Tag Archives: politics

The Case Against Education

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money (2018) by Bryan Caplan is a fascinating read that questions the mantra that ‘more education is always good’. Caplan is a highly credentialed Professor of Economics at George Mason University. The book is heretical in that it takes on the belief that ‘more education = more better’ that is incredibly prevalent with policy professionals and politicians of all ideologies and with the public at large. The book has provoked a considerable response including headline reviews in The Economist.

The book looks at what students use and remember from their education. Caplan demonstrates solidly that this is not much. Few people do math in their job beyond high school level math and very, very few people use their knowledge of foreign languages, poetry or history.

Given that people remember and use little of their education Caplan then goes on to explain why education appears to yield such substantial economic benefits to those who have it. He answers this question by looking at the ‘sheepskin effect’, that is the effect of getting a certificate on earnings compared simply to additional years of learning. If it is very high, which it is, then it shows that it is the signalling effect of education rather than what is learn that is important. In effect employers use High School completion and degree completion as simple filters when hiring. It no doubt leads to some bad hires and some bad misses but overall it works well enough that most employers do this.

This has the result that education is worthwhile for individuals, provided they complete their degree, but as something subsidized massively by government it’s actually a fairly poor investment.

Caplan makes the poses the thought experiment of who would we expect to earn more, someone who had a certificate from a highly rated University without having learnt the subjects or someone who had done all the work but who had no certificate. It’s hard not to imagine the certificate being of more value in earning more.

The book also looks at the fantastic amount of high quality learning material that is now available online and says that because the most important effect of a University education is the signalling value that he believes that it won’t have that much impact. He points out that high quality paper testing has been available for decades but is rarely used by employers. One thing he doesn’t address though is that if the credentials for online courses do become even a bit more respected and more people shift to doing online degrees it may become a way of getting certification that is good enough more cheaply.

Some people say that while some University is clearly not useful but that STEM subjects are. Caplan addresses this by pointing out that a large percentage of STEM graduates do not use what they have learnt in their degree and that instead it appears that hard STEM courses are a signal of high levels of ability.

The one form of education that Caplan does approve of spending on is vocational education that he believes to have a reasonable demonstrable return.

The book covers a lot of the material of Alison Woolf’s Excellent book ‘Does Education Matter’ that looks at the impacts of education. Woolf is more skeptical of vocational education because she has seen the limited success of attempts to improve it in the UK.

Against Education is a very good book and Caplan has spent years thinking about and researching his ideas. What he presents is quite compelling. For anyone with an interest education policy the book is definitely worth reading. It’s also very well written and easy to read.





In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State

In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (2006) by Charles Murray describes an actual, costed out Universal Basic Income (UBI).Murray is a controversial scholar but this book does actually have figures and describes how a UBI could work.

UBI has currently had a resurgence of popularity due mainly to the fear the robots and automation are believed by some to be about to dramatically reduce employment. It has supporters on both the left and right. However, people appear to be talking about very different things in terms of levels of a UBI and also tend to be very vague at best about costing such a proposal out.

In the book Murray costs out a UBI for every adult over 21 at 10K that also has a supplement of 3K paid toward a catastrophic emergency medical fund. That is, the UBI would be under the current US poverty threshold. It’s not a lot. Murray goes on to suggest that people on this kind of level of money could then save 2K a year that could be used for old age. It’s worth noting that working beyond the UBI would result in none of it being taken back and the effective marginal tax rate would be zero.

At 60K of income the UBI would start to decrease and reduce eventually to zero. So it’s not quite a UBI but it is reasonable.

Murry then goes on to describe various scenarios for various people on the UBI.

The book did make me realise that the US has various odd programs like food stamps that many other countries, like Australia, do not and that may be part of the appeal of simplifying social payments.

The book didn’t convince me that a UBI is a good idea but it did have a serious attempt at costing and describing how a UBI could work. It isn’t the UBI of some people’s dreams of, say 25K a year, but it is costed out. The book is very short and is worth reading for anyone interested in a serious proposal for a UBI.

Prisoners of Geography

Prisoners of Geography (2015) by Tim Marshall is a modern book on geopolitics that looks at why various regions around the world are the way they are and offers motives for why many states act as they do. Marshall is a journalist and writer and was at Sky News for a quarter of century and was the Foreign Affairs editor there for many years.

Geopolitics underpins power politics and offers a great deal of insight into why states act as they do. Afred Thayer Mahan, Emil Reich and Halford Mackinder should be better known than they are. The US statesmen who understood and cared about geopolitics, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezisnki, are better known for their crucial role in winning the Cold War. This book distils the insights of geopolitics.

The book has chapters on Russia, China, the US, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, Indian and Pakistan, Korean and Japan, Latin America and The Arctic. The chapters on Russia, China and the Middle East are all outstanding, providing a great deal of insight into why these powers act as they do. In particular Marshall’s presentation of why Russia is acting the way it is in Ukraine is something that is very much worth reading.

The one big thing the book curiously mentions little is nuclear weapons which have fundamentally reshaped power politics. It was one thing for Napoleon or Hitler to invade Russia, it is a completely different thing to contemplate attacking a Russia with nuclear weapons. Similarly China has a level of security that previous rising powers did not have due to its nuclear capability.

If the book does sound interesting Marshall gave a talk at the LSE recently that is available online to listen to that goes over the themes of the book.

The book is very much worth reading for anyone interested in current events. It really does help understand various political events around the world.

The Social Order of the Underworld

The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System (2014) by David Skarbek is a fascinating look into when, how and why prison gangs have formed in the US and how they operate. The book concentrates on the Californian Prison System.

Prior to the 1950s the Californian Prison system housed a fairly small number of inmates and Skarbek says there were no gangs, instead prison inmates had a code that they obeyed that was fairly simple but allowed inmates to remain fairly safe.

As the population of inmates grew rapidly prison became more dangerous as new inmates didn’t know the code and inmates had little in common with each other. In order to provide protection gangs arose and then began to provide services for inmates including drugs and payment systems and a method of enforcing agreements. The gangs formed along ethnic lines and geographic lines. Skarbek argues not because of racial attitudes but simply because race is something that allows easy identification. These gangs create their own rules and even write their own constitutions. They recruit people who they believe will serve the organisation well.

The gangs allow people to do deals by ensuring that people are more trustworthy because they will enforce contracts. For instance if a white inmate gets drugs from a latino inmate and then refuses to pay the white gangs will actually force the inmate to pay or physically harm him to keep order. Skarbek points out that prison gangs actually reduce riots and some kinds of violence as the gangs want things to be orderly so that they can make money from their illicit activities. Prison lockdowns due to riots hurt gang profits.

The many downsides of gangs, their own kinds of violence and the corruption they lead to are not ignored. The remarkable pressure that they manage to bring to bear on crime outside prisons is explained convincingly.

The book provides a really interesting glimpse into how the underworld organises itself. It’s really interesting to read about how human self-organisation arises in incredibly inhospitable environments.

Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds (2013) by Chris Bowen, the current treasurer of Australia is a rather good exploration of what the modern Australian Labor Party (ALP) stands for.  The book is oddly named, not many people would name a book of rejuvenation after a failed slogan from a failed war. It should also be said upfront that this journey into the heart of darkness does at no time wind up with Bowen meeting the strange ‘Colonel Rudd’ deep in the Queensland jungle during an election campaign and nor does he declare at any stage that ‘we had to destroy the electorate in order to save it’. But nonetheless, we can all be thankful Bowen didn’t call the book ‘My Struggle’.

Bowen looks at what the ALP believes in and decides that reclaiming liberalism from the right is an aim. He puts forward economic growth and increasing opportunity as the main objectives of the modern ALP. There are two chapters devoted to each of these aims.

 Bowen starts with a chapter on what, in general, the ALP believes in. Bowen includes the official objectives of the ALP that include anachronistic references to the socialisation of industry. Bowen points out that this has nothing to do with the way the modern ALP governs.  Bowen has read, and refers to some interesting figures like Tony Crosland who argued in the 1950s that increasing wellbeing was more important for the left than government ownership. Roy Hattersley went further to declare that the true objective of socialism is to create a society where individual liberty is greatest. It’s interesting, and perhaps redefines socialism to an unrecognizable form but it is worth considering. In Bowen’s eyes this contrasts what the modern left should be doing to what the modern right does, which is to adopt much of the thought of Hayek, von Mises and Friedman.

There is then a good sized chapter on the ALP being the party of growth, which is all about how Hawke and Keating put through many important deregulatory, pro-market and some other reforms that are largely well regarded. There is a problem in that the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government has a poor record here. Bowen remarkably argues that the Carbon Tax created jobs as some academic argued that you can regulate your way to higher productivity. It’s more than a bit of a stretch.

The chapter on Opportunity highlights how by removing fees for University under Whitlam the ALP increased educational opportunities and then by bringing them back it again increased educational opportunities. Apparently whatever the ALP does to fees has magic properties. But overall this chapter does highlight what the ALP thinks it does differently to the Liberal Party.

Bowen then puts in his ideas for reforming the ALP which are well put and put into an international context. His arguments for changing the way the ALP leader is chosen are well put forward. He doesn’t really consider the counter argument, namely that it isn’t a broken system and in the past 50 years the only mistake the ALP has made was removing Rudd. The chapter also makes other recommendations on how to elect delegates for conventions and other ideas.

Bowen concludes the book with a few remarks summarising his positive vision for the future of the ALP. The book is nicely short, it’s well thought out, well written and really does put forward a reasonably coherent vision of what the ALP should be. There is a bit of silliness and little recognition of the contribution of the Liberal Party’s contribution to Australia, but that’s fine for this kind of book. It’s really quite a refreshing read and a good antidote to the fairly dour election campaign that is currently going on. 

Downfall : How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart

Downfall : How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart (2013) by Aaron Patrick is the first book in what will probably be a substantial number of books on how the Australian Labor Party (ALP) went from holding every Australian state, territory and Federal government to only hanging on in the Australian Capital Territory and perhaps Tasmania.

Patrick is a former Young Labor member who is now a senior journalist at the Financial Review. The book looks at the corruption scandals, the removal of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and also focuses on Bill Shorten, a major player in Victorian Labor politics and a probable leader of the ALP. The coverage of Shorten is of interesting because of Patrick’s background and knowledge of what Shorten was like before he came into parliament.

The book coverage of Union and ALP corruption is detailed. The Corruption in the Health Services Union (HSU) and the also in the Australian Workers Union (AWU) in the early 1990s is chronicled in depth. In addition the staggering corruption in the NSW ALP by the Obeid family is also described in detail. The dodgy dealings of Peter Slipper are also outlined.

Much of what the book covers is either from, or is in the press. It’s a useful summary of just what has gone so very wrong with the ALP. Patrick still clearly sympathises with the ALP and when he’s describing the ultimate reasons for the probable thrashing of the Federal Labor government he points to one particular event, the removal of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister as being the most critical mistake the ALP made. It’s hard not to think he is correct. He also points out that the ALP and the Union movement must become more intolerant of corruption in their midst.