Agricultural yields and the returns to schooling

by on May 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm in Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

Agricultural yields, which reflect real returns and are not contaminated by “signaling,” are another independent way to measure the returns from schooling.  Starting with Ted Schultz, this is a significant theme in development economics, and now from John Parman we have a new paper on schooling and agriculture in early 20th century America:

Formal schooling has a significant impact on modern agricultural productivity but there is little evidence quantifying the historical importance of schools in the early development of the American agricultural sector. I present new data from the Midwest at the start of the twentieth century showing that the emerging public schools were helping farmers successfully adapt to a variety of agricultural innovations. I use a unique dataset of farmers containing detailed geographical information to estimate both the private returns to schooling and human capital spillovers across neighboring farms. The results indicate that public schools contributed substantially to agricultural productivity at the turn of the century and that a large portion of this contribution came through human capital spillovers. These findings offer new insights into why the Midwest was a leader in the expansion of secondary education.

The paper is here, hat tip goes to the always excellent Kevin Lewis.  Excellent ungated slides you will find here.  One of the early slides indicates that in stable conditions “experience” outperforms education for generating agricultural productivity, but the value of education is high during times of dynamic change.

1 Lou May 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Could you imagine how much more productive the USA would be if high school curriculums included finance and computer programming (replacing literature and maybe an esoteric science like physics)?

2 Cliff May 17, 2012 at 4:39 pm

How about replacing PE, which is totally useless and easily replaced by organized sports? How about replacing crap electives or one or more years of social studies? Lets put in an economics course and a basic law course. The current curriculum is ridiculously terrible. Why do we need 15 years of history/social studies? Can’t I just read a book if I love history so much? It’s not like you need one-on-one interaction in order to understand history.

3 suntzuanime May 17, 2012 at 4:44 pm

We need so many years of history/social studies to pass on our ideas of the nature of our society to our children. Arguably the most important function of primary and secondary schooling is to make children into proper members of society, rather than teaching them job skills.

4 Willitts May 17, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Useful job skills is precisely what makes someone a proper member of society. Those without job skills are dead weight on society.

5 Will May 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Ummm, not very?

I really don’t see how taking literature out of high school makes a better graduate. I learned more reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series than I ever did from my high school “intro to business” class. Same goes for reading Huck Finn in middle school. Literature is very important for a young person – it shows them what is possible and how life can be different from the here and now.

Computer programming you have a reasonable case – but these are skills that atrophy pretty quickly in time and programming languages do change. So I don’t think you would be getting as much productivity increase as you might hope.

6 MikeP May 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm

The value of teaching computer programming is not to teach the skills, but rather to discover an aptitude or interest that otherwise would never be recognized.

Computer programming is something that you’d never know existed unless you did it. So many who would be good at it or love it or both simply never get a chance to find out. That reduces the available worker pool significantly. And since it’s the number one job year in and year out, it reduces aggregate well being significantly as well.

7 Rahul May 17, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Teaching the syntax of a specific programming language is NOT the principal objective of a Programming 101 Class. The core constructs (loops, decisions, sorting, data structures etc.) do not atrophy as quickly. It is much easier to teach a new language to an existing programmer than someone who has never seen a bubble-sort.

8 JWatts May 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm

“Teaching the syntax of a specific programming language is NOT the principal objective of a Programming 101 Class.”

Agreed, but I often think the approach is carried too far. It’s very useful to get familiar enough with a given language to produce useful code. To often introductory programming classes bore students to death with a combination of too simple programs, that aren’t very interesting, and a lot of higher level concepts that are demonstrated but don’t seem very useful to a novice.

I prefer the project oriented approach whereby students start a very basic program and keep adding to it through out the semester. Versus the more common approach of a dozen simple programs that demonstrate one concept in isolation.

9 Rahul May 19, 2012 at 5:45 am

I agree with what you say. OTOH, either way, the argument against teaching programming in school, “because skills atrophy and languages change” is quite weak (no matter if thee class errs towards abstraction or projects).

10 Alan May 17, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Let’s see …
Your computer runs on transistors, is powered by electricity and displays the text you are reading with liquid crystals. Yep, it’s all esoteric science.

11 Ray Lopez May 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Agricultural productivity is not having farmers do things the “old way”. I’ve seen them in Greece, and the “old way” is indeed inefficient. Same for fishing (using a single line, and small fish traps). But the downside of agricultural or marine productivity is that you lay waste to the riparian environment with nitrogen runoff and you deplete the ocean of free-ranging wild fish. Then you have fish farms and runoff from antibiotics. Too many people on the planet, not enough scientists trying to pick medium-laying fruit is the problem.

12 John Thacker May 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Measures the return from a certain type of schooling, yes. But many of those who believe in signaling distinguish between schooling that they feel is useful and that which isn’t. I think that this would only increase calls for practical education from some. Note that in many states the ag schools are also engineering schools.

13 spencer May 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm

In the old days of segregation a college named A&M — agricultural and mechanical –signaled that it was a black school.i

14 GiT May 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Hegel’s dialectic of lord and bondsman strikes again.

15 Lars May 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Does anyone disagree that some amount of education in some situations make people more productive? Is Tyler suggesting this has any import for the signalling debate over modern college education?

16 MikeP May 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm

As Lars notes, this is about 12th grade education and agriculture. There’s no reason to expect that that amount of education isn’t helpful for that application of labor.

But even so, did they control for the fact that the part of the workforce that attends school has to be used more efficiently on the farm, and that requires more attention and, in fact, industrial thinking? Was there a control group where the children just went and sat in a field for 7 hours a day?

17 Alan May 17, 2012 at 6:47 pm

It is not possible for any government program to improve anything. The paper must be wrong.

18 Willitts May 18, 2012 at 12:37 am

No one here holds that view.

Education has positive externalities at least through high school. So a subsidy or public provision might be welfare enhancing.

The question here, and the matter of dispute, is whether public education led to increases in agricultural productivity. Valid criticisms include the direction of causation, omitted variable bias, and imprecise measurement of the dependent variable.

There might also be less expensive, decentralized methods of providing elementary education, so even if there is a positive effect, the provision by government may still be suboptimal.

19 Ted Craig May 17, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Here’s a reason to study literature. Willa Cather’s O Pioneers has a very interesting section on the differences between the crude agricultural practices of many turn of the century farmers and the more advanced techniques that were starting to be taught at ag schools. Granted, the main character also gets interesting advice regarding pig husbandry from an uneducated neighbor.

20 Willitts May 17, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Hmmm. Doubtful that anything a kid learned in public school brought anything back home to the farm that was useful to farming. I haven’t read the paper (no time now) but the result is implausible.

It’s far more likely that when kids were required to attend school instead of working on the farm, more productive (but higher paid) farmhands contributed to more marginal output. Alternatively, without the free labour of their children, the higher wage bill caused a substitution more capital which increased output per unit of input. (Purchases of snow blowers in Minnesota increase dramatically when the youngest boy leaves the household 🙂

The institution of public schooling might have coincided with advances in agricultural technology, financing, and infrastructure growth. Also, the institution of land grant colleges probably helped since they required agricultural science programs. The Ag colleges would need high school grads.

21 allen May 17, 2012 at 10:25 pm

It occurs to me that the relationship isn’t necessarily as simple as “more education == more agricultural productivity”. At the very least the increasing income of the agriculatural sector would have made more education more affordable muddying the relationship between cause and effect.

22 Willitts May 17, 2012 at 11:55 pm


See what I wrote earlier. Public school ended the use of farm kids as day labourers, at least outside the harvest season. (the school calendar in the US is designed around harvest times)

If school is compulsory, it raises labour costs so there may be substitution into capital. But you take the argument the other way with good cause. If farm income goes up from some exogenous factor, the farmer can now buy more capital (replacing little Johnny) or hire adult labour which is probably more productive (although less productive per dollar of wages than Johnny’s free labour). We could infer that many, if not most, farmers actually cared about Johnny and wanted him to get an education if they could afford to lose his labour.

23 allen May 18, 2012 at 1:04 am

Rising farm productivity is just another way of saying “lower labor requirements” so compulsory education may have just been a policy whose time had come. Not so much because it was necessary to flog parents into sending their kids to school but because parents, without the need for the additional labor, would have been unlikely to kick up much of a fuss being commanded to do what you could hardly keep them from doing.

Tax-supported, and even mandatory, education had actually been around for some time before the mid-1800’s surge in agricultural productivity. It’d just never achieved much traction. It wouldn’t be too much of stretch to suppose such an idea, universal, manadtory education, even tax-supported, would have seemed like a pretty stupid idea if the loss of child labor meant a reduction in the harvest to the point that it threatened survival or at least worked a real hardship.

As an engine of economic expansion public education leaves more then a little to be desired and the case for public education as a stimulator of economic expansion is generally made by loosing invective on anyone who doesn’t see the inelocutable truth of the proposition. That may be a good way to suppress dissent but it’s hardly a compelling case for the validity of the proposition. Certainly the vigorous economic expansions in the Far East undermine the idea, at least in the short to medium term.

China’s economic expanstion, for example, could hardly have been the result of the establishment of a public education system since that already existed at the time China’s economy began it’s swift ascent. Rather more likely is the reduction in the government control of the economy in favor of free market ideas.

24 Willitts May 18, 2012 at 12:53 am

We also had the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 which created the land grant university system, the Hatch Act of 1887 which set up experimental agricultural stations, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 which created the cooperative extension program to bring research from land grant universities to the farmers.

The Morrill Acts were actually designed to fight back against the encroachment of the industrial revolution on American society.

Land grant institutions include most of the flagship universities in agricultural states. The University of California at Berkeley is a land grant, and two private universities: MIT and Cornell.

25 The Real Bob May 18, 2012 at 1:12 am

I live in farm country and I have observed that it used to be the child with lesser options that came back to the farm and as long as they were hard workers they did fine. Today, you dare only bring back the brightest child and make it worth his while to leave his outside profession. The complexity and risks of today’s agriculture require high aptitudes.

26 Steve Sailer May 18, 2012 at 4:11 am

From reading the sci-fi novels of Robert Heinlein (born in Kansas City in 1907), I would surmise that, despite the libertarianism he espoused in some books, in the Midwest in the first half of the 20th Century, public high schools and land grant state colleges were very good things.

27 JWatts May 18, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I’ve read most (if not all) of Heinlein’s books. Yes they were libertarian, but they weren’t radical libertarianism. He didn’t advocate against public schools and indeed his characters were usually products of public schooling when it was mentioned and available in the setting (i.e there were no public schools on the moon). I’m certain that Heinlein would have considered land grant colleges a public good.

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