Intro. [Recording date: September 29th, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: Today is September 29th, 2020. My guest is author and journalist, Fredrik deBoer. His book, and the topic for today's conversation is, The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing the Blackwire 5220 headset for today's guest. I also want to let listeners know that we now have EconTalk merchandise available with our new logo. You can find it at my website, russroberts.info. Feel free to look around while you're there. That's where I archive all of my stuff.
Freddie, welcome to EconTalk.
Fredrik deBoer: Thanks for having me.
Russ Roberts: So, this is a brave book. It's an unusual attack on the American education system, as well as an attack on the American economic system. Let's start with the education part. You argue that the entire system is based on an illusion about what education can accomplish. What is that illusion?
Fredrik deBoer: Sure. The illusion is that we can change, in mass and at scale, dramatically change the distribution of academic outcomes. So, when we look at any kind of a metric, any kind of an assessment, we have a certain distribution of outcomes. Some people do very well. Some people do very poorly. The whole system is predicated on the idea that someday we'll be able to make it so that everybody does well.
This was to pick a very obvious example, No Child Left Behind, which called for within 12 years from the time the law was passed, it called for literally 100% compliance with standards. It also said that every single year, a given class would have outperform the class that came before it.
And, so, you look at our system and you see that we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars. We've invested the time of an army of experts. We've put our whole policy apparatus to work in trying to dramatically change the distribution of academic outcomes. And, it hasn't worked.
And, in the most basic sense, the book is asking what if, instead of continuing to run into this brick wall that we keep running into, what if we assumed that the distribution is more or less something that we can't change--that there will always be students who are two standard deviations below the mean, for example. And, that if we can't change it, how can we perform harm mitigation to make the system less punishing on people who don't do well?
And, that's the basic lie. The basic lie is the assumption that we necessarily can create major changes to the distribution of academic ability.
I wrote my dissertation on educational testing, among other things. And, as you do in a dissertation, I read thousands of pages of education policy and research, and things written in newspapers and magazines. And, what struck me was how, almost unanimously, there was no discussion of the possibility of failure. There was no pessimistic impulse. There was no opportunity apparently for people to say, 'What if this isn't going to work?'
And, that's what I want this book to be. I want it to be a shot across the bow of the establishment to say, 'Hey, what if in fact, the reason why we keep not changing the distribution is because we can't change the distribution.'
Russ Roberts: So, one of the provocative parts of this book is that you're critical of both the Left and the Right. So, talk about what you see as the myths that both the Left and the Right have about the education system's potential.
Fredrik deBoer: Sure. So, I mean, on the Left you have this really cheery and optimistic and plainly false assumption that if we just tweak a few things in their environment, if we can pass a few social programs, and if we can maybe make a few alterations to schools, all students will have equal opportunity, equal ability to perform well in an academic environment. It's the really sort of blind optimism in the ability of policy to change everyone's academic outcomes. But, there's every reason to believe that there is such a thing as a baseline ability: that, baseline ability varies within the population, and that some people are just more academically inclined than others. And, if you believe in that, if you accept that premise, then the attempt to make everyone equal or to have the equal opportunity becomes impossible.
And, on the Right is a similar faith, but it comes just from a different direction, which is that if we applied market mechanisms to schooling, then that's going to fix things. That if we have school choice in the form of charter schools and private school vouchers, that the competitive pressures will force the schools and teachers to teach better, and to churn out students who are excelling academically. But, that again is based on this notion that there is no such thing as a student-side factor, right? It's based on the notion that there is no baseline of ability, or intrinsic ability, or underlining ability that students have. And, it is contrary even to the beliefs of people who press for more market mechanisms in schools.
So, RAND Education is very much a neoliberal education policy shop. They are very pro teacher merit pay. They're pro charter school. They're pro the market mechanism in schools. Even they estimate that student-side factors are four to eight times more powerful than school-side factors in determining outcomes. And, so, I think conservatives just have a different myth, which is a common conservative myth, which is that the market mechanism will fix everything.
Russ Roberts: And, before we go on, just so listeners know, and you say this often in the book, you are a self-avowed socialist and a Marxist, and you're very critical--one of the reasons the book is entertaining, intellectually entertaining, it's also very well-written and easy to read, but one of the reasons intellectually entertaining is that you're very tough on the Left, even though you are coming from the Left.
Fredrik deBoer: Yeah. I mean, it's a very interesting situation in education because you have--it's one of the places where there's the clearest divisions within what we would broadly call the Left.
So, there is the sort of Neoliberal Left, which pushes for charter schools, sometimes for private school vouchers, for merit pay, for getting rid of teacher tenure. And, then you have the more traditional Labor Left who supports teachers and teacher tenure and teacher unions, and believe that the problem doesn't lie with our teachers, but with the conditions in which our students live.
So, that's an interesting war that's going on. But, to my mind, both sides sort of miss the picture. And, I think it's a very reductive vision of human equality that they are embracing when they push against the idea of any kind of baseline ability.
So, people say to me, 'Well, you're saying that some students have lower baseline ability. And, so, you're saying that they're unequal, that they are not as good as other children.' But, of course, the whole premise of the book is that we shouldn't be using academics as a stand-in for a kid's value or ability to be equal. Right? In other words, I mean, exactly what I'm arguing is that those kids are not less equal. They're not less valid. They're not less valuable simply because they don't have the same ability in school.
And, I think that the Left should know better. But, unfortunately ideas about things like baseline ability are extremely controversial on the Left, right now.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, let's try to dig deeper into that idea about differences in baseline ability, because I agree with you a hundred percent on that part of the thesis. And, I think that I agree with you that both the Left and the Right pretend it isn't there, which is that some people are more academically inclined than others, and there's a limit. And, it may be quite large, that limit, as to what an institution like a school can do about that.
The myth that everyone has an equal chance leads to, I think, the stupidity that 'Everyone should go to college because that way they'll all have high salaries,' which I think is ridiculous. Not everybody is capable of going to college and excelling in the kind of college experience that might augment one's ability at least.
I also think there's a challenge that--and this is a criticism I have of the book, because I think you focus on this as well. It's a different kind of myth and I want you to either clarify it or disagree with me, which is the focus on test scores and grades as a measure of achievement and potential and talent. And, I think you agree with me that --even though you don't say it explicitly in the book all the time--it's such a narrow, and to me, non-humane measure of value or success. And, yet our education system and the educational reform movement is overwhelmingly focused on this as well as the so-called gap, say, by gender, race, poverty, whatever it is. And, I just think that's just a mistake. React to that.
Fredrik deBoer: Yeah. So, I absolutely agree with you that just looking at people as test scores and graduation rates and the other prominent metrics is very reductive. I should have made this more clear in the book.
When I talk about, when I casually refer to academic ability, or I try to avoid talking about intelligence as much as possible in the book and prefer to talk about academic ability, which I think captures that idea more. But, when I talk about intelligence, I'm talking about the kind of ability that is rewarded within our current system. In other words, I'm not denying that there are multiple intelligences. I'm not denying that there are multiple ways to be smart. In fact, again, pretty much the point of the book is to say that there's all different kinds of ways for a human being to be a valuable human and to be a smart human.
But, when I talk about them casually in the book, what I'm talking about is the kind of smart that is valued in the system, the kind of smart that enables someone to go to Princeton and then get a job at Google, that is a narrow band of academic ability. It's, over decades and decades of colleges sharpening what they want and businesses sharpening what they want from college graduates in the job market. So, I don't mean to suggest that there aren't different kinds of intelligence, only that the ones that concern me in the book most are the ones that result in financial reward.
Russ Roberts: But, you come perilously close, I'd say--maybe I'm overstating it. But, you come perilously close to suggesting that schools can achieve nothing. And, I don't think you believe that. So, tell me what you think they can achieve, if anything.
Fredrik deBoer: I mean, there is no doubt in my mind that there can be--I mean, look, I quote someone [?] citing quite a number of studies demonstrating that random selection and just different schools makes no difference. And, there is a lot of this in the literature.
Russ Roberts: Explain that, to say what you mean by that.
Fredrik deBoer: Sure. So, there's a number of studies that have shown where, due to some quirk or some new policy, or just some change in schooling somewhere, students end up being randomly selected into different schools than the one that they were in before. If you believe that schools have dramatically different levels of an underlying quality, and that quality can then result in dramatically different outcomes for kids, you would expect that kids being sorted into these different schools would have demonstrably different outcomes, right? Because, if you were going into the smarter, the better school, then the kids will perform better on various educational outcomes. If they go to the bad schools, "bad school," then they'll perform worse.
And, what a raft of research shows is that in fact, when you have random selection into different schools it doesn't really result in any one change in the group of students' lives. In other words, they don't perform differently based on which school they're randomly selected into. Which is what you would expect if the strong version of schools are where we're going to change things, would happen to be.
And, there's also things like--so for example, the test high schools in New York and Boston. So, these are schools that are public schools, but they require you to pass, to earn a certainly high score on a standardized test before you can get into the school. They're extremely competitive. And, they produce lots of incredibly successful alumni. So, people say, 'Hey, these schools are really high quality, because look at these alumni.'
But, when we do look at them with what's called the last-in/last-out model sometimes, which is there're going to be kids clustered near the cutoff score to get into the school. Some kids will just barely have made it in. Some kids will just barely have not made it in. You take a look at those two groups of students--so, very equal in ability, just they happened to not get into the school, the ones who perform below the cut score. We take a look at their life outcomes after the fact: Did they go to college? Did they graduate college? Did get a job? How much money did they make? There's no difference in those populations. In other words, placement into the test school, which is supposed to be this incredible boon for their lives, makes no difference in their life outcomes. That kind of research.
Russ Roberts: So, let's think about some other research that is out there. I mean, of course, all research is flawed in different ways. Some more reliable than others. I'm just watching a video. I don't know how to pronounce his name, is Carl Wieman, out of Stanford, Nobel Prize winner in science, who was arguing for the virtues of what we might call the Socratic classroom, where students engage with each other over questions rather than consuming wisdom passed down in lecture form from the teacher. So, two groups of students randomly assigned, at the same university. One group gets the lecture--write it down, get tested on it. And, the other group gets, 'Here's an interesting question'--get in a group, argue about it with them, and see how it goes, etc. Enormous differences claimed for the outcomes of how much learning takes place in those two environments.
And, I'm sympathetic to that idea. It might be my own bias, of course. I have a certain romance about education--that you're working at to reduce. So, I enjoyed that part of your book a lot: forced me to take some of my long held beliefs, a little more open-mindedly. So, I appreciate that. But, certainly there's a lot of research that shows that the kind of classroom matters. There's research I'm a little bit--well, I'm very skeptical of--but, is shows that certain teachers can have an enormous impact on a student's economic future. That's--again, I'm not a big fan of that work, but it's also out there.
Do you not think anything matters? Obviously, home environment matters. And, certainly the given endowment of the student's ability matters. But, you don't think we can make a difference at all in the classroom?
Fredrik deBoer: I mean, I think that we can. The first thing is we can probably move the metrics to some degree--the metrics that the system seems to care about, to some degree. I think it's extremely hard, as you've just been alluding, to know which research to trust. So, I mean, I say this with total respect for educational researchers: Educational research is hard, because, you're so often dealing with small effect sizes and really big variances, right? I mean, that is the--sorry.
Russ Roberts: And, the most important thing you care about is not observable, so--which is your, say, genetic endowment or your natural ability or whatever you want to call it, that you're highlighting--is often unobserved.
Fredrik deBoer: Yeah. And, also, I mean, very often it's impossible to randomly assign students to condition, right? Because, they're in classes and you can't teach one class, something to individual students in that class, and then something different. So, that's a difficult thing. So, it's just hard to know what to trust in the research.
Now, I do think--there is a high quality in a study a few years ago; and, it said, like: Look, what appears to work in raising students' test scores--which again, I think that's reductive, but that's what people care about. And, the first finding is simply that, and it listed things like smaller class sizes, teachers getting special training, the use of technology in the classroom like the internet, whatever. A large majority of the things were statistically indistinguishable--had effect sizes statistically indistinguishable from zero. Right? So, the error bars cut across zero. Right? Which I would say, again, given the situation in educational research, it's not that surprising.
It did find some things that worked well. So, for example, the strongest effect size, which is about 0.4 of a standard deviation, was found with small-group tutoring. And, it seemed to be a robust and real effect. It's interesting because, in these debates, you so rarely hear about something like small-group tutoring. That's not one of the political footballs in education.
I do think that there are things that we can do on the margins. The question is, is: when we look at the overall distribution of where students are in their performance bands, right? At a very early age--and I quote research to this effect in the book--at a very early age, students seem to sort themselves into relative ability bands. And, those students tend to stay in those bands throughout their academic lives.
Now, is that everybody? Of course not. Of course, there's exceptions. Some kids they suffer--their parents go through a bad divorce and their education falls apart. Some poorly-performing kids meet a new mentor and they changed their life.
But, at scale, right? I mean, if aliens came to earth and observed American educational outcomes and activity, one of the things that they would observe is that people tend to stay in their ability band.
And, the question is, is: could these interventions at the school side dramatically change that outcome? I mean, educational mobility is a whole 'nother discussion about whether that's even desirable. But, I'm just not sure that from what we know about the power of schools and teachers, that they can dramatically change the underlying distribution that we observe. So, it's not that they don't matter.
And, of course, the other point is that, of course schools matter, right? It's just, they don't always matter that much when it comes to the metrics that we care about, like graduation rate and standardized test scores. I think you can have a school that's a nightmare for kids, that is a cold, unfriendly place with cold and unfriendly teachers that don't do anything to inspire their kids to creativity, that don't present welcoming social aspects. I think, of course those things matter. Unfortunately, they're just not the kind of things that people seem to care about in our educational reform debates.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I mean, I've said before on the program that our current high school system prepares you for college, which is weird given that not everybody goes to college, and certainly not everybody excels at college. And, a lot of people don't graduate from college once they get there. Once they get to college, they're encouraged to take a career path to major in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] or business, as you point out, I think the largest single major in the United States. These are not contemplative or introspective areas of study. They are areas that emphasize the acquisition of a skill set. Nothing particularly wrong with that. But, it's a different narrow version than preparing someone for a test. It's not irrelevant. And, it often leads to very productive and valuable members of society. And, by that, I mean, people who make other people's lives better in all kinds of different ways. But, it's a kind of narrow slice of the population, which is part of your point. We can debate how big that is.
Russ Roberts: Well, let's talk about people in the bottom half. And, as you and I know, and even some non-academics know, there will always be about a half of the population in the bottom half. This is an unpleasant truth. Part of your book is pointing this out relentlessly, not--you pointed it out once. But, it's a fact. Now, where I disagree with you is on this area, is the significance of that.
So, it can certainly be the case that the bottom half can never achieve in test scores or in academic success. And, possibly--I wouldn't say salary; I'm going to disagree with that--but certainly on the standard things that people aspire to, that are kind of narrow, like test score grades, getting into an elite university. Those things, half the population is going to struggle with that. Not everybody can go to an elite college obviously.
But, surely you can increase the skills of the bottom half of the population without--I mean, that's certainly doable--without saying 'I can catapult them into the top half.' Right? Doesn't that make a difference? So, isn't it more than just relative standing, the fact that these bands of ability are fairly constant over a lifetime?
Fredrik deBoer: I mean, this is in fact, I think, one of the ways in which--I think you've hit upon one of the ways in which our educational debates are under-theorized, because you're talking about absolute learning. And, when we talk about education, people tend to think that they meet absolute learning. So, little Johnny has x amount of knowledge. He goes to school and he gets x+1 amount of knowledge and his learning has increased. And, I agree that's a noble goal.
The good news is that we might as well declare victory if our job is just to make people smarter in that absolute sense, because we know for the entirety of the 20th century and continuing to on to today, successive generations of people have gotten smarter and smarter.
So, you've got the Flynn Effect, named for James Flynn, an intelligence researcher whose research has found that people have just been getting smarter all the time. And, we know that's true of our demographics that we worry about the most.
So, for example, black children, black students, we know, we have a special interest in them because of achievement gaps that have been very persistent. But, a black third grader from right now blows away a black third grader from 15 years ago in terms of what they have, they can score, in absolute learning. And, so, we might as well declare victory, if that's what we're really concerned with.
The problem is, is: the system is set up to value relative position, right? I mean the whole college entrance game, which is this just incredibly draining and dispiriting, mercenary climb up the ranks for our 14- to 18-year olds are purely about relative learning. Yale is looking at your class rank, right? They want to see where you are relative to your peers. Your SAT scores--it's not the number itself. It's the number relative to the people who you are competing against. Your grades--there's wildly different levels of grade inflation in different high schools. And, so, your grades can't be taken as important in the absolute sense, but they have to be instead dedicated to a relative sense.
And, when we get to the part where we're handing out the jobs, if everybody gets better--and I want everybody to get better, and I think that there are things we can do differently and do more effectively--but if everybody gets better, we're all still in same place as a bunch of people competing against each other. Right? If I want to get a job and my competition has advanced to the exact same degree that I have, then I'm not sure how that helps you.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think it does. And, it's one of the places we disagree. I think it's the reason that the standard of living in the 20th century had such an extraordinary change. So, we all moved up in whatever you want to call it--credentials. Let's be overly cynical about the value of education. I'm not as cynical as some, say, Bryan Caplan, a past EconTalk guest. But, I do think there's a signaling aspect of it. And, I do think there's a zero-sum aspect to the elite college scramble. I would suggest that that scramble is partly among parents--parents who want to brag about what school their kid got into.
I think there's about 80 to 100 schools you can go to in America, study chemistry, study computer science. There might be more than a hundred. There are only five schools in the top five. But, there's a hundred good places you can learn to code well, learn how a cell works, and learn about accounting and finance, if you want to go into business.
And, so, some of this elitism game--I just think it's in the heads of a certain small group of people in a set of urban areas. And, I think for both wellbeing, financial reward, I think people could do fine come into lots of those other places. So, I'm not as discouraged as you are.
Fredrik deBoer: Yeah. I mean, I think that people can go--look, I think that the evidence is pretty clear that the median college graduate in America today--so, not Joe Elite, but Joe Average from State U.--is doing okay, is doing fine. I think that that's clear.
I worry on a couple of levels. The first one is that, so, only a third of American adults has a college degree. The ones who don't have college degrees, some of them, I don't doubt at all that there are people who have not gone to college because of circumstance, even though they have tons of ability. And, we should certainly hope that those people can get into the system and come and thrive. But, a ton of people who are not in the college system have self-selected out because they know that they don't have the temperament or the ability to succeed well in college.
And, so, if people are really are stuck on getting everybody into college, we've got to grapple with the fact that, look, we already have a retention crisis in this country trying to get people to the end of their degree. We already have a huge problem with people dropping out after their first semester of college. That's only going to get worse if we move more marginal candidates into there.
And, the other thing is that, I think that we have to ask how much slack there is in the system to absorb more college graduates, compared to the number of jobs. So, in the book, I say research from the National Bureau of Economic Statistics--no, no, no--the National Bureau of Economic Research--excuse me, NBER--a couple of researchers took a look at the college wage premium from 1890 to 2005. And, they found that to a remarkable degree--and that's their words, 'to a remarkable degree'--the college wage premium is a function of the ratio between the number of jobs requiring a college degree and the number of workers who have a college degree. In other words, the more jobs there were relative to the degree holders, the more the wage premium grew. The more degree holders that work compared to the number of jobs, the value of the degree declined.
And, the question is, is: can we continue to pile more and more college graduates into the system, knowing that the more and more people who graduate, the fewer and fewer outs there are in terms of jobs on the market?
If you look at the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs [?] progressions[?], the top field that's going to grow is not STEM. It's service jobs, service positions. And, the singlemost, highest-growing job, the one that is projected to grow the most in the next several decades is home health aid, which is not, like, a high education medical position. It's basically a job that does not require an education at all. And, it's to just go and take care of people in their homes.
And, so, I'm just nervous that if more and more of a higher and higher percentage of people go to college, then the harder and harder it is for them to find a job.
And, we mentioned those business majors, 350,000 of them graduating every year. It's no wonder that they only have alright outcomes based on some of the metrics I've seen, because they've got 350,000 people who are competing for the jobs they want. Right? And, that's my fear.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think, again, we agree that this idea that pushing everyone into college is just an illusion that somehow this premium we maintained in the face of a larger population going. I think there's a lot of reasons that premium won't be maintained. It's not just supply and demand. It's the quality skillset, talents of the people who will become future college graduates will not be the same as current ones. And, it would be a mistake to assume they would therefore earn the same premium.
Again, I would emphasize , though, that you can be very successful in life without a college degree. In my--the data that I remember saying, maybe I have this wrong, I will correct in the notes, if I am wrong. But, I think the 75th percentile of high school graduates makes more than the 25th percentile of college graduates, suggesting that there's a lot of variation here. It's not a golden ticket, getting a college degree. And, only going to high school and not going to college is not a--you're not sentenced to a life of misery.
Russ Roberts: For me, and let's turn to this if you'd like, and you can react to the other thing I said, if you want. But, for me I'm worried about the people in that bottom 25% of the population in terms of skillset, who don't really have a chance: they don't have the aptitude to become calculus--getting an A in calculus. As you point out, it's--not everybody can do it, no matter how hard they try. It's not their fault. It's genetic or their parents--or it doesn't matter what it is. It's just, that's not going to happen. Or, you could argue the amount of effort it takes for it to happen in that tutoring set, as you describe pointedly in the book, is so large that it's not realistic to assume that.
So, you know, what do we hope for, for those folks? And, I think there's two aspects of what we hope for, as a community and a society. One is material wellbeing. I think the people in the bottom quarter of the income distribution in the United States actually have pretty decent material wellbeing. There are people, of course, who struggle badly. But a lot of them do pretty well--on material means, relative, say, a hundred years ago, or even 50 years ago.
The harder question to me is about dignity. And, is about prestige, status, self-respect, self-worth. You write at one point, quote, "The notion that academic value is the only value, and intelligence the only true measure of human worth. It is pernicious, it is cruel, and it must change." So, I don't totally disagree with that. I think that attitude is out there, particularly among educated people and people with advanced degrees--I think overvalues[?] value of what they've achieved.
But, I do think there's an issue of people who are not doing something prestigious, and whether they can have a good life. And, by a good life, I mean, broadly defined. I think that's the key question. And, I think education should be re-structured, re-made, allowed to experiment to give opportunity to people who aren't going to Princeton, even to Stanford.
So, I think the--and I'm going to come back on you, I'm going to give you a hard time for it, Freddie, because I'm one of those neoliberal charter school fans, and, more than that, school choice fans. Is it part of the problem, is that we have this monolithic public school system that pushes people in this direction that, in a real world where people would want different choices, there'd be more choices? And, the current choices are terribly narrow. So, it's a lot--I apologize. That was a lot there. So, react to any part of that you feel like.
Fredrik deBoer: Well, no, that's fine. Well, look, the monolithic aspect, I would agree with you. I think one of the things I make clear in the book is that I want dramatically looser standards and more available programs if fiscally possible, so that students can make it their way through high school and through college with facing less onerous standards, and more able to craft a particular path through education that works for them.
What is the source of the monolithic structure of American education, though? The tightening standards has also been a key element of the school reform movement. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation essentially passed Common Core on their own. I mean, the speed with which they were able to institute Common Core was incredible. I think it's 41 states are Common Core States now.
And, to me, I mean, look, a lot of--this goes back to education being under-theorized, again. A lot of the same people who celebrate things like the Common Core also say we need more innovation and dynamism in teaching. But, standards are the opposite of innovation and dynamism, right? You can't have it both ways. You can't say I want educators to be more flexible and to offer more alternatives and for there to be different choices for kids to be able to go through; and then also say, 'Oh, but also let's make sure that every student in the country has the exact same performance standards.' It doesn't make sense.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I agree with that. I think the Common Core, No Child Left Behind, all of these national, top-down attempts to deal with the current system are really depressing. We agree on that. I think there's so many things wrong with them. I guess the differences is, where you and I would go someplace different: what would be better than that?
Let's look at the underlying issue, though, that you focus the first part of the book on, which I thought was so interesting.
Let me read you a quote from the book:
Everyone understands that in the domain of athletics, we are most certainly not born equal in ability. But this thinking is anathema when applied to academic aptitude. It frequently seems as if progressives only believe in evolution from the neck down. And, this sclerotic attitude is not just unnecessary. It is potentially crueler than the alternative.
I want you to expand on that. What's cruel about this idea that--I mean, I agree with you. I think there's a natural distribution of athletic talent. I'm going to give you your due. I don't think the analogy works perfectly, but it's certainly true that I can be taught to run faster, but I will never be fast. I was not given the muscle and coordinating ability to be a fast runner. I could certainly get better with training; certainly get a tutor, like we talked about, could make me a better runner. Just like a tutor can help a student who struggles in math to get a little bit better at that, but they'll never become--there's a limit. There's a limit. But, why is it cruel? Talk about why it's cruel.
Fredrik deBoer: Sure. I cite some sort of Enlightenment thinkers and Thomas Nagel and Burke in the book to discuss this idea that if something lies outside of your control, that should limit the degree to which we determine that thing's impact on your life. In other words, if you can't control your natural endowment for being good at school, if you just--again, for whatever reason, if it's genes fine. If it is your parents or your environment, fine. If for one way or the other, you can't control those things--and I do believe that we're not all under complete control over our academic outcomes--then it becomes cruel to base your life on those outcomes.
I mean, somebody who for whatever reason is in the--let's say they're in the bottom 10% of the ability distribution. Or even ignore ability--if they're in the bottom 10% of the outcomes, right? That is a person who might in contemporary America live in some rotting Rust Belt city, go on disability as the only main means to earn enough money to live; get addicted to Oxycontin, right? The stakes for this stuff is very real. Whereas, another person who is in the top 10% who came from the same background might find themselves getting a nice job in Brooklyn somewhere.
If we believe that a great deal of the determination of our outcomes is out of the hands of the individual, then it would seem to me to suggest that we should not let those outcomes be too negative. That, it is cruel to force people to live with the consequences of something that they never chose.
Russ Roberts: So, that's I think the best argument for socialism. I don't accept it, but I hope we'll confront it in the next half hour or so of this conversation. But, I want to ask a preliminary question, which is that, through most of at least American history, not world history, not human history, but through most of American history, the bottom 10%, whether they did well or not relative to--obviously, by definition, again, there's 10% at the bottom of the income distribution. Maybe the talent distribution is a little more complicated.
But, how about the people who struggle economically? There's always people who struggle relative to others. But, often those people's children did better than they did, saw hope, saw a chance to use their gifts, and did what I would call 'flourish'--the word I would emphasize is, should be our goal. They found a way to craft a good life for themselves. Certainly they didn't have an equal chance of getting into the top half. That's almost never true, probably in American history. That would be a myth. And, there are people that I agree with who hold that myth, but that would be a myth. And, yet without the elite degree, without the elite skillset, burdened by certain disadvantages, they could still fashion a good life for themselves and not be stuck on Oxycontin and have an end in a death of despair.
So, something changed. I would suggest, in America over the last a 100 years, 50 years, maybe 25 years--and I'm not sure it's something that actually changed. Could just be our perception of it has changed. Or it could be that our culture has moved in a very ugly direction in terms of judging people and making them feel unhappy with themselves simply because they're not leading some kind of imaginary life. But, I find that hard to understand. So, take a shot at that.
Fredrik deBoer: So, if I'm understanding you, the question is: Is the fact that people in the bottom 10% can carve out happy lives, sort of invalidates what I'm talking about? Is that what you mean?
Russ Roberts: I'm saying that not that they can, but through most of American history, I think they did.
I'm going to pick an example. And, I understand examples are dangerous. Anecdotes are always dangerous. But, I think about my grandfather on my father's side, who dropped out of school in the sixth grade, became a peddler. When he eventually found a career he could make a living at, he wasn't particularly good at it. But, his son and his grandson have done, and his children and grandchildren have done much better than he did, partly because they had other opportunities he didn't have, but partly because America--the whole system--advanced. And people got more productive, as we talked about earlier, through no fault of their own, no effort of their own. They lead a decent material life. And, more than that, they lead a decent non-material life. They have many pleasures in life.
I think that's still available to a large section of the population. I don't thinkit was any different--I'm not sure it was any different in 1950--but it feels different now. It feels, like you said, that image you talked about, the Rust Belt, failing person struggling to find work, not having any self-worth, getting addicted to drugs. What's different now than in 1950 or 1920?
I guess my question is: do you think everybody in the bottom 10% in the past had as equally desperate and unpleasant life, or is that a new phenomenon? It's the Cult of Smart: this emphasis on education and academic ability has unfairly punished a group of Americans that weren't punished before when education was viewed differently.
Fredrik deBoer: So, just as a preliminary, I think that something that you and I are just going to disagree about is: so, in common with most socialists, I think that as society progresses and things that get materially better, our definition of what is acceptable at the bottom must change too. Right? In other words, simply an argument of the type, 'A poor person today lives better than rich people from a hundred years ago,' that doesn't mean anything to me because society has progressed. And, the whole point is to bring everybody along with us as we go.
But, I do think that the Cult of Smart is in play there. And, I think that there is an implicit value system in this country that just makes a lot of people feel like losers. And, that we have the ability to make people feel like their lifestyle is not valid, if they don't conform to certain, both cultural and economic outcomes.
I mean, set aside for a second the bottom 10%. Once upon a time going to a low-tier to mid-tier white collar job in an office somewhere was seen as a very noble sort of a thing to do. You went to the office and then you came home and you provided for your family. And, you had a house and a car, two kids. But, now our culture has completely ironized[?] that lifestyle. It has completely rejected it and declared it ridiculous. So, if you look at a show like The Office or a movie like Office Space, you've got all these depictions--or, there's others; there's other examples--we've got all these depictions of the office life as being somehow pathetic. And, so, there's just another way to be a loser that was once a way to be a considered a winner.
I don't feel that I have a strong enough grasp of the history to really be able to say why it was easier to be in the bottom 10% then than it is now. The only thing that I can say is that I know that I have heard, and I know that I have read research in the past that suggests that your sense of how well you're doing in your own life is very often mediated by your perception of how other people are doing.
And, we have systems now, digital systems--social media, for example--that constantly put the successes of other people in our face all the time. And, I think it compels people to feel like, 'Boy, I'm not doing well. I should feel satisfied with the things that I have, but on Instagram every day there's people living lives that I can't lead, eating in restaurants, I can't eat at, driving cars that I can't drive, living in homes that I can't own.' And, so, yeah, I think that there is an implicit set of judgments that's harder and harder to ignore in the digital age, because it's just so in our face all the time.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't think there's any doubt that our perception of inequality is different than it has been in the past. That may be misleading. I think people also like to look at successful people. They enjoy it. It's true. Sometimes, as you say, it kind of depends who they are.
You and I, at least--I'll say you--you've chosen a career as a writer and a journalist that's less lucrative than probably others you could have chosen. Through some of my life as an academic, I took on a large--I refuse to accept the premium I could have had, had I chosen something different. And, I chose a life that was different.
I think that's a good idea. It's probably, it's a good idea not to take the job that pays the most money, that gives you the most townhouses and fancy cars and all that. I think that's good advice, in general. But, and it's also true that that's in many ways, maybe a little harder to make that choice today because of social media. I think that's possible.
I want to go back, though, to your earlier point about relative standing and socialism, because I think that'll help us segue into our discussion of more philosophical questions that I'd like us to confront. Which is the following: You said, as a Socialist, you think our standards of what's acceptable should change as our standard of living rises--what's acceptable for people at the bottom. And, I think that's true, whether you're a Socialist or not. I think people have different standards. Whether we should take them into account in public policy is what you're claiming. I think we ought to look at why that's happened. Like, what is the reason that our standard of living is so much higher in America today? I don't think it's only--I don't think--the fact that a poor person today lives better than a rich person a hundred years ago--that doesn't end the discussion. I agree with you there. But, it's not irrelevant.
And, I guess, the other thing that I'd focus on is: I guess I'd call it the role of agency--the ability to feel autonomy and control of your life. And, I think some of those white collar shows--the office shows, the management shows that lampoon that--they're partly the fact that those people have a certain slavery about them, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb would point out. He says if you have a salary, you're a slave. And, obviously people boss you around, if you have a boss. And, that's no fun. There can be rewards beyond the monetary in those environments that make them worthwhile, but that's part of what matters.
And, I think the--maybe it's true. I'm not sure if I'm ready to concede this, but maybe it's true that people feel less autonomy in their jobs, right? It's really hard to be a blacksmith today. You're not going to make good living. We understand that the world, the economy evolves and changes. So, the fact that some things don't do what they did before, I think that's kind of okay. And, accepting that as part of what lets us increase that standard of living.
But, my point would be that that change to the standard of living matters, but it's not the only thing that matters. The other thing that matters, I would argue, is dignity, autonomy, and agency. And, maybe those aren't as healthy as they were before, but I certainly wouldn't want to give up the changes in absolute well-being that have happened. And, I think those are due to capitalism.
Fredrik deBoer: Well, this is the question, which is: so I got into a debate in a few months ago with a friend of mine, who is a libertarian. And, I had cited him this statistic that I had found very interesting, which is that in the 1930s, one farmer could produce enough food in one year to feed four people for one year. So, one farmer, four people, in one year. Today one farmer can grow enough food to feed 125 people in a year. So, the productive output of agriculture has just grown to an astonishing rate. Not surprisingly, the number of people involved in agriculture as an occupation has gone way down.
Now, of course, he saw this as an endorsement of capitalism because of the great production values[?]. I saw it as saying: Hey, look, we're getting to a point where we're so productive--we're so much more productive than we were a hundred years ago. We're so much more productive than the Russians could possibly have been in 1917, that we're reaching a place in which we should be able to believe that we can feed everyone because of the incredible productive capacity.
And, in fact, this is a Marxist idea. It's really essential to say Marx said that a robust period of capitalist growth is absolutely a prerequisite for a socialist economy. That you can't go straight from feudalism to socialism--which is another reason why the Russian Revolution failed. You have to have a period of capitalist industrialization because capital is so good at that. And, I don't think any serious Marxists would deny that.
The question is, is: when do we come to the stage where we say, 'Okay, we can probably put a roof over every head if we choose to do it because we are so productive, because of the miracles and growth in living standards in the West over the last 100 years.'
And, so, to him, that was an endorsement of capitalism. To me, it was like, 'Hey, maybe it's time.'
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Fredrik deBoer: A dramatically higher standard of living sounds like an opportunity to care for everyone.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's true in a small setting. It's definitely true in the family. As Walter Williams likes to point out, and I like to point out quoting him, the family is a socialist institution. Once we get wealthy enough as a family, we take care of all of us. We try to do that as much as possible. And, it's a wonderful thing. We share that.
And, it's certainly true that the incredible productivity of the past--that the growth and productivity over the past decades and centuries--does make a Marxist or a more egalitarian vision possible.
And, I would argue we've done all that already. We've certainly fed everyone in the United States, to the extent that we have an obesity problem, much more than a starvation problem. There are people who struggle with food. Many of them just have trouble getting access to the government programs or charities that work on that. They're homeless. They don't want to go into institutional settings--which is a tragedy, but a reality. But, I'd say we kind of solved that problem. And, so much so--and by the way, where I would maybe bring you and your libertarian friend together--part of our productivity in agriculture comes from government programs that increase knowledge about farming. Part of it came from subsidies that have allowed us to quote, "feed more than just our people," but that's--some of those subsidies have caused damage, I think, to foreign, international agricultural markets. And, is a pernicious, unintended consequence of the political power of farmers.
So, we've solved that. We've created a safety net. The difference , I think, between you and me is I think that you want a much bigger--you don't even want a safety net. You want something, a different way of imagining how citizens would interact with the society at large.
So, lay out that case. Because, here's the fun part. Here's where we agree. I think you can argue, and I've done so in an essay on Medium, a three-part essay; and, I think by the time this airs, the third part will be up.
So, in the first two parts, I'd make the point that you make in your book where we agree, which is: I don't think I deserve what I have. I have an incredibly blessed financial life, now. I didn't when I first came out of grad school, as I alluded to earlier; but I have a fantastic financial security. My children have certain advantages that other people's children don't have. I accept that. My success is partly genetic, partly environmental. And, the part that feels like mine, like how hard I work or how creative I am, you could argue that's genetic and environmental, too.
So, this whole idea that you can somehow pull yourself up by your bootstraps and those who don't are failures --that, I think I agree with you. I think that's something of a myth. Something of a myth, not totally: something of a myth. The question is what do you do about it? So, I want to let you go first. Talk about it. So, I'll accept your vision, that the so-called meritocratic system we currently have is a bit of an illusion. And, what should we do instead?
Fredrik deBoer: Sure. So, look, in terms of the justification for a system like this in light of all of incredible increases to standards of living--yeah, I live in the richest city, in the richest country, in the history of the world. And, 60,000 people in this city will sleep in homeless shelters tonight. Right? Tens of thousands more will sleep in the subway or park benches, etc.
Russ Roberts: You're in New York, I assume.
Fredrik deBoer: In New York. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Fredrik deBoer: All of our increases in the standard of living has not changed the fact that there are people who live truly desperate lives at the bottom. And, I personally think there's a moral imperative to take care of those people to a degree that we're not doing right now.
I also think that there are increasingly issues that would sure look like economic issues caused by the market. So, for example, again, living in New York, it's becoming impossible for regular people to live here because of the housing prices are so high. Now, of course, there's many conservative people who will argue that that's because of government regulation that depresses the market--that distorts the market, excuse me. And, I'm not going to get into that right now.
But, I just think that there's much more that we could be doing, again, as the richest country in the history of the world to help those of us who need help the most.
There's a huge eviction crisis coming in New York because of COVID-19-related problems. And, also, like 20 million other Americans, I don't have health insurance. Right? So, there are systematic problems in our economy that need change such as a Medicare for All single payer system, which has a number of advantages, as you are aware.
In the book, I am a little bit agnostic about what exact programs to put forward, because there's lots of inter-Left debates about these things. So, I talk about both the Jobs Guarantee and a Universal Basic Income. This has become quite a fight among the Left about whether, which of these programs is superior. Jobs Guarantees says that the Feds will guarantee you a job that you can do working in some productive capacity; when you don't have a job and it will be counter-cyclical, and etc., etc. Universal Basic Income says that the government will cut you a check in order to ensure that you can provide for yourself regardless of your underlying economic conditions.
But, one way or the other, I think that we have got immense wealth at the top. And, we've got a lot of need at the bottom. And, I think that there's a--and I include the upper middle class, by the way. I think that sometimes some socialists are a little dishonest and only focusing on the upper-class. Because, if we're going to fund a real, Scandinavian-style Social Democracy, we're going to have to increase taxes on the middle class as well. Which, you have to accept that. But, yeah, I want to skinny the distribution, right? I want a higher floor and a lower ceiling to pay for it.
Russ Roberts: So, where we agree is that it would be great to do something for those 60,000 homeless people. I just want to say, I understand the arguments for Medicare for All; I don't find them compelling. I think it would be a bad system. I'm willing to concede it would be better than what we have now, because I think what we have now is a horrible system, a hodgepodge of private and public incentives. It's, I think, a disaster. But, that wouldn't be my ideal if I'm going to dream. But that's okay. That's not so important. I think that's not the focus of our conversation, the nuts and bolts of healthcare.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the 60,000 people that are out there. And, I'm sympathetic to your argument that in a wealthy society there's something--and as you say, it's not just a wealthy society. It's the wealthiest--you could argue, it's the most materially successful city in human history, in the top half. And, yet in the bottom half, there's people sleeping on sewer grates and who are hungry, in rags.
And, the question is: What do we do about that? How do we help those folks? And, I think where for a company--and I don't accept the conservative--it's something[?] of a straw man, I think, on the conservative side, that they just need to try harder or get up earlier in the morning or whatever.
I think most thoughtful conservatives understand that that's a special situation. But, what are we to do for them? What do we know about how to help those folks? We offer lots of help right now. There's a bunch of government programs. There's all kinds of private charities doing creative work to try to feed those people, give them some help. These are widespread in cities like San Francisco and New York, which have been fairly friendly to homelessness--so that you don't get rounded up anymore, and you don't get put in jail. You don't get put in an institution. And, there's something beautiful about that. And, there's something tragic about it.
I don't think we know how to help them. And, by help them, I mean, actually help them. Really, what I mean is help them help themselves, which is what ought to be the standard. We certainly know how to provide a soup kitchen, and they're out there already.
So, is it really lack of, say, political will that not enough people agree with, say, your philosophy that keeps us from helping those 60,000 people?
Fredrik deBoer: I mean, look: it's a complicated question. I do think, again--so, let's forget about Medicare for All, and just say government-guaranteed medical care. In other words, if there was a guarantee, if everyone had a guarantee of being able to receive care, regardless of ability to pay, then you would hope that a number of those people would wind up at the mental health system earlier and easier than they do now. Of course, there's going to be people who resist that for very obvious reasons.
I also think that, you know, there is a not very large, but, to me, convincing literature showing that the most successful programs for housing for homeless people have been giving them homes--has been giving them apartments at extremely reduced rental rates, and then setting them up inside of them. And, for many people, this results in a permanent return to the homed population.
The question to me, I mean, this just really gets back to a very visceral underlying philosophy of socialism and of politics is just, you know: it's difficult to do good well, but we have to try.
And, I think that if they were living with something like a jobs guarantee and Medicare for All, then they'd have a place to go to work and they'd have a place to go to get mental health care if they need it. Those sort of things, I think, would make a difference.
Will there always be desperate people who resist help? Yes, that's true. I can't deny that.
Russ Roberts: But, that's the thin version of what you advocate in the book. What you advocate for in the book is a much broader measure of equality. A much more--not just a narrowed income distribution, which the current system does. The current system of taxes and transfers has a non-trivial effect on the income distribution. You can argue it should be bigger.
But, you're arguing for much more than just an expansion of that effort. You want a transformation of society where people's innate ability, for whatever reason that they come to the labor market with, is not the determinant of their pay. Is that fair?
Fredrik deBoer: I mean, to a degree, yeah. I mean, this is one of the things--I mean, a question that I've been getting in interviews is, 'Will the talented still have an incentive to perform well, if you are reducing their reward?' And, even in the world that I envisioned, talented people, smart people--they're going to do okay. Right? They're going to do okay no matter what, because, again, they have that ability and they have that advantage. And, you know, they'll be fine.
I got interviewed by the Seattle newspaper, The Stranger, in I think maybe February. And, they were asking me about the fact that Seattle is closing it's gifted student program. And, the reason for that was that the program's racial demographics were so different from the racial demographics of the school system as a whole. And, it was quite controversial.
And, so, the reporter was asking me, 'What about these parents who were worried for their gifted children?' And, I said, 'They'll be fine, they're gifted.' Right? Like, the gifted kids are going to do okay, regardless of whether they have a special program or not.
I'm just not that worried that--there still going to be ambition. There's still going to be personal impulse, personal--
Russ Roberts: Drive--
Fredrik deBoer: Yeah. Personal drive. There's still going to be differences in income, even if you institute every one of the programs that I say, there's still going to be pretty vast differences in income.
So, it just seems to me that, yeah--I want to--my ultimate goal would be to change the system where your intellectual talents more or less determine where you end up in the distribution. But, there's a lot of slack. There's a lot that could be done to maybe make the rewards a little bit less pronounced for Stanford computer-science grads to go to work for Google. And, the consequence is a little bit less stark for those who struggle and then end up dropping out of high school.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The challenge, of course, is that the current system that we have is somewhat capitalist. It still has a lot of supply and demand effects. It's really hard to stop scarce talent from getting rewarded, whether it's in the--even in the NBA, which is basically something of a cartel, The National Basketball Association--just having athletic ability gives you an enormous economic leg up.
I think there's a certain justice in that, in that those folks entertain a lot of people. But, you can argue as you do that those gifts aren't given to them. They do work really hard, by the way. That's something, I think, has to be kept in mind. And, I don't think they would work as hard. Is that important? I don't know.
Fredrik deBoer: I just, I think that highly-talented and hardworking individuals are the kind of people who are self-motivated and who are goal-oriented, even when there's not the carrot on the end of the stick isn't that large. I mean, I just think that of have the ambitious people I know, I think they'd be ambitious no matter what the context was. And, they would find ways to climb a ladder, even if we made a system where the reward and the price of how well you perform were both a little bit narrower.
Russ Roberts: Well, I don't think they'd work a 16-hour day. They might work a 9-hour or 10-hour day still, or a 7-hour day. And, that will make a difference. But, I don't disagree with you totally.
Russ Roberts: I think the bigger challenge for your worldview, which I want you to defend, is that the people who have embraced your view fully--it has not turned out so well, historically.
The most dramatic small-scale example would be the kibbutzim, the kibbutzes of Israel that--they still exist. That, there's still some that have the social setting, but most of them were not palatable to the people inside them. When they got older, they left. The cultures, the societies that have embraced that fully had a major problem with the phenomenon we're talking about--which is effort. The truly--the top-down controlled--not Sweden, but Cuba, North Korea, Soviet Union--they had trouble getting effort.
Now, you could argue that was a cultural difference that we wouldn't have. That we have a different cultural base in America. But how do you react to those historical worries?
Fredrik deBoer: Well, of course I'm worried. I think that the effort is still worth being made. I think that one thing to bear in mind is that traditionally one of the disadvantages Communism had, was that traditionally the countries that to which Communism were most appealing, and the ones that had revolutions, were the ones that were poorest. Right? In other words, because there were so many poor people in 1917 Russia or in China, in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, part of the reason that a redistributive state sounded like a great idea is because so many of the people were so desperately poor that the system couldn't possibly seem to get any worse to them.
Unfortunately, that meant that just utterly, economically devastated countries were the ones that undertook communist revolutions.
Again, I just think that--first of all, we have the potential to spread these ideas in a purely democratic way. That, we can make the appeal not through a violent revolution, but through the democratic process. That people can listen to what we have to say and make up their minds for themselves, whether it or not this system sounds better.
But, also that, you know, if we do it, it introduces a vastly different economic situation, a vastly different industrialization effort. I mean, you know, we wouldn't be going from a literal feudal economy with, you know, desperately poor peasants scrambling to survive. We'd be starting up with a tremendous productive infrastructure in place that could be put to use ensuring the good of all people instead of only of the good of some.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think the cultural aspect of it is what's disturbing. I don't--I think it's a good argument--it's an interesting argument. I make the same argument for a more libertarian world--that we're rich enough that we could afford it now. It's ironic.
But, I think there's a deeper question here that can't be answered, that I think a book like yours forces one to think about, which is that how much of what we observe around us in terms of wellbeing is the result of cultural, say, conceptions of the role of education or academic ability and our self-worth, or how we look at our friends and neighbors.
And, I think the flip side of that is that a society that ends programs for gifted children, because they lead to inequality is going to have cultural impacts that maybe are not so attractive either.
So, we're both, kind of--we're in the dark, here. I don't think there's a lot of empirical work. I think it's fundamentally an ideological and in some sense of spiritual question of how we think the ideal society should be organized.
And, I would just close and I'll let you react to it. And, then we'll bring it home. But, I think: Trying to solve these problems of meaning and wellbeing, and equal or unequal treatment work much better in smaller groups. And, trying to do these at the level of a society of heterogeneous strangers is--I think it's deeply unappealing to me. Obviously, it's not to you.
But, I think for those who share your views, I would encourage people to do these social experiments at a smaller level. See if people like it. Still give them the opportunity to vote with their feet--which is what happened in Israel, as it evolved into a different kind of society.
And, you and I both share the challenge that our viewpoints are minority viewpoints. Yours is on the rise, though. So, we'll see. We may get some movement at the--through the democratic process.
But, what do you think of this idea of smaller scale and this issue of cultural effects beyond just the idea of the policy change?
Fredrik deBoer: Yeah. I mean, I'm on board with small scale solutions. I mean, I have to be, right? I'm an American Socialist, which means that I don't have the luxury of assuming that anything that I believe is going to be instituted nationally anytime soon. And, I certainly think that we need Petri dishes in which people can experiment and try new things, and develop new experiences and wisdom about.
You know, for me, the hardest part of the book is figuring out how to change the 'Cult of Smart' attitude. How to change the cultural and social expectation that your academic ability is this determiner of your youth--of your value.
And, there's not a lot of good answers to that question. I mean, I can put out a documentary about this thing and say, 'Hey, why don't we do that?' And maybe some people's mind will change.
But, ultimately, I think that culture follows economics. And, as long as we have a system that is handing out reward and is handing out the good life to people based on academics is going to be a powerful cultural force to compel people to say, 'Hey, your kid is only as good as their report card.' And, so, ultimately I think the economics have to change before the culture will change.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Fredrik deBoer. His book is The Cult of Smart. Freddie, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Fredrik deBoer: Thanks a lot for having me.