Saturday, 2 October 2010

Geniuses at Work

Early this week, the MacArthur Foundation announced the winners of its 2010 “genius awards”. Twenty three geniuses were granted $100,000 a year each for 5 years – no strings attached – to continue doing whatever ingenious work they were doing, free from financial concerns.

One genius was economics professor Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley who, according to the New York Times, “studied the economic impact of outstanding kindergarten teachers.”

I spent a few minute to check out the work. It is a collaborative project with 5 other economists from Northwestern and Harvard which purports to fill a perceived gap:
What are the long-term impacts of early childhood education? Evidence on this important policy question remains scarce because of a lack of data linking childhood education and adult outcomes.
To that end, Saez et al follow a group of kindergarteners to adulthood and, using tax returns, match the subjects’ income to their class size and teachers’ experience in kindergarten. They conclude that:
improving the quality of schools in disadvantaged areas may reduce poverty and raise earnings and tax revenue in the long run.
I will not say anything about the methodology of the research: first, equating the reported income of grown men and women with their “success” and then using that income to judge the role of their kindergarten teacher or the size of their kindergarten class in making that income. I will not say anything because I know this type of mindless, clerical quantitative work is what passes for economic research in the nation’s universities.

Nor will I comment about the purpose and conclusion of the research. Six economists spending heaven only knows how much in grant money to conclude that: i) education is somehow important to “adult outcomes” and; ii) the poor do not get good education. Any comments along that line would be missing the point.

I only want to draw your attention to the cynicism of the researchers. Note their statement in the beginning about early childhood education being a “policy question”.

Exactly. The reason that millions – and tens of millions of students, preschoolers or otherwise – do not get a proper education is a matter of policy, i.e., conscious, decision.

Our researchers know that. And, yet, how do they confront the problem? They meekly suggest that perhaps the powers that be should consider improving the lot of down-and-outers because that would result in higher tax collection.

That’s a theoretical cold-bloodedness that would make Larry Summers cringe. As for the practicality of their advice? It is certain to be adopted the morning after Judgment Day.