Links – 01/29/2018

  • Bryan Caplan wrote a very good essay in The Atlantic in which he makes the case that investment in education is socially wasteful. It’s based on a forthcoming book he wrote on that issue, which I’m sure will be very interesting. I’m very sympathetic to his view, but if you know good responses to his arguments, please let me know in the comments.
  • I recently stumbled upon this good piece, also in The Atlantic, about how the US and the USSR came much closer than most people think to a nuclear confrontation in 1983. I think one of the reasons people are so irresponsible when it comes to the relations between the US and Russia is that they underestimate the probability that a misunderstanding of the sort this article describes might degenerate into a nuclear war. Sometimes, they don’t really underestimate it, but think that, because it’s very small, we don’t need to worry that much about it. This is a serious mistake that consists in failing to appreciate that even a very small probability can matter a lot for decision-making when, as in the case I’m talking about here, the stakes are extremely high.
  • Sanjay Srivastava wrote a very good post in which he explains a common statistical fallacy, which arises when people don’t take into account the fact that, if a sample was selected on 2 or more variables, the relationship between these variables can be completely different from what it was before the selection and not just because of restriction of range.
  • Chris Stucchio wrote a short but excellent post in which he explains why base rates matter by using the example of why gay men are prevented from donating blood. This is related to the phenomenon I describe in my politically incorrect guide to affirmative action.
  • I also discovered this very interesting piece in Haaretz from a few years ago, which describes the successful integration of the Jews who emigrated to Israel in the 1990’s from the former Soviet Union, but also how it transformed the country.

8 thoughts

  1. My first reaction to Bryan Caplan is to mistrust him, because he is totally wrong about how law firm hiring works. I know quite a lot about this, having spent more than 20 years at large law firms, the last 10-plus as a partner with a role in hiring. Law firms only look at two things: where you went to law school and how you did when you were there. Extra degrees, like a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford, would be absolutely irrelevant. In fact, what we are looking for is people who are smart enough to do the work and willing to work hard. (The second is less important, as either we will instill that, if you are susceptible to social pressure, or you will leave of your own accord.) Experience has removed any doubt I might once have had that law school grades are a good predictor of those qualities.

    1. Yes, Caplan is glibly wrong on so many things, it’s very hard to trust him on stuff that one is not familiar with. Maybe he’s right on education, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but I have my doubts.

    2. There are exceptions. I know of two people who had PhDs in the sciences who went in to patent/intellectual property law after law school and their advanced degrees were obviously useful.

      1. O, there could be training between college and law school that would be useful in the practice of law, but Caplan was claiming that his “signaling” theory would result in law firms hiring people with philosophy doctorates, which is empirically false.

  2. Further on Caplan: the problem is, his theories about the worthlessness of education can’t be predicated on a priori, axiomatic conclusions; they could only be supported by carefully accumulated empirical evidence, and he doesn’t have much of that. Frankly, I think he’s too lazy to gather such evidence, even if there were any, as to which I have no idea.

    One might make a very limited case, that expanding educational opportunity to that portion of the population that is not intellectually capable of benefiting from it will not, in fact, improve the circumstances of that portion. But Caplan wants to go much further, and claim that even Yale graduates didn’t really get any benefit from most of their education. I admit that (i) the only time I ever used integration by parts was to help my daughter with her math homework, (ii) when she got to multi-variable calculus, I couldn’t help her, because I don’t even remember how to do multi-variable integration, (iii) I don’t remember the details of Ste.-Croix’s theories about the causes of the Peloponnesian War (something about class struggle, I think), (iv) I haven’t read anything in French, other M. Lemoine’s occasional outpourings, in 30 years, etc. But that doesn’t mean higher education is useless. I learned to write, and, what is more and most of all, to think (although the latter was mostly in law school, to be honest).

  3. From Caplan:

    “Most of the salary payoff for college comes from crossing the graduation finish line. Suppose you drop out after a year. You’ll receive a salary bump compared with someone who’s attended no college, but it won’t be anywhere near 25 percent of the salary premium you’d get for a four-year degree. Similarly, the premium for sophomore year is nowhere near 50 percent of the return on a bachelor’s degree, and the premium for junior year is nowhere near 75 percent of that return. Indeed, in the average study, senior year of college brings more than twice the pay increase of freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. Unless colleges delay job training until the very end, signaling is practically the only explanation. This in turn implies a mountain of wasted resources—time and money that would be better spent preparing students for the jobs they’re likely to do.”

    The difference here is likely due to signaling, but the explanation may not be the precise one Caplan has in mind. Caplan thinks employers are making the following comparison:

    College grad: +Smart enough to get into college +Smart and gritty enough to finish college
    College dropout: +Smart enough to get into college -Not smart or gritty enough to finish college
    High school grad: -Probably not smart or gritty enough to get into or finish college

    But for all his example shows, the equation may be more like this:

    College grad: +Has learned important skills +Has not displayed a tendency to screw up major life projects
    College dropout: +Has learned important skills -Has displayed a tendency to screw up major life projects
    High school grad: -Has not learned important skills +Has not displayed a tendency to screw up major life projects

    And then the differences in income are explained by how much employers value the skills taught in college compared with how much they disvalue a record of screwing up.

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