Given the way in which Mssrs. Brooks and Friedman consistently fail to cover themselves with glory, it’s hard to really bust out as a shitty Times columnist. But, boy. Frank Bruni is making a go of it.
Here’s Bruni, who appears to live three months behind the greater op/ed cycle, dusting off the hoary old idea that young people don’t have jobs because they’re taking the wrong majors.
I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.
Let’s ask a different columnist, one with better qualifications than being able to assess the quality of foie gras, Paul Krugman:
Most stories about structural unemployment stress a perceived mismatch between the work force and employment opportunities: workers, so the story goes, either have the wrong skills or are in the wrong place. But as Bernanke pointed out in a recent speech, employment looks bad across the board: “The fact that labor demand appears weak in most industries and locations is suggestive of a general shortfall of aggregate demand rather than a worsening mismatch of skills and jobs.” As a result, he declared, the data “do not support the view that structural factors are a major cause of the increase in unemployment during the most recent recession.”
Given the credentials of Krugman and Bernanke, as compared to a guy best known for his cutting analysis of the fruit compote at Gramercy Tavern, I’m inclined to consider that game-set-match. That piece by Krugman provides a handy alternative take to Bruni’s assertions of skills-jobs mismatch: the failure of our monetary policy to respond to an unprecedented crisis by further loosening up credit markets, which could be achieved by buying long-term government debt and lowering interest rates, as well as by setting and sticking with a higher inflation target for the next several years. That’s an empirical difference between Dr. Krugman and Mr. Bruni. But it’s also a difference in blame: is the problem that students made bad choices? Or is the problem occurring far above their ability to control, at the heights of our policy apparatus? I’m inclined to think the latter, and so does Paul Krugman.
A few important points:
- Facts matter. Bruni makes no effort to assess how many students are going into these majors that he derides. Given his article, ou’d think students are marching into philosophy in droves. But according to the NCES, in 2008-2009 there were about 12,500 BAs in philosophy granted. In education? Over 100,000. Come on, man. Check the numbers first.
- In fact, the top ten college majors are the picture of “practical” education— business, computer science, economics, nursing, politics and government. And education! At number five! Despite Bruni’s handwaving, data-free claims that not enough students are studying education. Yet we still have this unemployment scenario.
- “Practical” majors frequently aren’t. Claims about people going into the wrong fields are always based more on optics than on facts. It may sound pragmatic for business to be our number one major, but the educational metrics on business, education, criminal justice, and other popular fields are in fact quite poor. This is demonstrated in the economic metrics as well– business majors make less than literature and architecture majors; educational majors flood the bottom of the chart. People like Bruni love to flog the narrative of too many students taking impractical majors– it comes off as tough talk– but that’s just not reality.
- Age is far more determinative of employment status than your college major. Looking at our current situation and declaring the problem to be a matter of skills mismatch, rather than a broad problem for all recent graduates, is poor social science and poor policy thinking.
- Skilled labor is subject to supply and demand. Yes, engineers make a lot of money. But there isn’t an engineer shortage in this country, and you can’t solve our problems by making everyone into an engineer. Even if everyone was capable of getting through an engineering degree, you’d just be flooding the market, driving down wages, and compelling employers to find different ways to sort candidates. When you have the larger economic metrics we have as a country, talking about changing college majors is shuffling deck chairs.
- Incidentally, according to Payscale, a website devoted to these issues, the median philosophy major in this country makes $75,600 at mid-career. In part, that’s because the most important part of a college education is not in fact the specific skills you pick up but the broader learning in problem solving, communication, critical thinking. In part it’s an artifact of the broader problem with this kind of thinking: college major is an incredibly kludgy designation. There’s just too little discriminatory value in it to be of much use; majors have vast internal differences in what they teach, the quality of the instructors, and (most importantly) the people within them.
One could well ask why the Sulzberger crew hired Bruni to be an op/ed columnist in the first place. I mean, if you think that the Most Dangerous Restaurant Critic in the Land needs a higher profile, you might consider sending his headshot to the Bravo network. But a column in the most influential paper in the world? Why?
The fact that our two most influential newspapers often seem to be in a competition to publish the most inane, data-free analysis isn’t one of our biggest problems. It isn’t a cause of our biggest problems. But it sure does speak to how thoroughly broken our system of professional and social advancement is.
Update: At one point, I accidentally wrote “interest rate” when I meant “inflation.” I’ve fixed it now.