On School’s Function

Is school more for helping students learn about the world, or more for showing and encouraging good behavior? This NYT oped by Yoram Bauman gives a hint:

When students went online to register for classes each quarter, they were asked if they wanted to donate $3 to support WashPIRG, a left-leaning activist group. Students were also asked if they wanted to donate $3 to Affordable Tuition Now (ATN), a group that lobbied for “sensible tuition rates, quality financial aid and adequate funding.” …

About 5 percent of economics majors donated to WashPIRG in a given quarter, compared with 8 percent for other arts and sciences majors. A similar divide — 10 percent versus almost 15 percent — occurred with respect to donations to ATN. … Taking economics classes [had] a significant negative effect on later giving by students who did not become economics majors. …

Our research suggests that economics education could do a better job of providing balance. Learning about the shortcomings as well as the successes of free markets is at the heart of any good economics education, and students — especially those who are not destined to major in the field — deserve to hear both sides of the story. (more)

So econ teaching should be changed because after taking econ classes students donate less to leftist political groups? Bauman does not bother to argue that econ classes teach falsehoods. He probably accepts the usual econ analysis suggesting that selfish folks might rather keep their money and hope others donate to worthy causes. No, apparently Bauman thinks it sufficient that he disapproves of the net effect of teaching truths — fewer donations go to political groups he favors. That must be stopped!

(Free market shortcomings are beside the point here. Most econ classes talk plenty about those, and they aren’t very relevant to the private vs. social value of donations.)

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  • Dudeski
    • Dudeski: obviously free markets are like violence – if it’s not working, the answer is more free markets. Otherwise, obviously the state is distorting the market somehow and it’s not the market’s fault that it is failing.

      > So econ teaching should be changed because after taking econ classes students donate less to leftist political groups?

      Isn’t it rather unjustified to leap to the ‘leftist’ qualifier there? The quote says the non-majors dropped donations to both charities, and since both charities were leftist, apparently, you can’t infer that ‘they donate less to leftist groups’ rather than ‘they donate less to everyone’. You’d need an acceptably rightist charity in the mix to see whether their donations fell too, or went up.

      And given general background info, I doubt they are running out to donate to the Cato Foundation or something and their overall donation does remain constant.

      Which means the quote is actually objecting to what looks like a decrease in donating/generosity. Seems reasonable to me.

  • The falsehood he think economics courses teach consists of overestimating the efficiency of markets. Practically everyone admits most economists seriously overestimated market efficiency and thus failed to predict the current depression. So, it’s not far fetched to claim that economics courses remain partial to market solutions. It’s also not far fetched to think that if the market is great, charity is unnecessary. (There are better reasons for being anticharity.) Some of the most extreme and consistent proponents of markets, followers of Ayn Rand, even expressly conclude that altruism is evil.

    • You do know that every notable Austrian economist out there predicted the collapse, right? And that they’ve been predicting another collapse since the “recovery” in 2007, and just lately we are beginning to see Krugman et al begin cautioning that another recession is coming?

      Your ‘free market economists’ are entirely composed of Keynesians – the group who predicted the Soviet Union would outproduce the US in 1988.

      If you’re going to talk about real economists, look at the Austrians – they have been consistently proven right by history, while the Keynesians have been consistently proven wrong.

      • david

        Predicting collapse is only impressive if you don’t predict collapse all the time.

  • But Yoram Bauman is accurately grasping the most desirable feature of education — inculcating belief. It is why the biggest provider of schooling is the state, the second biggest are religious organisations and totalitarian regimes ban private schooling.

  • Steven

    While your reasoning is sound about the difficiency of Bauman’s argument, your statement that “. . .apparently Bauman thinks it sufficient that he disapproves of the net effect of teaching truths. . .” assumes that all econ classes teach truths. This is not necessarily true either (see Krugman, Delong, etc.).

  • Ari T

    Austrians have bias written all over them. I suppose in the market place of ideas there has been a demand for something scientific that would confirm broken beliefs after 2008, and Austrians fill in right the spot. It is kind of like RBE for left-wing. Radical enough so mainstream econ will ignore it, but plausible enough for people to join them. Although RBE is nonsense.

    Especially with methodological individualism and rejection of utility functions they’re basically left with no practical tools to analyze real-world issues, and in case like IPR they’re just trying to plead socialism at each other, whether its contra-IPR or pro-IPR. This is just a tip of the iceberg but it reveals a lot of underlying problems.

    The fundamental problems in my opinion are not even epistemological but the fact they try to institutionalize the truth. They basically have the answers, and are just looking for evidence, both in moral theory and economics. Methodology is just one part of that. It isn’t really science but political movement trying to masquerade as science. Or do you ever think they would write “Austrians were wrong” on the mainpage of LvMI? That’s not how science is done.

    I’m going to signal awareness here and say that I do think Austrians have lots of powerful insights and points of view though, but I see the whole Austrian movement mostly as a social signalling fest. Kind of like AGW-denialism, where people don’t like it or its implications, attempt DIY science and ally themselves with the skeptics — confirmation bias indeed.

    I think if we had prediction markets about these ideas we would see eg. praxeological wishful thinking in macroeconomic stability would quickly face the empirical reality, and that real-world is much more complicated that can explained with simple deductive logic. Social science is complex and it isn’t even only economics.

    That being said, I think Austrians might be right about some things but I see it more about “us vs them” and overconfidence than seeking the truth. Also the problem with radical subjectivism is that it rejects efficiency analysis, and when efficiency runs contrary to liberty, it doesn’t provide very reasonable argument to defend liberty (vis-á-vis libertarianism). Moral philosophy is not solved either and unlikely to be solved anytime soon.

    The most powerful insights are probably those of subjective theory of value and knowledge problem, especially about the virtues of decentralized and spontaneous social organization, but the computational requirements to prove that are practically infinite.

    p.s. And “they” was Paul Samuelson.

    • Ari T

      Whops, this was meant to be a reply to Aurini.

  • I wonder if economists also tend to two-box in Newcomb’s Paradox, and/or defect in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

  • It would be better if there were a wider range of recipients, so it’s not just about preferred political causes. My guess is that econ students are less likely to donate to charity, generally speaking, than others.

  • dWj

    I was thinking recently that a possible benefit to college is that our future elites will be induced to engage in such activities that they will be more likely to have at least some respect for privacy rights decades later.

  • Alex Weiner

    This econ grad has a strong suspicion that the study did not take into account the section bias that occurs given the type of student who would chose to be an econ major to begin with.

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