Over the last 20 years, real per-capita GDP has risen from $46,000 to $56,000 (in 2012 dollars):
It’s not just increasing inequality (though it is partly that); real median household income has increased over the same period from $62,500 to $68,700 (in 2019 dollars):
The American Enterprise Institute has utterly the wrong interpretation of what’s going on here, but their graph is actually quite informative if you can read it without their ideological blinders:
Over the past 20 years, some industries have seen dramatic drops in prices, such as televisions, cellphones, toys, and computer software. Other industries have seen roughly constant prices, such as cars, clothing, and furniture. Still other industries have seen modest increases in prices that tracked overall inflation, such as housing and food. And then there are some industries where prices have exploded to staggering heights, such as childcare, college education, and hospital services.
Since wages basically kept up with inflation, this is the relevant comparison: A product or service is more expensive in real terms if its price grew faster than inflation.
It’s not inherently surprising that some prices would rise faster than inflation and some would rise slower; indeed, it would be shocking if that were not the case, since inflation essentially just is an average of all price changes over time. But if you look closely at the kinds of things that got cheaper versus more expensive, you can begin to see why the statistics keep saying we are getting richer but we don’t feel any richer.
The things that increased the most in price are things you basically can’t do without: Education, childcare, and healthcare. Yes, okay, theoretically you could do without these things, but the effects on your life would be catastrophic—indeed, going without healthcare could literally kill you. They are necessities.
The things that decreased the most in price are things that people have done without for most of human history: Cellphones, software, and computer software. They are newfangled high-tech goods that are now ubiquitous, but not at all long ago didn’t even exist. Going without these goods would be inconvenient, but hardly catastrophic. Indeed, they largely only feel as necessary as they are because everyone else already has them. They are luxuries.
This even explains why older generations can be convinced that we are richer than the statistics say: We have all these fancy new high-tech toys that they never had. But what good does that do us when we can’t afford our health insurance?
Housing is also an obvious necessity, and while it has not on average increased in price faster than inflation, this average washes out important geographic variation.
Over the same period, Detroit’s housing prices plummeted, then returned to normal, and are now only 30% higher than they were 20 years ago (comparable to inflation):
It’s hardly surprising that the cities where the most people are moving to are the most expensive to live in; that’s basic supply and demand. But the magnitude of the difference is so large that most of us are experiencing rising housing prices, even though on average housing prices aren’t really rising.
Put this all together, and we can see that while by the usual measures our “standard of living” is increasing, our financial situation feels ever more precarious, because more and more of our spending is immediately captured by things we can’t do without. I suggest we call this effect necessitization; our consumption has been necessitized.
Healthcare is the most extreme example: In 1960, healthcare spending was only 5% of US GDP. As recently as 2000, it was 13%. Today, it is 18%. Medical technology has greatly improved over that time period, increasing our life expectancy from 70 years in 1960 to 76 years in 2000 to 78 years today, so perhaps this additional spending is worth it? But if we compare 2000 to 2020, we can see that an additional 5% of GDP in the last 20 years has only bought us two years of life. So we have spent an additional 5% of our income to gain 2.6% more life—that doesn’t sound like such a great deal to me. (Also, if you look closely at the data, most of the gains in life expectancy seem to be from things like antibiotics and vaccines that aren’t a large part of our healthcare spending, while most of the increased spending seems to be on specialists, testing, high-tech equipment, and administrative costs that don’t seem to contribute much to life expectancy.)
Moreover, even if we decide that all this healthcare spending is worth it, it doesn’t make us richer in the usual sense. We have better health, but we don’t have greater wealth or financial security.
AEI sees that the industries with the largest price increases have the most government intervention, and blames the government; this is clearly confusing cause with effect. The reason the government intervenes so much in education and healthcare is because these are necessities and they are getting so expensive. Removing those interventions wouldn’t stop prices from rising; they’d just remove the programs like Medicaid and federal student loans that currently allow most people to (barely) afford them.
But they are right about one thing: Prices have risen much faster in some industries than others, and the services that have gotten the most expensive are generally the services that are most important.
Why have these services gotten so expensive? A major reason seems to be that they are difficult to automate. Manufacturing electronics is very easy to automate—indeed, there’s even a positive feedback loop there: the better you get at automating making electronics, the better you get at automating everything, including making electronics. But automating healthcare and education is considerably more difficult. Yes, there are MOOCs, and automated therapy software, and algorithms will soon be outperforming the average radiologist; but there are a lot of functions that doctors, nurses, and teachers provide that are very difficult to replace with machines or software.
Suppose we do figure out how to automate more functions of education and healthcare; would that solve the problem? Maybe—but only if we really do manage to automate the important parts.
Right now, MOOCs are honestly terrible. The sales pitch is that you can get taught by a world-class professor from anywhere in the world, but the truth is that the things that make someone a world-class professor don’t translate over when you are watching recorded video lectures and doing multiple-choice quizzes. Really good teaching requires direct interaction between teacher and student. Of course, a big lecture hall full of hundreds of students often lacks such interaction—but so much the worse for big lecture halls. If indeed that’s the only way colleges know how to teach, then they deserve to be replaced by MOOCs. But there are better ways of teaching that online courses currently cannot provide, and if college administrators were wise, they would be focusing on pressing that advantage. If this doesn’t happen, and education does become heavily automated, it will be cheaper—but it will also be worse.
Similarly, some aspects of healthcare provision can be automated, but there are clearly major benefits to having actual doctors and nurses physically there to interact with patients. If we want to make healthcare more affordable, we will probably have to find other ways (a single-payer health system comes to mind).
For now, it is at least worth recognizing that there are serious limitations in our usual methods of measuring standard of living; due to effects like necessitization, the statistics can say that we are much richer even as we hardly feel richer at all.
So I just finished reading The Meritocracy Trap by David Markovits.
The basic thesis of the book is that America’s rising inequality is not due to a defect in our meritocratic ideals, but is in fact their ultimate fruition. Markovits implores us to reject the very concept of meritocracy, and replace it with… well, something, and he’s never very clear about exactly what.
The most frustrating thing about reading this book is trying to figure out where Markovits draws the line for “elite”. He rapidly jumps between talking about the upper quartile, the upper decile, the top 1%, and even the top 0.1% or top 0.01% while weaving his narrative. The upper quartile of the US contains 75 million people; the top 0.01% contains only 300,000. The former is the size of Germany, the latter the size of Iceland (which has fewer people than Long Beach). Inequality which concentrates wealth in the top quartile of Americans is a much less serious problem than inequality which concentrates wealth in the top 0.01%. It could still be a problem—those lower three quartiles are people too—but it is definitely not nearly as bad.
I think it’s particularly frustrating to me personally, because I am an economist, which means both that such quantitative distinctions are important to me, and also that whether or not I myself am in this “elite” depends upon which line you are drawing. Do I have a post-graduate education? Yes. Was I born into the upper quartile? Not quite, but nearly. Was I raised by married parents in a stable home? Certainly. Am I in the upper decile and working as a high-paid professional? Hopefully I will be soon. Will I enter the top 1%? Maybe, maybe not. Will I join the top 0.1%? Probably not. Will I ever be in the top 0.01% and a captain of industry? Almost certainly not.
So, am I one of the middle class who are suffering alienation and stagnation, or one of the elite who are devouring themselves with cutthroat competition? Based on BLS statistics for economists and job offers I’ve been applying to, my long-term household income is likely to be about 20-50% higher than my parents’; this seems like neither the painful stagnation he attributes to the middle class nor the unsustainable skyrocketing of elite incomes. (Even 50% in 30 years is only 1.4% per year, about our average rate of real GDP growth.) Marxists would no doubt call me petit bourgeoisie; but isn’t that sort of the goal? We want as many people as possible to live comfortable upper-middle class lives in white-collar careers?
Markovits characterizes—dare I say caricatures—the habits of the middle-class versus the elite, and once again I and most people I know cross-cut them: I spend more time with friends than family (elite), but I cook familiar foods, not fancy dinners (middle); I exercise fairly regularly and don’t watch much television (elite) but play a lot of video games and sleep a lot as well (middle). My web searches involve technology and travel (elite), but also chronic illness (middle). I am a donor to Amnesty International (elite) but also play tabletop role-playing games (middle). I have a functional, inexpensive car (middle) but a top-of-the-line computer (elite)—then again that computer is a few years old now (middle). Most of the people I hang out with are well-educated (elite) but struggling financially (middle), civically engaged (elite) but pessimistic (middle). I rent my apartment and have a lot of student debt (middle) but own stocks (elite). (The latter seemed like a risky decision before the pandemic, but as stock prices have risen and student loan interest was put on moratorium, it now seems positively prescient.) So which class am I, again?
I went to public school (middle) but have a graduate degree (elite). I grew up in Ann Arbor (middle) but moved to Irvine (elite). Then again my bachelor’s was at a top-10 institution (elite) but my PhD will be at only a top-50 (middle). The beautiful irony there is that the top-10 institution is the University of Michigan and the top-50 institution is the University of California, Irvine. So I can’t even tell which class each of those events is supposed to represent! Did my experience of Ann Arbor suddenly shift from middle class to elite when I graduated from public school and started attending the University of Michigan—even though about a third of my high school cohort did exactly that? Was coming to UCI an elite act because it’s a PhD in Orange County, or a middle-class act because it’s only a top-50 university?
If the gap between these two classes is such a wide chasm, how am I straddling it? I honestly feel quite confident in characterizing myself as precisely the upwardly-mobile upper-middle class that Markovits claims no longer exists. Perhaps we’re rarer than we used to be; perhaps our status is more precarious; but we plainly aren’t gone.
Markovits keeps talking about “radical differences” “not merely in degree but in kind” between “subordinate” middle-class workers and “superordinate” elite workers, but if the differences are really that stark, why is it so hard to tell which group I’m in? From what I can see, the truth seems less like a sharp divide between middle-class and upper-class, and more like an increasingly steep slope from middle-class to upper-middle class to upper-class to rich to truly super-rich. If I had to put numbers on this, I’d say annual household incomes of about $50,000, $100,000, $200,000, $400,000, $1 million, and $10 million respectively. (And yet perhaps I should add more categories: Even someone who makes $10 million a year has only pocket change next to Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos.) The slope has gotten steeper over time, but it hasn’t (yet?) turned into a sharp cliff the way Markovits describes. America’s Lorenz curve is clearly too steep, but it doesn’t have a discontinuity as far as I can tell.
Some of the inequalities Markovits discusses are genuine, but don’t seem to be particularly related to meritocracy. The fact that students from richer families go to better schools indeed seems unjust, but the problem is clearly not that the rich schools are too good (except maybe at the very top, where truly elite schools seem a bit excessive—five-figure preschool tuition?), but that the poor schools are not good enough. So it absolutely makes sense to increase funding for poor schools and implement various reforms, but this is hardly a radical notion—nor is it in any way anti-meritocratic. Providing more equal opportunities for the poor to raise their own station is what meritocracy is all about.
Other inequalities he objects to seem, if not inevitable, far too costly to remove: Educated people are better parents, who raise their children in ways that make them healthier, happier, and smarter? No one is going to apologize for being a good parent, much less stop doing so because you’re concerned about what it does to inequality. If you have some ideas for how we might make other people into better parents, by all means let’s hear them. But I believe I speak for the entire upper-middle class when I say: when I have kids of my own, I’m going to read to them, I’m not going to spank them, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to change my mind on either front. Quite frankly, this seems like a heavy-handed satire of egalitarianism, right out of Harrison Bergeron: Let’s make society equal by forcing rich people to neglect and abuse their kids as much as poor people do! My apologies to Vonnegut: I thought you were ridiculously exaggerating, but apparently some people actually think like this.
This is closely tied with the deepest flaw in the argument: The meritocratic elite are actually more qualified. It’s easy to argue that someone like Donald Trump shouldn’t rule the world; he’s a deceitful, narcissistic, psychopathic, incompetent buffoon. (The only baffling part is that 40% of American voters apparently disagree.) But it’s a lot harder to see why someone like Bill Gates shouldn’t be in charge of things: He’s actually an extremely intelligent, dedicated, conscientious, hard-working, ethical, and competent individual. Does he deserve $100 billion? No, for reasons I’ve talked about before. But even he knows that! He’s giving most of it away to highly cost-effective charities! Bill Gates alone has saved several million lives by his philanthropy.
Markovits tries to argue that the merits of the meritocratic elite are arbitrary and contextual, like the alleged virtues of the aristocratic class: “The meritocratic virtues, that is, are artifacts of economic inequality in just the fashion in which the pitching virtues are artifacts of baseball.” (p. 264) “The meritocratic achievement commonly celebrated today, no less than the aristocratic virtue acclaimed in the ancien regime, is a sham.” (p. 268)
But it’s pretty hard for me to see how things like literacy, knowledge of history and science, and mathematical skill are purely arbitrary. Even the highly specialized skills of a quantum physicist, software engineer, or geneticist are clearly not arbitrary. Not everyone needs to know how to solve the Schrodinger equation or how to run a polymerase chain reaction, but our civilization greatly benefits from the fact that someone does. Software engineers aren’t super-productive because of high inequality; they are super-productive because they speak the secret language of the thinking machines. I suppose some of the skills involved in finance, consulting, and law are arbitrary and contextual; but he makes it sound like the only purpose graduate school serves is in teaching us table manners.
Precisely by attacking meritocracy, Markovits renders his own position absurd. So you want less competent people in charge? You want people assigned to jobs they’re not good at? You think businesses should go out of their way to hire employees who will do their jobs worse? Had he instead set out to show how American society fails at achieving its meritocratic ideals—indeed, failing to provide equality of opportunity for the poor is probably the clearest example of this—he might have succeeded. But instead he tries to attack the ideals themselves, and fails miserably.
Markovits avoids the error that David Graeber made: Graeber sees that there are many useless jobs but doesn’t seem to have a clue why these jobs exist (and turns to quite foolish Marxian conspiracy theories to explain it). Markovits understands that these jobs are profitable for the firms that employ them, but unproductive for society as a whole. He is right; this is precisely what virtually the entire fields of finance, sales, advertising, and corporate law consist of. Most people in our elite work very hard with great skill and competence, and produce great profits for the corporations that employ them, all while producing very little of genuine societal value. But I don’t see how this is a flaw in meritocracy per se.
Nor does Markovits stop at accusing employment of being rent-seeking; he takes aim at education as well: “when the rich make exceptional investments in schooling, this does reduce the value of ordinary, middle-class training and degrees. […] Meritocratic education inexorably engenders a wasteful and destructive arms educational arms race, which ultimately benefits no one, not even the victors.” (p.153) I don’t doubt that education is in part such a rent-seeking arms race, and it’s worthwhile to try to minimize that. But education is not entirely rent-seeking! At the very least, is there not genuine value in teaching children to read and write and do arithmetic? Perhaps by the time we get to calculus or quantum physics or psychopathology we have reached diminishing returns for most students (though clearly at least some people get genuine value out of such things!), but education is not entirely comprised of signaling or rent-seeking (and nor do “sheepskin effects” prove otherwise).
My PhD may be less valuable to me than it would be to someone in my place 40 years ago, simply because there are more people with PhDs now and thus I face steeper competition. Then again, perhaps not, as the wage premium for college and postgraduate education has been increasing, not decreasing, over that time period. (How much of that wage premium is genuine social benefit and how much is rent-seeking is difficult to say.) In any case it’s definitely still valuable. I have acquired many genuine skills, and will in fact be able to be genuinely more productive as well as compete better in the labor market than I would have without it. Some parts of it have felt like a game where I’m just trying to stay ahead of everyone else, but it hasn’t all been that. A world where nobody had PhDs would be a world with far fewer good scientists and far slower technological advancement.
Abandoning meritocracy entirely would mean that we no longer train people to be more productive or match people to the jobs they are most qualified to do. Do you want a world where surgery is not done by the best surgeons, where airplanes are not flown by the best pilots? This necessarily means less efficient production and an overall lower level of prosperity for society as a whole. The most efficient way may not be the best way, but it’s still worth noting that it’s the most efficient way.
Really, is meritocracy the problem, or is it something else?
Markovits is clearly right that something is going wrong with American society: Our inequality is much too high, and our job market is much too cutthroat. I can’t even relate to his description of what the job market was like in the 1960s (“Old Economy Steve” has it right): “Even applicants for white-collar jobs received startlingly little scrutiny. For most midcentury workers, getting a job did not involve any application at all, in the competitive sense of the term.” (p.203)
In fact, if anything he seems to understate the difference across time, perhaps because it lets him overstate the difference across class (p. 203):
Today, by contrast, the workplace is methodically arranged around gradations of skill. Firms screen job candidates intensively at hiring, and they then sort elite and non-elite workers into separate physical spaces.
Only the very lowest-wage employers, seeking unskilled workers, hire casually. Middle-class employers screen using formal cognitive tests and lengthy interviews. And elite employers screen with urgent intensity, recruiting from only a select pool and spending millions of dollars to probe applicants over several rounds of interviews, lasting entire days.
Today, not even the lowest-wage employers hire casually! Have you ever applied to work at Target? There is a personality test you have to complete, which I presume is designed to test your reliability as an obedient corporate drone. Never in my life have I gotten a job that didn’t involve either a lengthy application process or some form of personal connection—and I hate to admit it, but usually the latter. It is literally now harder to get a job as a cashier at Target than it was to get a job as an engineer at Ford 60 years ago.
But I still can’t shake the feeling that meritocracy is not exactly what’s wrong here. The problem with the sky-high compensation packages at top financial firms isn’t that they are paid to people who are really good at their jobs; it’s that those jobs don’t actually accomplish anything beneficial for society. Where elite talent and even elite compensation is combined with genuine productivity, such as in science and engineering, it seems unproblematic (and I note that Markovits barely even touches on these industries, perhaps because he sees they would undermine his argument). The reason our economic growth seems to have slowed as our inequality has massively surged isn’t that we are doing too good a job of rewarding people for being productive.
Indeed, it seems like the problem may be much simpler: Labor supply exceeds labor demand.
This graph shows the relationship over time between unemployment and job vacancies. As you can see, they are generally inversely related: More vacancies means less unemployment. I have drawn in a green line which indicates the cutoff between having more vacancies than unemployment—upper left—and having more unemployment than vacancies—lower right. We have almost always been in the state of having more unemployment than we have vacancies; notably, the mid-1960s were one of the few periods in which we had significantly more vacancies than unemployment.
For decades we’ve been instituting policies to try to give people “incentives to work”; but there is no shortage of labor in this country. We seem to have plenty of incentives to work—what we need are incentives to hire people and pay them well.
Indeed, perhaps we need incentives not to work—like a basic income or an expanded social welfare system. Thanks to automation, productivity is now astonishingly high, and yet we work ourselves to death instead of enjoying leisure.
And of course there are various other policy changes that have made our inequality worse—chiefly the dramatic drops in income tax rates at the top brackets that occurred under Reagan.
In fact, many of the specific suggestions Markovits makes—which, much to my chagrin, he waits nearly 300 pages to even mention—are quite reasonable, or even banal: He wants to end tax deductions for alumni donations to universities and require universities to enroll more people from lower income brackets; I could support that. He wants to regulate finance more stringently, eliminate most kinds of complex derivatives, harmonize capital gains tax rates to ordinary income rates, and remove the arbitrary cap on payroll taxes; I’ve been arguing for all of those things for years. What about any of these policies is anti-meritocratic? I don’t see it.
More controversially, he wants to try to re-organize production to provide more opportunities for mid-skill labor. In some industries I’m not sure that’s possible: The 10X programmer is a real phenomenon, and even mediocre programmers and engineers can make software and machines that are a hundred times as productive as doing the work by hand would be. But some of his suggestions make sense, such as policies favoring nurse practitioners over specialist doctors and legal secretaries instead of bar-certified lawyers. (And please, please reform the medical residency system! People die from the overwork caused by our medical residency system.)
But I really don’t see how not educating people or assigning people to jobs they aren’t good at would help matters—which means that meritocracy, as I understand the concept, is not to blame after all.
The sheepskin effect is the observation that the increase in income from graduating from college after four years, relative going through college for three years, is much higher than the increase in income from simply going through college for three years instead of two.
In both models, we’ll assume that markets are competitive but productivity is not directly observable, so employers sort you based on your education level and then pay a wage equal to the average productivity of people at your education level, compensated for the cost of getting that education.
In this model, people all start with the same productivity, and are randomly assigned by their life circumstances to go to either 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 years of college. College itself has no long-term cost.
The first year of college you learn a lot, the next couple of years you don’t learn much because you’re trying to find your way, and then in the last year of college you learn a lot of specialized skills that directly increase your productivity.
So this is your productivity after x years of college:
Years of college
We assumed that you’d get paid your productivity, so these are also your wages.
The increase in income each year goes from +7, to +5, to +3, then jumps up to +6. So if you compare the 4-year-minus-3-year gap (+6) with the 3-year-minus-2-year gap (+3), you get a sheepskin effect.
In this model, college is useless and provides no actual benefits. People vary in their intrinsic productivity, which is also directly correlated with the difficulty of making it through college.
In particular, there are five types of people:
Cost per year of college
The wages for different levels of college education are as follows:
Years of college
Notice that these are exactly the same wages as in scenario 1. This is of course entirely intentional. In a moment I’ll show why this is a Nash equilibrium.
Consider the choice of how many years of college to attend. You know your type, so you know the cost of college to you. You want to maximize your net benefit, which is the wage you’ll get minus the total cost of going to college.
Let’s assume that if a given year of college isn’t worth it, you won’t try to continue past it and see if more would be.
For a type-0 person, they could get 10 by not going to college at all, or 17-(1)(8) = 9 by going for 1 year, so they stop.
For a type-1 person, they could get 10 by not going to college at all, or 17-(1)(6) = 11 by going for 1 year, or 22-(2)(6) = 10 by going for 2 years, so they stop.
Filling out all the possibilities yields this table:
Years \ Type
I’d actually like to point out that it was much harder to find numbers that allowed me to make the sheepskin effect work in the second model, where education was all signaling. In the model where education provides genuine benefit, all I need to do is posit that the last year of college is particularly valuable (perhaps because high-level specialized courses are more beneficial to productivity). I could pretty much vary that parameter however I wanted, and get whatever magnitude of sheepskin effect I chose.
For the signaling model, I had to carefully calibrate the parameters so that the costs and benefits lined up just right to make sure that each type chose exactly the amount of college I wanted them to choose while still getting the desired sheepskin effect. It took me about two hours of very frustrating fiddling just to get numbers that worked. And that’s with the assumption that someone who finds 2 years of college not worth it won’t consider trying for 4 years of college (which, given the numbers above, they actually might want to), as well as the assumption that when type-3 individuals are indifferent between staying and dropping out they drop out.
And yet the sheepskin effect is supposed to be evidence that the world works like the signaling model?
I’m sure a more sophisticated model could make the signaling explanation a little more robust. The biggest limitation of these models is that once you observe someone’s education level, you immediately know their true productivity, whether it came from college or not. Realistically we should be allowing for unobserved variation that can’t be sorted out by years of college.
Maybe it seems implausible that the last year of college is actually more beneficial to your productivity than the previous years. This is probably the intuition behind the idea that sheepskin effects are evidence of signaling rather than genuine learning.
So how about this model?
As in the second model, there are four types of people, types 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4. They all start with the same level of productivity, and they have the same cost of going to college; but they get different benefits from going to college.
The problem is, people don’t start out knowing what type they are. Nor can they observe their productivity directly. All they can do is observe their experience of going to college and then try to figure out what type they must be.
Type 0s don’t benefit from college at all, and they know they are type 0; so they don’t go to college.
Type 1s benefit a tiny amount from college (+1 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 1s until after one year of college.
Type 2s benefit a little from college (+2 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 2s until after two years of college.
Type 3s benefit a moderate amount from college (+3 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 3s until after three years of college.
Type 4s benefit a great deal from college (+5 productivity per year), but don’t realize they are type 4s until after three years of college.
What then will happen? Type 0s will not go to college. Type 1s will go one year and then drop out. Type 2s will go two years and then drop out. Type 3s will go three years and then drop out. And type 4s will actually graduate.
That results in the following before-and-after productivity:
Productivity before college
Years of college
Productivity after college
If each person is paid a wage equal to their productivity, there will be a huge sheepskin effect; wages only go up +1 for 1 year, +3 for 2 years, +5 for 3 years, but then they jump up to +11 for graduation. It appears that the benefit of that last year of college is more than the other three combined. But in fact it’s not; for any given individual, the benefits of college are the same each year. It’s just that college is more beneficial to the people who decided to stay longer.
And I could of course change that assumption too, making the early years more beneficial, or varying the distribution of types, or adding more uncertainty—and so on. But it’s really not hard at all to make a model where college is beneficial and you observe a large sheepskin effect.
Moreover, I agree that it’s worth looking at this: Insofar as college is about sorting or signaling, it’s wasteful from a societal perspective, and we should be trying to find more efficient sorting mechanisms.
But I highly doubt that all the benefits of college are due to sorting or signaling; there definitely are a lot of important things that people learn in college, not just conventional academic knowledge like how to do calculus, but also broader skills like how to manage time, how to work in groups, and how to present ideas to others. Colleges also cultivate friendships and provide opportunities for networking and exposure to a diverse community. Judging by voting patterns, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that college also makes you a better citizen, which would be well worth it by itself.
Maybe it’s because I follow too many radical leftists on social media (this is at least a biased sample, no doubt), but I’ve seen an awful lot of posts basically making this argument: “Joe Biden is terrible, but we have to elect him, because Donald Trump is worse.”
And make no mistake: Whatever else you think about this election, the fact that Donald Trump is a fascist and Joe Biden is not is indeed a fully sufficient reason to vote for Biden. You shouldn’t need any more than that.
But in fact Joe Biden is not terrible. Yes, there are some things worth criticizing about his record and his platform—particularly with regard to civil liberties and war (both of those links are to my own posts making such criticisms of the Obama administration). I don’t want to sweep these significant flaws under the rug.
Yet, there are also a great many things that are good about Biden and his platform, and it’s worthwhile to talk about them. You shouldn’t feel like you are holding your nose and voting for the lesser of two evils; Biden is going to make a very good President.
First and foremost, there is his plan to invest in clean energy and combat climate change. For the first time in decades, we have a Presidential candidate who is explicitly pro-nuclear and has a detailed, realistic plan for achieving net-zero carbon emissions within a generation. We should have done this 30 years ago; but far better to start now than to wait even longer.
Then there is Biden’s plan for affordable housing. He wants to copy California’s Homeowner Bill of Rights at the federal level, fight redlining, expand Section 8, and nationalize the credit rating system. Above all, he wants to create a new First Down Payment Tax Credit that will provide first-time home buyers with $15,000 toward a down payment on a home. That is how you increase homeownership. The primary reason why people rent instead of owning is that they can’t afford the down payment.
His plan for education reform includes measures to equalize funding between rich and poor districts and between White and non-White districts.
Biden’s healthcare plan isn’t quite Medicare For All, but it’s actually remarkably close to that. He wants to provide a public healthcare option available to everyone, and also lower the Medicare eligibility age to 60 instead of 65. This means that anyone who wants Medicare will be able to buy into it, and also sets a precedent of lowering the eligibility age—remember, all we really need to do to get Medicare For All is lower that age to 18. Moreover, it avoids forcing people off private insurance that they like, which is the main reason why Medicare For All still does not have majority support.
While many on the left have complained that Biden believes in “tough on crime”, his plan for criminal justice reform actually strikes a very good balance between maintaining low crime rates and reducing incarceration and police brutality. The focus is on crime prevention instead of punishment, and it includes the elimination of all federal use of privatized prisons.
Most people would give lip service to being against domestic violence, but Biden has a detailed plan for actually protecting survivors and punishing abusers—including ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and ending the rape kit backlog. The latter is an utter no-brainer. If we need to, we can pull the money from just about any other form of law enforcement (okay, I guess not homicide); those rape kits need to be tested and those rapists need to be charged.
Biden also has a sensible plan for gun control, which is consistent with the Second Amendment and Supreme Court precedent but still could provide substantial protections by reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, requiring universal background checks, and adding other sensible restrictions on who can be licensed to own firearms. It won’t do much about handguns or crimes of passion, but it should at least reduce mass shootings.
He also has a very ambitious plan for campaign finance reform, including a Constitutional Amendment that would ban all private campaign donations. Honestly if anything the plan sounds too ambitious; I doubt we can really implement all of these things any time soon. But if even half of them get through, our democracy will be in much better shape.
His immigration policy, while far from truly open borders, would reverse Trump’s appalling child-separation policy, expand access to asylum, eliminate long-term detention in favor of a probation system, and streamline the path to citizenship.
I’ve seen many on the left complain that Biden was partly responsible for the current bankruptcy system that makes it nearly impossible to discharge student loans; well, his current platform includes a series of reforms developed by Elizabeth Warren designed to reverse that.
I do think Biden is too hawkish on war and not serious enough about protecting civil liberties—and I said the same thing about Obama years ago. But Biden isn’t just better than Trump (almost anyone would be better than Trump); he’s actually a genuinely good candidate with a strong, progressive platform.
You should already have been voting for Biden anyway. But hopefully now you can actually do it with some enthusiasm.
Suppose you were offered the choice of the following two gambles; which one would you take?
Gamble A: 99.9% chance of $0; 0.1% chance of $100 million
Gamble B: 10% chance of $50,000; 80% chance of $100,000; 10% chance of $1 million
I think it’s pretty clear that you should choose gamble B.
If you were risk-neutral, the expected payoffs would be $100,000 for gamble A and $185,000 for gamble B. So clearly gamble B is the better deal.
But you’re probably risk-averse. If you have logarithmic utility with a baseline and current wealth of $10,000, the difference is even larger:
0.001*ln(10001) = 0.009
0.1*ln(6) + 0.8*ln(11) + 0.1*ln(101) = 2.56
Yet suppose this is a gamble that a lot of people get to take. And furthermore suppose that what you read about in the news every day is always the people who are the very richest. Then you will read, over and over again, about people who took gamble A and got lucky enough to get the $100 million. You’d probably start to wonder if maybe you should be taking gamble A instead.
This is more or less the world we live in. A handful of billionaires own staggering amounts of wealth, and we are constantly hearing about them. Even aside from the fact that most of them inherited a large portion of it and all of them had plenty of advantages that most of us will never have, it’s still not clear that they were actually smart about taking the paths they did—it could simply be that they got spectacularly lucky.
Or perhaps there’s an even clearer example: Professional athletes. The vast majority of athletes make basically no money at sports. Even most paid athletes are in minor leagues and make only a modest living.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with being an amateur who plays sports for fun. But if you were to invest a large proportion of your time training in sports in the hopes of becoming a professional athlete, you would most likely find yourself gravely disappointed, as your chances of actually getting into the major leagues and becoming a multi-millionaire are exceedingly small. Yet you can probably name at least a few major league athletes who are multi-millionaires—perhaps dozens, if you’re a serious fan—and I doubt you can name anywhere near as many minor league players or players who never made it into paid leagues in the first place.
When we spend all of our time focused on the superstars, what we are effectively assessing is the maximum possible income available on a given career track. And it’s true; the maximum for professional athletes and especially entrepreneurs is extremely high. But the maximum isn’t what you should care about; you should really be concerned about the average or even the median.
And it turns out that the same professions that offer staggeringly high incomes at the very top also tend to be professions with extremely high risk attached. The average income for an athlete is very small; the median is almost certainly zero. Entrepreneurs do better; their average and median income aren’t too much worse than most jobs. But this moderate average comes with a great deal of risk; yes, you could become a billionaire—but far more likely, you could become bankrupt.
This is a deeply perverse result: The careers that our culture most glorifies, the ones that we inspire people to dream about, are precisely those that are the most likely to result in financial ruin.
Realizing this changes your perspective on a lot of things. For instance, there is a common lament that teachers aren’t paid the way professional athletes are. I for one am extremely grateful that this is the case. If teachers were paid like athletes, yes, 0.1% would be millionaires, but only 4.9% would make a decent living, and the remaining 95% would be utterly broke. Indeed, this is precisely what might happen if MOOCs really take off, and a handful of superstar teachers are able to produce all the content while the vast majority of teaching mostly amounts to showing someone else’s slideshows. Teachers are much better off in a world where they almost all make a decent living even though none of them ever get spectacularly rich. (Are many teachers still underpaid? Sure. How do I know this? Because there are teacher shortages. A chronic shortage of something is a surefire sign that its price is too low.) And clearly the idea that we could make all teachers millionaires is just ludicrous: Do you want to pay $1 million a year for your child’s education?
Is there a way that we could change this perverse pattern? Could we somehow make it feel more inspiring to choose a career that isn’t so risky? Well, I doubt we’ll ever get children to dream of being accountants or middle managers. But there are a wide range of careers that are fulfilling and meaningful while still making a decent living—like, well, teaching. Even working in creative arts can be like this: While very few authors are millionaires, the median income for an author is quite respectable. (On the other hand there’s some survivor bias here: We don’t count you as an author if you can’t get published at all.) Software engineers are generally quite satisfied with their jobs, and they manage to get quite high incomes with low risk. I think the real answer here is to spend less time glorifying obscene hoards of wealth and more time celebrating lives that are rich and meaningful.
I don’t know if Jeff Bezos is truly happy. But I do know that you and I are more likely to be happy if instead of trying to emulate him, we focus on making our own lives meaningful.
Subsidies always make things more affordable for the person being subsidized.
It’s possible for subsidies to create other distortions, and make things more expensive for those who aren’t subsidized. But it’s literally impossible for subsidies to make something unaffordable to the person being subsidized.
On this graph, the blue line is the demand curve. The red line is the supply curve. The thick green line is where they intersect, at the competitive equilibrium price. In this case, that equilibrium means we sell 6 units at a price of $3 each.
The thin green lines show what happen if we introduce a subsidy. Here the subsidy is $3. The sticker price can be read off of the supply curve: It will rise to $4. But the actual price paid by consumers is read off the demand curve: It will fall to $1. Total sales will rise to 8 units. The total cost to the government is then 8($3) = $24.
These exact numbers are of course specific to the example I chose. But the overall direction is not.
We can go ahead and draw this with all sorts of different supply and demand curves, and we’ll keep getting the same result.
Here’s one where I didn’t even make the curves linear:
In this case, a subsidy of $5.40 raises the sticker price from $6.10 to $11.20, only reducing the price for consumers to $5.80, while increasing the quantity sold from 3.5 to 4.8. The total cost of the subsidy is $25.92. The price effects are very different in magnitude from the previous example, and yet all the directions are exactly the same—and they will continue to be the same, however you draw the curves.
And here’s yet another example:
Here, a subsidy of $2.30 raises the sticker price from $4 to $5.30, lowers the cost to consumers to $3, increases the quantity sold from 4 to 7 units, and costs $16.10.
If you’re still not convinced, try drawing some more of the same diagrams yourself. As long as you make the supply curve slope upward and the demand curve slope downward, you’ll keep getting the same results.
A subsidy will always do four things:
Increase the sticker price, benefiting sellers.
Decrease the price that subsidized consumers actually pay, benefiting those consumers.
Increase the quantity sold.
Cost the government money.
The intuition here is quite simple: If I give you free money every time you buy a thing, you’ll buy more of that thing (3) because it costs you less to do so (2). Because you buy more of the thing, the price will go up (1), but not enough to cancel out the reduced cost to you (or else you’d stop). Since I’m giving you free money, that will cost me money (4). This intuition is fully general: It doesn’t matter what kind of product we are talking about, you’re never going to buy less or have to pay more for each one because I gave you free money.
The size of each effect depends upon elasticity of demand and supply, in basically the same way as tax incidence. The more inelastic side of the market is harmed less by the tax and also benefits less from the subsidy. For any given change in quantity, more inelastic markets raise more tax revenue and cost more subsidy spending.
If we allow elasticities of demand or supply to be zero or infinite (which is almost never the case in real life), then some of these effects might be zero. But they will never go the opposite direction, not as long as the supply curve slopes upward and the demand curve slopes downward.
I suspect that education has relatively inelastic demand and relatively elastic supply, which would mean that the subsidies are actually largely felt by the consumer, not the seller. But that’s actually a legitimate economic question: I might be overestimating the elasticity of supply.
There are other legitimate economic questions here as well, such as how much benefit we get out of a given subsidy versus other ways we might spend that money, and how subsidies may hurt others in the same market who aren’t subsidized.
What is not a legitimate question is the one that these libertarian think-tanks seem to be asking, which is “If you give people money, will they end up with less stuff?” No, they won’t. That’s not how any of this works.
And I’m pretty sure the people in these think-tanks are smart enough to know that. They might be blinded by their anti-government ideology, but I actually suspect it’s more sinister than that: They know that what they are saying isn’t true, but they consider it a “noble lie”: A falsehood told to the common folk in the service of a higher good.
They are clever enough to not simply state the lie outright, but instead imply it through misleading presentation of real facts. Yes, it’s true that subsidies will raise the sticker price—so they can say that this was all they were asserting. But not only is that obvious and trivial: It wouldn’t even support the argument they are obviously trying to make. Nobody cares about the sticker price. They care about what people actually pay. And a subsidy, by construction, as a law of economics, cannot possibly increase the amount paid by the buyer who is subsidized.
What they obviously want you to think is that the reason healthcare and education are so unaffordable is because the government has been subsidizing them. But this is basically the opposite of the truth: These things became unaffordable for various reasons, and the government stepped in to subsidize them in order to stop the bleeding. Is that a permanent solution? No, it’s not. But it does actually help keep them affordable for the time being—and it could not have done otherwise. There’s simply no way to give someone free money and make them poorer. (Of course, fully socialized healthcare and education might be permanent solutions, so if the libertarians aren’t careful what they wish for….)
The states and cities that create the most jobs aren’t the ones that offer the most generous handouts to corporations. They are the ones that have the cleanest air, the best infrastructure, and above all the most educated population. This is why there have been months when the majority of US jobs were created in California. California is the largest state, but it’s not that large—it’s only about 12% of the US population. If as many as 70% of the new jobs are being created there, it’s because California is doing something right that most other states are doing very, very wrong.
And then there is the rent-seeking competition that megacorporations like Amazon engage in, getting cities to bid higher and higher subsidies, then locating where they probably would have anyway but with billions of dollars in free money. This is a trick we need to stop falling for: The federal government should outright ban any attempt to use subsidies to get an existing corporation to locate in a specific state or city. That’s not contributing to American society; it’s just moving things around.
There are a few kinds of industries it makes sense to subsidize, because they have high up-front costs and large public benefits. Examples include research and development and renewable energy. But here the goal is not to create jobs. It’s to create wealth, typically in the form of scientific knowledge. We aren’t trying to get them to hire people; we’re trying to get them to accomplish something that’s difficult and important.
Why don’t subsidies create jobs? It’s really quite simple: You need to pay for those subsidies.
The federal government doesn’t face a hard budget constraint like businesses do; they can print money. But state and municipal governments don’t have that power, and so their subsidies need to be made up in either taxes or debt—which means either taxes now, or taxes later. Or they could cut spending elsewhere, which means losing whatever benefits they were getting from that spending. This means that any jobs you created with the subsidies are just going to be destroyed somewhere else, by higher taxes or lower government spending.
People don’t seem to understand that a capitalist economy basically just creates as many jobs as it needs. In a financial crisis, that mechanism falters; that’s when the federal government should step in and print money to get it running again. But when the economy is running smoothly, trying to “create jobs” is just not a useful thing to do. Jobs will be created and destroyed by the market. Policy should be trying to increase welfare. Educate your population. Improve your healthcare system. Build more public transit. Invest in fighting poverty and homelessness. And if you don’t think you can afford those things, then you definitely can’t afford handouts to megacorporations that won’t even make back what you paid.
In fact, our public healthcare expenditures are currently higher than almost every other country. Our private expenditures are therefore pure waste; all they are doing is providing returns for the shareholders of corporations. If we were to simply copy the UK National Health Service and spend money in exactly the same way as they do, we would spend the same amount in public funds and almost nothing in private funds—and the UK has a higher mean lifespan than the US.
This is absolutely a no-brainer. Burn the whole system of private insurance down. Copy a healthcare system that actually works, like they use in every other First World country.
It wouldn’t even be that complicated to implement: We already have a single-payer healthcare system in the US; it’s called Medicare. Currently only old people get it; but old people use the most healthcare anyway. Hence, Medicare for All: Just lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 18 (if not zero). In the short run there would be additional costs for the transition, but in the long run we would save mind-boggling amounts of money, all while improving healthcare outcomes and extending our lifespans. Current estimates say that the net savings of Medicare for All would be about $5 trillion over the next 10 years. We can afford this. Indeed, the question is, as it was for infrastructure: How can we afford not to do this?
And this makes sense, if you think about it. Doctors can do their jobs a lot better when they’re focused on just treating everyone who needs help, rather than arguing with insurance companies over what should and shouldn’t be covered. Preventative medicine is extremely cost-effective, yet it’s usually the first thing that people skimp on when trying to save money on health insurance. A variety of public health measures (such as vaccination and air quality regulation) are extremely cost-effective, but they are public goods that the private sector would not pay for by itself.
The only serious argument I’ve heard against single-payer healthcare is a moral one: “Why should I have to pay for other people’s healthcare?” Well, I guess, because… you’re a human being? You should care about other human beings, and not want them to suffer and die from easily treatable diseases?
Single-payer healthcare is not only affordable: It would be cheaper and better than what we are currently doing. (In fact, almost anything would be cheaper and better than what we are currently doing—Obamacare was an improvement over the previous mess, but it’s still a mess.)
What about public education? Well, we already have that up to the high school level, and it works quite well.
The flaws in our public school system are largely from it being not public enough, which is to say that schools are funded by their local property taxes instead of having their costs equally shared across whole states. This gives them the same basic problem as private schools: Rich kids get better schools.
Public education has benefits for our whole society. We want to have a population of citizens, workers, and consumers who are well-educated. There are enormous benefits of primary and secondary education in terms of reducing poverty, improving public health, and increased economic growth.
So there’s my impassioned argument for why we should continue to support free, universal public education up to high school.
The median weekly income of someone with a high school diploma is about $730; with a bachelor’s degree this rises to $1200; and with a doctoral or professional degree it gets over $1800. Higher education also greatly reduces your risk of being unemployed; while about 4% of the general population is unemployed, only 1.5% of people with doctorates or professional degrees are. Add that up over all the weeks of your life, and it’s a lot of money.
What does Australia do? They have a really good student loan system. You have to reach an annual income of about $40,000 per year before you need to make payments at all, and the loans are subsidized to be interest-free. Once you do owe payments, the debt is repaid at a rate proportional to your income—so effectively it’s not a debt at all but an equity stake.
Because of the subsidies and generous repayment plans, the Australian government loses money on their student loan system, but so what? In order to implement universal free college, they would have spent an awful lot more than they are losing now. This way, the losses are specifically on students who got a lot of education but never managed to raise their income high enough—which means the government is actually incentivized to improve the quality of education or job-matching.
It would benefit me personally enormously: I currently owe over $100,000 in debt (about half from my undergrad and half from my first master’s). But I’m fairly privileged. Once I finally make it through this PhD, I can expect to make something like $100,000 per year until I retire. I’m not sure that benefiting people like me should be a major goal of public policy.
That said, I don’t think universal free college is a terrible policy. Done well, it could be a good thing. But it isn’t the no-brainer that single-payer healthcare is. We can still make sure that students are not overburdened by debt without making college tuition actually free.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a linked series of posts on the Green New Deal. Some parts of it are obvious and we should have been doing them for decades already; let’s call these “easy parts”. Some parts of it will be difficult, but are definitely worth doing; let’s call these “hard parts”. And some parts of it are quite radical and may ultimately not be feasible—but may still be worth trying; let’s call these “very hard parts”.
Today I’m going to talk about some of the easy parts.
“Repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States, including [. . .] by eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasible.”
“Building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and ‘smart’ power grids, and working to ensure affordable access to electricity.”
“Upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.”
Every one of these proposals is basically a no-brainer. We should have been spending something like $100 billion dollars a year for the last 30 years doing this, and if we had, we’d have infrastructure that would be the envy of the world.
Of course, $100 billion a year is not a small amount of money.
How would we pay for such a thing?
That’s the thing: We wouldn’t need to.
Infrastructure investment doesn’t have to be “paid for” in the usual sense. We don’t need to raise taxes. We don’t need to cut spending. We can just add infrastructure spending onto other spending, raising the deficit directly. We can borrow money to fund the projects, and then by the time those bonds mature we will have made enough additional tax revenue from the increased productivity (and the Keynes multiplier) that we will have no problem paying back the debt.
Funding investment is what debt is supposed to be for. Particularly when interest rates are this low (currently about 3% nominal, which means about 1% adjusted for inflation), there is very little downside to taking out more debt if you’re going to plow that money into productive investments.
Of course debt can be used for anything money can, and using debt for all your spending is often not a good idea (but it can be, if your income is inconsistent or you have good reasons to think it will increase in the future). But I’m not suggesting the government should use debt to fund Medicare and Social Security payments; I’m merely suggesting that they should use debt to fund infrastructure investment. Medicare and Social Security are, at their core, social insurance programs; they spread wealth around, which has a lot of important benefits; but they don’t meaningfully create new wealth, so you need to be careful about how you pay for them. Infrastructure investment creates new wealth. The extra value is basically pulled from thin air; you’d be a fool not to take it.
There are some minor changes I would make to the student loan system, such as lower interest rates, higher limits to subsidized loans, stricter regulations on private student loans, and a simpler forgiveness process that doesn’t result in ridiculous tax liability. But I really don’t see the need to go to a fully taxpayer-funded higher education system. On the other hand, it wouldn’t necessarily be bad to go to a fully taxpayer-funded system; it seems to work quite well in Germany, France, and most of Scandinavia. I just don’t see this as a top priority.
The first reason is that “infrastructure” is a vague concept, almost a feel-good Applause Light like “freedom” or “justice”. Nobody is ever going to say they are against freedom or justice. Instead they’ll disagree about what constitutes freedom or justice.
And likewise, while almost everyone will agree that infrastructure as a concept is a good thing, there can be large substantive disagreements over just what kind of infrastructure to build. We want better transportation: Does that mean more roads, or train lines instead? We want cheaper electricity: When we build new power plants, should they use natural gas, solar, or nuclear power? We want to revitalize inner cities: Does that mean public housing, community projects, or subsidies for developers? Nobody wants an inefficient electricity grid, but just how much are we willing to invest in making it more efficient, and how? Once the infrastructure is built, should it be publicly owned and tax-funded, or privatized and run for profit?
This reason is not going to go away. We simply have to face up to it, and find a way to argue substantively for the specific kinds of infrastructure we want. It should be trains, not roads. It should be solar, wind, and nuclear, not natural gas, and certainly not coal or oil. It should be public housing and community projects, not subsidies for developers. Most of the infrastructure should be publicly owned, and what isn’t should be strictly regulated.
Yet there is another reason, which I think we might be able to eliminate. Most people seem to think that we need to pay for infrastructure the way we would need to pay for expanded social programs or military spending. They keep asking “How will this be paid for?” (And despite a lot of conservatives frothing about it—I will not give them ad revenue by linking—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not wrong when she said “The same way we pay for everything else.” We tax and spend; that’s what governments do. It’s always a question of what taxes and what spending.)
But we really don’t need to pay for infrastructure at all. Infrastructure will pay for itself; we simply need to finance it up front. And when we’re paying real interest rates of 1%, that’s not a difficult thing to do. If interest rates start to rise, we may want to pull back on that; but that’s not something that will happen overnight. We would see it coming, and have a variety of fiscal and monetary tools available to deal with it. The fear of possibly paying a bit more interest 30 years from now is a really stupid reason not to fix bridges that are crumbling today.
So when we talk about the Green New Deal (or at least the “easy parts”), let’s throw away this nonsense about “paying for it”. Almost all of these programs are long-term investments; they will pay for themselves. There are still substantive choices to be made about what exactly to build and where and how; but the US is an extraordinarily rich country with virtually unlimited borrowing power.
We can afford to do this.
Indeed, I think the question we should really be asking is:
You can’t spend much time teaching at the university level and not hear someone complain about “grade inflation”. Almost every professor seems to believe in it, and yet they must all be participating in it, if it’s really such a widespread problem.
This could be explained as a collective action problem, a Tragedy of the Commons: If the incentives are always to have the students with the highest grades—perhaps because of administrative pressure, or in order to get better reviews from students—then even if all professors would prefer a harsher grading scheme, no individual professor can afford to deviate from the prevailing norms.
But in fact I think there is a much simpler explanation: Grade inflation doesn’t exist.
In economic growth theory, economists make a sharp distinction between inflation—increase in prices without change in underlying fundamentals—and growth—increase in the real value of output. I contend that there is no such thing as grade inflation—what we are in fact observing is grade growth.
Am I saying that students are actually smarter now than they were 30 years ago?
Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
But don’t take it from me. Take it from the decades of research on the Flynn Effect: IQ scores have been rising worldwide at a rate of about 0.3 IQ points per year for as long as we’ve been keeping good records. Students today are about 10 IQ points smarter than students 30 years ago—a 2018 IQ score of 95 is equivalent to a 1988 score of 105, which is equivalent to a 1958 score of 115. There is reason to think this trend won’t continue indefinitely, since the effect is mainly concentrated at the bottom end of the distribution; but it has continued for quite some time already.
This by itself would probably be enough to explain the observed increase in grades, but there’s more: College students are also a self-selected sample, admitted precisely because they were believed to be the smartest individuals in the application pool. Rising grades at top institutions are easily explained by rising selectivity at top schools: Harvard now accepts 5.6% of applicants. In 1942, Harvard accepted 92% of applicants. The odds of getting in have fallen from 9:1 in favor to 19:1 against. Today, you need a 4.0 GPA, a 36 ACT in every category, glowing letters of recommendation, and hundreds of hours of extracurricular activities (or a family member who donated millions of dollars, of course) to get into Harvard. In the 1940s, you needed a high school diploma and a B average.
It really wouldn’t be hard to make that case: “Back in my day, you could get an A just by knowing basic algebra! Now they want these kids to take partial derivatives?” “We used to just memorize facts to ace the exam; but now teachers keep asking for reasoning and critical thinking?”
Indeed, the real mystery is why so many professors believe in grade inflation, when the evidence for it is so astonishingly weak.
I think it’s availability heuristic. Who are professors? They are the cream of the crop. They aced their way through high school, college, and graduate school, then got hired and earned tenure—they were one of a handful of individuals who won a fierce competition with hundreds of competitors at each stage. There are over 320 million people in the US, and only 1.3 million college faculty. This means that college professors represent about the top 0.4% of high-scoring students.
Combine that with the fact that human beings assort positively (we like to spend time with people who are similar to us) and use availability heuristic (we judge how likely something is based on how many times we have seen it).
Thus, when a professor compares to her own experience of college, she is remembering her fellow top-scoring students at elite educational institutions. She is recalling the extreme intellectual demands she had to meet to get where she is today, and erroneously assuming that these are representative of most the population of her generation. She probably went to school at one of a handful of elite institutions, even if she now teaches at a mid-level community college: three quarters of college faculty come from the top one quarter of graduate schools.
And now she compares to the students she has to teach, most of whom would not be able to meet such demands—but of course most people in her generation couldn’t either. She frets for the future of humanity only because not everyone is a genius like her.
Throw in the Curse of Knowledge: The professor doesn’t remember how hard it was to learn what she has learned so far, and so the fact that it seems easy now makes her think it was easy all along. “How can they not know how to take partial derivatives!?” Well, let’s see… were you born knowing how to take partial derivatives?
Giving a student an A for work far inferior to what you’d have done in their place isn’t unfair. Indeed, it would clearly be unfair to do anything less. You have years if not decades of additional education ahead of them, and you are from self-selected elite sample of highly intelligent individuals. Expecting everyone to perform as well as you would is simply setting up most of the population for failure.
There are potential incentives for grade inflation that do concern me: In particular, a lot of international student visas and scholarship programs insist upon maintaining a B or even A- average to continue. Professors are understandably loathe to condemn a student to having to drop out or return to their home country just because they scored 81% instead of 84% on the final exam. If we really intend to make C the average score, then students shouldn’t lose funding or visas just for scoring a B-. Indeed, I have trouble defending any threshold above outright failing—which is to say, a minimum score of D-. If you pass your classes, that should be good enough to keep your funding.
Yet apparently even this isn’t creating too much upward bias, as students who are 10 IQ points smarter are still getting about the same scores as their forebears. We should be celebrating that our population is getting smarter, but instead we’re panicking over “easy grading”.