Education spending that isn't smart
Not long after President Obama proclaimed in his second inaugural that “an economic recovery has begun,” we learned that the U.S. economy actually shrank in the last quarter. Many economists believe this is a temporary setback. This recovery might be the weakest in American history, but the economy isn't cratering either.
Still, you can bet that if the economy continues to contract, Obama will propose the same remedy he always has — more “investments” in education, infrastructure and various industries of the future. It seems that whatever the ailment, Dr. Obama always writes the same faulty prescription.
This is hardly shocking: Building roads and schools is a big reason why God created Democrats in the first place. And identifying the Next Big Thing — and taking credit for it — is something of a vocation for many liberal policymakers.
But are these really the drivers of economic growth?
Higher education in particular is almost universally championed as the key to “winning the future” — a buzz phrase the president borrowed from Newt Gingrich a while back. New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt calls education the “lifeblood of economic growth.”
Often channeling such writers as Thomas Friedman, whose fondness for the Chinese economic model borders on the perverse, Obama routinely elevates education to a national security issue.
Now, obviously, education is important and necessary for a host of reasons (and nobody is calling for “disarmament,” whatever that means). But there's little evidence it drives growth.
Growing economies spend a lot on education, but that doesn't necessarily mean that spending makes them grow. During the so-called Gilded Age, the U.S. economy roared faster and longer than ever before or since, while the illiteracy rate went down. But the rising literacy didn't cause the growth. Similarly, in the 20th century, in places like China, South Korea and India, the economic boom — and the policies that create it — always come first while the investments in education come later.
There are similar problems with claims that infrastructure spending will pay off. When I was in college, prominent experts and journalists — Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, James Fallows, Kevin Phillips et al. — were insisting Japan would be the next world economic superpower. In the late 1980s, Jacques Attali, the first head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, claimed that “America has become Japan's granary, like Poland was for Flanders in the 17th century.”
Japan is now well into its third “lost decade.” Over the years, it has poured money into “stimulative” infrastructure projects that have yet to stimulate and protected industries that have steadily lost their competitive edge. Economic growth has averaged less than 1 percent since 2000, while government debt is now more than twice its GDP. If a highly educated workforce, support for allegedly cutting-edge industries and lavish spending on infrastructure were the recipe for economic growth (and if debt didn't matter), Japan would be doing great.
Obama surely wants to see some real economic growth. Perhaps the problem is that he thinks investing in a much bigger cart to put before the horse will get him where he wants to go.
Jonah Goldberg, editor at large of National Review Online, is the author of “The Tyranny of Clichés.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Reliever Holdzkom among three players cut by Pirates
- Rolling Stones roll into Heinz Field June 20
- Worker trapped in trench collapse in Butler County is freed
- Former Pa. Gov. Corbett: From pension critic to collector
- Pirates again approach Polanco about contract extension
- Injuries to Penguins’ Ehrhoff, Letang force defense to pick up slack
- Reversing the field: Pirates continue to raid Yankees for hidden skill
- Five is enough for Penguins’ defensemen
- Laurel Mountain Ski Resort discusses planned revival
- Pgh. International leader strives to inject Pittsburgh flavor into airport
- Steelers’ Tomlin, Pirates’ Hurdle share similar philosophy