Stop having pointless debates. Bryan Caplan seems to inspire a lot of them!
The fact that Nigerians and Bolivians don’t spend more of their hard-earned money on education is a solid free-market reason to conclude that additional education would be a waste of their money.
Conclusion: everywhere is over-educated.
If I think of the Mexican village where I have done field work, the education sector “works” as follows. No one in the village is capable of teaching writing, reading, and arithmetic. A paid outsider is supposed to man the school, but very often that person never appears, even though he continues to be paid. Children do have enough leisure time to take in schooling, when it is available. I am told that most of the teachers are bad, when they do appear. You can get your children (somewhat) educated by leaving the village altogether, and of course some people do this. In the last ten years, satellite television suddenly has become the major educator in the village, helping the villagers learn Spanish (Nahuatl is the indigenous language), history, world affairs, some science from nature shows, and telenovela customs. The villagers seem eager to learn, now that it is possible.
That scenario is only one data point but it is very different than the “demonstrated preference” model which Bryan is suggesting. Bolivia and Nigeria are much poorer countries yet and they have dysfunctional educational sectors as well, especially in rural areas. Bad roads are a major problem for “school choice” in these regions, just as they are a major problem for the importation of teachers.
Conclusion: lots of places have bad education. But here’s the thing. Cowen is very smart, and I don’t mean to disagree with him lightly, but surely he’s missing the point here. If the existing (and that’s the key here) education is poor, then that just fits in with Caplan’s model of people saying “well this education isn’t worth it, so I’ll buy food/housing”, or in Cowen’s Mexico case: “I’ll get satellite tv and get entertainment and education!” But that’s the exact point: Cowen and Caplan are using two different definitions of “education.” Which is precisely why Cowen says this:
I consider most countries in today’s world to be undereducated.
Cowen means an actual education, a final product — actual knowledge in your brain. If the school attempting to provide this does it poorly, that is under-education — an insufficient attempt to achieve “education.” And yes, with this definition, most countries of the world are under-educated, because as he ably points out, they don’t invest much in it, and the quality is poor. Caplan is using it as “formal education process,” in which case that Mexican village is indeed “over-educated,” because as Cowen notes, that product isn’t very good — so it’s entirely possible that they would be better off spending their resources on things they consider more important. And those villagers seem to agree, based on Cowen’s description of their purchasing choices.
This entire debate rests on the definition of the word “educated.” Cowen also lists a large number of other very good points that, while being very smart and relevant to the discussion of education in developing countries, don’t really refute Caplan’s point if we use his definition. Caplan’s definition may be stupid, and you can definitely say “your definition makes people think that developing countries shouldn’t ever spend on education,” but given the obvious way in which he’s using it, his theory is sound. Here’s the kicker from Cowen’s piece:
Of course Bryan favors rising wealth and falling fixed costs, as do I.
That’s the point. Both people want developing countries to get richer, so that they can have more food, more housing, more education. Caplan is just saying that if apparently people don’t value it much, we shouldn’t provide it to them to the exclusion of things they want more (opportunity cost always being implicit when an economist is speaking) and Cowen believes it is a thing distinct from the actual implementation, and that poor education is under-education. Both definitions are valid.
James Joyner also disagrees, but he picks a perfect example that illustrates the difference in defining “education”:
Even at lowly Jacksonville State, I had Nigerian students in my classes. Rich Nigerians. Their illiterate countrymen aren’t spending more of their hard-earned money on education because they’re wasting it on food, not because they think they’re better off uneducated.
That’s precisely the point of contention. There is no debate that every single person on the planet values food more than education — or at least, they won’t fail to do so for long. Joyner is of course correct to point this out. But if you have to decide between some vital thing like food and education (as Joyner implies that they are, because he says that they can’t spend on education because of the need to buy food) you better choose food — and if you either spend more on education yourself (private education) or someone else comes in and provides it (public or charity education) even though you’d prefer food, you are, by Caplan’s definition, over-educated. However, by Joyner’s definition of a standard of education that would improve the qualify of life for a Nigerian or Ethiopian, they are indeed under-educated. It’s almost like different definitions of concepts lead to different conclusions about whether or not one should have more of that concept!
But Andrew Sullivan isn’t really concerned with the definitions. To him, this is just another sign of crazy extremist libertarians :
Bryan [C]aplan believes that there is no country on earth that is under-educated. Here is where you end up when libertarianism becomes dogma:
Or maybe just where you end up when a number of very smart people define a very complex concept freighted with thousands of years of intellectual baggage in different ways. Six of one, half-dozen of the other, right?
Every one of the four people above want the same thing: for developing countries to have more resources so they can have more things they want — food, education, housing, whatever. The entire debate is over the definition of the term “educated,”
— and one that can easily be divined by just looking at how the other person is using the word. But it’s apparently much more productive to call Caplan crazy (I haven’t seen if he has responded to any critics by calling them crazy; yet) — Cowen is of course excluded from this, as he approaches the debate in a professional manner, as usual. (This is unfair of me, I’m complaining about people assigning bad motives to others by assigning bad motives to them. Not good.)
Now, for myself, I disagree with Caplan too! I think using the same word to define “education” in the US and in the developing world obscures much of the important differences between the two situations that need to be considered when making decisions about them. But he started the conversation, so I’m willing to grant him the privilege of defining the basic terms. If I want to disagree, I need to focus on that definition — not just use my own and pretend Caplan’s an idiot for not recognizing it.