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Monday, January 28, 2013

College degrees and cargo cults

I'm one of the few these days who doesn't possess a college degree. The most recent census data shows that because of this I'll only earn $32,493 annually, as compared to someone with a bachelor's degree who will earn $59,415. Obviously then a college education is a sagacious investment, right? Those with four-year degrees are earning nearly twice as much. Allow me, please, to throw a monkey-wrench into the intricate windings of these your apparent assumptions. Correlation does not imply causation.

It's amazing to me that supposedly educated human-beings don't apply this fundamental scientific paradigm to their own educational achievement vis–à–vis their earnings. Yes it's true that people who have achieved higher levels of education tend to earn a higher salary. That cannot be denied. There is certainly a very strong correlation between the two. However, what can be implied about the relationship? Does a degree cause higher pay, or are the two things merely outcomes of the same underlying cause?

Consider the cargo cults of the pacific islands, post WWII. These primitive aboriginal islanders observed events during the war that left a profound influence upon their culture. During the war, first the Japanese, and later Allied forces, airlifted supplies, built landing strips, temporary control towers, and living quarters on their islands. Because of this the natives experienced a dramatic increase in their own wealth and quality of life. There was a correlation between the activity they witnessed—planes landing on airstrips—and their own well-being. What were they to do once the war was over and the advanced culture abandoned them?

Because the Melanesian islanders failed to understand the difference between correlation and causation, they foolishly engaged in elaborate and pointless construction of mock-ups of landing strips, bamboo airplanes, coconut headphones, rows of signal fires, etc. They believed that these ancillary indicators of an advanced culture—without actually having the advance culture itself—would magically endow them with the wealth and benefits they associated with the advanced culture that had now left them behind. They didn't understand that the landing strips and planes weren't the cause of the wealth these pacific islanders experienced; these landing strips and planes as well as the attendant food and other supplies were merely the outcome of an underlying cause which is that an advanced culture needed to temporarily occupy their tiny island and in doing so airlifted in tons of food, beverages, and all manner of technological marvels that these islanders could only conceive of as somehow magical.

Supply and demand is one of those simple concepts that people proceed to completely ignore after gaining a rudimentary understanding of the concept. Its importance when making life-shaping decisions should never be ignored yet that is precisely what is happening today.

If you're in the commodities market and you find out that California oranges are having a banner year and a bumper crop, you're going to bid lower on those orange futures, and so is everyone else. A vast supply of oranges means that each orange is less valuable. Recently some investors thought it would be a good idea to send a spaceship out to try to find an asteroid made of platinum or gold. Imagine what would happen if they succeeded? If they not only found an asteroid in space with as much as a million tons of gold in it, but then succeeded in bringing it back it would devastate the commodities markets. As the story unfolded, the price of gold would pogo up and down with every success and every setback. Ultimately if that gold landed safely on planet Earth, the price of gold would fall to that of silver, perhaps less. One could expect the same thing were the asteroid comprised of platinum or diamonds. It is the scarcity of these rare minerals rather than their functional utility that causes their innate value to be what it is.

All that I've mentioned is common sense and only someone lacking such, would argue the point. What then can be said about this recent huge push to credential every human being on the planet with at the bare minimum a college diploma? I can easily imagine that there was once a time when a high-school diploma had real value. Think of represented in concrete terms the fulfillment of a course of some twelve years of rigorous study. A graduate had mastered basic understanding of various fundamentally important studies in the maths and sciences as well as language and culture. These days when you check off the box that says high-school diploma, it's merely a formality. They may demand you provide two proofs of American citizenship but everybody knows they're not going to demand a look-see at that high-school diploma. It's a given. As such it has little real worth. If you're looking for a job and you claim a high school diploma on the job application without actually having one, it's the same as having one. It's not something that is normally checked on. It's assumed to be true, therefore for this reason, a lie is as good as the truth.

As progressivism progresses I foresee a day when a bachelor's degree will become the equivalent of yesterday's high school diploma. That is to say that it will be equally universally assumed and equally valueless. Why bother checking to make sure an applicant really does have something that practically everyone actually does have? So do we move up one level with tomorrow's master's degree becoming the equivalent of yesterday's bachelor's degree?

For those who suspect that I'm jumping the gun and who still believe that a four-year college degree is a thing of value, I present for you this study which I will quote in brief:
Nearly half of working Americans with college degrees are in jobs for which they're overqualified, a new study out Monday suggests.

The study, released by the non-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says the trend is likely to continue for newly minted college graduates over the next decade.

"It is almost the new normal," says lead author Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist and founder of the center, based in Washington.

Vedder, whose study is based on 2010 Labor Department data, says the problem is the stock of college graduates in the workforce (41.7 million) in 2010 was larger than the number of jobs requiring a college degree (28.6 million).

That, he says, helps explain why 15% of taxi drivers in 2010 had bachelor's degrees vs. 1% in 1970. Among retail sales clerks, 25% had a bachelor's degree in 2010. Less than 5% did in 1970.

"There are going to be an awful lot of disappointed people because a lot of them are going to end up as janitors," Vedder says. In 2010, 5% of janitors, 115,520 workers, had bachelor's degrees, his data show.
In conclusion, the only thing that can be demonstrated—and even this with ever less frequency—is that people with college degrees make more money. This fact fails to examine why they make more money. Is it because their college learning magically allows them to be more productive? Does that diploma somehow mystically confer upon them the ability to more efficiently crank out more widgets than the less credentialed? Does it allow them to sell more blenders or even to have the conceptual understanding of—for instance—the law of supply and demand? This foolish pursuit of credentials in a world increasingly oversupplied with college graduates is to me, as equally foolish as a tribe of savages on some pacific island strapping coconuts to their heads and marching up and down between the rows of signal fires.

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