Two years ago, I reviewed Ann Case and Angus Deaton’s 2020 book, Death of despair. My review was critical in the original sense of that term: I identified its strengths and weaknesses. On Thursday, I had the opportunity to watch a Zoom talk he gave that was sponsored by a group at Stanford University. So I asked him about two items in the book on which I challenged him and his co-author. On the one hand, we did not come to any conclusion.
On the other hand, we did, or at least I thought we did.
Here’s what I wrote about this next issue in my review:
I wish they had addressed this educational “rat race” in more detail. my The Economist Blogging colleague Brian Kaplan, an economist at George Mason University, argues in his 2018 book A case against education A huge amount of the value of higher education is for people to signal to potential employers that they can complete a major project and be appropriately modest. As much as he is right, government subsidies to higher education make many jobs more limited for high school graduates. Yet, Case and Dayton do not cite Kaplan’s work. Moreover, in the final chapter of What to Do, they go down the exact wrong path, writing, “Maybe it’s time we upped our game to make college ideal?” This policy will further narrow the range of jobs available to nongraduates, making them worse off.
Wanting to keep my question short, I asked a shortened version of the above. He answered and we went back and forth.
Here is our correspondence that follows, beginning Thursday night and continuing through Friday morning.
My email to Angus:
Dear Angus (if I may),
I am the person who asked the first question today. What I am interested in examining further is the quotation on p. 257 where you and Ann Case write, “Perhaps it’s time we started playing the role of idealizing college?”
In your response, you said you agreed with my criticism that it would raise the bar for jobs that don’t really rely on college-acquired skills. You also said that you have spoken to the CEOs and are happy that they are now reconsidering the requirement for a bachelor’s degree. I was also happy with that.
One of the rules Ivan sets for this discussion is the Chatham House Rules. So in line with that, I’d like your permission to quote your statement that you agree that idealizing colleges can make things worse, and that it’s better for companies to go in the opposite direction. Do I have your permission to write this in a blog post?
David R. Henderson
I looked again at what we said that you quoted. Although I would emphasize the question mark that is important here. We are asking questions, not advocating.
I don’t know what will happen. We’ve had universal primary and (almost) universal secondary education without raising the bar (much), so maybe the same will happen with college. But I agree that it is entirely possible for the bar to be raised. As explained in the rest of the book, there are many possibilities. So please don’t quote me as saying that I think this is the only possibility.
Professor Sir Angus Dayton, FBA HonFRSE
I promised to quote his entire email above and he approved.
I suspect that most readers will accept, as I did, the statement I have quoted. I think the “probably” and the question mark won’t convince many readers that he and Case aren’t in favor of “upping our game to idealize college.”
But I am satisfied that he does not want readers to get the idea from this quote that college should be ideal.
Here is David R. There is my biography of Angus in Henderson, ed. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.