Culturnomics

03.20.13

Why Do Economists Urge College, But Not Marriage?

Both are good for you. Only one is viewed as a proper aim of society.

College improves your earning prospects.  So does marriage.  Education makes you more likely to live longer.  So does marriage.  Yet while many economist vocally support initiatives to move more people into college, very few of them vocally favor initiatives to get more people married.  Why is that, asks Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry? His answer:

Meanwhile, economists’ “cosmopolitan perspective” (as Cowen puts it) makes them not feel good at the idea of public policy that would interfere with personal choices (allowing for a second that getting married is a “personal choice” in a way that going to college isn’t). Most economists think that government should not interfere or have a stance one way or another with decisions that feel intimate to people. That is a complete value judgement. And it’s a completely defensible one.

But at the level of the economics profession, this leads to bias: much more ink is spilled on, and thought given to the college wage premium than the marriage wage premium. One is mostly praised and interpreted in a certain way, while the other is mostly ignored. And, of course, the thing that academic economics focuses on has an effect on elite debate and public policy, especially when the socially liberal, pro-higher ed biases of economists line up well with those of the rest of the elite.

Bryan Caplan has more thoughts.

I can come up with stories as to why this might be the case.  We might think it's easier to get college professors to teach useful classes than it is to get spouses to treat each other well. (I'm not sure how much evidence we have that this is true, but it's not unreasonable.)  

We might not want to make people who fail to marry feel bad, since many of them probably feel pretty bad about it already.  

On the other hand, there are big holes in these stories.  Economists who spend a lot of time talking about getting people into college do not, on average, spend a lot of time talking about how to make colleges better at teaching students.  And while it's true that some people may not be marriage material, or have bad luck in finding good partners, and will feel even worse if we tell them that this is also going to make them less happy, rich, and long-lived on average than married people, it is also true that some people aren't college material, and others will fail to graduate due to bad luck or poor decisions.  Won't they also feel bad if we keep telling them how awesome college is?

Which makes me gravitate towards a more parsimonious explanation: all economists are, definitionally, very good at college.  Not all economists are good at marriage.  Saying that more people should go to college will make 0% of your colleagues feel bad.  Saying that more people should get married and stay married will make a significant fraction of your colleagues feel bad.  And in general, most people have an aversion to topics which are likely to trigger a personal grudge in a coworker.