I think I have stumbled upon a way to teach comparative advantage to those otherwise predisposed not to understand it, or to simply reject it because their tribal affiliations suggest they are supposed to.
The beautiful insights from the basic Ricardian setup lead one to conclude that while Wintercow is surely the least intelligent economist among his faculty at Meliora College, that our faculty is nonetheless most productive when I am on it specializing in the things that I do (work with undergrads on some very simple stuff). Why? When I am spending an hour working with a first semester student, that is one hour that I am not doing something else. But in my case, since I am a hack researcher and not very bright overall, “society” does not lose much by having me spend an hour teaching. The hard to fathom insight is that there are clearly much better teachers and communicators on my staff than me, yet it still makes sense to have me doing the teaching since my smarter and more talented colleagues are producing higher level, higher value work with the time they are not teaching.
Now, there are limits. If wintercow knows NO economics (a possibility!) then all bets are off – these insights depend crucially on relative productivity differences across occupations.
With that in mind, consider your friendly neighborhood government school. Last week we discussed the cognitive dissonance that is (incredibly) not happening when people regularly accede the problems with “our” education “system” yet nonetheless propose government interventions in all manner of other affairs. Maybe these sorts of things are discussed at the dinner table. But I am almost sure that what is not discussed at the dinner table is the academic (and other) aptitude of the people who teach our children every day. The striking fact is that the people who teach your children are simply not that bright. It is not polite to talk about intelligence in almost any setting, and I will surely be banned from dinner parties, but I speaketh what everyone merely whispers and thinks, and what the data clearly bare out.
The teachers of our children in K12 are certainly not as smart as the teachers who get them in college, with me being the obvious exception. This may be one reason why so many professors feel like their students are so underprepared fro college-level work. But it is more than this. It is not that the teachers are not as smart than college professors, but that in comparison to almost any other occupation populated by college graduates, the teachers are not cut from the same intellectual cloth.
Here is a McKinsey report documenting it. Here is a recent Quartz summary (some charts below). Here is a Business Insider piece. Couple the lower cognitive ability of education majors with the fact that the education major itself is seen as the “easiest” and you have a recipe for _____.
MATH, VERBAL AND SPATIAL APTITUDE
Nice to see how highly our security personnel rank as well as our public administration personnel. Of course, maybe this masks underlying variance in aptitude in these majors, with possibly lots of brilliant folks mixed in with lots of underperforming folks – I’d like to see that data, but assume that is not the case for now.
If I were to ask people a question, “how would you feel about having your precious, special, amazing child spending fourteen thousand direct hours and thousands more indirect with people who take the easiest college majors and have the lowest average SAT scores among college majors and who have instituted ironclad workplace protections for themselves and who have helped with the passage of laws which stifle competition for their services, prevent evaluation of their work based on any measure of objective performance metrics, who hold it as gospel truth that they are the most underappreciated professionals in the workplace, etc.?” I suspect that if it were not obvious we were talking about our amazing, inspirational, awesome, underappreciated teachers people would be revulsed. Fourtheen thousand hours. Remember we are told that it takes 10,000 hours of something to achieve mastery. I would also suggest that our children are not just learning math and reading from folks that are not quite as competent as other folks who could be teaching it, but that our children are getting spoonfed a lot of ideological nonsense from folks who do not have the critical thinking ability to recognize that they are doing so. Do you believe that when your child is learning about global warming that they are led to appreciate just how complex the problem is, that the modeling is extremely difficult, and that it is not clear how serious a problem it may yet turn out to be? And so on with all of the topics they are exposed to. I know for sure my own children are not getting anything resembling critical thought and sensitivity to the complexity of our world, but maybe our school is the exception.
Now, I don’t necessarily mean to bang on teachers here, but rather the worship of government schooling. And here is why the basic lessons of economics are fun -they require a level of intellectual consistency that people are not accustomed to adhering to. Imagine the kinds of responses you might get from people when you suggest that our schoolteachers are not cut from the best intellectual cloth. You may get some people calling you elitist or rude or perhaps that other things matter for being a great teacher (more on that in another day). You may get some people arguing that this is simply ideological junk and that the data is hard to really measure (cue the global warming or macroeconomic data irony here). But you might get some people who argue something like, “Sure, there has to be SOME occupation where people have lower raw intelligence than on average, unless you think we live in Lake Wobegon.” And what this response suggests is that being below average is no indictment in itself (agreed). And what this response is also suggesting is that from an overall societal perspective, maybe it makes sense to have the current crop of Education majors doing the basic math and reading teaching to our young children, because the opportunity costs are so low. Would the world be a better place if Elon Musk or Norman Borlaug had spent their lives in a second grade classroom? I cannot say myself, but what that response redounds to is an admission that people really do understand “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” and that not only do they understand it, that they actually celebrate it. I find asking these questions to be a more useful exercise than slapping up a few relative productivity numbers on the board and asking students to absorb it.
The takeaway for now, for me, is simply that I think our children spend far too much time being influenced by this one particular group of people. I would prefer a world (even one in the same sort of setting) where children are exposed to people and ideas from a much broader intellectual and cultural swath. I would prefer a world where we were not all so obsessed about the tests and the particulars of much of the subject matter and where our children were taught about the wonders of learning, about the limits of our knowledge, about the importance and limits of the scientific method, about the wonders and challenges of entrepreneurship, about the regular clash with error that is so vital to our lives, about trial and error and celebrating failure (learning from) as well as success, where we tried to deemphasize status competition and having all children learn the same things with the same people at the same time. In other words, while we celebrate diversification in our financial portfolios and in our government’s management of societal risks, and while we celebrate the importance of diversity in our cultural and social experiences in our adult lives, we seem not to want to engage our children in these exercises. And I find this borderline tragic. A major regret of my 41 year old life is that I did not figure out a way to structure it so that my children are not stuck in this rudderless sea and that I have not been able to provide them with the rich experience that I feel like is important for living a fulfilling and valuable life when they are older. It is very much my single most serious failing, and that is saying something.