Genius among insects

That is the praise given by one EconLog commentator to Bryan Caplan summarizing his next book

This will be a good popular book, but I don’t yet understand Bryan’s attack on education.  The private return to education has been rising for some while.  This premium can be usefully broken down into a training/learning component, consumption (college is fun), and a signaling or credentials component.  Note that only the latter of the three is wasteful; while signaling helps achieve a good sorting of workers to jobs, it also has a zero- or negative-sum component based on getting ahead of the other guy.

Now if the total premium to education is going up, I would expect that the signaling component is going up as well.  That means more educational waste, as Bryan is suggesting.  But I also expect that the training and consumption components of education are going up as well.  Those returns are not wasteful.  Why should we be surprised at more absolute waste in a growing market?

I think of parallels from culture.  The bigger the music market gets, the more people engage in (partially) wasteful competition to be the number one act.  But this does not mean we should be telling a chiding story about the music market as a whole.  There is also greater diversity of music and a higher quality supply in the eyes of consumers.  Furthermore the "wasteful race to the top" helps fund the infrastructure that produces the other benefits.

I view the contemporary higher education story as "more value" and "more waste" coming together.  Bryan will have an easy time pinpointing and mocking the waste, but can he deny the concomitant value?

Here is Arnold on Bryan.  Here is my post on why education is valuable, namely for acculturation.  I think Bryan’s own very constant personality misleads him.  He didn’t need to be acculturated very much into the world of learning, but most other people do.


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