kitchen table math, the sequel: The Race - TIMES review at last

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Race - TIMES review at last

The Race Between Education and Technology being one of the most important books on education I've read, it's been disheartening watching it sink from view.

So it was good news, today, to discover that the TIMES had finally published a review in the daily paper. I assume a Sunday review will be forthcoming.

I hope so.
DURING the first 70 years of the 20th century, inequality declined and Americans prospered together. Over the last 30 years, by contrast, the United States developed the most unequal distribution of income and wages of any high-income country.


Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, two Harvard economists, think [something can be done]. Their book, “The Race Between Education and Technology” (Harvard, $39.95), contains many tables, a few equations and a powerfully told story about how and why the United States became the world’s richest nation — namely, thanks to its schools.

The authors skillfully demonstrate that for more than a century, and at a steady rate, technological breakthroughs — the mass production system, electricity, computers — have been increasing the demand for ever more educated workers. And, they show, America’s school system met this demand, not with a national policy, but in grassroots fashion, as communities taxed themselves and built schools and colleges.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, the education system failed to keep pace, resulting, Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz contend, in a sharply unequal nation.


The authors’ argument is really two books in one. One offers an incisive history of American education, especially the spread of the public high school and the state university system. It proves to be an uplifting tale of public commitment and open access. The authors remind us that the United States long remained “the best poor man’s country.” A place where talent could rise.

The other story rigorously measures the impact of education on income. The authors’ compilation of hard data on educational attainment according to when people were born is an awesome achievement, though not always a gripping read. [ed.: true]

They show that by the 1850s, America’s school enrollment rate already “exceeded that of any other nation.” And this lead held for a long time. By 1960, some 70 percent of Americans graduated from high school — far above the rate in any other country. College graduation rates also rose appreciably.

In the marketplace, such educational attainment was extremely valuable, but it didn’t produce wide economic disparity so long as more people were coming to the job market with education. The wage premium — or differential paid to people with a high school or a college education — fell between 1915 and 1950.

But more recently, high school graduation rates flatlined at around 70 percent. American college attendance rose, though college graduation rates languished. The upshot is that while the average college graduate in 1970 earned 45 percent more than high school graduates, the differential three decades later exceeds 80 percent.

“In the first half of the century,” the authors summarize, “education raced ahead of technology, but later in the century technology raced ahead of educational gains.”

Minding the Inequality Gap
Published: October 4, 2008

Unfortunately, Kotkin concludes his review with a breezy dismissal of the entire book, start to finish, without quite seeming to have noticed that's what he's done:

Averages can be deceptive. Most of the gains of the recent flush decades have not gone to the college-educated as a whole. The top 10 or 20 percent by income have education levels roughly equivalent to those in the top 1 percent, but the latter account for much of the boom in inequality. This appears to be related to the way taxes have been cut, and to the ballooning of the financial industry’s share of corporate profits.

It remains to be seen how a reconfigured financial industry and possible new tax policies might affect the 30-year trend toward greater inequality.

Right. Thank you. Harvard economists don't think about stuff like averages being deceptive; that's what we've got New York Times book reviewers for. Plus -- reconfiguring the financial industry and possible new tax policies -- what a great idea! I feel certain that possible new tax policies and reconfiguring the financial industry will solve that pesky within group inequality Goldin and Katz spend so much time banging on about.

The Race is a book about intellectual capital. Goldin and Katz call it "human capital," but it amounts to the same thing as far as I can tell. The rich have intellectual capital, the poor do not.

This happens to be true. Try Googling the words "intellectual capital" and see what you get. Yup. Rich people. Or try "human capital." Same deal. Rich people have it, poor people don't. The way rich people get it is by going to reasonably good schools for many years and acquiring advanced knowledge as a result. Or, if you're not rich, you acquire intellectual capital by having your mother wake you up at 4 a.m. every morning to teach you the things your school isn't teaching you.

So I'm guessing that increasing taxes on the rich will not solve the problem of the rich having staggeringly higher levels of educational attainment than the poor no matter how much money we throw at Head Start.

The problem with The Race, possibly, is that the argument is both too familiar and too radical at the same time.

Everyone thinks education is the key to earning a good living. Well, everyone except Charles Murray.

But no one actually believes it.

Steve Levitt summarizes The Race in 2 sentences
Jimmy graduates

The anemic response of skill investment to skill premium growth
The declining American high school graduation rate: Evidence, sources, and consequences
Pushy parents raise more successful kids

The Race Between Education and Technology book review
The Race Between Ed & Tech: excerpt & TOC & SAT scores & public loss of confidence in the schools
The Race Between Ed & Tech: the Great Compression
the Great Compression, part 2
ED in '08: America's schools
comments on Knowledge Schools
the future
the stick kids from mud island
educated workers and technology diffusion
declining value of college degree
Goldin, Katz and fans
best article thus far: Chronicle of Higher Education on The Race
Tyler Cowan on The Race (NY Times)
happiness inequality down...
an example of lagging technology diffusion in the U.S.

the Times reviews The Race, finally
IQ, college, and 2008 election
Bloomington High School & "path dependency"
the election debate that should have been


Anonymous said...

"...The top 10 or 20 percent by income have education levels roughly equivalent to those in the top 1 percent..."

I don't think that this is true. It suggests that an engineering degree from UCLA is equivalent to a sociology degree from UNLV. I do not consider those two education levels "roughly equivalent."

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

I have a thought brewing about the Race and what society's requirements for education its citizens should be, but i've not clarified it yet. in rough form, it boils down to this: we can understand our current financial meltdown by thinking about default credit swaps and leveraged risk, or by examining redlining or Congress's perverse incentives to create subprime mortgages, etc. or we can think of it in terms of education.

after 13 years, we graduate a huge fraction of adults who can't:

a) understand the simplest laws of supply and demand (e.g. politicians in the House of Reps suggesting that LOWERING interest rates MORE will create incentives for buyers to buy homes thereby "shrinking the supply" of available homes)

b) understand monetary policy at all (how pushing $700bn into the economy creates inflation)
c) read their own mortgage documents
d) understand enough civics or political science to undertake a discussion of what the role of a government should be to intervene in the lives of its citizens in the case of crises
e) calculate the interest on their loan
f) know enough thermodynamics to realize that there's no such thing as a free lunch/perpetual motion machine, etc.
g) recognize the relationship between market distortions and State intervention

LET ALONE understand short sales, understand the game theory to balance risk, understand futures, options or derivatives, understand credit default swaps, leveraging, securitization, etc.

21st century vocationalism will never lead to the above either.

so we coudl start there. at the beginning of the Race, it talks about what were the minimal set of ideas, thoughts, and skills needed to aprticipate actively as a value producing and wage earning member of society in the 20th c.

those thoughts, ideas, and skills have changed--but not toward more vocationalism. we need an educated populace because we don't even have the vocabulary to address our current financial woes without it.

SteveH said...

I was thinking about the same sort of thing this morning, but I was not thinking about the average citizen. I was thinking about the people in charge.

As in education, do other fields, like economics, have a certain ethos that dominates thought? Are they unable to see things correctly? Also, politics seems to modify rational thinking. Reality is filtered through party platforms. Many seem to be incapable of thinking "independantly".

My sister-in-law, who has a PhD, complained bitterly that NCLB is an unfunded mandate. It doesn't matter that the current cost per student is already very high or that the actual questions on the test are so simple. She is a very smart person, but she can't seem to get to the core of the issue or her opinion.

Catherine Johnson said...

Mark - I would put money on it you're right.

I'm pretty sure one of the posts I put up showed just that.

Catherine Johnson said...

or we can think of it in terms of education

I had a weird moment this morning, reading the WSJ, and contemplating this headline:

Good Policies Can Save the Economy

Now that is something I don't want to see on my morning op-ed page. Which part of that sentence is more horrifying? The subject or the predicate?

Things got worse in the article, where the author the author says, "Despite the September employment report, there are no signs that the economy is on the verge of a depression."

So I was sitting there, thinking about the fact that I apparently now need to be reassured that we're not on the verge of a depression, when it occurred to me that probably most Americans younger than 50 don't know what a depression is.

So then suddenly I was thinking, "Hey! Maybe that's a good thing!"

Catherine Johnson said...

21st century vocationalism will never lead to the above either.

We could all tattoo that observation to our foreheads.

Catherine Johnson said...

we need an educated populace because we don't even have the vocabulary to address our current financial woes without it


Catherine Johnson said...

I would settle for people knowing what they don't know.

I'm serious.

There's a concept in psychiatry called "flight into meaning," which happens when a clinician is so distressed by his patient's distress that he renders a premature diagnosis, thereby relieving the anxiety and pressure of uncertainty.

Of course the diagnosis can be complete wrong, and it's a very bad thing to do.

I can't tell how much of that is happening now (lots in the "lowbrow" political realm, but how much amongst the policy & political elites who are going to be making the decisions?)

I've been having frequent moments of saying to myself:

* I have no idea what's going on
* I have no idea what's coming next
* I'm far enough towards the impulsive side of the "impulsive/compulsive" dimension (new idea amongst research psychiatrists) that I should endeavor to "enjoy the ride"

It's not working.

Catherine Johnson said...

Nevertheless, I do have high tolerance for uncertainty.

Which has been coming in handy.

Catherine Johnson said...

politics seems to modify rational thinking. Reality is filtered through party platforms. Many seem to be incapable of thinking "independently"

Well...I think it's probably unfortunate that all this is breaking in the run-up to the election ---- it's entirely possible we'd have different language & thinking if we were in the beginning of a new presidency.

Catherine Johnson said...

You know....the unfunded mandate meme pretty much died out eventually. It certainly did around here.

This is why we need competing narratives & ideas, etc.

When you hear other ideas, including other ideas you don't like, it has an effect --- and at least in some cases reality wins.

Hirsch claims that reality inevitably wins....actually, he has a very nice line saying that because reality can't lose, progressive ed has to keep reinventing itself and re-reforming the multiply-reformed schools.

Catherine Johnson said...

I should find that passage. It's very nice.

Barry Garelick said...

There's a concept in psychiatry called "flight into meaning," which happens when a clinician is so distressed by his patient's distress that he renders a premature diagnosis, thereby relieving the anxiety and pressure of uncertainty.

Doctors do this too.

Catherine Johnson said...

Interesting (about doctors doing it, too).

I was moved when John (Ratey) explained the "flight into meaning" to me.

On a related issue, back when Jimmy was diagnosed, I began meeting people whose kids also had disabilities, and making new friends.

One of my new friends had a child who was terribly difficult, but who did not have a diagnosis. So the family was doing constant tests; the diagnosis would shift, and so on.

They are still searching.

At the time, I could see what a blessing it was to have a word for what made Jimmy the way he was.

We were grieving, just as my new friend was, but we "had a group." We had a word for Jimmy's problems -- autism -- and we could find other parents and, eventually, adults who also had the word, and we could read books and articles and try to understand what was happening.

I was grateful for that.

So I think I understand why a physician (or policy analyst) would make a flight into meaning.

Uncertainty is an extremely difficult state.

And I say that as a person who (probably) has extremely high tolerance for uncertainty.