The Case Against Education

Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

[Amazon Link]

This is one of those rare non-fiction books with a thesis in which I am in 100% agreement.

For author Bryan Caplan, the education system is an emperor with no clothes. And not only is the emperor merely naked, he's downright ugly, with disfiguring diseases. Also stupid and misguided. He should have no claims on your allegiance.

Education-system apologists point to an obvious fact: people with "more education" wind up with better results in society. Specifically, they make more money. Caplan notes that's so, but disputes the assumed underlying reason for that success. Education does increase one's "human capital", sure, but that's only a part of the story, and a relatively small part at that. A much bigger reason for success is that obtaining a degree is a "signal" to employers of three things: that the degree holder (1) has a certain amount of necessary intelligence; (2) has employment-compatible work habits; (3) exhibits a certain degree of conformity; they followed instructions in school without making much of a fuss, so it's a safe bet they won't rock the boat on the job, either.

Fine, but it gets worse. While it's likely that increased education levels are a good deal for the student, people tend to jump to the "obvious" conclusion that they're good for society as a whole as well.

First off, Caplan points out this is the "fallacy of composition". You can get a better view if you stand up at a concert; but if everyone does that, nobody gets a better view. So it is with education: when employers start looking at a Bachelor's degree to get a job as (say) a cab driver, that's a zero-sum game: the non-degree cab drivers get crowded out.

Not only is the argument fallacious, it's also quantitatively wrong. Caplan works the stats to discover the "social return" to education, and discovers a surprising result: even under generous assumptions, it's negative. In the US, the trillion-or-so dollars fed annually into the gaping maw of education system is worse than wasted. We'd get better results from putting that money toward cancer research, veteran health care, space travel, or even (shocking notion) letting taxpayers keep it and spend it on things they want.

Caplan writes from inside the system; he's an econ prof at George Mason, and, before that, he's had the requisite lifetime experience as a diligent student. He's a whistleblower, and casts a realistic eye over what he's seen: most students are bored, and going through the motions; most teachers are boring and also going through the motions; most "required" courses are required for no good reason, with most of the material soon forgotten, with (mostly) no ill effects.

Caplan tells the story with a moderate amount of cheeky humor. He realizes that (almost certainly) not enough people will buy his thesis to make a difference in policies. But that doesn't mean he isn't completely correct. As near as I can tell, he is. Read the book to see if he doesn't convince you.

Blade Runner 2049

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

To be honest, I'm not sure if I've ever made it through the original Blade Runner without nodding off somewhere or other in the middle. All those dark artsy atmospherics kind of put me to sleep.

And similarly with Blade Runner 2049, I'm sorry to say. First try was a dismal failure, as I cut out about twenty minutes in. Second try was better, I'm pretty sure I only missed a few minutes. Or maybe slightly more than a few minutes. Difficult to tell, really. It's very long (only 17 minutes short of three hours).

Ryan Gosling plays "K"; like Harrison Ford's original Deckard, he's a replicant (sorry, spoiler there for the original) who's tasked with hunting down and (if necessary, and it's always necessary) terminating fugitive replicants.

His latest mission uncovers a decades-old box of bones. They're easy to track down because of a replicant serial number, and—guess what—they are Rachael's. And they can tell she died in childbirth. Oh oh.

So K starts looking for the missing kid, which involves him finding (I'm pretty sure you know this already) Deckard. But the Evil Corporate Forces behind it all have their own plans too, involving (for some hazily-specified reasons) heartless and arbitrary violence.

I liked this mainly for Harrison Ford's performance; I think he should have gotten an Oscar for it. And the great Edward James Olmos comes back as Very Old Gaff, too.

Moral, I think: always make sure your girlfriend is routinely backed up to the cloud.


[Amazon Link]

Should I binge-watch all six seasons of Justified one more time? Yeah, probably not. Instead, I put the Raylan Givens-containing books of Elmore Leonard on my cybernetic to-be-read pile; this is the first.

Summary: Florida bookie Harry Arno has a pretty good, albeit illegal, life. But (bad news) in order to get the goods on his boss, "Jimmy Cap", the Feds have started a rumor that Harry is skimming off Jimmy's cut of the profits. (He is, he readily admits, but not more than anyone else does.)

Enter Raylan. He and Harry have a history: Harry escaped his clutches once before, when Raylan trusted him a tad too much while going for ice cream. So … Harry immediately does it again, fleeing to Italy under Raylan's nose.

Which raises Raylan's hackles, so he's off to Italy, on his own time to track Harry down. Because Jimmy Cap's minions are after Harry as well, and they're just looking to do him in.

There are an assortment of supporting characters, all richly developed. Leonard was a master of "show, don't tell", so we get to know everyone through their conversations (often loopy) and their actions (sometimes surprising).

For a fan of the TV series, it's fun to recognize the bits and pieces of the book that got transmogrified. A book showdown scene in Italy between Raylan and some mafiosos moved to the Mexican border on TV, with different mafiosos and slightly different results. Tommy Bucks, who was in Season One, Episode One, Scene One of the TV show, appears here too as a Givens antagonist. Without spoilers, the outcome is similar, but the circumstances differ significantly.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • We start a new Proverbial chapter today with Proverbs 14:1:

    1The wise woman builds her house,
        but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down.

    I think there's something metaphorical going on here, but never mind that. I think this is the first Proverb we've covered that talks specifically about women. Or even acknowledges the notion that they can be as wise/foolish as men.

    The suggested Amazon link… well, we try to keep things PG-13 here, but I could not resist.

  • Jonah Goldberg writes at Commentary on Karl Marx’s Jew-Hating Conspiracy Theory. But not just that. Jonah treads some Deirdre McCloskey ground:

    From the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.” In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”

    As history ground on, anti-commerce became linked with anti-Semitism. (Jonah notes the Jew-hatred of Martin Luther; even as a mostly-technical Lutheran, I'm feeling some shame about that.) But mostly he notes the anti-Semitic roots of Marxism: "The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews."

  • The Google LFOD Alert rang for a Seton Hall University page, written by one Steven Kairys M. D.: Medicare, Medicaid and the Rising Tide of Health Care Costs: Will We Ever Get It Right? What's the problem? Well, LFOD is the problem:

    Root causes of our national polarization are not obtuse. We are a country that prides itself on personal freedom and independence: the New Hampshire Live Free or Die morality; the American mythos that the rare stories of people making it out of desolation are the normative path for anyone with the will and energy to follow; the moral failures of those left behind. This is the American Myth embedded into every controversy about rights and privileges.

    These American Myth success stories are more persuasive in our national debate on benefits and entitlements than all the data and studies that continue to pile up to refute the Myth-- especially for the population of swing voters who are themselves poor and hanging on – who believe that it is all "those others" that abuse the system and take away dollars and services that should be aimed at the more deserving.

    Kairys sets up his "myth" strawman, but embraces a bigger myth on his own: as Bastiat put it: "The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else."

  • An editorial in the Caledonian Record (a paper serving northeastern Vermont and northern New Hampshire) notes some bad press for our state: In N.H., Shots In The Dark.

    When grading the “Live Free or Die State,” the Center for Public Integrity most recently gave New Hampshire an “F” on Public Access to Information; Political Financing; Electoral Oversight; Judicial Accountability; and Ethics Enforcement. N.H. gets a “D-” for Legislative Accountability; Lobbying Disclosures; and State Civil Service Management. It scores a “D” for Procurement; a “C-” for State Pension Fund Management; and a “C” for Internal Auditing and Executive Accountability.

    To be fair, even though the Center for Public Integrity's state rankings (last performed in 2015) give NH a D- overall grade for Integrity, they are a tough grader; their highest grade was a C (for Alaska). California and Connecticut got C-'s; everyone else was D+ or below. Didn't they ever hear of grading on a curve?

  • They even invoke LFOD down in Pennsylvania. The (Ardmore PA) Main Line Times reports on: Hundreds of students from Main Line schools take part in walkouts against gun violence.

    Noting that some of the students were carrying a “Live free or die” banner, a reporter asked if some held differing opinions about gun control. [Lower Merion High School Superintendent Robert] Copeland agreed that some do but said discussions on the issue have been civil.

    Although the reporter quoted liberally from the gun-grabbing students and their enablers, he couldn't be bothered to actually interview anyone with "differing opinions".

  • The Hill reports: High cigarette taxes have led to thriving black market across America. And of course…

    Cigarettes are also smuggled out of states, particularly when their neighbors have a much higher excise tax. The opportunity is large, not only for individuals trying to save a buck by crossing into another taxing jurisdiction, but also for organized crime cells seeking to make thousands of dollars. The top outbound smuggling state in this year’s study is New Hampshire, at 85 percent. For every 100 cigarettes consumed in the Live Free or Die State, another 85 are smuggled elsewhere, probably to neighboring states.

    The authors of the underlying research, Michael D. LaFaive and Todd Nesbit, are affiliated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market advocacy group. So they tend to see the neighboring states' high taxes as the problem, not NH's relatively low one.

  • And whether you view this xkcd cartoon with a chuckle or a shudder, depends, I guess:

    [xkcd on
    the Robot Future]

    Randall Munroe's mouseover text: "I mean, we already live in a world of flying robots killing people. I don't worry about how powerful the machines are, I worry about who the machines give power to."

    Will Randall follow through on this train of thought and go full libertarian? Doubtful, but we'll see.