2012-03-12

For Once, I Prefer Becker's Take

In a surprising reversal of circumstances, the two recent posts at The Becker-Posner Blog present an analysis of what Charles Murray has been writing about, and Gary Becker has the more profound insight. Avoiding what we might call "the Tyler Cowen school of economic blogging," Becker presents a view that is fully consistent with Murray's data, but that differs significantly from Murray's (and others') conclusions:
This seems to be the implicit view of the job market behind an op-ed piece this week in the NY Times by Charles Murray. In discussing what can be done to reduce the advantage of children from the upper classes, he advocates eliminating unpaid internships, eliminating the use of SAT scores in determining college admissions, and ending the ability of companies to list a college degree as necessary to apply for certain jobs. On the view that the number of good jobs is rather fixed, that many young persons of all backgrounds are capable of handling these jobs, and that having a college education does not generally signify greater knowledge and other skills, his suggestions might reduce some of the “artificial” advantages that children from the upper classes have in getting these jobs. 
A very different view of the labor market is much more consistent with the substantial growth in the number of “good” jobs during the past century in every developed country. On this human capital inerpretation, the number of good jobs is not fixed but depends on the skills of workers, so that companies provide many more good jobs when the skills of workers increase. This approach implies that children from the upper classes are much more likely to get good jobs because they have much better skill sets than do children from the lower classes. This skill set includes not just knowledge and information, but also the ability to get to work on time, to start and finish tasks successfully, and to get along with colleagues. Children from the lower classes have fallen further behind in their earnings because their skill sets have fallen further behind those of children from the upper classes.
I apologize for the lengthy quote, but there is a lot of good information in there that merits a full quotation. Becker then conjectures that the lag in skill-sets among "lower class" children comes from a less-stable, less-nuclear family.

Much has been written about Murray's thoughts and opinions. I have mostly tried to stay out of it. Part of the problem with this line of discussion is that there are major class- and gender-biases built into everyone's opinion on this. I don't think prejudices serve the discussion much.

It does seem that virtually everyone agrees with Murray that a problem exists, and that Murray's telling of the problem properly defines what that problem is. I'm not sure I agree. In part, this is because I have extreme difficulty viewing "groups" and "classes" as anything other than collections of individuals.

Put another way, anything a person says about an entire category of people is both true and false at the same time. Some examples buttress the statement, some completely refute it. Would the real lower classman please stand up?