Sawing Through the Limb You’re Standing On

I was just asked by a business reporter about the state of economics education in the United States, and thought I’d share my response:

There are no national or international benchmarks for student achievement in economics, so it’s hard to precisely gauge Americans’ grasp of the subject. The available evidence is not comforting, however. An academic survey study conducted in 1990 compared how much Americans and Russians understood about the way markets work. It found no significant difference. Americans understood free markets no better than a nation of people with virtually no personal experience of them. That’s sobering. And since the heaviest academic emphasis of the last fifteen years has been on elementary mathematics and reading, there is little reason to believe that we have improved our grasp of economics in the interim.

This should come as no surprise, for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, the academic performance of U.S. twelfth graders is at or near the bottom in mathematics and science according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, when compared to the performance of students in other industrialized nations. We’re doing poorly in other subjects, why should economics be any different?

Second, it would be institutionally suicidal for a monopoly school system to do a good job of teaching market economics. The very fact that we continue to have a monopoly school system is retroactive proof that market economics has not been well taught. Monopolies, after all, tend to be frowned on by the economically savvy.

Note that this observation does not assume that government school officials are deliberately neglecting instruction in market economics. It simply posits that if they had been doing a good job of it, the system would already have been supplanted by one organized along free market lines.