look earlier for the key changes.

A good place to start is the work of Nicholas Crafts and Robert Allen on the Industrial Revolution

Recently, several historians have challenged the evidence of high wages in England, an important element of Allen’s argument
In these videos Jane Humphries presents one of these challenges and, in doing so, provides a great description of an economic historian’s use of primary sources.

Marxist’s have  longargued that the important transition(from feudalism to capitalism) took place before the Industrial Revolution, but they argued with each other about the nature of that transition. See the Dobb-Sweezy Debate and, later, the Brenner Debate (with worlds systems theorists). Unfortunately, I don’t have any good videos on this topic.

Institutionalist, like Doug North (a former Marxist), have also looked for a transformation before the IR.

And after Kenneth Pomeranz published the Great Divergence, many economic historians began to try to identify more precisely when, where and why modern economic growth began.

Stephen Broadberry has done interesting work in terms of both measurement and explanation
The quality of this video is not particularly good Accounting for Divergence but the paper it is based on is very readable.

See also

 Economic historians now have to explain both The Great Divergence, between East and West, but also little divergences within Europe and Asia.

So what explains these divergences. Two popular answers are institutions and ideas. A lot of these arguments are really matters of emphasis. Most of the people listed below are interested in both. 
Despite what Deirdre McCloskey might tell you, I can assure you that Doug thought that ideas and beliefs matter. The first two books I remember him telling me I had to read were Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality and Alan MacFarlane’s Origins of English Individualism. 
Sometimes it is not too clear what the difference between ideas and institutions are. Nevertheless, some emphasize one while others emphasize the other.

So here are some videos emphasizing the role of institutions
Douglass North The Natural State
There are a lot of videos of Doug, but this one reflects the work he was doing with Barry Weingast and John Wallis. I also like this interview that Timur Kuran did with him.

This is a short video with Sheilagh Ogilvie. You can also check out this paper with A.W. Carus on Institutions and Economic Growth

See also (parts of some of these may be a little difficult for non-economists to follow, but stick with it and you will get the main ideas)

Here are some emphasizing the role of ideas
Joel Mokyr Culture of Growth

See also
Anton Howes on the Ideology of Innovation from about 15:00 to 35:00

If those don’t work for you maybe you want to consider this

Finally, you could just watch this entire course on World Economic History with Greg Clark

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Some Recent Economic History of Slavery

Trevon Logan and Caitlin Rosenthal jointly gave the Chandler Lecture at University of North Carolina, The video of the Lecture is now available.

You might also want to watch Caitlin Rosenthal on Slavery’s Scientific Management: Quantification on Plantations. 

I have only had a chance to read the Introduction. Wright is primarily a financial historian, but he appears to have been drawn into the history of slavery through his concern with the continued existence of unfree labor around the world today. He argues that the overall effect of slavery on economic growth is negative because it creates negative externalities. I tend to agree with his argument in regard to the United States, the case that I am most familiar with. The available evidence is consistent with long term negative impact of slavery. Slavery has been associated with both lower levels of investment in public goods, like infrastructure and education, and lower levels of innovation (see for instance Majewski in the recent Slavery’s Capitalism. It is also possible that the distribution of income was less conducive to the development of industry.

I will mention there were a couple of things that I thought were peculiar in the Introduction. First, although he criticizes Edward Baptist’s views on slavery and economic growth, Wright refers to Baptist’s “otherwise excellent The Half Has Never Been Told.” There is really nothing excellent in the book. Olmstead and Rhode (use google scholar to find their working paper on Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism) and Trevor Burnard showed that Baptist handles narrative evidence as poorly as he does quantitative evidence, economic concepts and basic logic. On a related note, Wright appears to cite the Roundtable on the Half Has Never Been Told in the Journal of Economic History as anonymous even though each of the reviews clearly identifies the author. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading the rest of Wright’s book when I have more time.

Seth Rockman retweeted to me the link to the paper When Wealth Encourages Individuals to Fight: Evidence From the American Civil War by  Hall, Huff and Kuirwaki. They use the Cherokee land lotteries to try to determine whether, other things equal, slave holding made someone more likely to fight in the Civil War. After the Yazoo Land scandal, which led to the famous decision in Fletcher v. Peck, Georgia used a lottery to distribute land, including that was taken from the Cherokee. The Cherokee land lottery in 1832, provided a large wealth shock to a random sample of Georgia citizens. Much of this increase in wealth appears to have ended up as investment in slavery. The authors conclude that men from households with slaves enlisted at higher rates than those in households without slaves (though majority of soldiers came from families that did not own slaves). Their work is generally consistent with the work done by Hoyt Bleakley and Joseph Ferrie on the long term effects of the wealth shock. At the end of the paper they seemed to have made a reasonable case that an individual with more slave wealth would be more likely to choose to enlist, but it was still not clear to me why an individual with more slave wealth would be more likely to choose to enlist. Why not choose to freeride? An individual’s enlistment did nothing to make his property more secure. It would have required an incredible amount of hubris to believe that one’s individual participation in the war was going to affect the outcome of the war. In what way did individuals expect to benefit from enlistment? Was it because they were more likely to support slavery ideologically? Were there other potential benefits in terms of prestige or possibly political advancement? Did they need the cash more than those who had not purchased slaves?

On a related note, Georgia seems to have done more than its share to create experiments for economic historians. I recently mentioned a paper on the long term negative consequences of slavery in Georgia by Tyler Beck Goodspeed.

And James Feigenbaum, James Lee and Flippo Mezzanotti use the destruction caused by Sherman’s March to examine the long run effects of capital and infrastructure destruction. They find that “both agricultural and manufacturing output fell relatively more from 1860 to 1870 and 1880 in Sherman counties compared to non-Sherman counties in the same state. These relative declines do not appear to be driven by differential out-migration, demographic patterns, or long-lasting infrastructure destruction. Instead, by collecting new historical data on local banks, we show that damage to credit markets was more severe in march counties and that these financial disruptions can help explain the larger declines in economic output.”