What we pay for the thing that some workers do that most people do not

In middle school, I broke my leg in a soccer tournament game. I needed to go to the hospital and get extra support for the next month. Some of the workers who helped me were not highly paid, but my value of their services was very high.

Why bring this up? There has been conversation about the label “low skill” work this week. Brian Albrecht summarized the debate. Brian tangentially mentioned the “diamond-water paradox,” but I think it is worth talking more about that. Economists have a few models and stories that change the way you think about the world.

When I teach Labor Economics, we read an excerpt from Average is Over and then I explain the diamond-water paradox in class. I ask the students why diamonds cost more than water, even though water is more important. The answer can help us understand how wages get set for human workers (I say “human” because by that time we are deep in the topic of robot workers as substitutes).

I tell my students that some of the low-pay work performed by humans is extremely important. I’m still looking for the perfect illustration here. The one I use goes something like this, which is related to my broken leg anecdote… imagine if you tripped on train tracks and couldn’t get yourself out of the way of an oncoming train. How much would you pay a human to haul you to safety? Almost any human could perform the task. That service would be as valuable as a glass of water if you are about to die from thirst, which is to say that your value for it is almost infinite.

The key to understanding the market price of cleaners as opposed to the high wages for repairing Facebook code is marginal thinking. There is a lot of water, so the next glass is going to be cheap.

In writing Average is Over, Tyler Cowen is trying to understand why wages for the-less-highly-paid-skills have stagnated recently, while wages for the-highly-paid-skills are increasing along with GDP. He brings computers and technology into the conversation, as one culprit for recent changes. There is a limited supply of humans who can show up to a tech job and contribute reliably. “Programmers” are not the only highly paid class of workers, but it’s easy to see that the supply of people who are proficient with Python is limited.

I see two opposing forces in the tech world, which I have been following for a few years. First, we have boot camps, code clubs and all kinds of resources to both equip and encourage people to go into tech. I volunteer to advise a club that provides resources for female college students taking a technical route. On the other hand, lots of people who do get a foot into the door of a tech company become upset and quit.

Here is a quitter (a twitter quitter?):

You can read about this specific situation at this woman’s website. It seems like she made the right choice for herself. She is actually on a mission to change tech for women. I’ll reproduce the text here, in case someone can’t see the tweet: “first day at my new job! i am now a ceramicist because it lets me have no commute, make my own hours, decide the value of my work, and bring people joy. make no mistake, i wanted to code, but tech fulfilled none of that. so i hand off the baton. please fix tech while i make pots!”

The point is that she is one of many people who have dropped out of the tech workforce. Those employees who remain are pushed up toward the “diamond market price” and away from the “water market price”. Here is a blog about “burnout” survey data from 2018.

Populations in rich countries are not growing and labor force participation is down. Could the market wage for lower-skill-requirement jobs in the US rise dramatically in the next century, or at least keep pace with the wage increases that were recently enjoyed by those-with-the-capabilities-that-are-highly-valued? Marginal utility still apply, but prices will change if supply shifts.

See my old blog about Andrew Weaver who is researching skills that are in demand.

PSNE: No More, No Less

Today marks the 27th anniversary of John Nash winning The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for his contributions to game theory.

Opinions on game theory differ. To most of the public, it’s probably behind a shroud of mystery. To another set of the specialists, is a natural offshoot of economics. And, finally a 3rd non-exclusive set find it silly and largely useless for real-world applications.

Regardless of the camp to which you claim membership, the Pure Strategy Nash Equilibrium (PSNE) is often misunderstood by students. In short, the PSNE is the set of all player strategy combinations that would cause no player to want to engage in a different strategy. In lay terms, it’s the list of possible choices people can make and find no benefit to changing their mind.

In class, I emphasize to my students that a Nash Equilibrium assumes that a player can control only their own actions and not those of the other players. It takes the opposing player strategies as ‘given’.

This seems simple enough. But students often implicitly suppose that a PSNE does more legwork than it can do. Below is an example of an extensive form game that illustrates a common point of student confusion. There are 2 players who play sequentially. The meaning of the letters is unimportant. If it helps, imagine that you’re playing Mortal Kombat and that Player 1 can jump or crouch. Depending on which he chooses, Player 2 will choose uppercut, block, approach, or distance. Each of the numbers that are listed at the bottom reflect the payoffs for each player that occur with each strategy combination.

Again, a PSNE is any combination of player strategies from which no player wants to deviate, given the strategies of the other players.

Students will often proceed with the following logic:

  1. Player 2 would choose B over U because 3>2.
  2. Player 2 would choose A over D because 4>1.
  3. Player 1 is faced with earning 4 if he chooses J and 3 if he chooses C. So, the PSNE is that player 1 would choose J.
  4. Therefore, the PSNE set of strategies is (J,B).

While students are entirely reasonable in their thinking, what they are doing is not finding a PSNE. First of all, (J,B) does include all of the possible strategies – it omits the entire right side of the game. How can Player 1 know whether he should change his mind if he doesn’t know what Player 2 is doing? Bottom line: A PSNE requires that *all* strategy combinations are listed.

The mistaken student says ‘Fine’ and writes the PSNE strategies are (J, BA) and that the payoff is (4,3)*.  And it is true that they have found a PSNE. When asked why, they’ll often reiterate their logic that I enumerate above. But, their answer is woefully incomplete. In the logic above, they only identified what Player 2 would choose on the right side of the tree when Player 1 chose C. They entirely neglected whether Player 2 would be willing to choose A or D when Player 1 chooses J. Yes, it is true that neither Player 1 nor Player 2 wants to deviate from (J, BA). But it is also true that neither player wants to deviate from (J, BD). In either case the payoff is (4, 3).

This is where students get upset. “Why would Player 2 be willing to choose D?! That’s irrational. They’d never do that!” But the student is mistaken. Player 2 is willing to choose D – just not when Player 1 chooses C. In other words, Player 2 is indifferent to A or D so long as Player 1 chooses J. In order for each player to decide whether they’d want to deviate strategies given what the other player is doing, we need to identify what the other player is doing! The bottom line: A PSNE requires that neither player wants to deviate given what the other player is doing –  Not what the other player would do if one did choose to deviate.

What about when Player 1 chooses C? Then, Player 2 would choose A because 4 is a better payoff than 1. Player 2 doesn’t care whether he chooses U or B because (C, UA) and (C, BA) both provide him the same payoff of 4. We might be tempted to believe that both are PSNE. But they’re not! It’s correct that Player 2 wouldn’t deviate from (C, BA) to become better off. But we must also consider Player 1. Given (C, UA), Player 1 won’t switch to J because his payoff would be 1 rather than 3.  Given (C, BA), Player 1 would absolutely deviate from C to J in order to earn 4 rather than 3. So, (C, UA) is a PSNE and (C, BA) is not. The bottom line: Both players must have no incentive to deviate strategies.

There are reasons that game theory as a discipline developed beyond the idea of Nash Equilibria and Pure Strategy Nash Equilibria. Simple PSNE identify possible equilibria, but don’t not narrow it down from there. PSNE are strong in that they identify the possible equilibria and firmly exclude several other possible strategy combinations and outcomes. But PSNE are weak insofar as they identify equilibria that may not be particularly likely or believable. With PSNE alone, we are left with an uneasy feeling that we are identifying too many possible strategies that we don’t quite think are relevant to real life.

These features motivated the later development of Subgame Perfect Nash Equilibria (SGPNE). Students have a good intuition that something feels not quite right about PSNE. Students anticipate SGPNE as a concept that they think is better at predicting reality. But, in so doing, they try to mistakenly attribute too much to PSNE. They want it to tell them which strategies the players would choose. They’re frustrated that it only tells them when players won’t change their mind.

Regardless of whether you get frustrated by game theory, be sure to have a drink and make toast to John Nash.

*Below is the normal form for anyone who is interested.

Gen Z on The Great Resignation

Even though a housing price crash is often reported on as a crisis, it benefits first time homebuyers. Do the college seniors in 2021, likewise, see this “labor shortage” as a wonderful opportunity and stroke of luck for them personally? They overwhelmingly think of themselves as sellers of labor, not employers.*

Sometimes Samford students write for EWED if I felt like there was something that I and readers could learn from their perspective. This is accounting major Rachel Brinkley:

As a 21-year-old senior in college, the workforce is a confusing place. On the one hand, “The Great Resignation” is creating millions of jobs across America. It is a very encouraging time to be graduating college, as it appears that most of my peers and I will have no issues finding employment. Employers are currently struggling to compete in terms of compensation and benefits offered. I am majoring in accounting, and everyone that I have spoken to in my major has had at least one compensation increase since accepting their position. None of us have worked even one day on the job. This competition between employers creates favorable bargaining power for those entering the workforce, while putting a strain on employers.

While I may have confidence in my employment status after graduation, I will be starting at an entry level position for a firm that has a relatively structured promotional process. Like most large accounting firms, the promotions within the firm are based on the number of years spent working at the firm. There may be a few exceptions to the standard promotional pace, but I am not very optimistic about climbing the corporate ladder any faster than I would under more typical economic conditions. This is due, in part, to the fact that the best jobs are hard to come by. At a large accounting firm, the structured promotional process limits the number of the most sought-after jobs.

This circumstance leads me to ask how it is possible to obtain a top job when competition for those positions seems to be increasing. We read “Deep Work” for class, and I think about the author’s advice. We will need to continue learning new skills to make it into top positions.

Are my students running through the halls celebrating the current state of the labor market? Maybe they should be, but they are not, especially if their focus is on what Rachel called “top jobs”. Some jobs, almost by definition, are limited because they are top-of-the-pyramid or “tournament” positions.

My current Fall students pointed out that they feel better than the last two batches of students graduating into a closed-down Covid world. Many of our previous students got hired virtually and I don’t know at what point if at all they have had in-person interactions with work colleagues.

*The truth is more complex in a large diverse economy. Even though I don’t think of myself as en employer, I am concerned that there will be no one to operate my upcoming flight to a conference. The airline I rely on has had to cancel hundereds of flights in the past week over labor issues.

Clemens and Strain on Large and Small Minimum Wage Changes

In my Labor Economics class, I do a lecture on empirical work and the minimum wage, starting with Card & Kreuger (1993). I’m going to quickly tack on the new working paper by Clemens & Strain “The Heterogeneous Effects of Large and Small Minimum Wage Changes: Evidence over the Short and Medium Run Using a Pre-Analysis Plan”.

The results, as summarized in the second half of their abstract are:

relatively large minimum wage increases reduced employment rates among low-skilled individuals by just over 2.5 percentage points. Our estimates of the effects of relatively small minimum wage increases vary across data sets and specifications but are, on average, both economically and statistically indistinguishable from zero. We estimate that medium-run effects exceed short-run effects and that the elasticity of employment with respect to the minimum wage is substantially more negative for large minimum wage increases than for small increases.

The variation in the data comes from choices by states to raise the minimum wage.

A number of states legislated and began to enact minimum wage changes that varied substantially in their magnitude. … The past decade thus provided a suitable opportunity to study the medium-run effects of both moderate minimum wage changes and historically large minimum wage changes.

We divide states into four groups designed to track several plausibly relevant differences in their minimum wage regimes. The first group consists of states that enacted no minimum wage changes between January 2013 and the later years of our sample. The second group consists of states that enacted minimum wage changes due to prior legislation that calls for indexing the minimum wage for inflation. The third and fourth groups consist of states that have enacted minimum wage changes through relatively recent legislation. We divide the latter set of states into two groups based on the size of their minimum wage changes and based on how early in our sample they passed the underlying legislation.

The “large” increase group includes states that enacted considerable change. New York and California “have legislated pathways to a $15 minimum wage, the full increase to which firms are responding exceed 60 log points in total.” Data comes from the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Current Population Survey (CPS).

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Human Capital and Filepaths

Someone wrote a story about my life. It’s a report from The Verge called “File Not Found: A generation that grew up with Google is forcing professors to rethink their lesson plans”.

When I started teaching an advanced data analytics class to undergraduates in 2017, I noticed that some of them did not know how to locate files on a PC. Something that is unavoidable in data analytics is getting software to access data from a storage device. It’s not “programming” nor is it “predictive analytics”, but you can’t get far without it. You need to know what directory to point the software to, meaning that you need to know what directory contains the data file.

As the article says

the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students. It’s the idea that a modern computer doesn’t just save a file in an infinite expanse; it saves it in the “Downloads” folder, the “Desktop” folder, or the “Documents” folder, all of which live within “This PC,” and each of which might have folders nested within them, too. It’s an idea that’s likely intuitive to any computer user who remembers the floppy disk.

I am a long-time PC user. Navigating File Explorer is about as instinctive as drinking a glass of water for me. The so-called digital natives of Gen Z have been glued to mobile device screens that shield them from learning anything about computers.

Not everyone needs to know how computers work. I myself only know the layer that I was forced to learn.

My Dad, to whom I owe so much, kept a Commodore 64 in a closet in our house. About once a year, he would try to entice me into learning how to use it. I remember screwing up my 9-year-old eyes and trying to care. Care, I could not. It’s hard to force yourself to do extra work without a clear goal. The Verge article explains

But it may also be that in an age where every conceivable user interface includes a search function, young people have never needed folders or directories for the tasks they do. The first internet search engines were used around 1990, but features like Windows Search and Spotlight on macOS are both products of the early 2000s. Most of 2017’s college freshmen were born in the very late ‘90s. They were in elementary school when the iPhone debuted; they’re around the same age as Google. While many of today’s professors grew up without search functions on their phones and computers, today’s students increasingly don’t remember a world without them.

One area in which I do minimum archiving is my email. I rely heavily on the search function. I could spend time creating email folders, but I’m not going to put in the time unless I’m forced to.

Here’s where the “problem” lies:

The primary issue is that the code researchers write, run at the command line, needs to be told exactly how to access the files it’s working with — it can’t search for those files on its own. Some programming languages have search functions, but they’re difficult to implement and not commonly used. It’s in the programming lessons where STEM professors, across fields, are encountering problems.

Regardless of source, the consequence is clear. STEM educators are increasingly taking on dual roles: those of instructors not only in their field of expertise but in computer fundamentals as well.

Personally, I don’t mind taking on that dual role. I didn’t learn to program until I really wanted to. The only reason I wanted to was that I had discovered economics. I wanted to be able to participate in social science research. Let these STEM or business courses be the motivation for students to learn to use computers as tools instead of just for entertainment.

Allen Downey wrote a great blog on this topic back in 2018 that is more practical for teachers than the Verge report. He argues that learning to program will be harder for the 20-year-olds of today than it was for “us” (old people as defined by entering college before 2016). He recommends a few practical strategies, while acknowledging that there is “pain” somewhere along the process. He thinks it is sometimes appropriate to delay that pain by using browser-based programming interfaces, in the beginning.

I gave my students a break from pain this week with a little in-browser game that you can play at https://www.brainpop.com/games/blocklymaze/ They got 10 minutes to forget about file paths, and then it was back to the hard work.

I have found that a lot of students need individual attention for this step – the finding a file in their hard drive. I only have to do that once per student. Students pick the system up quickly. File Explorer is a pretty user-friendly mechanism. Everyone just has to have a first time. Sometimes, Zoomers just need a real person who cares about them to come along and say, “The file you downloaded exists on this machine.”

One way around this problem is to reference data that lives on the internet instead of in a local machine. If you are working through the examples in Scott Cunningham’s new book Causal Inference, here’s a piece of the code he provides to import data from his public repository into R.

full_path <- paste(https://raw.github.com/scunning1975/mixtape/master/, df, sep=“”)

df <- read_dta(full_path)

The nice thing about referencing data that is freely available online is that the same line of code will work on every machine as long as the student is connected to the internet.

As more and more of life moves into the cloud, technologists might increasingly be pointing programs to a web address instead of the /Downloads folder on their local machine. Nevertheless, the kids need to have a better sense of where files are stored. He or she who can understand file architecture is going to get paid a lot more than their peers who only know who to poke and scroll on a smartphone.

There is a future scenario in which AI does most of the programming for us. When AI can fetch files for us, then File Explorer may seem obsolete. But I worry about a world in which fewer and fewer humans know where their information is stored.

Penny-Pinchers Gonna Pinch

Text books say that there are two major problems with the Consumer Price Index (CPI). First, accounting for changes in quality is difficult. Second, the CPI is calculated by assuming a fixed basket of goods is consumed over time. For both of these reasons, the rate of inflation that is implied by CPI is typically considered to be about 1% overestimated.

Imperfectly accounting for quality improvements causes higher measured inflation because the stream of services that a product creates for the consumer has increased – even though the product is nominally the same product. For example, the camera on my smart-phone is now good enough to record a high-quality Youtube video, whereas it was of mediocre quality on my previous phone.  My life is better-off with the better camera. But the increase in my quality of life isn’t measured by the CPI. The CPI does, however, make note that I paid a higher price for a phone.

Further, people don’t consume a fixed basket of goods over time. Even if we stopped the introduction of all new products and maintained the quality of all current products, people would still change the composition of their consumption due to price changes among related goods.

When people get hot and bothered by inflation, they often appeal to people who are of less means and who would find higher prices more burdensome. For that reason, below is a graph of some calorically dense and roughly comparable food staple prices (from the PPI).  You can put a protein on top of any one of these and call it a meal: pasta, flour, potatoes, & rice.

Let’s say that a consumer consumed equal parts of these in January of 2020. The CPI assumes that the consumption basket remains constant and plots a weighted average. In such a case, price rose 2.3% through July 2021. But in real life, penny-pinchers gonna pinch. If our consumer is particularly Spartan, then he will always consume the cheapest option – he treats the different foods as perfect substitutes. The Spartan price of consuming *fell* 22.3%. To be clear, the CPI assumes that the consumption composition remains unchanged, while the consumer’s actual basket is responsive to price changes.  Even if a consumer considers these goods to be imperfect substitutes and is willing to cut any particular type of consumption in half in favor of the cheapest alternative, then the price fell by 10%. In fact, a consumer who is at all responsive to prices will always have a cheaper basket than the headline CPI, all else constant.

In conclusion, be careful with your money. Spend it well and seek out alternatives. Your flexibility determines how much money you’ll have at the end of the month. The headline CPI number impacts only the most passive consumer – and even then, budget constraints gonna constrain.

Learning is FUNdamental

Two items came across my radar this week that were absolutely not boring and also got me thinking. Up front, the links are Alexander the Grate on CWT and a guest Slow Boring on Chad.

Something that stood out to me about the two sources above are that the entertainment aspect made more people push through to the end and learn as a result. Right now, after my kids are asleep, I’m splitting my time between reading The Property Species and watching The Good Place on Netflix. The Property Species is really good, but it’s not catnip for my brain like The Good Place.

My son was home for most of the past week, so one of the things I forced him to do was read out loud. He needs to learn to read, and I know reading simple books out loud is good for him. It was clear that he would have chosen a painful burn over learning in this way.

Alexander the Grate is homeless, but I learned that he prefers the term No Fixed Address (NFA). He and Tyler discuss what it is like to live in DC as a homeless person. Policy is mixed in with interesting stories.

Matt Y’s guest on Slow Boring, Jeff Maurer, delivers information on Chad. As he points out, 16 million people live in Chad, so we should educate ourselves about the political situation and how our own policies would affect the fate of the citizens. He, the self-proclaimed Lady Gaga of Chad, is irreverent for a cause.

It’s a Trap!

When I was 22 I applied to the MFA programs in creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop and Columbia. They summarily rejected me with a minimum of fuss. They were right to do so, but it is also without question one of the greatest pieces of good fortune to ever befall me.

Let’s talk about “trap” degrees – expensive, often multi-year endeavors that rarely lead to salaries commensurate with the investment and arguably carry negative signal value in the labor market. We could all dunk on the aspiring filmmakers and puppeteers who look as though they were sent from central casting to play exactly the sort of dude who forks over >$100K for the shortest path to becoming the next Spielberg without doing all the messy fundraising, friend-haranguing, lighting improvising, actor recruiting, writing, and film festival peddling that looks an awful lot like high-risk hard work. We could dunk on them, but…but I can’t think of a way to finish that sentence that isn’t arrogant and condescending.

Anyway, we really should put aside the “they did this to themselves” schadenfreude, at least for a second, because regardless of blame, a lot of high opportunity cost human life years are being scammed with the siren song of “look at this great investment in yourself that will feel just like consumption while you are doing it!” There’s nothing new here, mind you. “Eat yourself thin” diets cycle through the zeitgeist with regularity, conveniently next to the book/video/3-week courses that will help you get rich in real estate with no money down. But we should be concerned when an entire sub-industry appears to be selling a human capital investment with negative real value. They may not be the modal or flagship product of higher education, but neither was the Pinto.

There’s similarly no shortage of people eager to point out that a lot of undergraduate education looks like a 4 year cruise, a pretirement if you’ll excuse a shameless attempt at coining unnecessarily cute terminology. We shouldn’t be shocked that purveyors are bundling consumption within an investment where, by design, the check-writers face high monitoring costs — part of the point of college is leaving the nest, right? Think about it from the other side of the equation– higher education is a scammer’s dream. The money folks are out of sight and desperately credulous to believe their child is on the path to status and financial independence. The customer is naïve and unworldly, eager to follow any external entity (other than their parents) that will do their decision-making for them. But the best part is the con’s mark won’t know for sure they’ve been scammed until well after the check is cleared (but not before they’ll receive their first solicitation for alumni donations).

But, you might be saying, graduate and professional schools are meant to be different. This is focused preparation for a narrow field of endeavor. These programs are decidedly not pretirement cruises. This is training. Why would anyone pay for training in something that has no payoff? I’ll offer a couple possibilities:

  1. This isn’t training, it’s consumption, and the buyers are fully aware of it.

I’m sure this accounts for a fair amount of fine arts training, particularly for retirees and hobbyists attending local community colleges, as well on the children of wealthy parents who have no intention of ever pursuing a vocation. More on them in a second.

2. This is training for aspiring men and women of leisure.

Remember gentlemen and ladies of leisure? They used to have their own Census occupation code! This might seem redundant with the previous point, but if your intention is to hob-nob with the rich and more-rich, there is something very much to be said for being able to discuss certain artistic fields at more esoteric levels. There’s also a modern middle-class version of this as well, what in an earlier, more coldly misogynistic, male-dominated time would have been referred to as an “MRS” degree. I imagine there are plenty of men and women who view school as a way of biding their time until a partner emerges who will be the primary earner. Match.com profiles and fix-ups are likely to be more economically fruitful for students mid-pursuit of a graduate degree than those working unimpressive jobs.

We also shouldn’t dismiss those opting for a graceful slide down the economic ladder. Generous families, perhaps a universal basic income, a rich artistic education, and comfortably living in a bohemian southern university town are for many the formula for a quiet, comfortable life unencumbered by the toils of a career. I’ve always enjoyed the company of such folks, at least until they try to tell me how the economy really works. Never follow these people to a second location.

3. This is a scam, and one with potentially far reaching costs.

Like so many scams, you could write a pithy story about well-dressed con-artists who open a “college” in an abandoned strip mall, throw on a coat of paint, and scam the spoiled children of upper-middle class social climbers by offering fake degrees that promise a shortcut to white collar riches and bohemian prestige. It’d be a two-act romp followed by a third where everyone ends up ok and kids learn the value of hard work.

In reality, though, no small number of the victims will be kids from higher education information deserts, who emerge from their undergraduate years with a relatively weak career they were guided towards after they struggled their first semester. Facing grim job prospects, they’re hoping two more years will thin the competition in the rarefied air of the applicants with “graduate education”. It is for these students that I fear the most.

It gives me pause when I see overly narrow masters’ programs that target a specific job rather than training in a set of tools. In service to my own cowardice, I won’t name specific programs, but suggest caution when considering a degree where the only job you’ll be qualified for is in the name of the degree.

I similarly worry about third- and fourth-tier MBA programs (especially if your employer isn’t paying for it). So much of the value of an MBA is the social network it will wire you into. If your parents haven’t heard of the school, it’s probably not much of a network.

Aspiring masters degree students, my advice is this: look up the individual courses you’ll be taking and then explain to the mirror what you’ll learn in each one and the market in which those skills are in demand. If you can’t do that, I advise reconsideration.

That’s all great, but what should we do?

I have no policy solutions, but I do have a piece of pedagogical advice. We need to update the standard operating procedure of guidance counselors in schools everywhere. We’ve been working so hard to convince kids they should go to college, we forgot to teach them how to be discerning customers of higher education. I’m all about caveat emptor as life advice, but if we want to hit people with it as an ex post I-told-you-so, we have to teach it to them ex ante, especially when we’re talking about 17-year-old and (ahem, perhaps mildly infantilized) 21-year-old kids. Just because you’ll walk away with a degree doesn’t mean that degree will be worth the time and tuition.

My guess is that we should up the status of community college, technical certificates, and not going to college at all. At the same time, we should probably lower the status of arts degrees for for artistic fields that are better suited to learning by doing and autodidacts.

Or maybe we just need guidance counselors to bring college seniors on field trips to carnivals across the country. Nothing will teach you the cold truth of scams faster than losing your last 20 bucks pursuing a fluffy bit of googly-eyed asbestos shooting on a bent basketball hoop in front of someone you planned on asking to prom but could never see value in you again after missing 10 shots in a row.

Trust me, that’ll stick with them.

Scale and Online Learning

A simplistic view that I have heard about online learning is that it is of worse quality but cheaper than traditional classroom learning.

We should take the cheaper part seriously. Cheaper can mean new opportunities for many people. Delivering a lecture online can mean that, once the fixed cost of creating the video is incurred, the marginal cost of adding a student is nearly zero. The average cost of delivering instruction goes down with every student who joins the course. Economy of scale is a wonderful thing.

Now, let’s assume a family that has a quiet home and reliable internet service. Assume that a mom, m, signed up for a rock/geology class, r, for her school-aged son who cannot read. It’s me. I signed my son up for an online “rock camp”. I thought it would give me 45 minutes of time to get work done while my son was distracted in a Zoom room.

This week I got an email from the online school company about how to get ready for rock camp. I’m instructed to assemble a supply kit of about 30 items so that my kid can do a hands-on science experiment every day of the camp. This is not what I thought I was signing up for, and I no longer think rock camp is going to save me any time.  It gets me thinking about scale and online education for kids.

All the parents of rock campers will have to separately assemble a kit of supplies. The economies of scale would come from having the children in a physical school. Buy the supplies in bulk and hand out a pack to each kid all at the same time. It would be great to have a *classroom* where the students could *go*. Even though many classes do not involve vinegar and magnets, the point can generalize.

We should take scale seriously. I support experimenting with different kinds of education and giving students choices. Personally, I benefitted from getting to pilot an experimental program at my high school that allowed me to take microeconomics for college credit online. I also participate in online education sometimes as an educator.

However, it’s overly simplistic to say that the scale idea always points us in the direction of online education. Even at the university level, some products/services can be cheaper to deliver in a traditional class setting.

Steve Horwitz on “The Graduate Student Disease”

On Sunday the world lost a great teacher, economist, and all-around fantastic person in Steve Horwitz. If you don’t know about Steve, I recommend reading the tributes from Pete Boettke and Art Carden.

Pete and Art speak to Steve’s overall legacy and greatness. But I will tell you about a very specific piece of advice that Steve gave me about teaching undergrads.

Steve called it “the graduate student disease.” By this he meant the tendency of newly minted PhD economists to teach undergraduate courses as if they were mini versions of graduate courses. Steve insisted this was the wrong approach.

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