Dishonesty in Nudge Experiment on Dishonesty

August 18, 2021

If you needed any additional evidence to treat evidence on the benefits of nudge interventions more skeptically, check out this detective work that appears to find dishonesty in a behavioral econ experiment on how to improve honesty. The widely-cited experiment by high-status researchers claimed to find that people were more likely to report the mileage on their car odometer more honestly if they had to sign at the top of the form affirming the veracity of their report rather than at the bottom of the form.

This study fueled the Obama Administration’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team in their effort to construct a nudgocracy run by people who are way smarter and better than everyone else. It’s for your own good that the nudgocrats shove, er… I mean…, nudge you into doing things that they’ve decided are better for you. To oppose this is to deny science.

But it turns out that nudge research, like a lot of other research in social science, is plagued by problems with replicability and applicability when tried on scale in the real world. As readers of JPGB may remember, texting nudges meant to improve educational attainment by disadvantaged students ended up reducing their likelihood of completing college. Another nudge intervention meant to increase savings by making contributions to retirement plans the default ended up reducing net savings by encouraging people to take on greater debt.

As a recent review concluded, “nudges fail more often than is reported.” Nudges fail for many reasons, including the fact that it is extremely hard, even for very smart and well-intentioned people, to anticipate how others will respond to seemingly innocuous and subtle interventions. Even worse, many failed nudges are never published, contributing to an over-confidence in the effectiveness of policies shaped by behavioral economics. Researchers simply assume they must have designed the intervention wrong when they get the unexpected result, discard the finding, and try again after tinkering with the nudge in the hopes that it will be more effective. They repeat until they get the desired result and then proclaim eureka!

But the nudge on honestly reporting odometer mileage appears to have gone wrong in a less innocent way. With some clever sleuthing, these investigators uncovered evidence that data were fabricated and otherwise manipulated to get the desired result. Given how difficult and unrewarded this type of detective work is in academia, who knows how widespread these less innocent causes for flawed research really are.

Before the nudgocrats expect us to obey them, they might want to invest considerably more in strengthening confidence in their work. Perhaps we need to shove, er, I mean, nudge them into greater humility about the policy utility of behavioral economics.

The Diversity Fundamentalism of Morty Shapiro

August 16, 2021

Northwestern University’s president, Morton Shapiro, was interviewed by my old friend, Larry Bernstein, on his show, What Happens Next in 6 Minutes. Shapiro has a new co-authored book that he was promoting, Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us, which argues that we need to be less dismissive of other points of view. In the interview Shapiro summarizes the book:

We argue in the book that fundamentalism hits us across a wide spectrum of areas, not just religion, and that’s where the term comes from, but in my field, economics and politics, culture, the academy, and the like. And we worry in conclusion here now that we fear for democracy…. Almost exactly half of Americans said that they would label their political rivals not as opposing rivals, but as enemies, and that speaks to this rise in people screaming at each other.

And later in the interview he describes a course he taught with his co-author that helped motivate the book:

And that’s the mantra for the course we teach together. You get graded by how well you can present the other view. Now, you want to present your view pretty well, you better present the other view extremely well. And we never thought about grading that way 12, 13 years ago, because that was more the norm. But now everybody vilifies each other, and your opponents aren’t, again, misguided, but they’re the embodiment of absolute evil. That’s important. So, I think academe has a role to play there. We all have a role to play in our own personal lives. And that’s why I think recognizing, looking in the mirror and saying, “What are you fundamentalist about?” And then trying to realize it, and then try to get out of your comfort zone. I watch a lot of Fox News now, I never used to until we started writing this book year and a half ago. It’s very different. In some cases, it’s infuriating, in some cases it’s much better than the CNN I’m used to. I’ve really learned from that. So, I think trying to get out of your intellectual comfort zone. We live in echo chambers, right Larry? When I grew up, if you watched ABC news, CBS, NBC, and whether it was Brokaw or Jennings or Rather, it’s pretty much the same sort of news. And now, we compartmentalize and we live in silos, and we hear our words and thoughts echoed off, and that makes us feel really good. It’s really bad for democracy.

Between these two admirably open-minded and intellectually heterodox statements, Larry asked Shapiro about the study James Paul and I wrote for the Heritage Foundation on how large and unhelpful diversity, equity, staff are on university campuses:

Jay was my high school debate partner, and he’s now at the Heritage Foundation. He asks a question about diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracies. He says that the average university now has a staff of 45 DEI, and Northwestern is now at 52. You have more people in your DEI than you have as faculty in your History Department. Why is it growing, and does it make sense? Morty.

Suddenly, Shapiro adopts an angry tone and deviates from his message about not being dismissive to other perspectives:

I think that that comparison in how you count versus History is absolutely borderline ludicrous if not completely incorrect. I hate to say that to a loyal listener of yours. But we had not sufficiently engaged with diversity, inclusion, and equity questions in the academy. We’ve done a much better job in diversifying our student body at all levels than we ever had in making them feel welcomed. And there’s ample evidence, all you have to do is look at, say your alma mater there, Larry and Josh, at Penn, and look at who at senior, just stick to the undergrads who say that they had a great experience at Penn or at Northwestern or at Yale where Saul went or anywhere else that we happened to have taught or have gone that, would you do it again? Would you recommend it to somebody else? And it varies greatly. Affluent Caucasians see these institutions very, very differently than the rest of the group, and we really have to address it. And I don’t know if counting numbers how you decide what… Do you have either the word D, diversity, equity, or inclusion in your title? I don’t know how you count that. But I don’t lament that we put some resources into this. It was long overdue.

Note that after signaling that the question was out of bounds by expressing outrage, he then shifted the topic to whether diversity and inclusion were desirable goals. That does not address whether having larger bureaucracies of DEI staff help achieve that goal or how large of a bureaucracy is a reasonable allocation of resources relative to other goals. Why have 52 DEI staff? Why not 520?

The titles of DEI officials at Northwestern suggest a considerable amount of duplication. There is a “Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, an “Assistant Provost, Diversity and Inclusion,” a “Manager, Diversity and Inclusion,” an “Executive Director, Campus Inclusion & Community,” a “Director, Social Justice Education,” an “Assistant Director, Social Justice Education,” an “Assistant Director, Multicultural Student Affairs,” an “Associate Director, Multicultural Student Affairs,” an “Associate Dean for Leadership Development and Inclusion,” a “Vice Dean for Diversity and Inclusion,” an “Assistant Dean, Diversity & Inclusion,” a “Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach,” and so on.

I could continue listing the word salad of all 52 DEI staff people’s titles at Northwestern, but I think you get the idea that there is a very large bureaucracy with what seem to be overlapping responsibilities devoted to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Does this army of DEI officials help? Our examination of student surveys suggests that students feel no more welcome or included on campuses with large DEI staff than at ones with smaller staffs.

One might think that a president of a major university when asked about how he allocates resources in the midst of promoting a book on being open to criticism and different perspectives might not have been so dismissive. It would have been nice if he had taken the question seriously and provided his rationale for why it is good for Northwestern and good for the goal of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion to have 52 people with nearly identical sounding titles.

Shapiro’s actual response is disappointing. The hypocrisy of dismissing alternative perspectives while promoting a book on being open-minded suggests that even university leaders who make rhetorical commitments to heterodox academic inquiry do not really mean it in practice. It is extra disappointing because Shapiro seems like a good guy and capable university leader. I’ve been particularly sympathetic to him because he has been the target of the progressive cancel mob in his own right. But perhaps that is why, to protect himself, he must have his own fundamentalism that he defends to stave off those who have been pushing to drive him out

America is losing confidence in the ability of higher education to stay true to its core mission of pursuing truth through open academic inquiry. This interview with Morton Shapiro did nothing to restore that confidence.

Choice Improves Government Schools, Part MMDCCLIX

August 6, 2021
Everybody sing along! Come on, you remember the words! “This finding’s been replicated…”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my article on why a universal ESA is the way to go if you want to improve outcomes in the government school system:

We’ve tried lots of strategies for getting better outcomes out of the monopoly school system. We’ve tried spending an endless geyser of additional money—Oklahoma school spending went up from $3,771 per student in 1970 to $8,735 in 2016 (in inflation-adjusted dollars), and has continued to increase, hitting a record total this year. We’ve tried high-stakes testing. We’ve tried raising teacher pay. Other states have run major experiments with everything from smaller classes to merit pay for teachers to mandatory graduation exams.

Here and there, a few of these efforts have produced local instances of success. But none of them has worked consistently at scale. And even the local success stories have a tendency to fade over time, as school leadership inevitably gets passed on to a new “pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”

What works? School choice, according to a large and consistent body of empirical research.

Some people simply can’t wrap their heads around the idea that government schools would be improved by taking the handcuffs off parents and allowing them to leave the system. They’re so busy “strengthening” the system that they can’t see they’re really weakening it. They’re denying it the one thing it really needs: healthy accountability. Bob Dylan was right—you gotta serve somebody.

This is sometimes called the “paradox of intention.” It happens when people are so monomaniacally intent on achieving a goal that they lose perspective on the big picture, and as a result, do things that are counterproductive even for the goal they’re obsessed with. We’ve all seen the guy who wants a date with a particular girl so badly that he acts stalkerish and creepy around her. In every war, there are leaders who want to capture a particular position so badly that they don’t have the patience to wait for the right moment to strike. We keep shoving bigger subsidies at colleges because we want to make tuition affordable, and as a direct result, tuition keeps climbing into the stratosphere.

Come for the overview of school-choice research, stay for the snappy C.S. Lewis quote at the end!

Exercise your right to hold others accountable through choice by choosing to let me know what you think.

Everything Old Is New Again

August 5, 2021

I stumbled across a piece I co-wrote in 2008 that I had completely forgotten about. I was struck by how that old piece is almost identical in its message and methods to the study James Paul and I just wrote for Heritage.

In the 2008 article, Catherine Shock and I argued that ed schools pay a disproportionate amount of attention to diversity relative to math in courses offered to prospective teachers. We identified a set of 77 leading ed schools and searched their course catalogs for terms related to diversity as well as terms related to math. Here’s what we found:

The average ed school, we found, has a multiculturalism-to-math ratio of 1.82, meaning that it offers 82 percent more courses featuring social goals than featuring math. At Harvard and Stanford, the ratio is about 2: almost twice as many courses are social as mathematical. At the University of Minnesota, the ratio is higher than 12. And at UCLA, a whopping 47 course titles and descriptions contain the word “multiculturalism” or “diversity,” while only three contain the word “math,” giving it a ratio of almost 16.

We then considered reasons for this disproportionate attention to diversity:

Several obstacles impede change. On the supply side, ed-school professors are a self-perpetuating clique, and their commitment to multiculturalism and diversity produces a near-uniformity of approach. Professors control entry into their ranks by determining who will receive the doctoral credential, deciding which doctoral graduates get hired, and then selecting which faculty will receive tenure. And tenured academics are essentially accountable to no one.

On the demand side, prospective teachers haven’t cried out for more math courses because such courses tend to be harder than those involving multiculturalism. And the teachers know that their future employers—public school districts—don’t find an accent on multiculturalism troubling. Because public schools are assured of ever-increasing funding, regardless of how they do in math, they can indulge their enthusiasm for multiculturalism, and prospective teachers can, too.

Accrediting organizations also help perpetuate the emphasis on multiculturalism. In several states, law mandates that ed schools receive accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). NCATE, in turn, requires education programs to meet six standards, one entirely devoted to diversity, but none entirely devoted to ensuring proper math pedagogy. Education schools that attempt to break from the cartel’s multiculturalism focus risk denial of accreditation.

And compare how similar these conclusions are. From the 2008 piece: “The issue isn’t whether we should be teaching cultural awareness in education colleges or in public schools; it’s about priorities.” And from 2021: “Universities—especially those that are publicly funded—should be welcoming to all students, and it is admirable that inclusion is a priority for so many institutions of higher education…. High DEI staffing levels suggest that these programs, like many other administrative initiatives at universities, are bloated relative to academic pursuits.”

Everything old is new again.

Pondiscio Makes Progress

August 5, 2021

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I am delighted to report that Robert Pondiscio seems to have realized how wrong he was when he wrote a month ago that “school choice may ‘solve’ the CRT problem for a family, but it can’t address the clear interest every American holds in the education of the next generation.” His new post is simply chock full of ways in which school choice can address the clear interest every American holds in the education of the next generation. Great to see this progress!

He now realizes that the way forward for education in a pluralistic society is “to turn up the lights on what is possible when there’s room for a wide variety of schools, curricula, and cultures.” The stark contrast between this and the demand for uniformity in his earlier article is a delight to behold.

Soon, he may even get far enough to realize that an environment of educational pluralism would itself constitute the most profound pedagogical structure for cultivating in children an appreciation of the American experiment in human rights, religious freedom, social pluralism and equal justice under law.

Pondiscio does engage in a little slight of hand, responding to my previous post but avoiding completely its main argument, which was that choice is the only realistic political strategy for accomplishing the changes in public schools that Pondiscio himself wants to make. Pondiscio is in favor of changing the way public schools handle topics like CRT. So am I. And if I understand him rightly, the changes he favors are substantially the same as the ones I favor. The difference is that I have a viable strategy for achieving the changes that we both want, and he does not.

I will, however, cop to his charge that I think it’s absolutely essential for a strong bond of trust and cooperation to exist between parents and schools. Pondiscio chooses to characterize this as an argument that the value of choice is “to allow families to avoid exposing kids to ideas and curricular content parents don’t like.” I would prefer to say that adult citizens absolutely should not stop fighting with one another over how the next generation of Americans should be educated, but they should abandon the tactic of holding one another’s children hostage at gunpoint in these fights. It’s not only wrong, it also doesn’t work, and it inflicts enormous collateral damage on the educational environment.

Ironically, Pondiscio even portrays me as seeking to hold other people’s children hostage at gunpoint because I am in favor of everyone on both sides stopping their current practice of holding other people’s children hostage at gunpoint. Pondiscio writes: “This version of choice feels lifted not from a heart-warming rom-com, but from a mob movie: ‘You’ve got a nice family. It’d be a shame if anything were to happen to ‘em.'”

It was the state that came into my home and took my child away, at gunpoint, to educate my child in the way the state thinks best. And when I point out what is happening, Pondiscio says I’m the one who made this into an ugly confrontation and threatened other people’s children.

The French have a saying: Cet animal est très méchant: Quand on l’attaque il se défend.

But at least Pondiscio is making progress. His embrace of educational pluralism is warmly welcome.

Let’s hope he also no longer believes we should hold up an extremely tiny, unrepresentative, cherry-picked selection of bad private schools in order to discredit school choice. (“The hyper-elite, prodigiously expensive private schools favored by America’s gentry are among the very wokest schools.”) Your typical private school is something like a central-city Catholic school or an exurban evangelical school – not, I think, hotbeds of toxic wokism.

And let’s hope he no longer believes that it’s impossible for Mexico to privatize its nationalized oil monopoly because there aren’t any private oil companies in Mexico to do the work. (“Choice as the remedy for CRT debates ignores that the percentage of families with ready access to more than a small handful of quality options is probably quite modest.”) If the government gave out free hot dogs on every street corner, the private hot-dog stands would all close because they would have no customers – but the absence of private hot-dog stands would not be an argument that only government is capable of delivering hot dogs on those street corners.

As heartened as I am by the stark contrast between his earlier article and his latest post, I do see one troubling common thread. In both, Pondiscio is demanding that we must not connect school choice in a substantive way to the debate over how we educate children into the American experiment in equality and freedom – the commitment to human rights and equality under the law that makes America exceptional.

I decline the invitation. The only reason I’ve ever been interested in school choice is because it’s the only education policy that really takes seriously the American experiment in equality and freedom. I’m really glad that it also has the side effect of closing the education gap and all that.

But American exceptionalism has always been my only real interest in school choice.

As Milton said (and Alexis de Tocqueville said almost exactly the same thing in a longish passage in Democracy in America, but Milton was more pithy): A society that prioritizes equality over freedom will get neither; a society that prioritizes freedom over equality will get a high degree of both.

Do Strict School Discipline Policies Cause Later Criminal Activity?

July 28, 2021

Check out my new piece on The Daily Signal about a new study published in Education Next claiming to prove that the school to prison pipeline is caused by strict discipline policies. Here’s a taste:

Proponents of federal orders to reduce or eliminate suspensions are waving this study around as confirmation that federal intervention is necessary to stop the flow of suspended minority students into prisons later in their lives.

Before jumping on this bandwagon, people should more closely scrutinize what this study actually examines and how it claims that its results are causal.

Importantly, this research does not look at how changing school discipline policies affects students. Instead, it looks at how students are affected by being in a school with more suspensions versus one with fewer.

Schools with identical school discipline policies could vary substantially in the rate of suspensions based on how the school is run and whether there’s a concentration of students inclined toward behavior problems in it.

That is, a poorly run school may be unable to maintain classroom order without having to suspend a lot of students, while a well-run school could have the same discipline policies, but relatively few suspensions.

The researchers mischaracterize their work as answering whether there is “a causal link between experiencing strict school discipline as a student and being arrested or incarcerated as an adult.”

That’s inaccurate because schools of equal “strictness” could produce very different rates of suspensions, depending on how well-run they are and how many students with behavior problems they have.

Another way to describe what they’re examining is whether there’s a causal link between going to a poorly managed school with a lot of behavioral problems and later-in-life incarceration.

If the answer were yes, it would not mean we would want to have the feds crack down on suspensions. It could mean that we need to improve school management quality and strengthen families and communities so that students are less likely to come to school with behavioral difficulties.

Woke-Therapeutic SF School Board’s Removal of Communist Anti-George-Washington Mural Struck Down – because Spending Half a Mil on Environmental Impact Compliance Wasn’t Enough!

July 28, 2021

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This story’s so wild, I figured I’d better put the whole thing in the headline. If the headline only covered part of this story, everyone would read it and jump to the wrong conclusions about what’s going on, based on their priors. That’s never happened on the internet before, and I wouldn’t want to be the person to cause the first case!

Loyal JPGBers will recall that in 2019, the San Francisco school board paid $600,000 to remove a mural of the life of George Washington from its George Washington High School. Although the original decision was to destroy the mural by painting over it, subsequently the plan was changed to conceal the mural by covering it.

The mural depicts George Washington cruelly oppressing slaves and Native Americans. (Among much else! The mural consists of 16 panels, and the controversial part is only on two panels.) It was painted in the 1930s by a communist who hated equality and freedom – apologies for the educationally necessary redundancy in that description – and who wanted to destroy the American experiment in equality and freedom by encouraging the idea that the violation of equality and freedom by the American founders discredits the very idea of equality and freedom.

George Washington enslaved people, therefore we should all be enslaved.

The mural was funded by a New Deal federal agency.

The Frisco school board (including 2021 Higgy Laurate Alison Collins) voted to remove the mural, not because they failed to understand that its purpose was to destroy equality and freedom, but because the mural’s explicit depiction of the depraved brutality that is always involved in denying people equality and freedom was upsetting to the students. In the new world of therapeutics, on the woke left as on the nationalist right, psychology trumps justice.

Of the $600,000 spent to remove the mural, $500,000 was spent on an environmental impact statement.

Guess what? A judge just ruled that the school board violated the law in removing the mural – because it failed to comply fully with California environmental impact law. Its $500,000 environmental impact statement apparently failed to conduct a legally sufficient review.

When I first saw two years ago that the environmental impact statement cost $500,000, I thought to myself, “somebody got a sweetheart deal.” It never occurred to me – shame on me! – that they might not even live up to their end of the sweetheart deal. Maybe some of that money can be clawed back, if (as now looks possible) the board gets new leadership.

The mural is now required to be uncovered and visible, unaltered.

Meanwhile, in the two years since the original board vote, the cost of the removal project has ballooned to $900,000. That’s before the judge’s ruling.

Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.

The woke project to destroy the Constitution, like the nationalist project to destroy the Constitution, has a lot of power to destroy things. But they can’t build anything, because they don’t have a deep and stable framework of moral ideas. When the moral imperatives favored by “our side” – facing up to the ugliness of racism, cultivating the psyches of young people, compliance with an environmental protection bureaucracy – collide in ways that require hard choices, which takes precedence? And when people who are all on “our side” disagree, by what process shall we reach a decision?

These groups are all doomed to tear themselves to shreds in bottomless Nietzschean power struggles. Pat Buchanan’s nihilistic question – “Somebody’s values are going to prevail. Why not ours?” – applies within movements as well as between them.

Diversity University Report for Heritage

July 27, 2021

James Paul and I have a new study for the Heritage Foundation. It counts the number of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) staff at 65 universities in the Power 5 conferences. We examine university web sites to find all of the people listed as having responsibility for promoting DEI goals. This is a very conservative count as we may not capture every relevant web site, not all personnel may be listed on those sites, we exclude all Title IX and other legal compliance staff, we exclude faculty in ethnic and gender studies departments, and we do not count all of the other deans, assistant deans, directors of housing, RAs, etc… who also promote DEI goals without having that listed in their titles.

We find that the average university we examine has 45 DEI personnel. The University of Michigan has 163. To put the number of DEI staff in perspective, we compared it to other staffing priorities at universities, like ADA compliance staff or history professors. The average university had more than 4 times as many DEI staff as ADA compliance staff and 40% more DEI staff than history professors. DEI personnel is a very large commitment of resources by universities, especially compared to other staffing priorities.

Lastly, we examined campus climate survey results to see if universities with large DEI staff looked like they had more inclusive and welcoming environments than those with smaller staffs. While the evidence we could examine was limited, it appears that having more DEI staff did not contribute to a better campus climate. If anything, it may have made it worse.

You can see all of the results in this handy data visualization. There is also a nice news piece on the study on the Fox news web site.

China, Inspired by House Appropriations Bill, Cracks Down on For-Profit Education

July 26, 2021
Chinese Cultural Revolution Original Vintage Propaganda Poster 24x36 Home Decor Print

Chinese authorities have issued regulations forbidding a large swath of its education sector from using for-profit models. According to the Bloomberg coverage, “The new regulations, released over the weekend, ban companies that teach school curriculums from making profits, raising capital or going public…. Companies and institutions that teach the school curriculum must go non-profit.”

I was wondering where Chinese regulators might have gotten this idea of requiring education to be non-profit and then I remembered the House Appropriations Bill that was introduced two weeks ago. As the National Association for Public Charter Schools described the proposed legislation, “any charter school that contracts with a business to provide supplies and services to students [would be] completely ineligible to receive federal funds for anything…” The relevant language in the bill states: “SEC. 314. None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be awarded to a charter school that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.”

When Chinese authorities seem to be imitating House Democrats in their thinking of how to run an education system, we probably have good reason to worry. Even traditional public schools in the US commonly contract with for-profit businesses for a wide-range of services, including curriculum development, textbooks, and instructional materials, as well as bus transportation and food service. Even instructional services provided by speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists are often contracted by public schools to private businesses. A lot of people are making money in an education system that spends more than $750 bill each year, most importantly teachers who take in more than $400 billion of that spending.

Neither the proposed legislation in the House nor the Chinese regulations prevent people from making profit on education. All these measures do is increase government control over those who make that money by forcing them out of for-profit structures that are less easily controlled by political authority.

The New GI Bill Reduces Earnings

July 19, 2021
This is why I Physics - Album on Imgur

People who claim to base their policy prescriptions on rigorous evidence often rely on research that may not apply in the current context. Assuming that findings hold true across time and place is as hazardous as Wile E. Coyote relying on his ACME blueprints.

Case in point, research on the effects of introducing the original GI Bill are often trotted out to support expanding subsidies for higher education. For example, Bound and Turner (2002) found that the introduction of the GI Bill after World War II significantly increase educational attainment and college completion rates. Angrist (1993) found that users of the GI Bill from the Vietnam era went further in school and increased their earnings by 6 percent. If federal subsidies for enrolling in higher education were good for WW II and Vietnam veterans almost a half century ago, then expanding the GI Bill for current veterans must be even more beneficial.

A new study by Andrew Barr and colleagues, however, finds that the more generous Post 9/11 GI Bill (PGIB) appears to have actually reduced the earnings of current veterans 7 years after they left the military. The PGIB did increase educational attainment, but only by a tiny amount. As the study put it, “These impacts are not large given the generosity of the program and the responses found in studies of earlier GI Bills. Angrist (1993) found that veteran’s benefits on average raised schooling by 1.4 years. We are finding average increases of 2 months!”

Because the Post 9/11 GI Bill is much more financially generous than the previous GI Bill, this tiny gain in educational attainment was achieved at great expense. The researchers describe it, “Given the increase in bachelors attainment of 2.75 percentage points and an average increase in benefits of $8600, this implies a cost per additional bachelor’s degree of around $313,000.”

And despite this small increase in college completion at very high cost, the recipients of this new GI Bill actually experienced a reduction in earnings: “Our most remarkable findings are the negative impacts on labor income for the sample of veterans exposed to the program. Seven years after their separation from the Army, the PGIB lowered wages by about 1.8 percentage points.”

The study’s authors do not believe that these negative effects on earnings will be reversed over time. Instead, they explain this enduring reduction in salary for veterans now sent to college as caused by the overly generous nature of the PGIB subsidy luring veterans into enrolling in college even when they would benefit more from practical work experience: “Our hypothesis is that the negative earnings returns stem from (a) the low value-added of many of the schools chosen by veterans under the PGIB combined with (b) the generosity of the BAH, which may be inducing veterans to forego valuable labor market human capital accumulation in favor of very marginal school enrollments. By pursuing schooling opportunities of marginal value, veterans may be missing out on opportunities to build occupation- or firm-specific human capital or to immediately put their Army-taught skills to work in the labor force.”

Human beings are complicated. Even when you have rigorous evidence showing that a policy worked well in the past, applying that policy with more resources at a later time might produce the opposite effect. The over-confidence of technocrats claiming that they can engineer a better society with evidence-based solutions is actually inconsistent with a scientific approach. This doesn’t mean we should never try policies and hope to make improvements, but it does mean that circumstances are ever-shifting and evidence is very context-dependent, so we should be cautious about what our tinkering is likely to produce.

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