Ever since I responded to Martin Wolf, Impulse Control and Economic Inequality, I’ve been obsessing about the idea that the cure for income inequality is education. It isn’t that I ever bought this idea. It has always been obvious that it was just a way to minimize concerns about inequality. It is the non-racist’s version of “cultural dysfunction.” But what bugs is that it doesn’t even make sense. How exactly does a college education give one marketable skills except in the sense that employers think it does?
Most recently, I was talking to my partner about our little high tech company. I told him I look forward to the day when we have some money and I can hire “real” programmers to do work that I find interesting, but certainly not the best use of my skills. In other words, as I have had in the past, I want a group of programmers I use to do the detailed work so I can focus on managing the project and moving it in the right direction. Since I have been in the position of hiring such help, I know how I would do it.
When I say “real” programmers, what I mean are people who love programming for its own sake. My approach to programming is very similar to that of most scientists. I just make things work. The code is not well designed and it is rarely even close to being as efficient as it ought to be. So I have a great admiration for people who know how to code right. Of course, I also tend to find them kind of boring — wrapped up in details. But that’s why they are of so much use to me!
I have absolutely no interest in whether such people have a college education. They might, of course. But it doesn’t mean anything to me as an employer. In fact, in my experience, people with computer science degrees are not the best programmers. That’s because computer science isn’t really about programming. It’s about data structures and algorithms and other more theoretical stuff. You know: interesting stuff, but not practical skills. If I had ten programmers, it would probably be good to have one with a computer science degree — but only if he was also an exceptional programmer.
Dean Baker wrote an interesting article that touches on this, David Leonhardt Wonders Why Its Cold In the Winter and Wages Aren’t Rising. Leonhardt wrote another one of those “Why aren’t wages rising?!” articles and, as usual, he rushes to the typical brainless answer: education! Baker fired back that the unemployment rate for college educated workers is 50% higher now than it was before the 2008 financial crisis. But it would seem that people like Leonhardt always look at the unemployment rate of people with college educations and see that they are lower than for people without college education. And this causes them to think that if everyone had college degrees, overall unemployment would be lower. It makes no sense.
Baker noted something that I talk about a lot, but is usually missing from the debate, “Believers in supply and demand would know that more college grads should put even further downward pressure on the wages of college grads.” Yes, the more people have college degrees, the less they mean; they lose the “right kind of people” sheen. But what I think is really going on is that the business community wants to use “education” as an excuse for why it is they sit on piles of case and do stock buybacks rather than hiring people.
So the education excuse for why companies aren’t hiring is just an apologia. The idea of a college education was never about giving people specific skills. In as much as it was ever about employment, it was about giving workers a base of knowledge on top of which a company could provide necessary skills. The idea that someone is going to go to college and get the exact right “skills” that a company wants is laughable. That doesn’t even happen with vocational colleges. So if companies don’t want to hire people, that’s their right. But we don’t have to accept the excuse that it is all about the fact that more people aren’t graduating college.