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SSC Gives A Graduation Speech

[Trigger warning for deliberately provoking horror about graduates’ real-world post-college prospects]
[Epistemic status: intended as persuasive speech, may somewhat overstate case]

Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to have been invited to speak here at the great University of [mumble]. Go Wildcats, Spartans, or Eagles, as the case may be!

I apologize if what I have to say to you sounds a little unpolished. I was called in on very short notice after your original choice for graduation speaker, Mr. Steven L. Carter, had his invitation to speak rescinded due to his offensive and quite honestly outrageous opinions. Let me say in no uncertain terms that I totally condemn him and everything he stands for, and that I am glad to see the University of [mumble] taking a strong stand against this sort of thing.

Ladies and gentlemen, probably the most famous graduation speech in history was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Wear Sunscreen” address. I’m sure you’ve all heard about it. He told an MIT class that they should wear sunscreen. Because for all he knew any more substantial advice he gave might be wrong, but that at least was on a firm evidential basis.

Well, I come here before you to explain that there is now serious controversy in the dermatological community. A 1995 paper found that people who used more sunscreen had a much higher risk of malignant melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Eight years later, a review article claimed that the original paper was confounded by fairness of skin, and that likely the relationship between sunscreen use and melanoma is zero. But the story was further complicated by the finding that sunscreen use may increase cancers of the internal organs, either through vitamin D dependent or some vitamin D independent pathways. My understanding is that a majority of dermatologists are still in favor of sunscreen, but that the issue is by no means settled.

But think about what the disagreement means. One of the smartest men in America came before an auditorium just like this, and said that there was only one item of advice of which he was completely certain – that you should wear sunscreen. Absolutely certain. And years later, we know that not only is this a very complicated question on which no certainty is yet possible – but it may very well be that if you follow his advice, you will get cancer and die.

Sometimes the things everybody knows everybody knows just aren’t true. Like, did you know Vonnegut never wrote a graduation speech about sunscreen at all?

So with this spirit of questioning assumptions in mind, I want to ask you a question. Today many of you will be completing your education. Sure, some of you are going on to graduate or professional training, but it is clearly the end of an era. Seventeen years, from kindergarten to the present, and I want to ask you:

Is education worth it?

This sounds like the introduction to every college graduation speech ever. The speaker will ask if education is worth it, say of course it is because something something the human condition, and everyone will cheer and head off to the reception. So in order to keep you on your toes, I want to make the opposite point. What if education, as you understand it – public or private or charter schooling from age four or five all the way to university as young adults – is, on net, a waste of your time and money?

In order to move beyond platitudes in evaluate whether education is worthwhile – to give it the same kind of fair hearing we would want to give sunscreen – we need to list out some of the costs and benefits. Of benefits, two stand out clearly. The philosophical benefits of feeling connected to the beauty of mathematics, the passion of the humanities, the great historical traditions. And the practical benefits of being able to get a job and afford nice things like food and shelter.

We will start with philosophy. Human knowledge is pretty great. Your life has been enriched with the ideas of brilliant thinkers, of giants upon whose shoulders you might one day hope to stand. Isn’t this enough?

But as 86% of you know, you can’t just observe an experimental group has experienced an effect and attribute it to the experimental intervention. You have to see if other people in a control group got the same benefit for less work.

What would be the control group for school? Home-schoolers do much better than those who attend public or private schools by nearly any measure. But this is unfair; it’s what scientists call an “active control”. What we really need to do is compare you to people who got no instruction at all.

It’s illegal not to educate a child, so our control group will be hard to find. But perhaps the best bet will be the “unschooling” movement, a group of parents who think school is oppressive and damaging. They tell the government they’re home-schooling their children but actually just let them do whatever they want. They may teach their kid something if the child wants to be taught, otherwise they will leave them pretty much alone.

And this is really hard to study, because they’re a highly self-selected group and there aren’t very many of them. The only study I could find on the movement only had n = 12, and although it tried as hard as it could to compare them to schoolchildren matched for race and family income level and parent education and all that good stuff I’m sure there’s some weirdness that slipped through the cracks. Still, it’s all we’ve got.

So, do these children do worse than their peers at public school?

Yes, they do.

By one grade level.

About college we still know very little. But if you’d stayed out of public school and stayed home and played games and maybe asked your parents some questions, then by the time your friends were graduating twelfth grade, you would have the equivalent of an eleventh-grade education.

Another intriguing clue here is Louis Benezet’s experiment with mathematics instruction. Benezet, an early 20th century superintendent of schools, wondered whether cramming mathematics into kids at an early age had a detrimental effect. He decreed that in some of the schools in his district, there would be no math instruction until grade six. He found that within a year, these sixth graders had caught up with their peers in traditional schools, and furthermore that they were able to think much more logically about math problems – figure out what was going on rather than desperately trying to multiply and divide all the numbers in the problem by one another. If Benezet’s results hold true – and on careful reading they are hard to doubt – any math education before grade six is useless at best. And it’s hard to resist the urge to generalize to other subjects and children even older still.

Why is it so easy for the unschooled to keep up with their better educated brethren? My guess is that it’s because very little learning goes on at school at all. The proponents of education speak of feeling connected to the beauty of mathematics, the passion of the humanities, and the great historical traditions. But how many of the children they spit out can prove one of Euclid’s theorems? How many have been exposed to the Canterbury Tales? How many have experienced the sublime beauty of the Parthenon?

These aren’t rhetorical questions, by the way. According to the general survey of knowledge among college students, 3.3% know who Euclid was, 7.6% know who wrote Canterbury, and a full 15% know what city the Parthenon’s in.

36% of high school students know that an atom is bigger than an electron, rather than vice versa. But a full 59% of college students know the same. That’s a whole nine percent better than chance. On one of the most basic facts about the fundamental entities that make up everything in existence.

“But knowledge isn’t about names and dates!” No, but names and dates are the parts that are easy to measure, and it’s a pretty good bet that if you don’t know what city the Parthenon’s in you probably haven’t absorbed the full genius of the Greek architectural tradition. Anyone who’s never heard of Chaucer probably doesn’t have strong opinions on the classics of Middle English literature.

So in contradiction to the claim that education is necessary to teach beautiful and elegant knowledge, I maintain first that nearly nobody in the educational system picks this up anyway, that people who don’t get any formal education at all pick it up nearly as much of it, and that people not exposed to it as children will, if they decide to learn it as adults, pick it up quickly and easily and without the heartbreak of trying to cram it into the underdeveloped head of a seven year old.

What about the claim that education is practically useful for getting a job and making money?

Even more than most young people, you’ve had the privilege of getting to watch your dreams implode in real time right before your eyes. About fifteen percent of you will be some variant of unemployed straight out of college. Another ten percent will find something part-time. And another forty or so percent will be underemployed, working as waiters or clerks or baristas or something else that uses zero percent of the knowledge you’ve worked so hard to accumulate. The remaining third of you who get something vaguely resembling the job you signed up for will still have to deal with wages that have stagnated over the last decade even as working hours increased and average student debt nearly doubled.

But don’t worry, I’m sure the nice folks at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV will be happy to forgive your debt if you mention you weren’t entirely happy with the purchase. You did hold out for the satisfaction-guaranteed offer, right? No? Uh oh.

As bad as the job market is, staying in school looks worse. Economists warn that attending law school is the worst career decision you can make, so much so that newly graduated lawyers have nothing do to but sue law schools for not warning them against attending and established firms offer an Anything But Law School Scholarship to raise awareness of the problem. Doctors are so uniformly unhappy that they are committing suicide in record numbers and nine out of ten would warn young people against going into medicine. Graduate school has always been an iffy bet, but now the ratio of Ph. D applicants to open tenure track positions has hit triple digits, with the vast majority ending up as miserable adjunct professors who juggle multiple part time jobs and end up making as much as a Starbucks barista but without the health insurance.

I’d like to thank whoever figured out how to include URLs in speeches, by the way. That was the best invention.

But here I cannot honestly disagree with the conventional assessment that going to school raises your earning power. As bad as you will have it, everyone who didn’t graduate college still has it much, much worse. All the economic indicators agree with the signs from the desolate wasteland that was once our industrial heartland: they are doomed. Their wages are not stagnating but actively declining, their unemployment rate is a positively Greek thirty-five percent, and prospects for changing that are few and far between. Some economists blame globalization, which makes it easy to outsource manufacturing and other manual labor to the Chinese. Others blame technology, noting that many of the old well-paying blue-collar jobs are done not by foreigners but by machines. Both trends are set to increase, turning even more factory workers, truck drivers, and warehouse-stockers into burger-flippers, Wal-Mart greeters, and hollow-eyed unemployed.

But don’t let your schadenfreude get the better of you. Twenty years from now that’s going to be you. Sure, right now machines can only do the easy stuff, and the world isn’t interconnected enough to let foreigners do anything really subtle for us. But lawyers are already feeling the pinch of software that auto-generates contracts, and programmers are already feeling the pinch of Indians who will work for half the pay and email their code to Silicon Valley the next morning. You don’t need to invent a robo-drafter to put engineers out of business, just drafting software so effective it allows one engineer to do the work of three. And although there are half-hearted efforts to stop it, it seems more and more like King Canute trying to turn back a tide made of hundred dollar bills.

Once machines can do everything we can better and cheaper, the inevitable end result is employment for a few geniuses who invent and run the machines, immense profits for the capitalists who own the machines, and what happens to everyone else better left unspoken.

“Is this a vision of what shall be, or of what might be only?” Well, a visionaries as diverse as Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman have proposed something called a Basic Income Guarantee. When society becomes so advanced that it produces more than enough for everybody – but also so advanced that most individuals below genius level have little to contribute and no way of earning money – everyone should get a yearly salary just for existing. Think welfare, except that it goes to everybody, there’s no stigma, and it’s more than enough to live on. This titanic promise has run up against a giant iceberg with BUT HOW WOULD WE PAY FOR IT written in big red letters on the front. If we cancelled all existing welfare and entitlement programs – which makes sense if we’re giving everyone enough money to live comfortably on, we would only free up enough money together for a universal income of $5,800. I don’t know if you can live on that, but I’d hate to have to try.

But we’ve gotten off track. We were counting the benefits of formal education. We did not do so well in trying to prove that it left you more knowledgeable, but it did seem like it had some practical value in getting you a little bit more money. With your shiny college degree, you can confidently assert “I’ve got mine”, just as long as you take care not to notice the increasingly distant hordes of manual laborers or the statistics showing that the yours you’ve got is less and less every year.

What of the costs of education? What have you lost out on?

Well, first about twenty thousand hours of your youth. That’s okay. You weren’t using that golden time of perfect health and halcyon memories when you had more true capacity for creativity and imagination and happiness than you ever will again anyway. If you hadn’t had your teachers to tell you that you needed to be making a collage showing your feelings about The Scarlet Letter, you probably would have wasted your childhood seeing a world in a grain of sand or Heaven in a wild flower or something dumb like that.

I’m more interested in the financial side of it. At $11,000 average per pupil spending per year times thirteen years plus various preschool and college subsidies, the government spends $155,000 on the kindergarten-through-college education of the average American.

Inspired by a tweet: what if the government had taken this figure (adjusted for inflation) and invested it in the stock market at the moment of your birth? Today when you graduate college, they remove it from the stock market, put it in a low-risk bond, put a certain percent of the interest from that bond into keeping up with inflation, and hand you the rest each year as a basic income guarantee. How much would you have?

And I calculate that the answer would be $15,000 a year, adjusted for interest. We can add the $5,800 basic income guarantee we could already afford onto that for about $20,000 a year, for everyone. Black, white, man, woman, employed, unemployed, abled, disabled, rich, poor. Welcome to the real world, it’s dangerous to go alone, take this. What, you thought we were going to throw you out to sink or swim in a world where if you die you die in real life? Come on, we’re not that cruel.

So when we ask whether your education is worth it, we have to compare what you got – an education that puts you one grade level above the uneducated and which has informed 3.3% of you who Euclid is – to what you could have gotten. 20,000 hours of your youth to play, study, learn to play the violin, whatever. And $20,000 a year, sweat-free.

$20,000 a year isn’t much. The average mid-career salary of an average college graduate is nearly triple that – $55,000. By the numbers your education looks pretty good. But numbers can be deceiving.

Consider the life you have to look forward to, making your $55,000. The exact profession that makes closest to that number is a paralegal, so let’s go with that. You get a job as a paralegal in a prestigious Manhattan law firm. You can’t afford to live in Manhattan, but you scrounge together enough money for a cramped apartment in Brooklyn, which costs you about $2000 a month rent. Every morning you wake up at 7:45, get on the forty-five minute subway ride to Manhattan, and make it to work by your 9:00 AM starting time. Your boss is a kind of nasty lawyer who is himself upset that he can’t pay back his law school debt and yells at you all day. By the time you get back home around 6, you’re too exhausted to do much besides watch some TV. You don’t really have time to meet guys – I’m assuming you’re a woman here, sixty percent of you are, I blame the patriarchy – so you put out a personal ad on Craigslist and after a while find someone you like. You get married after a year; your honeymoon is in Vermont because his company won’t give him enough time off to go any further.

You have two point four kids, and realize you’ve got to move to a better part of town because your school district sucks. Combined with your student debt, that puts a big strain on the finances and you don’t have enough to pay for child care. Eventually you find a place that will do it for cheap, and although it looks kind of dirty and you’re shocked when Junior calls you a “puta” which isn’t even a proper English curse word the price is right and they’re the only people who will accept four tenths of a kid. The older kids keep asking you and Dad for help with homework, which you can’t give because you haven’t really had time to keep up with your math and grammar and so on skills, what with the paralegal job and the television-watching taking up all your time. So you tell them to ask their teacher for extra help, which their teacher doesn’t give because she’s got forty other kids asking for the same thing and only twenty-four hours in a day. Despite all of this Junior gets into college and you sure haven’t saved up the money to put him through there tuition has spiraled to twelve gazillion dollars by this point and Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV can’t lend him that because gazillion isn’t even a real number, and ohmigod what if Junior ends up one of those high school graduates with the Greek-level unemployment rates standing forlornly in front of a decaying factory in the Rust Belt? Worse, what if he ends up living with you? You beg him to go back to the bank and offer to pay whatever interest rates they ask. And so the cycle begins anew.

Or consider your life on a $20,000 a year income guarantee. No longer tied down to a job, you can live wherever you want. I love the mountains. Let’s live in a cabin in Colorado, way up in the Rockies. You can find stunningly beautiful ones for $500 a month – freed from the mad rush to get into scarce urban or suburban areas with good school districts, housing is actually really cheap. So there you are in the Rockies, maybe with a used car to take you to Denver when you want to see people or go to a show, but otherwise all on your own except for the deer and squirrels. You wake up at nine, cook yourself a healthy breakfast, then take a long jog out in the forest. By the time you come back, you’ve got a lot of interesting thoughts, and you talk about them with the dozens of online friends you cultivate close relationships with and whom you can take a road trip and visit any time you feel like. Eventually you’re talked out, and you curl up with a good book – this week you’re trying to make it through Aristotle on aesthetics. The topic interests you since you’re learning to paint – you’ve always wanted to be an artist, and with all the time in the world and stunning views to inspire you, you’re making good progress. Freed from the need to appeal to customers or critics, you are able to develop your own original style, and you take heart in the words of the old Kipling poem:

And none but the Master will praise them
And none but the Master will blame
And no one will work for money
And no one will work for fame
But each for the joy of the working
Each on his separate star
To draw the thing as he sees it
For the God of things as they are

One of the fans of your work is a cute girl – this time I’m assuming you’re a man, I’m sure over the past four years you’ve learned some choice words for people who do that. You date and get married. She comes to live with you – she’s also getting $20,000 a year from the government in place of an education, so now you’re up to $40,000, which is actually very close to the US median household income. You have two point four kids. With both of you at home full time, you see their first steps, hear their first words, get to see them as they begin to develop their own personalities. They start seeming a little lonely for other kids their own age, so with a sad good-bye to your mountain, you move to a bigger house in a little town on the shores of a lake in Montana. There’s no schooling for them, but you teach them to read, first out of children’s books, later out of something a little harder like Harry Potter, and then finally you turn them loose in your library. Your oldest devours your collection of Aristotle and tells you she wants to be a philosopher when she grows up. Evenings they go swimming, or play stickball with the other kids in town.

When they reach college age, your daughter is so thrilled at the opportunity to learn from her intellectual heroes that she goes to Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV and asks for a loan. They’re happy to give her fifteen thousand, which is all college costs nowadays – only the people who are really interested in learning feel the need to go nowadays, and supply so outpaces demand that prices are driven down. She makes it into Yale (unsurprising given how much better home-schooled students do) studies philosophy, but finds she likes technology better. She decides to become an engineer, and becomes part of the base of wealthy professionals helping fund the income guarantee for everyone else. She marries a nice man after making sure he’s willing to stay home and take care of the children – she’s not crazy, she doesn’t want to send them to some kind of institution

Your younger son, on the other hand, is a little intellectually disabled and can’t read above a third-grade level. That’s not a big problem for you or for him. When he grows older, he moves to Hawaii where he spends most of his time swimming in the ocean and by all accounts enjoys himself very much.

You’re happy your son will be financially secure for the rest of his life, but on a broader scale, you’re happy that no one around you has to live in fear of getting fired, or is struggling to make ends meet, or is stuck in the Rust Belt with a useless skill set. Every so often, you call your daughter and thank her for helping design the robots that do most of the hard work.

Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar? And be better off than you are? Or would you like to get a formal education?

We’re finally getting back to the point now. I’m sorry it’s taken this long. I can see the Dean of Students checking her watch over there with a worried look on her face. I think she’s worried I’m trying to filibuster your graduation. You know legally if I can keep speaking until midnight tonight, the graduation is cancelled and you have to stay in school another year? It’s true. Those are the rules.

Because I don’t want to talk about the very broad social question of whether Education the concept is worth it to Society as a concept. I want to ask you, standing here today, was your education worth it?

Because this is a college graduation speech, and I am legally mandated to offer some advice, and the specific advice I give will be tailored to your response.

Some of you will say yes, my education was worth it. I am the 3.3%! I know who Euclid was and I understand the sublime beauty of geometry. I don’t think I would have been exposed to it, or had the grit to keep studying it, if I hadn’t been here surrounded by equally curious peers, under the instruction of enthusiastic professors. This revelation was worth losing my cabin in Colorado, worth resigning myself to the daily grind and the constant lurking fear of failure. I claim it all.

And to you my advice is: if you’ve sacrificed everything for knowledge, don’t forget that. When you are a paralegal in Brooklyn, and you get home from work, and you are very tired, and you want to curl up in front of the TV and watch reality shows until you are numb, remind yourself that you value knowledge above everything else, that you will seek intellectual beauty though the world perish, and read a book or something. Or take a class at a community college. Anything other than declaring knowledge your supreme value but becoming a boob.

Others of you will say yes, my education was worth it. Not because of what I learned about ukulele or eucalyptus or whatever, but because of the friends I made here, the proud University of [mumble] spirit of camaraderie, which I will carry forth my entire life.

And to you my advice is similar: if you’ve sacrificed everything for friendship, don’t forget that. When you are a paralegal in Brooklyn, or a market analyst in Seattle, or God forbid an intern in Michigan, and you get home from work, and you are very tired, and you want to curl up in front of your computer and check Reddit, remind yourself of the friends you made here and give them a call. See how they’re doing. Write them a Christmas card, especially if it is December. Anything other than declaring friendship your supreme value and drifting out of touch.

Others of you will say yes, my education was worth it. Not because of what I learned about the Eucharist or eucre or whatever, but because of the connections I made, the network of alumni who will be giving me a leg up in whatever I choose to pursue.

And to you my advice is, again, similar. If you’ve sacrificed everything for ambition, be ambitious as hell. When you are a paralegal in Brooklyn or whatever, claw your way to the top, stay there, and use it to do something important. If you’ve sacrificed everything for ambition, don’t you dare stop at middle manager.

Others of you will say yes, my education was worth it. Not because of what I learned about yucca or the Yucatan or whatever, but because it helped me learn civic values, become a better person who is better able to help others.

And to you my advice is once again similar. If you’ve sacrificed everything to help others, don’t let it all end with donating a tenner to the OXFAM guy on the street now and then. Join Giving What We Can or go volunteer somewhere. If you’ve sacrificed everything for others, make sure others get something good out of the deal!

Others of you will say yes, my education was worth it. Not because of what I learned about eukaryotes or Ukraine or whatever, but because formal education in the school system taught me how to think.


I’m sorry. Ahem. To you my advice is, again, similar. If you’ve sacrificed everything to learn how to think, learn how to think. When someone says something you disagree with, before you dismiss a straw man it and call that person names and slap yourself five for your brilliant rebuttal, take a second to consider it fairly on its own terms. Go learn about biases and heuristics and how to avoid them. Read enough psychology and cognitive science to figure out why your claim might kind of inspire hysterical laughter from people even a little familiar with the field. Just don’t sacrifice everything to learn how to think and end up only rearranging your prejudices.

And finally, some of you will say, wait a second, maybe my education wasn’t worth it. Or, maybe it was the best choice to make from within a bad paradigm, but I’m not content with that. And I wish someone had told me about all of this more than fifteen minutes before I graduate.

And to you I can offer a small amount of compensation. You have learned a very valuable lesson that you might not have been able to learn any other way.

You have learned that the system is Not Your Friend.

I use those last three words very consciously. People usually say “not your friend” as an understatement, a way of saying something is actively hostile. I don’t mean that.

The system is not your friend. The system is not your enemy. The system is a retarded giant throwing wads of $100 bills and books of rules in random directions while shouting “LOOK AT ME! I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” Sometimes by luck you catch a wad of cash, and you think the system loves you. Other times by misfortune you get hit in the gut with a rulebook, and you think the system hates you. But either one is giving the system too much credit.

Every one of the architects and leaders of the system is fantastically intelligent – some even have degrees from the University of [mumble]. But every one of the neurons in my dog’s brain is a fantastically complex pinnacle of three billion years of evolution, yet my dog herself can spend the better part of an hour standing motionless, hackles raised, barking at a plastic bag.

To you I don’t have very much advice. I’m no smarter than anyone else – well, I know who Euclid is, but other than that – and if I knew how to fix the system, it’s a pretty good bet other people would know too and the system would already have been fixed. Maybe you, armed with a degree from the University of [mumble], will be the one to help figure it out.

On the other hand, someone a lot smarter than I am did have some advice for you. Poor Kurt Vonnegut never did get to give a real graduation speech, but one of his books has some advice targeted at another major life transition:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I don’t know how to fix the system, but I am pretty sure that one of the ingredients is kindness.

I think of kindness not only as the moral virtue of volunteering at a soup kitchen or even of living your life to help as many other people as possible, but also as an epistemic virtue. Epistemic kindness is kind of like humility. Kindness to ideas you disagree with. Kindness to positions you want to dismiss as crazy and dismiss with insults and mockery. Kindness that breaks you out of your own arrogance, makes you realize the truth is more important than your own glorification, especially when there’s a lot at stake.

Here we are at the end of a grinder of $150,000, 20,000 hours, however many dozen collages about The Scarlet Letter, and the occasional locker room cry of “faggot” followed by a punch in the gut. Somewhere in another world, there are people just like us in nice cabins reading Aristotle and knowing that nobody will have to go hungry ever again. The difference between us and them isn’t money, because I think the $155,000 the government gave you could have gone either way – and even if I’m wrong about that there’s more than enough money somewhere else. The difference isn’t intelligence, because the architects of our system are fantastically bright in their own way. I think kindness might be that difference.

Technically kindness plus coordination power, but that’s another speech, and the Dean of Students is starting to make frantic hand signals.

I don’t know if it’s really possible to afford to give everyone that cabin in Colorado. But I hope that the people whose job it is to figure that out approach the problem with a spirit of kindness and humility.

In conclusion, both sides of the sunscreen debate have some pretty good points. It will certainly decrease your risk of squamous and basal cell carcinomas, it probably has no effect on the malignant melanoma rate but there’s a nonzero chance it might either cause or prevent them, and its effect on internal tumors seems worrying at this point but is yet to be backed up by any really firm evidence.

I understand this is complicated and unsatisfying. Welcome to the real world.

[Congratulations to my girlfriend Ozy, who graduates college this week!]

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210 Responses to SSC Gives A Graduation Speech

  1. Buck says:

    How come developed countries are so much more productive than developing ones if education is worth so little?

    • Blaine says:

      It’s possible that being productive makes countries more willing to pursue education rather than education causing productivity. Rather like the wealthy being able to buy suits while suits themselves are unable to make you wealthy.

      • Anonymous says:

        I hate compulsory schooling as much as anyone or more, but Steven Pinker had good sounding arguments that the connection between education and democracy is more than just correlation. If I remember correctly, there is a stronger correlation between a country having an education system and time T and democracy at time T+20yrs than the other way around. So I grudgingly came to admitting that perhaps schooling is good for the society (through some mysterious mechanism which I still doubt has anything to do with imparting knowledge on anyone).

        Which doesn’t exactly make me like it, after all school was forced upon me and I hated it and it made my life miserable. I see it as one of the tragic things about the world, like maybe say in antiquity slavery really was necessary for the continual existence of civilization.

        • Dib says:

          Being democratic is not the same as being developed!

        • Anonymous says:

          Oscar Wilde said: “The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”

          Unfortunately, we haven’t yet made the transition from human to mechanical slavery. It’s in progress (at least in developed countries), but nowhere near complete.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      First of all, I don’t think education has literally zero impact. And it might be that there’s a herd effect – an uneducated kid in a very educated country picks up a lot of stuff by osmosis.

      But other than that, my guess is a little bit to do with material technology (that is, in America with all its books and computers and signs there’s much more incentive to learn to read), a little bit to do with the thing we don’t talk about, and a little bit to do with the factors that make upper class children have twice as high a vocabulary as lower class children even before they enter school.

      I mean, we know that when an equal amount of resources are spent on schooling in upper vs. lower class neighborhoods, the upper class kids do far better than the lower class kids. Think of developing countries as just a really really really lower class neighborhood.

      I don’t know how the average uneducated kid in India compares to the average formally-educated kid in the poorest part of the United States, but I’ll bet it’s not as big a gap as you’d think. And I bet that if it is, you could close a lot of it by giving the Indian kid a two year crash course at age 16.

      • peterdjones says:

        The factors that make upper class children smarter before they start schooling are probably the ones that allow unschooling to work where it works. Which is to say, that they wouldnt generalize to lower class parents.

        • AndR says:

          Yeah, that seems fair.

          “They start seeming a little lonely for other kids their own age, so with a sad good-bye to your mountain, you move to a bigger house in a little town on the shores of a lake in Montana. There’s no schooling for them, and you sure didn’t need no education to live as you do, so you don’t bother. They pick up letters, slowly, from the signs and chatter, and the older one starts bugging you about books, and going to libraries, and things, but she’s quickly demoralised by your apathy.”

          I mean, I’d like to believe that wouldn’t happen, and even if it does if it’s rare enough it might still be worth it to not push everyone through education… But I don’t really think that’s right. There are regularly PR campaigns about reading to children over here (not sure whether that’s also a thing in the US), but people still rarely do it. Children learn to read in school.

          It seems like if unschooling really was reliable, all children would read without problems by the time they enter primary school, wouldn’t they?

        • Xycho says:

          The thing about reading to children, and answering all the daft questions, is that it works. I could read without trouble by the time I left nursery (I think the US equivalent is kindergarten?), mostly as far as I’ve been told because I got tired of how slowly my parents could get through a story reading it to me. I can’t honestly claim to remember that, but I do know they read to me and my sister every evening until we both started reading alone instead, and we had a whiteboard on the kitchen wall which was used to help answer all the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions kids come up with at mealtimes. It made an enormous difference when the two of us actually entered school.

          I come from a house where most rooms have a bookcase, usually function-relevant (all the cookbooks are in the kitchen, all the novels are in the sitting room, the DIY manuals are in the garage, etc) and they’re all eternally full. We also didn’t, and don’t have a television (even now I’ve moved out, I don’t possess one – if I want to waste time, there’s Steam), which meant that reading was the only resource-free pastime available for about the first decade of my life.

        • nydwracu says:

          My parents put index cards on everything with the name of the thing. I only remember this from a story they told me, which involved an index card that read “cat”.

          I could read by the time I was two.

          My parents put me in a Montessori preschool. The preschool got very mad when my parents told them I could read; how could I possibly have learned something without going through their methods for learning? So they called me in and had me read a few things. I did. The preschool said that my parents must have coached me.

          Just so y’all get some idea of how much of a problem there is: this was the same school where I got yelled at for playing with Legos without asking the teacher how to do so first.

          (The problem is actually several orders of magnitude worse than that. A while after I started actual school, the school system came to the conclusion that I was too smart for them and I’d never have a place in it. So they put me in special ed with literal drooling retards to get me out of the way. My parents had to fight them to stop them from sending me to a residential institution for those of a hopelessly criminal or otherwise fucked-up disposition. I almost got sent to kiddy jail because the school system thought I was too smart. I am not making this up. The place I ended up was some shithole in inner-city Baltimore. I could say a lot about how horrible the place was, but I’ll leave it at this: it was standard and approved practice to lock people in closets, sometimes for hours.)

        • Alrenous says:

          Don’t believe you => if that were true it would seriously threaten my worldview.

          Well, that’s interesting.

          • Jake says:

            It’s not so much that it would seriously harm my worldview as that it just doesn’t really add up. I mean “they just hate me because I’m too smart for them”? Really? What’s next “the girls just don’t go out with me because they’re intimidated by my good looks.”

            And being sent to a special education class for being ‘too smart’? If there is any basis in fact to these stories I would guess the situation went more along the lines of little nydwracu using the fact that he was ahead of the other students as an opportunity to goof off, since after all *he* wasn’t really getting anything much out of this lesson.

            And there’s just the fact that as screwy as our society can be sometimes, this: “I almost got sent to kiddy jail because the school system thought I was too smart” is just not something that happens.

        • nydwracu says:

          I do not see how “there exists a person who we are not equipped to deal with, his parents are too poor to afford private school, and they both work so homeschooling is out, so we will put him somewhere where he is out of the way” just doesn’t add up. Nothing about ‘hate’ needs to enter into it; it is just a very difficult problem, figuring out what to do with someone who is reading Scientific American in first fucking grade.

          It was probably a rational decision on their part, since the other options were 1) develop an entire gifted program for one person, a pointless exercise which they did not have the money for anyway; 2) have me skip four or five grades, which would have been decidedly suboptimal for reasons which I hope are obvious, especially since, given the placement of my birthday, I was already a year ahead; 3) pull me out of all of my classes for school system-funded distance learning, which my parents would have disapproved of because blah blah socialization; 4) pull me out of some of my classes for school system-funded distance learning and unofficially skip me ahead a few grades for the rest of the classes while still technically remaining in the grade I would’ve been in, which is what ended up happening.

          Perhaps it will make more sense if I give more details: the first school they put me in was not much more than mildly structured unschooling with a babysitting service. I do not remember there being classes; occasionally they would try teaching math or baking, and there was a lot of Jewish history for some reason even though I’m pretty sure none of the teachers were Jewish, and in third grade they had something called ‘social studies’ which I hated, but I spent most of my time reading books that I brought in or fucking about on the computer. The one where they locked people in closets was after that.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’ll tell you what really makes a difference in schools, and that’s a functional library, with a properly trained librarian. Not a room with a few books, or a library that was supposed to be a library but got turned into an extra classroom because you’re squeezed for space, or a library that depends on a teacher who can spare an hour here or there to keep it open.

        Evidence? School where I worked is classed as DEIS (basically, we’re a disadvantaged area). Back in 2002 we lucked out – we got picked as a pilot school for the JCSP – a schools library project.

        What it meant was that we got a trained librarian and support. It was supposed to be a year’s pilot programme, but our principal begged and cajoled and we got it renewed from year-to-year for about five years (then the programme money ran out, and our librarian had to leave, but luckily we managed to hire another trained librarian).

        These kinds of programmes and supports make a huge difference. Lots of the kids come from homes with no books, parents with literacy problems of their own, and no idea about how to join the public library. The resources of the school library meant that they were enticed in, got books and magazines suitable to their interests and abilities, and gradually learned about reading for pleasure.

        Classes aren’t about education. They’re about learning what you need to pass the test, which is how schools are graded on whether they’re succeeding or not, and politicians measure ‘success’ by “Are we turning out button-pushers with the skills businesses tell us they want?”

        I came out of a home with no books. What school did for me wasn’t so much teach me in class (I could read before ever I started school) but what it did was give me access to books that were lying around on shelves and in cupboards that were left over from the past and were ignored. I dived into these and learned all kinds of things that I never encountered in class.

        Now – is college worth it? I have to say – if you want anything above a job at minimum wage level, yes. You don’t need a college education for work, but you will have to have one, because businesses use it as a filtering device.

        The bad old days in 1980s Ireland, when I was a school-leaver, meant that (a) one of the few main employers in the town – since closed down – was the dairy co-operative. To get a job in the laboratory there, you needed a minimum B Sc in Dairy Science from U.C.C.

        (b) Did you need a degree to do the lab work? No, because I was there as a work experience lab monkey with my National Certificate qualification from the technical college. I was able to run the tests because I had the practical training. What’s more, when the summer milk rush was on, and they were short of hands, they’d get one of the operatives in from the yard, teach him how to operate the FOSS automated Kjeldahl tester and turn him loose on the samples.

        (c) But if I wanted a job, I had to have a degree. My lab boss was quite frank about that. I was doing the same work for half the pay, and they were honest about taking on ‘work experience’ students from the technical college for the seasonal rush, but to apply for a permanent job, you needed the degree.

        I’m seeing the same pattern playing out in the economy now. I’ve a nephew who will be leaving school next year, and he’d better go to university because I don’t see him having any chance of a job otherwise – unless he goes for an apprenticeship as a plumber, electrician, etc. and emigrates to Australia (this is the current solution to our unemployment woes in Ireland – go to Australia).

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      How come developed countries are so much more productive than developing ones if education is worth so little?

      The educational system is hardly the only difference between developed and undeveloped countries.

    • Is education the only difference between developed and undeveloped countries?

    • peterdjones says:

      One version of development-causes-education is Paul Grahams theory that schooling is basically a form of childminding that allows both parents to work.

      • peterdjones says:

        And taking up the childcare slack is something that needs to be factored into the UBI economics.

      • Anthony says:

        Except that the United States (and several European countries) became rich while women largely stayed home, and most of their market work was done from home – ie, no particular need to provide childcare.

        The availability of universal schooling is important, because the least intelligent two-thirds of the population aren’t going to learn that much on their own or from their parents – not things which are terribly useful for making a decent living in an industrial society, anyway. Once it exists, other options are more likely to be successful – the homeschooler has a model and a set of targets to follow; the unschooler is surrounded by people who know things worth knowing.

        • peterdjones says:

          The childcare function isn’t necessary per se but it would be difficult to unplug it without changing a lot of other things, such as housing costs.

    • James James says:

      Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen: “IQ and the Wealth of Nations”

    • Vanzetti says:

      >How come developed countries are so much more productive than developing ones if education is worth so little?

      Infrastructure. Stuff like roads, sewers and hospitals, not to mention functional health care and law enforcement.

      IOW, You are much more productive when you drive to work in a air-conditioned train instead of walking 5 miles to get water from a cholera-infested pool.

    • Leonard says:

      The rule of law. But do see IQ and the Wealth of Nations. It’s the high-IQ nations that seem to be able to do rule of law.

    • nydwracu says:

      Education can be worth more in developing than developed countries. Literacy and basic abstraction skills (e.g. math) are obviously useful toward productivity. Education might also serve to introduce a saner epistemology, but who knows how good it’d be at spreading it.

      Also, education as babysitting -> potential for workforce increase.

  2. Kiboh says:

    Good article. There’s an angle you haven’t considered, though: if every one of the 300 million (or thereabouts) currently-living Americans had $150k (or thereabouts) invested in stocks and bonds on their behalf, the size of the global stock market would just shy of double. I don’t think all that extra capital would be able to find places where it could get the kind of returns it can get today (low hanging fruit all eaten: “capital is always scarce” potentially stops being true for first time in modern era). Especially since in the envisioned scenario, there would be a lot less economy-fuelling unnecessary spending, as people choose to focus on the important things in life instead of distracting ourselves with expensive toys.

    This isn’t too relevant to the main thrust of your argument, I know. But it just gets me when someone treats the (frankly ridiculous) returns you can get from the stock market as an immutable fact about the world, instead of a direct result of under-investment and over-consumption by people who should know better.

    ANYWAY, regarding the core parts of the post, I’m glad you wrote it! I’m graduating soon myself, and it’s honestly refreshing/relieving to consider that my assessment of my time at university as “only barely worth it” might be a problem with the System instead of/as well as a problem with the ways I handled it.

    • Anonymous says:

      Call me stupid, but in a capitalist system isn’t “money isn’t scarce anymore” basically code for “everything is roughly as good as it can be”? Isn’t that basically the win condition?

      • Kiboh says:

        Assuming I understand you correctly, that’s actually exactly what I’m saying (though ‘win condition’ would be overselling it a bit). My assertion is that the stock market is hungry for more money, and provides its current (high) rate of return for exactly this reason. Investing a lot more money in it is a Good Thing, both for the investors and the world in general, but has the consequence of decreasing the average rate of return. Capital is less ‘scarce’, and there aren’t an arbitrarily large number of possible investments that can earn modern-level returns, so supply and demand dictates that you require more capital to purchase the same level of yearly passive income.

        (I have just now realised that decreasing the average rate of return would cause some marginal investors to pull out, and so Scott’s proposed change would have significantly less impact than I expected. This kind of omission on my part is exactly why you don’t let enthusiastic amateurs run economies.)

      • Kiboh says:

        I just found out I’ve misused the phrase “capital is always scarce”. I thought it meant that you could always find plenty of places to put money and get a good return, but it turns out it means something like “people will invest their capital in the things with the best returns, because they don’t have an infinite amount of it”. Sorry for misusing it and confusing you.

  3. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Some economists blame globalization, which makes it easy to outsource manufacturing and other manual labor to the Chinese. Others blame technology, noting that many of the old well-paying blue-collar jobs are done not by foreigners but by machines.

    Immigration and overregulation/overtaxation are also possible causal factors decreasing employment opportunities.

    Or consider your life on a $20,000 a year income guarantee…

    You are paiting an incredibly rosy picture here. I don’t deny that there are people who would live like that under a $20,000 per year basic income guarantee, but they would be about as rare as the kids who know who Euclid is. Most people would look more like this. See my comment on LessWrong for a slightly more detailed critique and more links.

    And then, of course, everything you wrote on rising unemployment and the horribleness of working for a living is ALSO true; small wonder Mencius Moldbug referred to this as The Dire Problem. I am reminded of a comment from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s The Sequences:

    Imagine, for a moment, that much of what the Greens said about the downside of the Blue policy was true – that, left to the mercy of the free market, many people would be crushed by powers far beyond their understanding, nor would they deserve it. And imagine that most of what the Blues said about the downside of the Green policy was also true – that regulators were fallible humans with poor incentives, whacking on delicately balanced forces with a sledgehammer.

    Close your eyes and imagine it. Extrapolate the result. If that were true, then… then you’d have a big problem and no easy way to fix it, that’s what you’d have. Does this universe look familiar?

  4. Douglas Knight says:

    My experience with unschooled children is that they have a typical grasp of mathematics, but that they think that they are very far behind. They realize that they do not know the curriculum, but they do not realize that most people do not know it. They refuse to “desperately try to multiply and divide all the numbers in the problem”; they refuse to bullshit. They have failed to learn the lesson and it probably cripples them for life.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Bullshitting is a personally-valuable skill that school goes out of its way to teach, but I’m not sure it’s societally valuable. It may represent a coordination problem.

      On the other hand, people will learn to bullshit on the streets if we don’t teach them in the schools, so at least if we teach everybody in school, it’s sort of fair.

  5. suntzuanime says:

    It’s a pretty good bet that if you don’t know what city the Parthenon’s in you probably haven’t absorbed the full genius of the Greek architectural tradition.

    Disagree in both denotation and connotation. Knowing pointless related bullshit to the actual juicy meat of what you want to learn just means that you didn’t focus your attention in the right places.

    For example, an avid player of Paradox’s grand strategy mapgames will over time get a pretty good sense of a lot of the broad strokes of history, but will never learn a single date beyond the five dates bookmarked as “recommended starts”.

    Focusing on pointless bullshit because it’s easy to measure is actually part of why school sucks so much, so complaining that school does a bad job teaching pointless bullshit will surely only make things worse. I guess you maybe don’t want to improve schooling but rather to burn it down and have us be happy idiots and smug autodidacts?

    • Anonymous says:

      So for example, do you also think that it is possible to know computer science without knowing the complexity of quicksort? Or to know organic chemistry without knowing the formula of methane?

      • suntzuanime says:

        I know less about organic chemistry than I do about history, but I do know computer science, and yes! Memorizing complexity class trivia is not the juicy meat of computer science. If someone knows the complexity class of quicksort but cannot explain to me how it works, that’s evidence of a failure of priorities.

        It might be educationally valuable to know how to calculate complexity classes of algorithms, and it might be educationally valuable to know the inner workings of quicksort, and once you know both of those you can derive quicksort’s complexity class. Maybe if you know enough about Greek architecture you can derive the city that the Parthenon’s in? I suppose it’s possible that each individual city has a distinct architectural style, which would be immediately recognizable in the Parthenon if you know what it looks like. If this is the case, I withdraw my objection.

        • Anonymous says:

          If someone knows the complexity class of quicksort but cannot explain to me how it works, that’s evidence of a failure of priorities.

          Perhaps, but now you are inverting the implication. Of course the world is full of people who know zero computer science and nevertheless remember the complexities of a few algorithms. But, do you think the converse is possible, in reality not in principle? Do you think there actually exists someone on this planet who knows CS well but doesn’t remember the complexity quicksort? Have you ever met such person? Do you think there’s enough of them to invalidate Scott’s heuristic?

        • Do you think there actually exists someone on this planet who knows CS well but doesn’t remember the complexity quicksort?

          I was going to say that I was such a person, but then I realized that as well as not remembering the Big O of quicksort, I also didn’t remember enough of the algorithm to implement it. I remembered that it involved choosing a pivot that you look for numbers less and greater than, and that you call it recursively and add the two sides together, but I forgot how partitioning works. And I actually guessed its Big O running time correctly; I just wasn’t sure about my guess.

          So I suppose that people who remember quicksort but not its complexity class are rarer than I thought. Still, I remember one of my early Computer Science professors doing an in-class demonstration of how quicksort works by lining people up and asking them to swap places. That didn’t help me remember it, but I can imagine that someone might have forgotten quicksort’s Big O, but would remember that physical activity enough that they remember how quicksort works. Since algorithms can be visualized in many ways, unlike Big O values which are just text to remember, I think there are probably a significant number of people who remember the visualization they saw well enough to remember the algorithm, without remembering the complexity class.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Are you seriously suggesting we are swimming in people who have an in-depth understanding of Greek architectural principles, but we haven’t noticed – because they simply didn’t realize they were practiced in Greece?

  6. Platypus says:

    So, here’s my confusion. If you gave me enough basic-income-guarantee that I didn’t have to work to make a living, I… wouldn’t work to make a living. And I think most others would do the same.

    And then I have to wonder: if nobody has to work, where does the food come from? Who’s going to run the farms, and the factories, and the power plants, and the Internet? Why are those people doing that, rather than living in a cabin in Colorado?

    Social psychology is strange, and frequently surprising. It’s totally possible that everything would work as you say. But, with basically the fate of civilization at stake if we get it wrong and destroy (literally destroy) the economy, I would want to see a much more rigorous discussion than what people seem to be giving it.

    • Multiheaded says:

      And then I have to wonder: if nobody has to work, where does the food come from? Who’s going to run the farms, and the factories, and the power plants, and the Internet? Why are those people doing that, rather than living in a cabin in Colorado?

      It’s a little thing called supply and demand. When labour is scarce, life gets way better for workers – look at Europe after the Black Death. If there’s “no-one” to farm or run a power plant, people would offer farmers a CEO’s compensation, and they’d be able to stand out from the crowd and buy all sorts of fancy things and status they couldn’t afford on basic income. (If the practicioners of a certain trade get too scarce, they might even form a syndicate to hold society hostage… in which case society would swing the other way by educating more workers willing and able to undercut the syndicate.)

      It’s part of the justification I’ve seen given for basic income – not only providing for those who can’t or wouldn’t work, but making scarcer and more valuable the labour of those who would.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Robots. Robots everywhere.

      Also, did you ever get a job as a kid? I know in the lower end of the income spectrum, children sometimes get jobs to help the family finances, ignore that. Consider the middle/upper-middle class child who gets a job, even though their parents provide them with everything they need to survive. Usually the reason they do this is… they don’t want to just survive. They want something, often a flashy status good like expensive clothing, sometimes a mix of status and practicality like a car. Even though they could refrain from work and everything would be fine, they prefer to work and buy additional things instead of not working and enjoying leisure.

      I was not one of these children, ok. But lots of children were! Especially back before robots took all the jobs and adults took all the ones that were left. I imagine enough adults would be like these children that we could fill the jobs that we absolutely could not replace with robots.

    • I have a similar objection. The current projections of $20K/year of basic income assume the current tax base. But all those people living in cabins in Colorado are, presumably, not paying any taxes, since they don’t have any income. This reduces the amount of money available to pay the basic income to everybody, which means that the basic income is reduced. (Or that the gov’t incurs massive amounts of debt, which eventually leads to the same thing, albeit more indirectly.) So the income is reduced, and a certain number of people leave their cabins and get jobs because they can’t swing the new, reduced income. Eventually the forces for and against employment reach equilibrium, but I suspect that the equilibrium point is something like “grinding poverty on the basic income, and you have to get a job otherwise,” which is not very different from what we have now.

      Alternately, if we assert that robots do everything and the only people who have jobs are geniuses, then we have to tax the geniuses at some ridiculous rate, which I suspect has other negative effects. Some geniuses will decline to work, but many more will take their brains and their fabulous wealth and retreat to some libertarian seasteading paradise in the South Pacific.

      • Jake says:

        We don’t tax the geniuses, we tax the robots – or more accurately, we tax the people who own the robots.

        Advancing automation technology is inevitably going to produce gigantic returns, the question is just whether this returns should flow solely to the people who own that technology, or whether it should be shared across a broader spectrum of society.

        • So just replace “geniuses” with “people who own robots”, and the same objection applies.

        • Jake says:

          Not really. The thing to remember is that the owners are rentiers. They’re not producing anything more of value than anyone else, they’re just benefiting from the fact that they’re sitting on massive stores of previously accumulated value. Some of them will be geniuses who accumulated this value themselves, and others will have just inherited it or won the lottery or whatever, but as long as we’re taxing them based on how much they own rather than how much they actually produce, there aren’t any incentive problems.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Some of them will be geniuses who accumulated this value themselves, and others will have just inherited it or won the lottery or whatever, but as long as we’re taxing them based on how much they own rather than how much they actually produce, there aren’t any incentive problems.

          How can there not be incentive problems? If you tax what people own after they produce, that still means they get to keep less of what they produce. And one of the biggest motivations men have for producing wealth is to pass it on to their children. The more of that wealth is taxed because it is inherited, the less incentive men have to build fortunes to leave to their heirs.

          • Jake says:

            First, let me just say I appreciate the casual use of “men” rather than “people” when referring to who produces wealth.

            Second, there is zero evidence that increasing wealth taxes and inheritance taxes reduces work ethic. In fact, this isn’t even the argument most anti-estate tax people use. They instead focus on the idea that it reduces the savings rate – which there also isn’t any evidence for:

            Third, I’d describe reducing the buildup of large inherited fortunes as a positive good, so these sorts of taxes are quite the win-win.

            Fourth, if you’re worried about people reducing the work ethic of the most productive people in society, do you really think that the best way to go about that is making it easier for them to live luxuriously off accumulated wealth?

      • Army1987 says:

        But all those people living in cabins in Colorado are, presumably, not paying any taxes, since they don’t have any income.

        Conversely, people currently on means-tested benefits are disincentived from (legally) working (see welfare trap) but wouldn’t be under an unconditional basic income.

      • peterdjones says:


        You need to distinguish between the muddle class person who wants to fu d their child through college and maybe get them onto the property ladder, and the billionaire who can dispense so much wealth to them what they need never work, and so need never get an educational do anything.

        There is abundant evidence that vast inherited wealth is likely to lead to very negative consequenes. Also, there is evidence that the very wealthy.arare aware of that. For instance, Warren Buffet has stated that hi children will get no more than a typical middle class college fund.

        There is also evidence that the very wealthy don’t stop accruing wealth at the point where they can provide for their families. If you are engagedin a signaling game, you can never have enough.

    • anon says:

      One possible consequence could slightly counterbalance this. If people aren’t working on jobs, maybe they will be working on other stuff instead. If people spend their new free time on creating or maintaining societal goods like Wikipedia or new government policies, then it would all work out for the best.

      However. I don’t think this would be a very common outcome if we were to immediately switch to the basic income. I think super stimuli such as socializing, television and videogames would fill the gap of free time. I don’t know how to deal with this problem.

      At some point in time, once there are enough robots and few workers, a basic income must happen or we’ll have the majority of the population starving to death while the rich sit in their castles. But I also want to avoid a situation where the rich sit in their castles and everyone else sit on comfy couches.

    • MugaSofer says:

      “And then I have to wonder: if nobody has to work, where does the food come from? Who’s going to run the farms, and the factories, and the power plants, and the Internet? Why are those people doing that, rather than living in a cabin in Colorado?”

      The premise is that those jobs have all been mechanized away.

      I actually suspect there’s something to this issue – if people don’t have to work, then only jobs that can attract people who want to work (or want extra spending money, OK) will have employees. Which means everyone is happier and so on, human dignity etc etc.

      But many jobs are both unpleasant and, currently, not automated (McJobs). Worse still, these jobs tend to have low salaries. So … who takes out the garbage? Do janitors and till-workers and so on all live like kings? Is that actually feasible?

  7. F. says:

    It’s perfectly doable to live on 5800 $ a year.


    Q: I find it hard to believe that you/anyone can live on $5-7k/year [without living in hardship].
    A: That’s alright, I find it hard to believe how you/anyone can spend $30,000/year [without flushing money down the drain]. A simple break-down of the most important expenses (in year 2011) would be $270/month for my half of the rent+utilities; $95/month for health insurance; $75-100/month for food; $95/month for martial arts; $50/month for my half of the car; $50/month for my half of the dog; $20/month for internet. My other expenses are negligible. The car, dog, and the gym are more recent optional splurges which I’ve added as my portfolio has increased. So my core expenses are $5,820/year and my optional expenses are $2,340/year almost half of which is spent on martial arts. Take away the martial arts and it comes to $7,020/year. Also keep in mind that we currently live in one of the most expensive areas of the country (sf bay area) which has a cost of living index of 131 relative to the average US city of 100. My wife spends a similar amount per year.

    People in the first world lost sight of what the difference is between whimsical luxuries and actual necessities. And if most people can’t live on whatever sum society manages to put aside for a guaranteed income, well then the state can teach them how to do it, sometimes holding their hands, sometimes even buying things for them if necessary (such as food packages delivered right to their door with cooking instructions).

    • suntzuanime says:

      What the hell are you renting for $540 a month minus utilities in the SF Bay Area that doesn’t qualify as living in hardship? Is this that economy-destroying “rent control” I hear so much about?

      • F. says:

        I don’t really know since I’m not that person, but I invite you to reconsider how much space people actually need to be happy.

        Besides you can go live in parts of the country where it’s less expensive.

      • Kaminiwa says:

        He apparently had a bedroom. Just a bedroom. Shower and kitchen were shared with 18 other people. Also spent some time living in an RV.

        I’m honestly baffled how he could think this is applicable to most people.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      $540 in rent vs a median rent of $750

      Comcast is $80/month just for internet these days, not $40

      Foodstamps is $180/month and a struggle, so I’m truly baffled how anyone manages on $100. If it was easy to do, I’d assume foodstamps would have been cut by now…

      $50/month for a car? Insurance averages $800/year on the low end, and I’m assuming the car itself *also* has a price.

      Then there’s all the privileges assumed in being able to drive, cook, clean, and avoid any other expenses (like, say, needing drugs, or surgery, or furnishing a household, or even a computer. Not *everyone* can be surviving on hand-me-downs)

      • suntzuanime says:

        If you are in an area with actual competition in ISPs it’s less like $80 and more like $60, $40 is plausible if you keep switching providers/threatening to so they give you a discount. Competition is great.

        I’ve done $100/month in food. The trick is, you buy cheap food instead of expensive food. No, cheaper than that. You might argue “hardship” when cheese becomes a luxury treat for special occasions, but it’s possible.

        To point out an issue you didn’t mention: $95 a month seems pretty cheap for health insurance. Perhaps it was catastrophic-only, back when that was legal, but in that case you would think he would need to budget for routine medical expenses. (And dental expenses!)

      • F. says:

        That book is a start, and you can cut things down further. I disagree that if it was easy, food stamps would have been cut. Part of the reason is that people can’t cook and are attached to meat and dairy. If you eat vegan or quasi-vegan, buy basic ingredients which you cook, and buy them in bulk, food ends up costing almost nothing.

        There are many websites that discuss how to live frugally.

        Of course it can be baffling to outsiders that it’s possible to cut expenses so much, but that’s because you probably never had to redesign your life around these constraint, applying your intelligence to finding surprisingly cheap ways to do things, without much personal sufference.

        A lot of the expenses you mentioned, such as needing a computer or furniture, are one-time expenses. Furniture lasts a lifetime. And like with everything else, there are cheap ways to furnish your home.

        I’m not saying that a basic income has to be as low as 5800 a year, I just went with the extreme estimate just to shake people’s assumptions The point is, all estimates about how much money people need should be dramatically recalibrated downward.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Amazon reviews of that book suggest that it manages $4 a day by only giving you 1000 calories a day. I mean if you’re loafing on the National Income you aren’t doing heavy physical labor, but even sedentary I think most adults would consider 1000 calories a day to be a pretty brutal “hardship”.

        • F. says:

          I didn’t read that particular book and maybe it was a bad idea to link to it. I had to link to something relevant to Americans.
          However I’m pretty sure that you can eat 3000 calories a day on very little money.
          Of course, I don’t live in America so maybe it’s different over there. Where I live, you can buy 3000 calories of corn flour, potatoes, wheat flour, brown rice, and other such staples, on less than that budget, expecially if you buy in bulk straight from farmers. Food prices can’t be that much different among first world countries.
          The guy at ERE, who lives in the US, mentions that in season he can buy a sack of 10 lbs of potatoes for 1 dollar. That’s many thousands of calories. He claims that he spends only 2-3 dollars a day in food and it makes sense to me that it is true. Besides your own personal experience also confirms that it is possible.

        • F. says:

          In general if you eat your caloric requirement of whole grains and potatoes, that alone satisfies the great majority of your nutritional needs, then you need very little else. Alternatively you can eat two pounds of vegetables (which is cheap) plus your caloric requirement in empty calories (such as white rice), and it’s surprisingly sufficient or almost sufficient, even when it comes to the various essential aminoacids.

          I also just noticed that an euro is worth a little more than a dollar, so my bad, I thought it was about the same.

      • Crimson Wool says:

        Foodstamps is $180/month and a struggle, so I’m truly baffled how anyone manages on $100. If it was easy to do, I’d assume foodstamps would have been cut by now…

        Can’t speak for that guy specifically, but I spend my cash pretty much solely on food and food-like products. Looking at my bank statements, I spend about $100 every three weeks. I get between about 1500 calories and 2200 calories a day, most days.

        You just change how you think about spending food money. Start comparing price per meal – and setting a certain basic bar, like “if it’s more than $2 for a meal, I won’t buy it” – and you can start dropping spending down a lot.

        Let me glance over my bank statements for the past year, nothing I do really relies on stable assets (e.g. house, car – I mostly use the bus and live in an apartment).

        Yeah, I spent about $6.1k over the past year. I don’t drive down all the costs I can, so I could probably scrape it a bit lower if I tried. I live a perfectly pleasant life in a moderately large city (300k) and occasionally spend money on luxury items.

    • Creutzer says:

      The fact that this whole calculation presumes that the person is married is also not exactly negligible…

      • Anonymous says:

        From the same link

        Q: Isn’t your low budget predicated on you being married and sharing expenses?
        A: No. I do not spend less money now compared to when I was single. Our budget is a compromise. We share expenses 50/50 for household expenses but not personal entertainment, personal savings, or personal health care. If we got divorced, I would no longer be paying half of some of these expenses, like the car, and food and heating would also be lower. Conversely, I might be paying more in housing unless I could find a room mate or something similar like subletting parts of the house/apartment. Read more about marriage and economies of scale.

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t see how heating would be lower, and he seems to be treating “I would not longer be paying half of […] the car” as not paying anything at all – which means not having a car, which means a loss in quality of life.

          With a roommate, you also can’t live together as closely as with a partner, so you’ll need a relatively larger apartment.

          So that he can maintain his standard of living with that particular amount of money does depend on his being married.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          I don’t see how heating would be lower.

          Probably because he can stand lower temperatures than his wife (as I recall, he is a big fan of layering clothes as opposed to active methods of cold-fighting).

    • Troy says:

      My wife and I lived on < $20,000 a year (for both of us) my whole time in graduate school. We didn't have kids; but I knew families of four who lived on as much. Of course we had to be more careful with our money than we are now, but I never felt poor. We lived in a large, comfortable house (which we owned), and always had plenty to eat. As long as you're willing to be careful about how much you spend on clothes, non-essential food, transportation, Internet/phone, entertainment, and whatever else it is people waste their money on, you can live very cheaply. (I admit we were helped by living in an area with a very low cost of living. But you can always move! And homeschool your kids and you don't have to pay extra for nice school districts.)

      • Creutzer says:

        […] house (which we owned) […]

        That’s kind of cheating for present purposes, though, isn’t it?

        I admit we were helped by living in an area with a very low cost of living. But you can always move!

        Right. Especially if you own a house. 😛

        • Troy says:

          No, we bought the house while students. The parenthetical remark was pointing out that we didn’t even have to rent — we were able to buy a house with student income.

      • Jake says:

        So as long as you already own valuable assets, it’s easy to live cheaply and well. Good to know.

  8. F. says:

    I once spent a winter without heating. I didn’t feel miserable at all. I wore thicker clothing. I’m planning to try and spend a period with only minimal electric illumination, just to see if, as I suspect, life is perfectly enjoyable without it.
    Food is as cheap as you want it to be. You can buy delicious, traditional agrarian staple in bulk straight from farmers for almost no money and they can satisfy the majority of your nutritional needs.
    Who needs a car? Unless there’s some reason I ignore that riding a scooter isn’t practical in American cities since when I roam the web it seems that nobody over there ever brings up the possibility. It certainly is practical where I live (Europe). It can be an electric scooter and then it costs virtually nothing. You can also ride a bycicle. Or public transportation.

    The point is, a basic income guarantee needs not be large.

    In fact it should be weighted carefully to make sure that enough people are still willing to work that the economy survives. The smaller the basic income, the more people are willing to work.

    • Doug S. says:

      If you have indoor plumbing, you at least need to keep your dwelling warm enough so that the water in your pipes doesn’t freeze and cause them to burst…

    • Doug S. says:

      In the U.S., if you live somewhere that lets you live reasonably without a car, you’re probably paying through the nose for rent.

    • My wife and I live almost without electrical illumination, and not because we’re extreme thrifters, but just by habit. We don’t turn lights on unless it’s truly too dark to see without them, and our house has lots of windows. Now that it’s summer and daylight is 6am-9pm, we barely ever turn on lights at all, and the only light that gets turned on every day is my bedside lamp, which goes on in the evenings when I’m reading in bed.

  9. EoT says:

    The part about the futility of education was really great, but I would have liked to have seen a more serious effort to think about what widespread idleness would really be like.

    Living in the Rust Belt, I’ve had the misfortune of seeing a number of friends and relatives go through long-term unemployment and work furloughs. It isn’t pretty. In the beginning they keep waking up early, shaving, showering, going out and looking for jobs and running errands. Eventually they start waking up later. Not shaving. Discovering the (hypnotic/sedative) effects of daytime television. Even though they have more and more time to pursue other interests and get exercise, they actually, do less and less.

    In a time span of generations, you get a culture shift toward a chav/ghetto society in which men compete by demonstrating violent strength rather than by being a better provider.

    Idleness just breaks people down, while hard work builds people up and makes them better. That’s one reason why I think UBI measures should be structured as wage subsidies. Eliminate the minimum wage and you can employ all ZMP workers at a market clearing price of zero (from the employer’s perspective).

    • Multiheaded says:

      That’s not idleness, that’s despair and a sense of futility and a lack of esteem/appreciation, within a constraints of our work-oriented society and its values. And I definitely don’t judge them, as suboptimal as their choices might seem to a privileged middle-class skilled worker. When there’s no future, how can there be sin?

      I think all people, on UBI or not, should be socially encouraged to do things for the community (like cleaning and looking after each other) for warm fuzzies and respect, instead of fetishizing Real Manly Hard Work and humuliating people with the knowledge that someone is pushing makework on them for their own good.

      In a time span of generations, you get a culture shift toward a chav/ghetto society in which men compete by demonstrating violent strength rather than by being a better provider.

      So are they lazy substance-abusing[1] couch potatoes, or violent competitive thugs? Your stereotypes appear contradictory.

      [1] I’m suddenly reminded of the allegations that Trayvon Martin was literally driven to unprovoked aggression by reefer madness.

      • EoT says:

        So are they lazy substance-abusing[1] couch potatoes, or violent competitive thugs? Your stereotypes appear contradictory.

        I explicitly said that it’s a generational shift in values. First generation unemployed and downwardly mobile still have the old value system they grew up with. Their failure to live up to those standards makes them feel hopeless and paralyzed, later generations learn that working toward middle class prosperity is fruitless and seek social status through manly aggression.

        It’s a little bit like this:

        • Multiheaded says:

          Then why do you think has violence among youth declined considerably in Britain over the last ~15 years, welfare and all?


          It has long been said that the devil makes work for idle hands, and a lot of juvenile delinquency has always been a product of boredom. It may simply be the case that when young people have a choice of smartphone, tablet and games console in front of them, they feel less need to get pissed on cheap cider and smash up a bus shelter.

          It’s true, but having said that, this explanation still seems a trifle churlish. As a society we have few hesitations in laying the blame on our young people when things go badly. But we should be equally quick to offer applause when things go right.

    • Oligopsony says:

      If they’re ZMP, and the real purpose isn’t for them to produce things, tailor the jobs for what you’re actually trying to emphasize. In particular I think it might be good to emphasize skill development (though perhaps that leaves us where we started, with massive public education.)

      On one level I am sympathetic to Multi’s concerns here, but I am also concerned about people getting trapped in a permanent unemployment/skill depreciation loop. Also, I’m not entirely sure the depression-causing stigma will cease even under a better political economy as long as people have reason to believe they’re ZMP.

    • Doug S. says:

      In a time span of generations, you get a culture shift toward a chav/ghetto society in which men compete by demonstrating violent strength rather than by being a better provider.

      This is a situation that calls out for a Third Alternative. What else do people respect, besides money and force?

      • anon says:


      • Zathille says:

        Over-analysis to the point of pedantry, nitpicking and an inability to stay on-topic, letting discussions take their course and produce beautiful things.

        Basically, /tg/.

        • Multiheaded says:

          Prole slave, wat do?

        • Zathille says:

          Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

          I mean, while the conditions of proletarized wage workers are not exactly desirable, the fact they’re wage workers already precludes them from being slaves in the historical, political economy sense, does it not?

        • Multiheaded says:

          If we’re talking NRs, presumably this would mean “slave of prole origin”, as indeed I’ve heard them endorse “adopting” such. I was just making a shout-out to the ‘elf slave wat do’ /tg/ maymay, though.

      • MugaSofer says:

        Tumblr-esque SJW status games.

    • Jake says:

      The key thing to remember is that those miserable unemployed people are living in a society that is constantly telling them that they’re worthless for not having a job. There was a fascinating study a couple years ago examining how people’s life satisfaction changed when they moved from identifying as being unemployed to identifying as being retired. There was no difference in their physical standard of living, just in the social category they were in.


      In a world where everyone receives a basic income someone who chose not to work wouldn’t be one of those damn lazy unemployed, they’d just be someone who decided that they prefer having more free time to having more money.

    • Mike Blume says:

      I think we have a two cultures problem here. There’s a culture of virtuous work and a culture of virtuous leisure and I don’t think the two overlap — you have to pick one or the other. In a work culture, you talk up the value of work, you encourage job creation, you discourage automation, you institute minimum wages, you assign status based on what people have, what they provide to their families through their diligent toil. In a leisure culture you encourage automation, you minimize the labor needed to run your society, you assign status based on the way people cultivate their abilities, by who’s mastered the piano or the tango or oil painting or number theory. I think modern day America is grounded in a culture of labor but the vast formless things are drifting in a direction that makes a culture of leisure more viable, and this is creating cultural friction precisely because you really have to put all your chips on one or the other to make them work.

      • Silva says:

        Overlap reporting. Among other things, I want automation to free people for new and greater kinds of work. Also, I think that if you spread education and work-hours and -months right, people can get approximately the best of both worlds, along with making society more redundant.

  10. Raoul says:

    Do you have the calculation to hand for the $15k? It sounds a bit high to me. I haven’t checked the historical data, but say we started with $155k (20 years ago but in today’s dollars) and invested it for 20 years with a real annual return of 7%. We would then have about $600k. $15k per year without eating into the capital would then be a 2.5% real annual return, and I can’t see any safe bonds at the moment that return anything like that (I think 10 year treasuries currently offer roughly a 2.5% nominal return, and if I’m reading correctly then 30ish year inflation protected securities could offer you annual returns of up to 1.1%).

    “36% of high school students know that an atom is bigger than an electron, rather than vice versa. But a full 59% of college students know the same. That’s a whole nine percent better than chance.”

    It was actually 18+ year olds with no education beyond high school, not high school students. (Same for the other groups too of course.) And 59% is more than 9% better than chance (presumably half of those saying “don’t know” — who were a quarter of the whole sample, though I can’t see the data for this particular subgroup — would have got it right if they had guessed).

    Though that’s still not particularly encouraging…

    • Jake says:

      This system actually need to set up individual little accounts for everybody. It would be much more efficient to put all the money being saved into a giant sovereign wealth fund, and then pay the basic income out of that. That way you get the economies of scale on money management, while reducing the risk of having an individual’s account being wiped out by some fluke.

      Norway has $760 billion in their sovereign wealth fund, with a rate of return of a little over 3% annually, which is considered unusually low by sovereign wealth fund standards.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Part of the difference is that the stock market made an average of 10% in the past 22 years, so that’s going to increase the pot a lot. Another part is that I searched for bonds and got the impression that some of them could make 4% with only minor risk, so I assumed 2% for inflation and went from there.

  11. Doug S. says:

    If you paid people to play World of Warcraft (with the size of the paycheck dependent on success in the game, so you couldn’t just “slack off”), would it start becoming as annoying as “real-life” jobs are?

    If we need “work” for psychological reasons, we can at least re-design it so that it’s not so awful.

    • peterdjones says:

      The relative awfullness of work is very variable. Some people continue their jobs after winning lotteries,..

      • Deiseach says:

        It really does depend on the job. I’ve worked a job I loved where I looked forward to going in to work each day, and I’ve worked a job where if you tripled my pay I still would have preferred to give it up because it was just too stressful and unpleasant.

        If people had a guaranteed basic income and were left free to do part-time work, or voluntary work (and I don’t mean the ‘workfare’ jobs), then I think some would definitely take those jobs.

        The unpleasant/stressful jobs can then be compensated by better wages, or incentives such as employer-provided childcare, or the voluntary workers will come round and paint your house and look after your garden for you, or some social barter like that.

    • Nate says:

      From what I’ve heard, there are a lot of Chinese gold farmers you could ask about that, and I’m guessing the answer would be yes.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Actual present-day WoW, or are you imagining some other videogame (second life?)

  12. EoT says:

    I guess this is a minor point, but another issue is that the “education” system is also used to provide daycare and free meals (in some cases breakfast, lunch, and an after-school snack are provided at no cost) to a very large percentage of families.

    It seems like a lot of single mother households rely pretty heavily on this. So maybe if public schools didn’t exist we would have to invent them. Or at least the savings might not be as direct as they seem.

    Basically public schools seem like a useful way to give the government a way of checking in on (and providing resources for) at-risk kids.

  13. Thasvaddef says:

    It does seem strange that the more efficient we get at producing wealth the more poverty there will be.

    Although I’m not sure that is has happened yet. Unmployment seems to be similar to 120 years ago, and I don’t think the fluctuations are caused by technology.

    How long do you predict it will be until the majority of people don’t have to work but the economy continues to grow because of automation? Because we’re still a long way away and in the meantime we will need people to work and be educated enough to do so. It would make sense to me if we don’t run out of need for human jobs until the singularity.

    • Jake says:

      But if we institute a basic income we’ll get to that point a lot sooner, because the supply of labor will shrink, increases the cost, and thus increasing the incentive to automate jobs.

  14. Anonymous says:

    What is the source for the atom/electron question? I don’t see it in the linked survey.

  15. Typhon says:

    I find this text unconvincing.

    I mean, most of the arguments in the part about education are about education in the american public school system.
    If the unschooled children are not that far behind those who go to public school, it’s probably because the american public school system is awful, and it doesn’t tell us much about the value of education, or even the value of school systems, in general.

    I’d like to see a comparison with other systems around the world.

    As for basic income, there’s probably something I’ve missed, but what is even the point of money in a world where everything is done by robots ?

  16. Carinthium says:

    Side note, particularly for Scott Alexander himself but also others who have relevant contributions:

    Say you somehow pass a Basic Income Guarentee (hard right now, but plausible in the future). How on earth are you going to remove the social stigma regarding recieving it? Social stigmas are a cultural institution, not a law, and governments have a lot of trouble controlling cultural institutions.

    • Typhon says:

      Why would there be a stigma if everyone gets to receive it ?

      • Carinthium says:

        The stigma would be for those who rely on it- i.e. the unemployed, however many they may be.

        • Anonymous says:

          people with jobs would just be doing extra to get extra. there’s already lots of examples of that without stigma to the ones who aren’t doing extra. like people who do home improvement projects. they’re not just content with their house how it is, they want to put work in to get more out of it than just live with what they have. so they undertake these projects to improve it. do they judge the people that aren’t renovating their houses by hand by hand like they are? no. plus, the people working could eventually just be the more talented people who i don’t think would really be looking down on the less talented for not doing things they couldn’t do. the stigma against laziness arises in a larger social context. it depends on how those working feel about the work they do and other factors. but basic income and increasing automation really change that context.

    • nydwracu says:

      All it would take to remove the social stigma among Brahmins is a few Huffpo articles, and those Huffpo articles would get written within a year of the program’s rollout. Brahmins control most of the media, so it’d trickle down from there; but where would it need to go? Amerikaners are totally screwed and will end up joining either Frontines or the white underclass in a decade or two, and the underclass isn’t in a position where a social stigma against taking government money is possible. As for Frontines, they’ll be the ones running the robots, so why worry about them?

    • Jake says:

      I’m thinking the social stigma will just go away naturally. Obviously it’s beneficial for people to try to help this process along, but it’s probably not strictly necessary.

      Here are the big factors I see causing this shift:

      1) The unconditional nature of the program makes it tougher to turn its recipients into ‘the other’

      2) Those who depend on the basic income will presumably be a larger portion of society than the unemployed currently are, giving them somewhat more power to push back against being demonized.

      3) Unlike the unemployed, those dependent on the basic income won’t be desperately trying to change categories, and thus will be more willing to defend themselves against stigmatization.

      4) Most importantly, the hard and fast distinction between ’employed’ and ‘unemployed’ will be reduced. If someone mostly lives off the basic income, but supplements it with making handicrafts, or working as a waiter 10 hours a week, or selling ads on their personal website, or what have you, are they employed or unemployed? What about someone working full time as a volunteer? Or someone who spends three out of four years unemployed, but occasionally gets a job when they want to make some extra cash for a big purchase? Or a full time student who spends their time auditing community college classes, learning whatever catches their fancy?

    • Misha says:

      Same way the welfare stigma has gone away and now you have hipsters on food stamps and whatnot.

  17. Nate says:

    The system is not your friend. The system is not your enemy. The system is a retarded giant throwing wads of $100 bills and books of rules in random directions while shouting “LOOK AT ME! I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!”

    That’s one of the best things I’ve read in quite awhile.

  18. Alrenous says:

    if I knew how to fix the system, it’s a pretty good bet other people would know too and the system would already have been fixed.

    This attitude makes fixing the system a lot harder.

    The concrete physical actions are easy to figure out, even pure Pareto improvements. For example, stop assigning homework. There’s no evidence it has lasting benefits, good evidence it has no lasting benefits, and obvious evidence that it has costs. Why, a naive observer might think it’s just a submission ritual, with no genuine educational purpose at all! Surely a virtuous practice need not embarrass itself like this?

    Historically, legal monopolies decline precipitously in service quality. In detail, this means non-parasitical personalities are driven away and parasitical personalities are attracted until the problem is both institution and personnel. In this case, not only is there a legal monopoly, but an obligation to buy. Schools do not even compete against ignorance, the way Coke has to compete against tap water or just being thirsty.

    There two possibilities. One is the system doesn’t have an architect per se, and that’s the problem. The system doesn’t serve people, it serves itself. Two, it does have an architect.

    Historically, systems have had architects that were the enemy of the subjects. The Normans were hardly sympathetic to Saxons, nor Saxons to Celts. There are records of would-be architects conspiring to produce a school system that accomplishes exactly what the Prussian school system presently accomplishes. It’s not impossible that it’s a coincidence, like the beliefs of Keynesian economists. (Ctrl-f ‘occasion’)

    Of course I’d also like to advocate for kindness. But it seems highly unnatural. At least it’s nobody’s first response.

    Unless you’re calling the architects spectacularly unkind. That would be consistent with the evidence. Normans were not known for their charity.

    Ending the legal monopoly or obligation to buy is not a Pareto improvement, as we would expect teachers to lose their jobs.

    First, the economic costs ware hardly unknown at the time of their inception. When the law was passed, they were either criminally negligent in their due diligence, or just criminal. Second, it can be converted to a Pareto improvement by grandfathering in teacher salaries as pensions. Third, even if you want to make the argument it wasn’t well enough known at the time, it is now. (Pareto was born in 1848, most compulsory education laws were late 1800s.) The solution is, in fact, easy, in terms of which physical actions would be wiser.

    Unless teachers and their administrators are being dishonest. But then this would be prima facie evidence for an adversarial relationship.

    Unschooled are a grade behind. And so what? What’s the actual life-outcome associated with being slightly worse at taking tests?

    • Multiheaded says:

      I’m surprised to say that you finally appear to be talking sense!

    • Jake says:

      How about this option: the system was created and is controlled by a hodgepodge of different interests with different motives and goals, some of which have our best interests at heart, and some of which do not.

      Take the example of the current net neutrality debate. You have some giant corporations (cable companies) trying to enrich themselves at the public’s expense by getting rid of net neutrality. Then you have other giant corporations (Google, Netflix, etc.) opposing this for their own selfish purposes, in conjunction with more altruistic opposition from groups like the EFF. Then you’ve got the actual decision being made by 5 commissioners who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, with all the combination of democratic accountability and corruption that that implies. There’s not really much room for sinister architects in this scenario, just a lot of people pursuing a lot of different interests.

    • anon says:

      How does this perspective account for the failure of private schools to surpass public schools in improvements to intelligence? Schooling is legally obligated but public schooling isn’t. If public schooling was as comparatively bad as you claim then there would be a high demand for private schooling and private schools would have very low costs. Unless you think that consumers almost universally irrationally dislike private schooling, which I guess is a possibility?

      • AJD says:

        It’s easy to believe that private schools with “very low costs” would be notably inferior to public schools.

      • Alrenous says:

        “Private.” I haven’t looked into it, but I would bet a few grand they’re private the way the American healthcare system was private, namely, not at all. If you have to measure your stack of regulations in feet, well…

        Private school is inherently more costly than public schools. You don’t get a refund for not paying for the public schools. (And if you did they would conveniently forget much of the cost.) Voucher schools, naturally, have bonus regs they have to follow on top of the already foot-tall stack.

        Just to start, you still have to follow teacher licensing regs, hiring out of a pool candidates anti-qualified in absolute terms.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Nope, you haven’t looked into it.

          Just to start, they don’t have to follow teacher licensing regs. Most voucher systems don’t require them, either.

          Also, re: previous comment, no, there really isn’t an obligation to buy. There was a few decades ago, but after the home schooling movement, it is trivial to get out of schooling, if that is what the parents want. You yourself mentioned unschooling in that very comment!

        • Alrenous says:

          Unschooling does not appear to be technically legal.

          You need to chastise whoever you’re getting your information from as a liar.

          ‘school voucher teacher license’ respectively first, second, and fourth result:

          Following all public school standards for hours of instruction and comply with curriculum requirements.
          Schools participating in the program must apply for and obtain accreditation from an approved agency within three years of participation in the MPCP […] Accreditation requires qualified teachers

          Indiana[‘s …] Private schools can’t accept new students if they get a D or an F from the state for two consecutive years, though they can keep the ones they already have.

          Section 28 of the School Act outlines the requirements for private schools for grades 1 -12. Private schools may also offer Early Childhood Services (ECS) programs. All private schools:

          must meet the basic requirements of section 28(1) of the School Act

          The School Act 28(1):

          A school is entitled to be registered as a private school if the
          operator applies to the Minister and the Minister is satisfied that

          (a) the school will provide a program of studies that complies with any orders made under section 39(1)(f),

          (b) the school will meet the standards of student achievement and achievement testing acceptable to the Minister,

          (c) the operator agrees to regular evaluation and monitoring by the Minister, and (d) the building that is used for school purposes meets and will continue to meet all applicable local and provincial health, safety and building standards.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Neither your Indiana nor Alberta links mention licensing.

          I can think of some senses in which unschooling might, technically, be illegal in some jurisdictions, but my previous statement took this into account, so don’t lie about it, asshole.

        • Alrenous says:

          You haven’t posted any links at all.

          Asshole? You forfeit the debate. Good day.

        • peterdjones says:

          The point of the regulation is to ensure that at least the standard of public schools is met. Without it, you would indeed have private schools as cheap as Dotheboys Hall, and as good,

        • Alrenous says:

          peterdjones, you just proposed that communism works.

          A: bureaucrats do not know what makes a good school. They sure think they do, though. Ignorance + certainty => disaster. Disaster has occurred; my syllogism would have been predictive in 1800. They could have known better. (They did, even, compulsory school laws were initially met with riots.)

          B.1: do you believe that consumers would be helpless against such schools? How does this work? If you can tell they’re bad, and bureaucrats can tell they’re bad, why can’t the actual people in direct contact with the thing, the consumers, tell they’re bad?

          B.2: unschooling, the placebo group, do one grade level worse on tests. We have no data on whether that matters for life satisfaction. Historically, technologies not optimized to do a thing don’t do it at all. Nobody even thought to check, so it’s all but certain schooling has no positive effect. Scientifically speaking we’re, no exaggeration, on par with bloodletting here.

          There’s no room to put a Dotheboys hall between nothing and public schools. Are you proposing that parents are often sadistic toward their children? Why would they let them stay in a starvation boarding school when they could just use daycare?

          C: are you aware of Underwriters Laboratories? It is a private corporation. That is, actually private, not like the Fed or American medicine. There are no retailers that will carry merchandise without the UL seal. There is no law to this effect. They use UL because UL does great work – it’s simply a good idea. Just because the government (says it) does something, doesn’t mean only the government can do it.

        • peterdjones says:

          Communism . Yawn.

          All the mass education systems in the world are largely or wholly public, so allmthe relatively bad ones are public and all the relatively good ones are public,

          So , despite your sweeping assertion, some bureaucrats are doing relatively well.

          I can’t se what would justify your no room comment. It seems obviously me that if you supply a new form of private education that is cheap, then more people will be able to afford it…cf the Ford model T.

          I’m taking you last comment to mean there could be large scale private provision of education, analogous to private healthcare providers. Well maybe. But since it will have to be done down to a price, I don’t see why it would necessarily be much better.

        • Zathille says:

          “peterdjones, you just proposed that communism works.”

          Why assert this? Even if it were true, it’d be orthogonal to the point of whether or not regulation has beneficial consequences.

          Regulations are not a communist invention, even if they were a prominent feature of it, that does not make advocades of regulations communist, by definition.

          For a historical example: mercantilism.

        • Alrenous says:

          If bureaucrats could successfully pick schools better than the students in question, then central planning would work. If central planning worked, then communism would work.

          We clearly all accept that communism doesn’t work. Modus tollens, therefore central planning doesn’t work, therefore bureaucrats cannot pick schools effectively. This proof would have predicted the current state of American education in 1800. Predictive means the logic is sound enough – I probably haven’t forgotten anything relevant or included anything irrelevant.

          My reply to peterdjones seems to have run afoul of Alexander’s spam filter, so due to impatience I posted it here.

        • Zathille says:

          Actually, this is precisely why I brought up the example of mercantilism as a system with a great deal of central planning, tariffs and state-enforced monopolies, but also one with a very important historical role in the formation of nation-states as well as the expansion of trade throught colonialism, which were the objectives of the states which practiced such policies.

          If a system has failed and it had central planning, it does not nescessarily follow it was the only reason it had failed, particular with such an example, which is why I question the predictive power of such a hypothesis.

          That is not to say I consider central planning at all efficient, but one must be careful about positing monocausal relationships when it comes to history and economics.

  19. Carinthium says:

    What do you think the fate will be of those who have useless non-jobs right now? Might it be prudent for me (I live in Australia making this a bit more complicated, but still…) to have a fallback job in a Philosophy department, say? Or is that a job likely to get the axe somehow anyway?

  20. Vadim Kosoy says:

    > Once machines can do everything we can better and cheaper, the inevitable end result is employment for a few geniuses who invent and run the machines, immense profits for the capitalists who own the machines, and what happens to everyone else better left unspoken…

    > …When society becomes so advanced that it produces more than enough for everybody – but also so advanced that most individuals below genius level have little to contribute and no way of earning money – everyone should get a yearly salary just for existing… This titanic promise has run up against a giant iceberg with BUT HOW WOULD WE PAY FOR IT written in big red letters on the front. If we cancelled all existing welfare and entitlement programs – which makes sense if we’re giving everyone enough money to live comfortably on, we would only free up enough money together for a universal income of $5,800.

    In the future world in which “machines can do everything we can better and cheaper”, there would be enough tax money to allow a luxurious life style for everyone. That is, if we somehow manage to keep population growth near zero. Exponential growth is not sustainable whatever you do.

  21. pwyll says:

    Scott, your picture of what happens if you go to college is not nearly bleak enough.

    But don’t worry, I’m sure the nice folks at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV will be happy to forgive your debt if you mention you weren’t entirely happy with the purchase. You did hold out for the satisfaction-guaranteed offer, right? No? Uh oh.

    Not only will they not forgive your debt, but student loan debt is the one of the very few types of debt that you can’t discharge in bankruptcy. Uncle Sam will get his pound of flesh, even if it means driving you into grinding poverty, prostitution, or or a debt hole so deep that even when you start getting social security payments, they’ll be garnished for debt you’re still desperately trying to pay off.

    (Protip: the only way of escaping student loan debt, that I’ve heard of, is to flee the country permanently. Someone should do a remake of Inception where instead of a murder charge being the reason why Leo can’t go back home, it’s a huge student debt load.)

    Furthermore, even if you *can* handle the debt load, it’ll force you to immediately start making as much money as possible, and eliminate the option to just pick a career because you enjoy it.

    But of course it gets worse. Because you’ve burned 4-6 precious years of your youth and accumulated a crushing debt load, you’ll get married much later that you otherwise would, because people often wait until after schooling to get married and also because poor people have poorer marriage prospects. (ceteris paribus.)

    And it’s even worse than that if you’re female and want kids, because your reproductive window is limited. And it’s worse still if you’re a particularly intelligent or ambitious female who goes to grad school. Thus the epidemic of smart, attractive, and childless-by-accident women in their mid-to-late-30’s I know.

    In short, college will dramatically worsen your standard of living, keep you lonely for a much longer span of your life, and possibly extinguish your bloodline permanently. It’s individually toxic, societally corrosive, and horrifyingly dysgenic. I don’t know of any other sector of the economy that does as much evil, to as many people and to society, as higher education.

    College makes sense if, and only if: (a) you are attending a very elite institution where you will be able to network with and/or have the option to date many of America’s future rulers, AND (b) you will emerge from the experience with little to no debt. (It will also help if you’re able to resist many of the toxic memes you’ll be exposed to during the college experience.)

    Furthermore, I also don’t think that the picture for degree-less students is as bad as you paint it:

    As bad as you will have it, everyone who didn’t graduate college still has it much, much worse. All the economic indicators agree with the signs from the desolate wasteland that was once our industrial heartland: they are doomed. Their wages are not stagnating but actively declining, their unemployment rate is a positively Greek thirty-five percent, and prospects for changing that are few and far between.

    Harvard grads don’t do well in life because Harvard does a particularly brilliant job of imparting wisdom to them. They do well because Harvard only admits smart people. (And, to a lesser extent, because Harvard puts them in contact with other smart people.) The largest reason why people without college degrees have poor life prospects isn’t because they didn’t go to college – it’s because they have relatively lower IQs. As such, much of the case for higher education rests on cargo cult thinking. If you’re smart, and if you can figure out how to network effectively with other smart people, you’ll do just fine even if you choose not to go to Harvard.

    (Epilogue: why do so many employers require a college degree, when instead they could give you a quick test that would be just as predictive of job performance? Because that would be racist. So one of the reasons why we, as a society, are instead wasting countless dollars and potential-filled years of our lives is to avoid badfeel about racial differences.)

    • peterdjones says:

      Clearly college isn’t totally useless, because scientists, engineers, and….err..doctors need that level of specialised education.

      As ever, “education” is being used a proxy for “.US education”. There are solutions to individual problems that don’t involve shutting down the whole system.

      IQ test are not just a predictive for reasons which are, bizarre enough, given in the WP article you linked: whites who could not pass them were nonetheless able to do the job. IQ tests also don’t measure knowledge, or the ability to apply knowledge.

      • pwyll says:

        Hello Peter,

        “College isn’t totally useless” is not a very strong argument – very few things are “totally” anything. But let’s look at the examples you mentioned: Bachelor’s degrees in engineering or the hard sciences make up only about 15% of all degrees awarded annually in the US. As for “needing that level of specialized education” – college education is not that specialized, for better or for worse, and includes long breaks where much knowledge is forgotten. (Thus the evidence that on average half of college students don’t learn anything during their first two years.) Given that a nine-week coding boot camp can impart enough knowledge to enable participants to land positions usually requiring a college CS degree, (and see also Scott’s item on coding boot camps in his February link roundup) I’d argue that the fraction of college undergrads getting a bad return on their money and time is closer to 100% than 85%. And doctors are a worse example – they don’t even start studying medicine until grad school.

        Higher education in other developed countries outside the US is typically cheaper (though not free – just paid by general taxation rather than tuition) but that only fixes the money part of the equation: the students are still burning some of their most valuable years. In fact, the time side of the equation is often worse than it is in the US, since there’s less fiscal pressure to finish a degree.

        So to a first approximation, I’d say fixing things *would* look very similar to “shutting down the whole system”.

        (Also, I don’t think your comments on IQ vs job performance and knowledge are supported by my link to the Griggs vs. Duke Power decision. 1. The test non-predictiveness was for employees who had already been working at the job for some time, thus introducing a survivorship bias effect. 2. IQ tests *do* measure the ability to apply knowledge. 3. While IQ tests don’t measure knowledge, they tend to be well correlated with it.)

        • peterdjones says:

          Of course IQ tests don’t measure the ability to turn up, meet deadlines or see projects through to completion.

          Smart but doesn’t get things done is a real problem.

        • pwyll says:

          Yes, and agreed that getting an undergrad degree is a signal of conscientiousness in a way that a high IQ test score is not. But I don’t think it’s a very *strong* signal – for example, in the article you linked to, the author mentions that people who can’t “get things done” often have PhDs.

    • Creutzer says:

      In short, college will […] keep you lonely for a much longer span of your life.

      Er… What? I’m under the impression that college is kind of the high point in everybody’s social life. Where else are you going to find an opportunity to meet so many people so easily (who have furthermore been at least weakly preselected for intelligence)?

      • pwyll says:

        Lonely in the sense of “without a committed life partner”.

        You’d think college would be very good for finding a spouse just because of the selection effect you mentioned. In practice, it tends to be not nearly as good as you’d expect, given the other societal dynamics at work.

    • AJD says:

      It is a little disingenuous to refer to Griggs v. Duke Power right after saying “a quick test that would be just as predictive of job performance”, seeing as how the Wikipedia article you link to states that the finding of the court in that case was that the test was not predictive of job performance.

    • Deiseach says:

      you’ll get married much later that you otherwise would

      I am curious as to why you think “You’re not married by the age of 22” is a bad thing. Average age of first marriage in Ireland (which I’ve just looked up) is 34 for men and 32 for women.

      This isn’t a recent thing, either; back in 1980 (when I was just finishing secondary school), my history class examined the changes in pre- and post-Famine Ireland; one of the most significant ones was marriage was delayed until much later in life.

      Indeed, in my rural youth, it was not unusual for people to be engaged for years before finally getting married – anything up to ten years and more!

      I’ve noticed this before on American blogs, regardless of whether they’re conservative or not; the idea that early marriage is the ideal and if you’re not on your (first) (starter) marriage in your early 20s, well something is badly wrong.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        I can think of at least three obvious reasons why late marriage for women is a horrible thing:

        1. The longer women go unmarried, the more time there is for them to have had additional sexual partners. In particular, the less likely they are to be virgins.
        2. Women’s looks decline with age (or, to avoid the mind-projection fallacy, I should say that men find women less attractive as they age). So the older they get, the lower the quality of the men they can attract into a marriage, and the less attraction-years their husbands can enjoy.
        3. Women’s fertility declines with age. The older they get married, the less likely they are to have children. Which is horrible for them, horrible for their husbands, makes them even less likely to attract a quality husband, and (in the context of university education as a cause) has obvious dysgenic effects.

        These problems are obviously much less relevant for men marrying later than for women, but they are still present to some degree. Probably the biggest problem with men marrying late is the years that reliable, productive men with no game have to spend in involuntary celibacy.

        • Jake says:

          1) grow up, doesn’t matter

          2) Given that the above doesn’t matter, the ‘wasted’ attraction years can go to benefit plenty of people

          3) as someone who was once a sexually frustrated teenage boy myself, let me just say it gets better, and it gets better quicker if you don’t do something stupid like become a neoreactionary.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          grow up, doesn’t matter

          Telling men to grow out of their preference for female purity is like telling them to grow out of their preference for sex altogether. First, it’s not possible. And second, even if it were possible (e.g. with future technology), why are they under an obligation to change their preferences?

          The three thing I mentioned all make marriage an ever worse deal for men. What do you think happens when men are no longer willing to wife women whose attraction-years and purity went to benefit someone else, and whose fertility was entirely wasted?

        • AJD says:

          I have a preference that you, jaimeastorga2000, come to my house and wash my car for me, rather than for me to have to do it myself.

          Sadly, my preferences are not the only ones that are relevant here. You may have an opinion about the matter as well. And you might say it would be, perhaps, immature of me to insist that it is a horrible thing that you won’t wash my car for me, when you have other things you’d rather be doing.

          In other words, your entire argument seems to be founded on the presupposition that women are not moral agents who have preferences.

        • AJD says:

          (Well, plus I guess the typical typical-mind fallacy of assuming that everyone who has preferences shares yours. Here, I’ll do the same thing:

          It’s not possible for men to have a preference for female “purity”. The existence of this preference is entirely mythical.)

  22. Platypus says:

    I notice you linked to a post by Stephen L Carter about his nearly being un-invited from a commencement speech. That post does not say what he actually did.

    I tried the following searches:
    [stephen l carter]
    [stephen l carter commencement 2014]
    [stephen l carter commencement controversy]
    [what did stephen l carter do]

    but I can’t figure out why those students didn’t want him to speak.
    Have you got any more context?

    • Anonymous says:

      It might help to know what school Carter was speaking at. Scott said that in his speech: University of [mumble]. Carter’s post mentions all the context.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      The linked speech is a joke. He is not a real commencement speaker. He was writing a fake speech making fun of the phenomenon of people being uninvited from colleges.

  23. mjgeddes says:

    Good man, good! The case is far from made, but I’m guessing you’re not far from the truth, and such a system can work. To quote Douglas Adams ‘it’s good , it’s right, and no one need get nailed to anything’.

    I would add a couple of critical elements:

    (1) Perhaps make it a requirement for getting the universal income that you have to do 1 day / week community service of some kind. The reason for this is that there are some necessary jobs that noone would like, but people still have to do them. We may not be able to eliminate these types of jobs entirely until true AGI/robotics arrives, so a good temporary fix is simply to share out these types of jobs so everyone pitches in a little bit. I think the 1 day/week work requirement fixes this.

    (2) Scrap all the different kinds of taxation and replace with a single type of tax ‘the land value tax’ of Georgism. It is generally agreed among economists across the political spectrum that LVT (land value tax) would be a superior, more efficient kind of taxation than income tax. With the expected substantial boosts to government revenues from LVT , the universal income would be more likely to be affordable, and you could strengthen your case for it.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Please note that it is not generally agreed among economists across the political spectrum that LVT (land value tax) would be a superior, more efficient kind of taxation than income tax. It would be more accurate to say that several economists across the political spectrum agree that LVT (land value tax) would be a superior, more efficient kind of taxation than income tax, while generally economists across the political spectrum will just roll their eyes if you bring it up.

      Just because a position is heterodox doesn’t make it wrong, but don’t try to pass Georgism off as economic orthodoxy.

      • Eli says:

        It is, however, almost uniformly agreed that Land Value Tax is a fairer and more efficient way to tax real-estate holdings in specific.

      • mjgeddes says:

        Fair points, but in the context of any discussion of a basic income, LVT needs to be mentioned, because its by far the best fit to basic income schemes.
        Usually basic income proposals fall completely flat because people simply can’t see how they can possibly work.
        LVT provides by far the best mechanism.
        If no one has to work, you really don’t want to be taxing income, you have to tax something else. If the basic income scheme is expensive, you’re going to need a method that guarantees you can raise the required revenues and so on.
        The natural solutions are the Georgist ones. Simplify the tax structure, get rid of income tax – let the govt. charge rent on all natural resources instead (i.e., land , which has a minimum intrinsic value) and raise your revenue that way, then use that revenue to guarantee the basic income.

  24. Alyssa Vance says:

    “You don’t need to invent a robo-drafter to put engineers out of business, just drafting software so effective it allows one engineer to do the work of three.”

    I just started work at Google. We have some ridiculously effective tools for letting one engineer do the work of three (or ten, or a hundred, or… ). Just absolutely ridiculous. (So much so that we are all sworn to secrecy and I can’t give too many specifics.) Yet, the demand for more engineers never seems to go down; somehow Google is always in dire need of more qualified people and will pay employees a big referral bonus if they can find any.

    • Steve says:

      This doesn’t strike me as particularly strong evidence that increased automation is not reducing the need for engineers unless Google employs more engineers, proportionate to its percentage of the S&P 500, than the average engineer per S&P 500 percentage did a decade or two ago.

      (feel free to substitute any reasonable metric for engineers-per-S&P 500-percentage).

  25. As someone who profoundly regrets my university education, this was extremely helpful.
    I have a job now, and it’s a job I like (mostly) and earn a decent salary from. It’s also a job which required three GCSEs and a little experience volunteering. I could have been doing this job eight years and two suicide attempts ago without my useless and expensive degree.
    But I am not sad. My life is good now and can be better.

  26. Valuable thing i learned at university which most people worked out for themselves: do not get engaged to someone whom you have known less than a month. Especially if their way of proposing is breaking up with you over Facebook, then meeting up for coffee and getting back together and proposing. Especially if they also suggest treating your mental illnesses with exorcisms, and consider your bisexuality as one of your mental illnesses.
    Don’t do that.

    • Doug S. says:

      Explained like that, it sounds like it should have been obvious, but it’s usually not so obvious when it happens to you.

  27. peterdjones says:

    Survivor bias: there are probably some people who have tried unschooling, didn’t like the results, and went back to conventional schooling.

  28. Paul Torek says:

    Wait – you have a dog now? Cool!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Nah. My family has a dog at their home in California. They got her when I still lived there, and I grew up with her, so she’s my dog. But she is still 2000 miles away.

  29. Mantodea says:

    Have you read Manna?

    I don’t actually think it’s very good as far as stories go, and it doesn’t have the same degree of actually analysing the numbers and presenting something actually implementable, but the idea is much the same.

  30. lmm says:

    So your typical example of someone on a $55,000 salary just happens to work in the most expensive place to live in the country? And your typical example of someone on $20,000/year just happens to be living in some victorian moralist’s idea of heaven (for other people, of course)? Look at what people who have that kind of stipend do, their revealed preferences; I suspect very few of them are reading Aristotle.

    Honestly I think the biggest justification for my degree is not that it got me a better paying job but that it helped me get a much more fun job than I would otherwise have (and it makes job-hunting, something which is unpleasant out of all proportion to its objective attributes, quicker and easier). If I had $20k/year then to the extent that I wasn’t just a boob I’d either still find a job, or I’d spend a decent chunk of time doing something very similar to my current job. I mean, cabin in the mountains and reading Aristotle sounds good in the abstract, but I bet if I actually tried to do that it’d get boring after the first week.

    And yeah, partly it was just the risk-averse option. I mean, it’s hard for me to compare because the direct personal cost is much less over here. If I got the option today to pay GPB10k/year including living expenses, with a low-interest loan, for a year of just hanging out with cool people, in a way that didn’t annoy my parents or damage my career, I’d do it.

  31. Eli says:

    I actually only now just noticed that your deconstruction of people’s values over the outcome of their education is actually basically classifying them into Hogwarts’ four Houses: Ravenclaw (knowledge), Hufflepuff (friendship), Slytherin (ambition), and Gryffindor (heroism). That is hysterical.

    • anon says:

      I don’t think Gryffindor fits. Gryffindor is very flashy and personal heroism, not crunching numbers to save the world from invisible catastrophe.

  32. MugaSofer says:

    My word, it appears that my so-called “depression” was in fact some sort of possessing spirit. Which Scott is now channelling, and which is making good use of his speech-writing capabilities. Go figure.

    I’m in high school. I feel a strong urge to put up posters or make an internet video or even wrangle my way into giving an actual speech, adapted from this.

    Am I crazy in thinking this would actually do some good?

    • anon says:

      It wouldn’t do any good. But a general habit of doing futile but exciting things might be good for a person, if they’re also cautious. Could make you more interesting or competent by trying.

    • Lorxus says:

      Yes, he is. It is feeding mine and that is eating me. As to your question, I will be a senior in college next year, and I can tell you that the answer is yes, you would be, because no one actually cares and it is far too late to fix anything. You may as well enjoy yourself while the world burns/drowns/eats itself alive these next 30 years.

  33. Anonymous says:

    “Higher education, and public education, is America’s best idea. Our decision to send our entire public through high school over the first 30 years of the 20th century was probably the single most important factor in U.S. economic predominance for that century. Those investments [include] preschool, good primary and secondary schools, [and] adequate nutrition and health care.”–David Autor

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  36. Brian says:

    This was beautful and sad. Let’s build a better world together.

  37. Anon256 says:

    There are a number of problems with this post, but the worst is your advocacy of the most horrible, life-destroying kind of sunk costs fallacy in paragraphs 54-64. People often find that the ideals they held or espoused in youth do not serve them well in later life, and it’s important for them to leave a line of retreat and otherwise be flexible in case this happens. You are instead advising people to chain themselves even more firmly to the ideals and rationalisations they hold at graduation, to pursue knowledge/friendship/ambition/altruism/philosophy even if they find it makes them miserable, since the alternative is being told that their youth was wasted.

    There’s a bravery argument here about whether people stick to their ideals too much or too little as it is (I think it’s the former). At least on the “knowedge” and “ambition” (and to some extent “altruism”) counts, it seems worth noting that most people will necessarily be mediocrities and failures, and are unlikely to be helped by memes that make this more painful than necessary; this should be weighed against potential benefits for those who are successful.

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  39. Lorxus says:

    I am a senior at Princeton. I absolutely and completely regret reading this, and it is entirely the fault of my overly-curious self, and I only regret it in the sense that I now see the utter abjection of my situation and the total lack of routes out. It caused several surprisingly important ideas that have been bothering me to crystallize, cost me a couple of spoons, and slightly increased my mental issues load. I am not sure whether to thank you or curse you. Most likely the former.

  40. Anon256 says:

    You don’t show your maths but it sounds like you are assuming the US government can get around 4% annual real risk-adjusted returns on multi-trillion-dollar investments. The US government can currently borrow money at around 0% inflation-adjusted interest (this number rarely goes over 2% and is often negative). Thus if your assumption were true the government could easily afford any imaginable policy, by borrowing money, turning around and investing it, and running off the interest. (Maybe the government’s creditors would want higher rates if the government borrowed so much more, but this doesn’t seem to happen in practise, and also why should they hesitate to loan the government money when the government has a magical 4%-real-returns machine?)

    Back in the real world, government promising people a fixed income in the future based projected returns from money “invested” now sounds like the story of most public-employee pension funds, which have left poorer states and municipalities bankrupt and are a huge drain on richer ones. Indeed such overly-optimistic expectations about returns on financial capital have perhaps caused even more problems than the overly-optimistic expectations about returns on “human capital” you are denouncing.

    • Robert Easton says:

      Scott’s post is explicitly addressed to graduates of 2014 and so the claim that someone could have made 4% real over the last 20-30 years is reasonable enough. It maybe implicitly says the same will be true for the next 30 years as well and if so I think that might be where it turns into a pet peeve of mine. The idea that the stock market will earn well above inflation forever is apparently so “obvious” that it’s not even worth saying. But to me it seems about as plausible as this “house prices will go up forever” thing (actually I’m still scared that one’s true). From anon256’s comment, it’s anti-efficient market hypothesis to believe in this reliable 4% real returns mechanism, and while I don’t necessarily expect everyone to believe EMH, I would say extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and “I can beat the market” sounds like an extraordinary claim to me.

      Separately of course this solution doesn’t scale; the US government certainly can’t invest hundreds of thousands of dollar per capita in the stock market without reducing the rate of return it will then get. So even if it can currently borrow at 0% and invest at 4% real at the margin, that’s very different to it doing so for everyone.

      All of this is perhaps getting away from Scott’s main point though. Regardless of the exact numbers, education is very expensive and so you’d hope whoever’s paying for it is getting something pretty good in return.

  41. emily says:

    Education takes people out of the labor pool- which is apparently what we need right now (imagine if there were even more people wanting jobs- wages would go even lower). There just has to be a way to make education less expensive so that even if you are not working, you are not going too deep into debt. I’m not that optimistic about guaranteed basic income- too many people will feel that it is “not fair” and there will always be those jobs that need to be done that no one wants to do and you need an economic incentive to get them to do it.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      there will always be those jobs that need to be done that no one wants to do and you need an economic incentive to get them to do it.

      That’s pretty solvable, though. With a basic income, you can still choose to work. If tasks need doing that no one wants to do, then people will start offering more and more money for other people to do those tasks, until eventually it becomes worthwhile for someone to do them, even with a basic income.

  42. Anonymous says:

    This reminds me of the video “Will Work For Free” (

    Also, I recommend you read about the Venus Project / Zeitgeist Movement which have similar ideas (but without money).

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Also, I recommend you read about the Venus Project / Zeitgeist Movement which have similar ideas (but without money).

      And I recommend against them. Having read their intros and their FAQ, I can’t possibly take them seriously.

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