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No, it’s not because of this (in case you don’t want to sort through it, we’re #7).Why was it dreadful? Because like most other colleges, all it really does is pay lip service to the idea that students will develop critical thinking skills. Amherst still tells its customers that this is what it does. Here is an excerpt from its first-year seminar descriptions:

Though the subject matter of the courses varies, each seminar constitutes an inquiry-based introduction to critical thinking and active learning at the college level

If by critical thinking they mean, “to be critical of markets, capitalism and commercial society” well then they are accurate. But if by critical thinking they mean something like engaging students in a serious process of inquiry, building upon both theoretical and natural law foundations, then the place failed me. Maybe I was just a lazy student who did not take the right classes and who did not work hard. Or maybe I was too busy boozin’ it up with the football team to know what was really going on when I was there. You can certainly believe that. So why am I irked today? Well, it is because I just decided to reopen the Public Economics textbook I used as a student in 1994 (or 1995). Let me lay a little groundwork here.

The topic of Public Economics spends a good amount of time developing the economic theory of public goods and discusses the options “society” has for seeing to it that “optimal” amounts of these goods get produced. Now, canonical theory suggests that goods that are both nonrival in consumption (e.g. when  I look at a sunset it does not prevent you from enjoying the same amount and quality of sunset as I do) and nonexcludable (e.g. providers find it difficult to prevent nonpayers from enjoying it, such as when you get to enjoy my stunningly good looks when you walk past me at a ballgame) would tend to get underprovided if left alone to market forces.

Now, that does make for nice textbook theory, but it turns out that the case for market imperfections in the production of public goods is at best vastly overstated, or at worst, near utter bunk. Of course, it took me 16 years to even learn that some people had spent entire careers and won Nobel Prizes (see here and here and here for three important contributors) discussing how realistic and serious these problems were, and how realistic it was to expect government fixes to public goods problems to even get it right themselves or that it was entirely possible for private actors to overcome many of the things which plagued the provision of public goods on their own (see here for an extensive overview of the latter). In future posts, I will outline each and every one of the arguments one at a time, but for now, let’s just accept that the canonical theory is at best limited and not accepted by most serious economists as the end of the story).

So, you’d think that taking a course in Public Economics at the best college in America you would at least be exposed to the possibility that the canonical theory was a bit quaint or simple or something to that effect. You would be wrong. Here is the book we used:

Note that Joe Stiglitz was a superstar student at Amherst before me. He has won a Nobel Prize. And he is certainly a cherished icon of the progressive left. But does that mean he should totally blow it in a textbook? Think of this – you have one chance to make the most powerful impression about the topic you are writing about by placing an iconic image on the cover which is meant to illustrate a major problem, and the best you can do is pick an image that has been totally and utterly destroyed by the economics profession as a good example of the “public goods” problem? To fast forward about lighthouses – the classic argument is that “governments need to provide them” (or some variant of that) because lighthouses send out information (light) to people that is both nonrival and nonexcludable. When my boat sees the light, it does not diminish the light for the next guy. And using old technologies, it was hard to imagine how you could prevent free-riding. Of course, it has been shown that private solutions to the “lighthouse problem” were extremely common – in fact most lighthouses between 1500 and 1800 turned out to be successfully privately provided. We’ll tell you why in a future post. But not only that, modern technology has solved the lighthouse problem obviating any need (if there ever was one) for a government role.

Surely Mr. Stiglitz was aware of this when he wrote the book. And he still puts the image on the cover. And he does not dedicate a single word to this historical occurrence or even the mere possibility (after all, we are theorizing, so shouldn’t we completely theorize?) anywhere in the 650+ pages of the text? There IS a chapter on public choice, but it is merely talking about the technical difficulty of aggregating preferences and touches a little bit on interest group politics. It says nothing generally about regulatory capture, bootleggers and baptists nor does it explain the work of giants in the field of regulation and public choice like Stigler (he gets a footnote on page 6), Olson (only gets a citation for his work on health care, and this in an appendix only) or Buchanan (he actually gives Buchanan a slap with a cite on his chapter on tax reform by calling the idea that political actors also face economic incentives, “pessimistic and cynical.”

Most egregious for a book on public economics is that the Coase Theorem gets a dismissive two paragraphs in the Chapter on externalities. In fact, most introductory econ textbooks and intermediate micro books dedicate several pages and dozens of practice problems to the revolutionary work of Coase – which is far more authoritative than even Coase himself probably thought of it at the time. So, we get two paragraphs on what turns out to be a fundamental theory in explaining why externalities exist and how we can mitigate them, of which canonical solutions are merely a special case of this general theory. And then we get 18 pages following that discussing the failure of private solutions to public goods problems (with not one single citation or example) and then pages upon pages of discussion of “public remedies to externalities” again without a single example.  He does however rescue himself a bit by spending two pages at the end of the chapter discussing the role transactions costs play and the role of the possibility of political capture (even with one example). But in none of the discussion of the public remedies are we presented with any examples of failure (outside of the Clean Air Act implied in my prior sentence). So we never get to learn of how awesome government production of public goods led to this or this or this or myriad other examples.

Maybe I am being too critical. But I distinctly remembering my take-away from that class as being, “we need the awesome and benevolent powers of government to solve these problems. I know markets usually work well, but “boy do they suck sometimes”!” That thinking stayed with me right through my own doctoral dissertation, a near paean to the glory of public involvement in higher education (that’s an exaggeration, but I don’t see the work that I did as worth the paper it was printed on) and was not challenged until I got into teaching – whereupon I took it upon myself to read original source materials and as voraciously as I could, and discovered that I was missing something very important from my education. Maybe you can say, “ahaaa! That curiosity was the reason you dropped $100k at Amherst,” but I think my mom and dad would tell you I was plenty curious throughout my life. The curiosity that Amherst encouraged, perhaps well enough, was for me to sample lots of interesting and different classes that I might not otherwise have taken had I been exposed to the more classical education I now wished I would have had. But I think that is malarkey. A good classical education would have done for me what I tried to do for myself – sample the best of Philosophy, History, Science, Religion, Literature, Art, Classics, etc. that all serious thinkers that preceded me would have had access to and understood well, but that now I tried to figure out on my own, and in a most uncritical way.

I wished I could get my money back. Talk about the problem with “experience goods!”

3 Responses to “Why My Amherst College Eduction Was Dreadful, A Continuing Series”

  1. K2 says:

    Feeling your pain. I was a williams econ major ’97. My 101 textbook was by baumol and blinder (alan blinder). I still keep it to remind me of how limited a view, how biased a view, that book provided. Very little attention to keynesian-opposed schools of thought. It paid some lip service to milton friedman, but of course no mention of anything austrian or anything classically liberal.

    My amateur study of austrian school thought has been far more illuminating than four years lots of hand-waving and inexplicable jargon.

    Nevertheless, that system (williams/amherst and the like) attracts and produces market-oriented successes and I have many dear friends as a result of my time there (as i’m sure you do as well). I’m just not sure if it’s because of the system or in spite of it.

  2. […] never received an honest answer about this in my life. Certainly not from the folks teaching me in college. In response to the state of Virginia not using the Commerce Clause to justify anything and […]

  3. Rod says:

    I went to college in the olden days, and I spent a significant amount of time at Amherst, staying there overnight after visiting my girlfriend at Mount Holyoke. In those olden days, Amherst had arguably the toughest basic requirements of all the potted ivy colleges, including the same calculus and physics courses the math and science majors took. Indeed, all the small New England men’s colleges had difficult basic requirement courses that had to be passed before the end of one’s sophomore year. Amherst and Williams were harder to get into than any other colleges in the country, including Harvard, so Amherst weeded out some pretty smart people, and those that survived the first two years were probably smart enough to self-educate themselves regardless of the teaching ability of the professors standing in front of the blackboard.

    After 1969 or so things went to hell in a handbasket at most colleges and universities in the northeast. In order to accommodate draft avoidance, professors stopped giving grades lower than a B, to impress even the most hungry draft board. Kingman Brewster became a celebrity for vacating his president’s offices at Yale. And all this fit in with the mental numbness one gets from overconsumption of cannabis. And don’t forget that men’s colleges all became co-educational, one of the first signs of political correctness. But Amherst grads were still in high demand at grad schools and businesses because they were still smart enough to gain admission.

    When I went to college tuition rates were much, much lower in relation to other goods and services. In 1963, New England colleges like Amherst charged around $1,200 for tuition and $300 to $400 for room and board. Trinity was the most expensive at $1,500 and $450. A new Chevrolet cost about $2,000 fully loaded, and a Cadillac about $5,000. Thus college tuition was within reach of regular middle-class families, even without financial aid, which was plentiful at Amherst.

    College professors were also generally poorly paid back then, making not much more than high school teachers. Fortunately for us tuition-payers, there were enough college professors who actually believed money was the root of all evil, and that the life of Thoreau should be admired.

    But then along came one of my college roommates, a conservative in college who got a Ph.D in philosophy and who landed a job at the University of Florida, where the entire department were communists and ethical vegetarians. My old roomie became a communist and a vegan and attained tenure and then had enough time on his hands to become the president of Florida’s university perfessers’ union. Now, thanks to my roomie and others like him, the professors make a lot of money for little or no work (I would use the word “output,” but I just can’t do that when talking about communist vegan tenured philosophy professors).

    Now, I know there are big differences between the U of F and Amherst, but I’d bet there are a lot of commie pinko professors at Amherst that shudder at the thought of Lord Jeff and his experiences slaughtering the native Americans in the wild-countree.

    As for the Constitution allowing the federal government to do practically anything, I am encouraged by this week’s federal court decision to declare part of the Obamacare law unconstitutional. In the argument against the requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance, Virginia argued that if they could do that, they could order Americans to do anything.

    The Constitution enumerates and limits the powers of the federal government, and the Tenth Amendment specifies that all powers not enumerated in the Constitution are reserved to the states or the people. The Constitution also grants no rights to the government, and the Bill of Rights specifies some, but not all, of the rights given to the people by God. David Axelrod is not mentioned in the Constitution.

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