Archive for the ‘education’ Category

I mostly like this article in the NYT:

As government data revealed that 651,000 more jobs disappeared in February, a sense took hold that growing joblessness may reflect a wrenching restructuring of the American economy.

Yes, that is what happens when a housing upswing saves you from a nasty recession only to give you a worse one down the road. You might say the US took out a mortgage to stave off what should have been a really ugly beginning to this decade but didn’t invest that money properly (how many new real estate brokers? yeah, useful skill to pick up) and now the bills are due.

The article goes on to cite the need for job retraining, wheeling out statistics that the US doesn’t spend as much on retraining and it used to, whatever that means. I always though total spending on education is one of those implacably growing beasts.

Genuine increases in productivity are the only way to grow, so obviously education should be something to concentrate on. The danger with the state-sponsored stuff is that it becomes Soviet-style engineering problem (all things are equal, so let’s sponsor training in our pet industries like clean energy and auto mfg) whereas an emergent solution would be best.

Ok, now the part that I don’t like from John Silva of Wachovia:

“A lot of production either isn’t going to happen at all [ed – #A], or it’s going to happen somewhere other than the United States [#B]. There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations [#C]. Firms are making strategic decisions that they don’t want to be in their businesses [#D].”

There’s a staggering amount of silliness in that quote and I’ve lettered the points to make them easier to ridicule.

A – so we’re suddenly going to have a long-term absolute reduction in our living standard? I’m getting angry already…

B – Why don’t you ask East Asia how they’re doing in this recession and spare a thought about whether exports are truly the Holy Grail of Growth.

C – Again, fewer everything. THIS DOES NOT MAKE SENSE!

D – So firms are giving up? How does a firm not want to be in its business?

This guy is the chief economist at a major bank. He must have been desperate to get in the NYT to string together such an extraordinarily ridiculous paragraph.


Addendum: oooh, I’m with Boudreaux liking this post from Mario Rizzo.


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Arnold Kling refers us to a post by Mark Perry, which refers to a chart showing the various costs of goods in real terms in 1950 and today.

Marks’ takeaway:

To what do we owe this significant 80% reduction in the time cost of household goods over time? It’s all part of the miracle of the market economy.

I’d like to get a bit more specific, because I think it’s a fault that economists seldom do (Kling is often a notable exception).

What’s really happening is that an incentive system is in place that rewards producers that can manufacture these products more cheaply than those who made them in the 1950s. They do so because of improved technology, improved skill (collectively, innovation) and, these days, lower wages paid to workers overseas.

One of the commenters complains that there is an offsetting effect from more expensive health care and education.

I’m willing to bet that health care costs have increased because health care has improved drastically since the 50s, which sounds fine to me.

I think that education is more expensive because it suffers from Baumol’s cost disease; basically, it takes just as many teachers to educate a student as it did two thousand years ago.  And because more students need education to participate actively in the economy, the total cost to the economy of education increases on a per person basis at something like the rate of economic growth.

My point is that with health care, we’re paying more and getting more and, with education, we need to pay more to continue increasing total education so that we can continue to innovate.

In any case, the result is that we’re healthier, we have more stuff and its getting harder to contribute productively to society.

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We have two school systems in Ontario. Why not set them up to compete with each other?

I think education as a whole will benefit tremendously. The method is simple. Let kids choose which school system to attend and pay the school system for each student. Done.

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I read a book a few years ago that postulated that birth order and family dynamics are the most powerful forces affecting creativity.

The gist of the argument is that siblings compete with each other for their parents’ attention and can only get sufficient attention by doing something that the other siblings aren’t doing. If the eldest becomes an astrophysicist and her parents are really proud of it, the youger will have always found himself not quite as good at astrophysics growing up (even if it’s just a matter of being younger and so further down the maturation curve). So he’s more likely to be a writer or a lawyer or cage fighter.

The more different the kids’ activities, the more unique attention each gets. Because the older kids do the “easy” things for attention (do well in school, get a stable job, etc), those routes are closed off and the youngsters need to be creative.

The book uses the example of Charles Darwin, who was the lastborn kid of lastborn parents. (The premise being that the effect is enhanced through the generations and not cancelled out – so if a grandparent became a politician, his firstborn become politicians and laterborn become cage fighters, then wouldn’t the cage fighters’ firstborn become cage fighters and laterborn become politicians?). Darwin’s accomplishments are noted for being particularly striking because the evidence for his ideas was available for everyone to see. Indeed, the book points out that it was his perspective and not his intelligence that was the source of his genius. He could see things that other, far “smarter” people could not.

I rather like this idea. One other thing about these geniuses is that they tend to be pretty driven people and the bigger their contrbution the less likely it is properly recognized until late in life or after they die.

So here’s the question: who is happier? The world-changing genius or the happily married businessman who gets no widespread recognition?

And let’s not forget to shed a tear for the laterborn kids out there who thought they were world-beating geniuses but never made it.

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Education II

I’ve mentioned the idea of a house-building class in schools to just about everyone that is willing to have a serious discussion with me. I like the idea for several reasons:

1. It teaches kids some real concrete skills that they can use later in life;

2. It shows kids that the things they learn in school can be applied in real life (yes, it’s relevant!);

3. It encourages kids to integrate many professional (engineering, woodworking, interior design) and intellectual (math, science, art, etc) disciplines in a very familiar environment.

Point #3 is especially important to me. Having the ability to look at a problem from many different perspectives is the most important skill any person can learn. In my professional life, for example, the people who can effectively analyze a situation using mathematics, business market knowledge and socio/political insight make a hell of a lot of money. I’m sure that’s the rule in life, not the exception.

My father, a recently retired teacher of 30+ years acknowledged the power of the concept but had an objection that I didn’t anticipate: he doesn’t think (many) kids are capable of performing such an analysis until much later in life.

Nature or nurture? Is there some kind of developmental stage that needs to be reached before people can integrate different types of thinking to tackle a problem? Or is this objection only true of kids who are the product of a system which leaves the development of such skills until too late in life?

I suspect that this is, indeed, a skill that can be taught and, like all other skills, require a combination of desire (most important) and ability (inversely related to how much desire is needed). For some kids, maybe the ability to root some of their learning into a familiar environment is enough to spark some desire. And there’s no doubt that there isn’t enough practical application of knowledge in schools; in fact, it’s looked down upon as “tech” class and encouragement in it is reserved for poorly performing kids.

Can it be implemented incrementally? I think so. Maybe start with it as a special project in elementary schools for one day a month or something with small projects in each class that are brought together in the special session. Maybe make it a class for gifted kids or struggling kids. Or BOTH!

The point is that integrative skills are the most important ones. We should be looking for ways of teaching them.

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I’ve seen a few interesting thoughts on education online recently. From Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, comes a fascinating idea:

You could take any tiny portion of the house project and make it an exercise in critical thinking. I can imagine a school curriculum organized around building an imaginary house, advancing from first grade through high school. Kids could learn all sorts of useful skills, from budgeting (math), to calculating loads (science), to learning how couples can decide on the fixtures and furniture. Your geography course could be based on deciding what country to build your house in. Geology would be oriented toward deciding what type of land to build on. Art class would involve interior design and architecture, with a semester on how to identify good art for the walls. Biology would involve understanding your own future garden and plants. Evolution would involve learning why your family dog walks on four legs and you walk on two.

I love this idea. I think that education suffers from a few pitfalls:

1. Many people think of it as an end in itself – it isn’t, education teaches skills which people must then use somehow.

2. Many people do not understand why they need to learn certain things.

3. Many people do not understand quite how difficult and rewarding a good construction project can be.

A curriculum designed around building a house would solve all these problems; you could even expand it to include the economics of choosing a site, geology of the ground (the possibilities are endless!).

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