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Do we need more education?

Posted By Russ Roberts On June 15, 2012 @ 2:31 pm In Education | Comments Disabled

Krugman criticizes Romney [1]:

In the remarks Mr. Romney later tried to deny, he derided President Obama: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” Then he declared, “It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

You can see why I was ready to give points for honesty. For once, he actually admitted what he and his allies mean when they talk about shrinking government. Conservatives love to pretend that there are vast armies of government bureaucrats doing who knows what; in reality, a majority of government workers are employed providing either education (teachers) or public protection (police officers and firefighters).

So would getting rid of teachers, police officers, and firefighters help the American people? Well, some Republicans would prefer to see Americans get less education; remember Rick Santorum’s description of colleges as “indoctrination mills”? Still, neither less education nor worse protection are issues the G.O.P. wants to run on.

But the more relevant question for the moment is whether the public job cuts Mr. Romney applauds are good or bad for the economy. And we now have a lot of evidence bearing on that question.

I didn’t follow the Romney narrative. But he was on to something even if he indeed did backtrack–Obama wants to grow the public sector and so does Krugman. They both want more teachers (and police and firefighters, presumably.) The current level is never optimal. More is better. It doesn’t matter if the number has grown dramatically lately. More is better. Similarly, we never spend enough on education. So if you want to spend less on education, that means you’re against education. The fact that there is little evidence that spending more actually produces more education is ignored. Spending on education is presumed to produce more education. Similarly, adding teachers and reducing class size means more education even if there is little evidence of this effect.

Missing from Krugman’s article is any historical perspective on how many teachers, police officers, or firefighters we had five or ten years ago. The fact that employment is falling at the state and local level is seen to be a sort of exogenous bad turn of events. But my guess is that the source of the calamity was a previous increase in state and local employment that was not sustainable. The states can’t afford these workers any longer.

If someone has reliable link to time-series data on state and local, please post in the comment. I could only find 1997, 2002, and 2007 in the Census data.

The New York Times titled Krugman’s piece, We Don’t Need No Education, as if opposing increases in the number of teachers or educational spending means you want zero education. More education would be nice. Spending more or expanding the number of teachers isn’t the way to get there from here.

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