James McCusker

James McCusker

STEM education may not be worth subsidizing

This is the first of two columns. The second will look at how well our educational system and the economic solutions put forth by presidential candidates fit into what we know about productivity and growth in our economy.

Economic stagnation has become a worry for economists, and most discussions of the issue end up being centered on productivity. Productivity is the source of greater output for a given amount of resources, and while it does not directly cause economic growth or wage increases it makes them possible and more likely.

It is generally agreed that in the U. S. economy the decades-long surge in productivity and unprecedented growth in prosperity ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the early 1960s, in England, two former schoolmates and college friends, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, wrote a song called, “The First and Second Laws,” which purported to explain Newton’s First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics.

It was what was then called a “patter” song,” the direct antecedent of today’s rap music. Like rap, in a patter song rhyme, meter, and scan are critical elements, while melodies are somewhat less so.

At about the same time, in the United States, Tom Lehrer, a math lecturer at Harvard, was putting the finishing touches on his lyrics to “The Periodic Chart of The Elements,” which he set to Arthur Sullivan’s music. This song managed to list each one of the chemical elements — there were 102 at the time — and still comply, more or less, with the demands of both meter and rhyme.

Both songs, the Flanders and Swann “The First and Second Laws” and the Lehrer “Periodic Chart of the Elements” were very popular at the time and remain cult classics. Their audience has been shrunk, though, not only by the passage of time but also by language and the changes in our educational system.

Enjoying the fun of these songs required at least some familiarity with thermodynamics and basic chemistry and until the 1960s our high schools provided that and colleges required it.

Without that familiarity, there is nothing funny at all in having one or two men jiving the First Law of Thermodynamics as “Heat is work and work is heat,” and morphing that into a rhyming version of how the universe will eventually end. And Lehrer’s discovering meter and rhyme in a list of chemical elements isn’t funny unless the names and their chemical mismatches have at least some meaning to the listener.

It’s clear that the propelling idea behind education at every level has changed since the 1960s. An article published a few days ago in one of the national newspapers described the calls for promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) courses and cutting funding for liberal arts. Justification for the increase was demonstrated by the accompanying graph which depicted projections of average salaries of those with STEM degrees compared with the generally lower salaries of liberal arts graduates.

There is an interesting irony in our educational philosophy. During the years that technological innovation and productivity advances were at their maximum schools were very concerned with providing a well-rounded education that anchored our lives and helped us make sense of it all. Now that productivity growth has stalled, we seem eager to jettison any kind of broad educational goals and instead concentrate on preparing students for the workplace.

From an economics perspective the irony is something more than just a whimsical look at our human inconsistencies. It raises a question for public policy: would we get more economic growth from putting our money into STEM courses because that’s where the money is for graduates; or from broadening our educational goals to include a better understanding of and familiarity with STEM course content for all high school and college graduates?.

It is not a question easily answered from either a practical or a theoretical standpoint. On the practical side, government subsidies in favor of the STEM majors currently desired by employers will certainly attract students, but will run headlong into two barriers. The first is that students fully prepared for any type of college-level study are already in short supply and absorbing a rush of new, subsidized students would force a lowering of standards. The second is that the government’s record of predicting the demand for specific skills is not impressive.

On the theoretical side the nature of and chain of causality of STEM education and economic productivity are neither clear nor fully understood. We would be gambling that more STEM graduates will make us more productive, but the history of the late Soviet Union’s disappointing efforts in this direction is instructive if not encouraging.

Before we launch programs to move people into areas employers want, we should be sure of what problem we are trying to solve. And it is not at all clear that using taxpayer money to subsidize some graduates’ higher earnings will solve our productivity or economic growth issues.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a column for the monthly Herald Business Journal.

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