More on higher ed funding

Following up on my post from yesterday about higher education funding, I’d like to discuss this article from William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson from last week at Vox. I think it is quite representative of the wonky, centrist view—dare I say consensus—that casts the student pays model as a self-evidently “right” approach.

There are many illuminating points in the article. In particular I am quite receptive to their “proposals for reform”: briefly, work to improve graduation rates, reform PhD programs to reduce the oversupply of PhDs relative to academic jobs, professionalize teaching faculty to address the outrageous reliance on mistreated adjunct faculty, and consolidate some small colleges to avoid costly duplication of administrative spending. I think these are excellent starting points for a healthy debate.

But nevertheless I would like to strongly object to the characterization of the funding debate that runs through the first half of the article. I’ll pull a few excerpts that I believe get it wrong on the student pays versus society pays debate.

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Visiting the real world

Economists don’t spend a great deal of time in the real world. We’re especially bad at having arguments, which is strange, considering that we have an infinitely flexible method and a bunch of unanswerable normative questions.

Unfortunately we’re all adrift on the ocean of economic science. The work that researchers do generates the kind of tedious methodological debates that help seminar audiences catch up on their sleep, but it doesn’t generate actual ideological debate: perhaps that’s the biggest possible endorsement of positivism in economics, but we didn’t need to lose it.

I always liked the Oxford Review of Economic Policy; it’s one of the few examples of a true economic policy journal, which means that while it’s still a bit dry, it’s non-technical and, more to the point, actually talks about real stuff. For example, this issue from last year is a survey of what’s going on with pensions – not exactly riveting, but if you’re into that kind of thing, an invaluable look at how economic science can inform ideological debate on pension reform. This one does much the same for growth and development in India.

The saddest misconception about positivism in economics is that we must sweep out all normative debate in order to be “scientific”. Yes, we have to avoid ideological prejudice when we research what’s actually going on, but doesn’t it seem like we’re building a fancy machine and never turning it on? Our “scientific” results don’t change the fact that our economic models don’t provide any “answers” to the great normative questions of what we should be doing.

It all must be especially boring for the poor undergraduates who are the cannon fodder of scientific economics. They get the distilled versions of some of our scientific methods and modeling – without, mind, necessarily finding out about their flexibility – but don’t get any practice in using economic analysis to engage in real policy debate. Perhaps it’s another casualty of the loss of the essay in economics; perhaps that comes from our huge enrollments, victims of our own success.

Just because positive economic modeling is supposed to separate itself from ideology, it doesn’t mean that economists should. Perhaps if we argued a bit more, we’d bring some life back to our discipline.

The Affluent Society

Today I learned that it’s been fifty years since the publication of The Affluent Society, by one of the 20th century’s great normative economists, John Kenneth Galbraith. That I found out is thanks to this article that, remarkably, argues that Galbraith was “the midwife of miserabilism” because he rejected growth as the sole societal goal, which fits nicely into what I was saying about metrics the other day.

Probably predictably, I dislike the phrase “economic growth” and avoid it wherever possible. What does it mean? Presumably growth in “GDP”, whatever that is, not that “GDP growth” gets a lot of play in the contexts that use economic growth instead. The kind of argument Galbraith was making – that we should aim for more than growth, and that growth can have ill consequences – often gets wrapped up as an “anti-economics” argument, for the same reason that “economic growth” is considered the correct phraseology.

It’s true that “political economy” was money centric in the beginning: it was called “The Wealth of Nations”, after all. While – perhaps because – authors like Galbraith were attacking the “value of our stuff” as a meaningful objective, economic science was maturing to the point where we could suppress the objective and attempt to sterilize the descriptive part of our job. Whether society aims for “GDP growth”, putting a man on the moon or turning lead into gold is another one of those normative questions that belong to a forum of debate.

That’s what makes Galbraith’s essays so important – he was trying to convince, not to prove. He was a master of the provocative opinion piece. The Affluent Society remains a vital argument in support of public works. Paul Krugman was very critical of Galbraith’s stature as an economist in “Peddling Prosperity”, which probably misses the point that Galbraith was making arguments, not scientific economic theory. As a manifesto writer, he was very special indeed.

Economic systems in action

Here’s a neat article (found via the invaluable Arts and Letters Daily) which is, indirectly, about applied economics. How do you allocate scare places in college classes to a student body?

The article talks about the systems at a few colleges, ranging from sleeping in line to auction systems; the question at hand is “what should we do to allocate these places?”, a nice normative economic question. Wharton’s business school apparently gives students points which they spend in anonymous online auctions to bid for places in courses.

“In other words, Wharton has what may be the most sophisticated, and most confusing, course-registration system ever devised. And, arguably, the fairest. “It’s capitalism gone nuts, but it’s also absolute socialism because everyone is born with the same number of points,” says Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy.”

It’s certainly not “socialist” to give everyone the same number of points: capitalism and socialism are methods of allocating resources, not methods that decide who gets the resources to start with. A socialist system of allocating places would presumably get all the students on campus into a big room and have them decide, which would at least be good fun. I think Wolfers might mean it’s “capitalist but egalitarian”. Equality of opportunity is a different concept from resource allocation.

It’s interesting to see systems of resource allocation go off the deep end: the middle way of just allocating places randomly or having people line up is significantly simpler than either the auction system, or my hypothetical socialist system. How can we make the decision about what system to use? Just like all normative questions, we can’t say which system is “best” or “fairest”, only try to figure out what each system would mean and argue about the rest.

The ends versus means issue in economic systems is an important one. The thought experiment goes like this: if the people’s council knew how a capitalist system would allocate resources, they could choose that allocation. Would that make the socialist system the same as the capitalist system, or is there more invested in the resource allocation mechanism than just the end product? Even figuring out consequences is not enough to answer normative questions.

Here’s the clincher though, about the MIT lottery system:

“The lottery is supposed to be equitable and impersonal, according to Bette K. Davis, office director of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. But that’s not always how it works out. Ms. Davis says that often students who lose the lottery wheedle their way in by talking directly to the professor.”

Capitalist, socialist, anarchist: it’s all about who you know.

Arguing in economics: the gray area

Despite being interested in figuring out exactly what economics is, really, I have to confess that I don’t really care about the common question “is economics a science?”. Trying to answer it seems to tie people in knots, and I don’t think the question by itself is very important. However, I just found a nice article on the subject which set me thinking.

My economics education was very essay-centric, and, perhaps paradoxically, I think was a good means to understanding what it takes to be “scientific” in a social science. A good essay has to contain more than raw emotion, but similarly should not avoid interpretation. It’s equally difficult to argue using facts alone as it is to argue without them.

Is “good economics” the same? A theorem or result is, by nature, empty in itself – it’s just a logical chain from start to finish. With the right starting point, you can “prove” anything; with an unproveable starting point, you’re really in business. However, for the result to matter, it has to be put in context. What does it mean? Maybe it’s semantics, but the search for meaning – the interpretation – is the birth of a normative judgment, still value-free but certainly pushing that label as far as it can go, before the true normative judgments of what we want are made.

The separation of the “scientific method” of economics and the use of its results must be sacred. The former, done from a position of honesty, can never be “wrong”, since it’s just logic. Why, then, must we introduce interpretation at all? The best reason to do so is the problem of “underdetermination”, the idea, captured in the Friedman quotation I mentioned in a previous post, that if there exists another theory at least as consistent with the evidence, our theory is “underdetermined”: all, perhaps, related to the problem of the unproveable starting point.

The underdetermination issue is, I think, especially relevant to theories which rely on behavioral assumptions, given that we know that humans are (sometimes) capable of being pretty nuanced in their behavior. Whether or not any scientific theory can be airtight is up for debate; in economics, I am convinced that no theory can be airtight. That’s not to say we can’t be nice empiricists and check predictions against evidence like scientists do, but it is to say that the alternative, consistent theories must be addressed before we can cross the line from positive science to normative policy. I have to show that my theory can be right, but also argue that mine is the most right, especially if I want to take my theory from the sterile, all else equal, scientific vacuum into inference about the real world.

Just like a debater or an essay writer, any position I occupy can be attacked, and defense is the only response that will preserve that positive, scientific position. If we can prove anything, if any hypothesis is underdetermined, then whether or not economics can be called a science, the scientific method alone won’t be enough. Somewhere between that scientific method and the politicking of normative selection lies that subtle gray area which all of our correct, consistent theories must cross. There we must decide what we want to use them for, and how they should be received; the “useful” ones must be the only ones allowed to survive.