Economists: Education should be nation’s top priority

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, took it upon himself to do what no one else seemed willing to do: poll economists and ask them their views on the economy and the candidates. He hired a polling firm “at considerable personal expense” and has shared the results.

He summarizes the results in a CNN op-ed (the complete report here). An extract:

we asked the economists which candidate they thought would do the best job on the most important issues. For me, the surprise is how many economists say there would be no difference.

The economists in our survey favor Obama on 11 of the top 13 issues. But keep in mind that 48 percent are Democrats and only 17 percent are Republicans.

Among independents, things are less clear, with 54 percent thinking that in the long run there would either be no difference between the candidates or McCain would do better.

The top priority amongst economists? Education.

The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser makes the case for more public spending on education:

The case for governmental investment in education reflects the fact all of us become more productive when our neighbors know more. The success of cities like Boston reflects the magic that occurs when knowledgeable people work and live around each other. As the share of adults in a metropolitan area with college degrees increases by 10 percent, the wages of a worker with a fixed education level increases by 8 percent. Area level education also seems to increase the production of innovations and speed economic growth.

American education is not just another arrow in a quiver of policy proposals, but it is the primary weapon, the great claymore, to fight a host of public ills. One can make a plausible case that improving American education would do as much to improve health outcomes as either candidate’s health plans. People with more years of schooling are less obese, smoke less, and live longer. Better-educated people are also more likely to vote and to build social capital by investing in civic organizations.

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  1. oldnorthvicar

    Not to be too cynical, but how many of the economists surevyed work in the education industry? If economists were all employed by construction fimrs, might they assert that infrastructure repairs were the most important issue?

    Steve Ayres

  2. John B. Chilton

    That point crossed my mind, too, Steve. The sample is from members of the American Economic Association which is heavily comprised of academics. Still, my gut tells me that it isn’t parochial interest, or lack of perspective, that drives the ranking (note that health care comes up second), but a genuine sense that as Glaeser writes education is that great claymore for a host of social ills.

    The big unanswered question that follows is what would education reform look like?

  3. RalphW

    It is a serious mistake to assume that more money spent at the state and federal levels on education will translate into a better education for our children. Washington DC spends about $24,600 per student on its educational system ( with miserable results. School vouchers would do far more to improve the quality of education, by bringing competition to a profession that has lacked it for far too long. Many parents, if given half of the amount spent by the public school system on their child in the form of a voucher would cheerfully make up the difference to fund a quality private school education for their children.

    Ralph Wagenet

  4. Margret Hjalmarson

    The problem with the voucher system is all the parents who couldn’t possibly afford the rest of the tuition not covered by the voucher, couldn’t get their kids to a non-neighborhood school because they’re working 2+ jobs, or live in an area where there are limited options (e.g., rural areas, inner cities). In addition, there probably aren’t enough private schools to handle an influx of public school students.

    The more our children’s education lags behind the rest of the world, the more jobs will go elsewhere.

  5. tgflux

    Many parents, if given half of the amount spent by the public school system on their child in the form of a voucher would cheerfully make up the difference to fund a quality private school education for their children.

    If I don’t get to vote on the curriculum, and over-all administration of an education system, then they don’t get MY tax dollars to play around with, RalphW. Them’s the breaks, if you want to go private.

    JC Fisher

  6. oldnorthvicar

    To the above posters: I don’t understand how the debate about vouchers relates about the survey of economists about top issues going forward. Why do you have to change the subject?

    To JBC: The assumption that world is going to need a more educated workforce may be falling apart in front of us as we speak. The financial services industry is very education intensive, but it is shedding jobs ( and capital!!) at a rapid pace. Related industries, like hi-tech and legal may feel the pinch next.

    What if there is a lower demand for an educated workforce after this global recession?

    If you were an unemployed worker, how would you hear this survey that asserts that more education is the solution? Perhaps it would sound like, “If you weren’t so uneducated (stupid), you’d be better off.”

    Just because education has worked well for those of us who have alot of it, doesn’t mean it will work well for everyone.

    Maybe we should talk about what kind of education we need. I sit on the board of a inner city college that provides technical training for low income students. They learn how to fix cars, computers, medical equipment etc. That education is much more valuable than crating more MBA’s and alot less expensive.

    The gospel for the week (Matthew 20) presents the economics of the Kingdom of God. Totally unworkable on a macro level, you might say, but it is the gospel, and struggling with it may help us rebuild a better economy.

    – Steve Ayres

  7. Keep the comments coming, even the ones debating vouchers.

    Steve, I don’t see what the mess on Wall Street has to do with a debate over whether government should spend more on education. Nor would I accept the indirect implication that financial sector jobs are unproductive, counterproductive or irrelevant to our well being.

    I do agree that where we have probably been weakest is in educating the kind of young people you are helping through your participation on the board of an inner city college.

    As far as the voucher debate going on above I will first confess that I am a supporter of an expansion of vouchers. I agree with the concern that government dollars should not be given away without proper accountability for results. I am concerned with evidence that parents of children who benefit most from vouchers are the least successful in getting their children into good schools.

    I do NOT endorse Fisher’s viewpoint that “If I don’t get to vote on the curriculum, and over-all administration of an education system, then they don’t get MY tax dollars to play around with, RalphW. Them’s the breaks, if you want to go private.”

    Why? First, there’s a case to be made that government centralization has failed many students. Why shouldn’t we continue to use a model that has failed. It’s unethical not to give those students and their parents an alternative.

    Second, there’s the issue of the ethics of gift giving. In Islam there an ethic that the fewer strings attached the better. Just because we giving someone a gift what makes it ethical to take away their autonomy?

  8. oldnorthvicar


    I am all for spending more on education, but as a confirmed contrarian, I like to question the received wisdom that education gets us the best bang for the buck.

    Should we spend limited public resources to educate more people for white collar jobs, or should we use the same resources to create more blue collar jobs maintaining and upgrading our infrastructure to make it more environmentally sustainable and energy efficient?

    Of course, these newer construction jobs may require a better educated workforce. But then I am writing from Boston, one of the most intensely educated cities in the country with one of the biggest delayed maintenance backlogs.

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