Tag Archive for 'Andrew Leigh'

Skills vs. Education

I’m no Andrew Leigh or Andrew Norton when it comes to thinking about education and the economics thereof, but what the hell … I wrote the following back in 2005 for some reason and thought it worth sharing:

I see some confusion about the differences between ‘educated’ and ‘skilled’ that I think many people are unappreciative of, unaware of, or quite deliberately gloss over. In part, I guess, it’s affected by the hodgepodge of meanings attached to the word ‘education’ itself. It’s certainly the acquisition of something, but is it ‘skills’, or is it ‘An Education’ (capitalisation deliberate)?

“An Education” is what some people might refer to as intellectual spinach – it’s good for you, eat it! – and is the logical extension of what the US calls Social Studies. It’s a look at history, the make-up of your society, your government, the philosophies that underpin it and so forth. It is, in essence, what used to be regarded as essential in the British upper-middle classes for spitting out a ‘gentleman’ and could perhaps be summarised as “the world and your place in it”.

Skills, on the other hand, are what make you productive and therefore, valuable, to the economy. Skills are what businesses want and to a certain extent, all they’re interested in from their workforce.

The confusion comes about because, by simple virtue of our humanity, technology progresses. The things we do continually require less effort – fewer inputs, less physical work – to produce the same output. As such, the history and future of mankind as economic agents is entirely about a progression away from the physical and towards the intellectual and with that moves the skill-requirements of industry. This has made the acquisition of skills and the acquisition of “An Education” overlap. To excel in either now requires critical reasoning and imagination.

This hasn’t escaped the politicians of the world and when they speak of a skilled workforce being needed to take the economy forward, they’re talking about intellectual skills. They see universities as factories for producing skilled workers and this grates with those in academia who see universities as secular temples – places where supplicants go to seek enlightenment.

As society has progressed and the intellectual demands of the economy have grown, we’ve seen a corresponding increase in the number of years that a person spends in schooling before entering the workforce. I don’t doubt in the slightest that when people complain that two or three extra years is just blocking a person from being productive was made with the same force back when the push first came for most people to finish grade 12 at school rather than stopping at 10. Whatever the extension, the gist of it is to emphasise the intellectual development for longer and postpone the skills training until afterwards. The latest suggestion is just to hold off on the “skills” for a masters and to work on your critical reasoning through your undergrad.

This sounds fine in theory (we live longer and we earn more in real terms, so the cost of delaying our entry to the work force pays off), but it faces an ultimate dilemma in my opinion, and not just that we’re running out of academic levels to force kids through. The years of schooling that we force on our young has now extended well past the time of their physical and, to a large extent, psychological maturing. A kid is no longer expected to buck against the unfairness of the world while welding something in a factory, but to do it at university. That’s fine so long as there’s development of some kind to be had – we’ve always tied education to development – but what about when the person is a physically, psychologically and emotionally mature adult?

The technological progress of the world is not just continuing, either – it’s accelerating. That means that the rate at which the insufficiently skilled lose their value is only going to increase and with it, the demand for mid-life education is going to grow.

Thus, to my mind, there should be an almost fundamental rethink on how we allocate the fraction of our lives in education. Instead of doing all of it in one long burst at the start of our lives, we should be doing a large part of it initially, while we physically and psychologically develop, but then spread the rest out over time as we need it. Make the start-of-life education first and foremost about surviving in society, then focus on essential, universal skills and the development of critical thinking before just touching, broadly, on your career of choice. Then work for a time before returning to study to focus and specialise.

In addition to not forcing people to stay as underling students past their maturity, this allows people to change career direction with reasonable ease and for those people who don’t find what they want at university to not be discriminated against for the rest of their lives because education is a process and not an event that they missed.

Essential skills are the things that we probably all groan about: Typing, computer-use intuition, communication skills, both written and verbal. The things, in essence, that make a productive (though boring and uninspired) office worker.

This also addresses part of the question of university funding. The argument for free education centres around the fact that students have never had a job and so can’t pay for it up-front. The argument for making them pay up-front anyway hinges on an efficient capital market that allows them to borrow against future earnings. [Note added in 2008:  I was pretty clearly ignoring the idea that parents could afford to pay the lot for their kids] Continuing education as I’ve described it would only happen after a person has been working for some time and has had a chance to save, so the problem is moot: Make them pay.

Oh please, oh please, oh please

Mr. Rudd, call Andrew Leigh.  Call him now.  Speaking on Indigenous policy, he writes:

  1. School attendance rates are appalling, and as Woody Allen says “90% of life is just showing up”. So pay Indigenous children to attend school.
  2. Literacy and numeracy gaps are large, and part of the difference may be teacher quality. So the federal government should promise bonuses of up to $50,000 to teachers who can get large improvements in performance in Indigenous schools. Teaching disadvantaged kids is the most important job in Australia – so why does no-one doing it earn a six-figure salary?
  3. Indigenous people are overrepresented in Australia’s jails, which do little more than warehousing. Since many are now private, why not rewrite the contracts, making payment conditional on post-release recidivism and earnings? Let’s create incentives for those who run jails to do more education, and less clock-watching.
  4. A major impediment to children attending school is drunkenness in communities. But a ban is a drastic measure. Let’s allow communities to set their own tax rates on alcohol, and keep the revenue (remember, a ban is effectively a tax rate equivalent to the cost of petrol to the nearest no-ban town).
  5. As many Indigenous policies as possible (including those above) should be subjected to rigorous randomised trials. Those that fail should be discarded without sentiment, and those that succeed should be expanded. We know from the headline indicators that many Indigenous policies haven’t worked; it’s time to start sorting out the wheat from the chaff.


Sex for free

Following on from my earlier post noting (via Andrew Leigh) that Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh have been researching street prostitution in Chicago, Andrew managed to find a link to a preliminary draft of the paper. You can find it here. Andrew also noted that:

Levitt cited evidence that in the 1930s-50s, a very large share of men had their first sexual experience with a prostitute. With the rise of premarital sex, this is no longer true, so the market that’s left today is much seedier than in the past.

This would seem to imply that early sexual encounters once represented a sizable, or at least influential, portion of demand, which is interesting in itself.

Many modern-day feminists despair at the way that the so called “sexual revolution” has developed and I do wonder where the current arc of embracing sexuality will stabilise.

Here is a recent story from ABC News being shocked (shocked!) to discover that college parties are both racier and boozier than they used to be at some unspecified time in the past. They report (and fret) that girls seem to drink more at themed parties, where they also tend to wear less.

Here is a story about the merging of reality television and the public acceptability of sex for it’s own sake. A Czech brothel is offering it’s services for free in exchange for the clients’ permission to broadcast the event over the internet.

I suspect that the Czech offering is just the latest in a recent push for a form of authenticity or believability in pornography. It seems to go hand-in-hand with an increase in the popularity of amateur porn, which has two broad sub-categories: the professionally arranged and the truly amateur.

Truly amateur pornography, where the participants film or photograph themselves and share the material for free is arguably the ultimate sharing of the self in the web 2.0 paradigm [1]. It is a logical extension of the attention-seeking self-affirmation that we see in people’s embracing of a public side to their sexuality.

Professional outfits that seek out amateurs who are willing to be filmed (possibly for free) and then offer the material in the traditional business model of internet porn (give out teaser snippets for free and charge for the complete set) , seem to be the adult industry’s response to this shifting demand. In a way, the Czech brothel is just a new branch of this genre.

These developments are not without their concerns. Sara Montague – a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – is clearly concerned, noting that much of the movement seems grounded in the hope of empowerment and self-confidence, but worrying that this serves indirectly to promote eating disorders among girls and the acceptance of rape among boys.

The main problem that Montague faces is that for most people, embracing public sexuality is non-harmful – not every girl gets an eating disorder and not every boy contemplates forcing himself on a girl – and is undertaken by choice. Montague is, in essence, faced with Douglas Adams’ cow that wants to be eaten. [2]

There is a saying that seeks to advise against supporting or encouraging prostitution: “No little girl ever says that when she grows up, she wants to be a prostitute.” The idea is a variation on Rawls‘ “veil of ignorance” and implicitly argues that the framing of a choice is of vital importance: that given a wider range of options than those she faces, no woman would choose to be a prostitute.

Montague may argue that just as the prostitute is compelled into her profession by a narrowing of her options, people are lead to an acceptance of public sexuality because of social conditioning. In her article she highlights the flood of media imagery seemingly designed to associate female success with sexiness. In other words, Montague is pointing out that Adams’ cow was genetically engineered to want to be eaten and asking if the cow then truly had a free choice. That question, of course, is moot when considering the cow in front of you. Its preferences may have been implanted, but as a conscious entity, you have to respect it’s choices. At most, you can try to stop future cows from being interfered with.

But to make the same argument for public sexualisation is still predicated on the idea that it is inherently a bad thing. I am not in any way trying to belittle the tragedy of eating disorders or defend the horror of rape, but the point is to weigh the benefits against the costs in aggregate. There is a parallel with opening a country up to trade and allowing jobs to be “lost” to, say, China. It is true that some people will lose their jobs and for them, the pain is tremendous; but it is also true that the vast majority of people experience a small improvement in their material lives because of the cheaper products. It is almost always the case that in aggregate, the latter outweighs the former and the social ideal is to open up to trade but have those that benefit compensate those that suffer.

The same, I think, applies to the progress of public sexualisation. By all means work to increase support for those burdened excessively by concerns of body image. By all means increase support to rape victims and ease the ability of the state to bring those guilty to justice. But that doesn’t mean we should fight to stop it altogether if people choose it freely and feel that it helps them, or even if they just enjoy it.

[1] Yes, I hate that word too; but what else should I have said?

[2] In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Foyles, Waterstones, Amazon), Adams had his characters encounter a cow in a restaurant that wanted to be eaten, going so far as to recommend particular parts of it’s body.

Interesting empirics

I cannot wait to read the paper coming out of this:

Most women work 11 hours a week and … make $25-40 per hour [versus] $7-10 per hour … in the formal sector.  They are violently victimised once a month.

Prostitutes who work with pimps have higher wages and better conditions.

Supply is quite elastic [a 60% shock in demand occurred with only a 30% increase in prices], adjusting on three margins – higher labour supply by existing prostitutes, in-migration by prostitutes from other areas, and ‘temporary prostitutes’ joining the market.

Doing this research in America, where both the provision and the consumption of prostitution is illegal, is a major achievement for Levitt and Venkatesh.  Has anything equivalent ever been done in countries where the law is less restrictive?

Andrew vs. Andrew (continued)

Following on from yesterday, Andrew Norton has his second piece up [A.N., A.L.].  He continues on the early topic of teaching civics, concluding with:

In my view, preserving public education to teach civics is a non-solution to a non-problem.

I’d love to see a longitudinal study looking at what people covered in school and measures of their criminality, understanding of and participation in democratic society one, five and ten years after leaving school.  Until then, this aspect of the debate will continue to be rhetorical.

A.N. then moves on to the topic of financing, acknowledging A.L.’s point that there are economies of scale but arguing that they could be achieved through school associations or chains.  He suggests that the government still be involved, subsidising schools on a per-student basis inversely weighted to the students’ socio-economic backgrounds:

[W]e could fund all schools on a similar basis to private schools now, according to parental SES background. That would lead to reduced rather than greater government expenditure, with tax cuts helping parents finance higher private outlays. Schools servicing the most disadvantaged areas would get the most money, providing what was necessary to make private schools viable. Schools in the most affluent areas could be taken completely out of the public funding system; this if nothing else about my proposal would please the AEU. 

This seems a reasonable and persuasive point to me.  However, since it would amount to the government paying for the schooling of the poor, it seems implausible to assume that they would not want a say in how the money was spent.  It would be, in effect, an Australian education equivalent of Railtrack/Network Rail in the UK – a nominally independent organisation that nevertheless operates with a government-backed guarantee of funding to achieve government-stipulated requirements.  This may well represent an improvement over the status quo (and I suspect it would be, from a financing point of view), but it is not full privitisation.

I was never particularly concerned with financing except insofar as it affects selection.  This sort of scheme, which does keep the government involved, may help ensure that every child gets accepted somewhere, but my concerns about student complimentarities and the need for national education standards remain.