Friday, December 23, 2011

US Public Education: Wealth Accumulation Through Barking Cats

Milton Friedman wrote two important essays that one should be aware of:

(1) The first essay is The Role of Government in Education, 1955. In this 1955 essay was the birth of the school voucher proposition and the return of K-12 education to the private sector. Of Friedman’s many outstanding points within the essay was the observation that politicos through the mechanism of government, bestowing money on the institution rather than the student, creates the environment for financial shenanigans. By bestowing resources on the institution and not the student, the student is short changed as the student has not the freedom to choose what institution delivers education. (1)


(2) The second essay is Barking Cats, 1973. This essay dealt with a particular broken model known as the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]. Friedman had written a prior essay [Frustrating Drug Advancement] which argued that the FDA does more harm than good hence abolish the FDA.

People wrote in:

“The column evoked letters from a number of persons in pharmaceutical work offering tales of woe to confirm my allegation that the FDA was indeed “Frustrating Drug Advancement,” as I titled the column. But most also said something like, “In contrast to your opinion, I do not believe that the FDA should be abolished, but I do believe that its power should be” changed in such and such a way – to quote from a typical letter”. – Milton Friedman, 02/19/1973 from the essay Barking Cats. (2)


“I replied as follows: What would you think of someone who said, " I would like to have a cat, provided it barked"? Yet your statement that you favor an FDA provided it behaves as you believe desirable is precisely equivalent. The biological laws that specify the characteristics of cats are no more rigid than the political laws that specify the behavior of governmental agencies once they are established. The way the FDA now behaves, and the adverse consequences are not an accident, not a result of some easily corrected human mistake, but a consequence of its constitution in precisely the same way that a meow is related to the constitution of a cat. As a natural scientist, you recognize that you cannot assign characteristics at will to chemical and biological entities, cannot demand that cats bark or water burn. Why do you suppose that the situation is different in the "social sciences?"


The point being, advancing conditional objections regarding broken models i.e. Barking Cats, is to say, the broken model is fine as long as you change this aspect and that aspect and then the broken model will work. Stated alternatively, the broken model will now miraculously work, as now, it fits my-your-they conditional objection I.e. a particular view of the world. That is, by painting the broken model in your own particular self-image somehow repairs the broken model.

Keeping Friedman’s afore mentioned essays in mind, consider the 300% real dollar [dollars adjusted for inflation] increase in spending that has occurred since the 1960’s regarding K-12 public education. Now consider that math, science, and language skill scores have remained flat or even declining during the same period of escalating spending. Dramatic increase in spending followed by not output enhancement. Four decades of escalating spending resulting in stagnate or declining test scores.

Many pundits, talking heads, and media types point to the declining test scores into two separate and distinct arguments:

(1) we need to spend more,

(2) we have wasted the spending as no appreciable enhancements to scores have resulted.


The question that rarely is asked is: where did the 300% real dollar increase in spending go if in fact scores are stagnate? Where’s Waldo?

Returning to Milton Friedman, one needs to examine “wealth” within Friedman’s Permanent Income Hypothesis. Wealth is defined as capital and human capital. Hence the 300% real dollar increase in spending did not appear to enhance the “wealth” of human capital i.e. the student. (3)

Hence we have a US K-12 public education system that that is directed by politicos who bestow resources on the institution rather than the student, a broken model in that US K-12 public education is producing abysmal results, a series of Barking Cat arguments over four decades, accompanied by a 300% real increase in spending.

Where is Waldo? If the increased spending did not appear as an enhancement to the “wealth” of human capital represented by the student, then the spending ended up in the educational delivery model [the institution and participants thereof]. Stated alternatively, the 300% real dollar increase in spending never reaches the student as the spending is absorbed for the benefit of the institution and participants thereof.

One might consider and ponder this proposition: wealth has been transferred from the student’s human capital to the institution and participants thereof. The spending has enhanced all participants for the exception of the student participants.



(1) The Role of Government in Education, Milton Friedman, 1955


(2) Barking Cats, Milton Friedman, Newsweek, 02/19/1973

(3) Permanent Income Hypothesis, Milton Friedman, 1957









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