The Biggest Issue

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

In his recent op-ed piece, The Biggest Issue, David Brooks asserts that the U.S. became the leading economic power of the 20th century because of its “ferocious belief” that people have the power to transform their own lives, which led to an “unparalleled commitment” to education, hard work and economic freedom:

Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8 years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years. [...] Educational levels were rising across the industrialized world, but the U.S. had at least a 35-year advantage on most of Europe. In 1950, no European country enrolled 30 percent of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70 percent of older teens were in school.

Brooks calls this a “happy era” and laments that it ended around 1970, but he seems to assume that all education is good education, and that any additional education must lead inexorably to economic progress — or at least to capturing a bigger piece of the pie:

Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.

This implies to me that a handful of remarkable technologists move us all forward, but more-educated workers capture more of the surplus than unskilled workers.

Anyway, I’ve commented on James Heckman’s Schools, Skills, and Synapses (PDF) before. Brooks emphasizes a few of Heckman’s points:

Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability.

I’m not sure how Brooks can read Heckman’s work and emphasize the “depressing accuracy” of educational predictions and still draw the policy conclusions he draws:

It’s not globalization or immigration or computers per se that widen inequality. It’s the skills gap. Boosting educational attainment at the bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy.

How do we “boost educational attainment at the bottom” when educational attainment is “depressingly” easy to predict by age 5?

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