Me on Tyler on Bryan on Labor

Bryan Caplan has a new book, Labor Econ Versus the World, a collection of his blog posts on the topic. Tyler Cowen says that while “I agree with a great deal of what is in this book, … let’s focus on where we differ”:

Bryan for instance advocates open borders (for all countries?). I think that would be cultural and political suicide, most of all for smaller countries, but for the United States too. You would get fascism first, if anything.

That seems a crazy extreme claim to me. First you’d get lots of immigrants! Then a big economic boom. Any fascism would come much later, and I doubt it would ever come, at least as a result of immigration. (Fascism is pretty rare for US-like places.)

Bryan on education, he believes most of higher education is signaling. In contrast, I see higher education as giving its recipients the proper cultural background to participate in labor markets at higher productivity levels. I once wrote an extensive blog post on this. That is how higher education can be productive, while most of your classes seem like a waste of time.

[From that 471 word “extensive” blog post:] By choosing many years of education, you are telling yourself that you stand on one side of the social divide. The education itself drums that truth into you.

Note how much they agree; both say the usual “material” taught in school isn’t worth much. It is not crazy to think school adds value by pushing modern work culture into students. But it is harder to believe that such a process needs to extend past high school; can the extra years of college and graduate school really be essential to such cultural transmission? Most cultures in human history have finished pushing their culture onto kids well before age 18. Seems more plausible to me that these later years of school are mostly about showing that you embody modern work culture.

[Bryan:] Unless government requires discrimination, market forces make it a marginal issue at most. Large group differences persist because groups differ largely in productivity.

I would instead stress that most of the inequity occurs upstream of labor markets, through the medium of culture. It is simply much harder to be born in the ghetto! … Bryan is not paying enough attention to what is upstream of labor markets, or to how culture shapes human decisions. …

On poverty, Bryan puts forward a formula of a) finish high school, b) get a full time job, and c) get married before you have children. All good advice! But I find that to be nearly tautologous as an explanation of poverty. To me, the deeper and more important is why so many cultures have evolved to make those apparent “no brainer” choices so difficult for so many individuals. … One simple question is why some cultures don’t produce enough men worth marrying, … once you incorporate these messy “cultural upstream” issues, much of labor economics becomes more complicated than Bryan wishes to acknowledge. Much more complicated.

So Tyler doesn’t disagree at all with Bryan on these topics; Tyler instead complains that Bryan’s book on labor econ doesn’t spend enough time on topics outside of labor econ. I think Bryan sees himself correctly has not having much useful advice to offer on how to change cultures, and also sees culture as influencing action largely via the channel of preferences. He thinks it often okay to blame people for choices that result from from their preferences, and to let them suffer consequences from such choices.

If many labor market outcome differences result from differing preferences that result in part from different cultures, then how exactly can outsiders help someone else’s culture change the preferences that it induces? One simple approach is cultural imperialism: actively suppress insider culture and forceable replace it with outsider culture. Such as via school. Another approach is to induce stronger culture competition and selection, such as was once induced by frequent wars.

These approaches are now widely repudiated. But what other plausible options are on the table? I don’t blame Bryan for not offering more concrete advice to solve such a very hard problem in a book on a different topic. I do blame Tyler for complaining that Bryan hasn’t offered a solution to a problem to which Tyler also offers no solution. He just says the topic is “complicated”. Which along with “let’s have a conversation on X” is a usual way to “talk” about a hard subject X without really saying much.

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