Monday, February 29, 2016

Against Free College

All things being equal, having a college degree is better than not having one. Degree holders make more money and have an easier time finding a job compared to non-degree holders. The difference between just a high school degree and a college degree is over $400 a week (about $20,000/year!). And it's an asset that needs no maintenance and can never be taken away from you. With such large benefits, why shouldn't college be free?

(Of course it's not "free." People on both sides of this argument know it's not "free." But "subsidized so much that the price consumers pay is at or near zero" is too damn long. So I'm calling it "free" for short.)

Free college is not smart policy. For one, it's not entirely clear college debt is a problem. Average debt may be high, but it's driven largely by graduate students. Median balance is just $8,500. And that's only the people who have any debt at all. (To say nothing of subsidization causing the higher tuition in the first place.) Free college is a solution looking for a problem.

But even if this wasn't true, those large internalized benefits make the argument for free college so hard: why shouldn't you pay for something you benefit so much from? Why should other people be forced to shoulder the cost of something that benefits just you? Any externalized benefits to college degrees (slightly lower rates of crimes, for example) are tiny compared to the internalized benefits. With a tertiary enrollment rate of about 90%, any additional incentive would be wasteful. Clearly, further subsidization isn't necessary to encourage people to go to college. If anything, the U.S.'s attendance rate it too high already.

If the benefits are internalized, the costs should be as well. College is the first time in most people's lives where they get to truly customize their education. This isn't merely choosing this or that AP class. This is choosing the most defining aspect of your degree: your major. It determines not only a large share of what classes you'll take, but also the skills you develop and what it says about you as a person. It's no wonder that salaries vary widely by major.

That customization derails another common pro-free college argument: people pay for their own education through the tax system. Higher income means more taxes owed, especially with progressive taxes. It's sort of like a loan. But this is an incredibly sloppy loan system, with cost nonsensically removed from payment.

Many forms of compensation are not taxable. Jobs differ with varying levels of fulfillment, work hours, flexibility, stress, prestige, and so on. Desirable jobs will have many applicants and undesirable jobs will have few. Differences in wages compensate for differences in working conditions and the fun jobs get a modest paycheck. Yet those favorable conditions cannot be taxed (how would one possibly tax the joy of being a musician?). Some simply won't pay for their education through the tax system. They will learn while others work.

College graduates don't have to be starving artists for this play out. You can live a good life and force strangers to pay for your education without having to pay for the education of strangers. It takes a lot of money in the U.S. to enter the realm of net-tax payer. Only the wealthiest Americans pay any net tax at all. Maybe there's a tax plan out there that will ensure proper payment (and that's a big maybe), but it's unlikely to be fairer than simply paying tuition.

There are already many paths in place to address the big advantage of free college: educational mobility. Increase funding for Pell grants and other programs which target low-income students. There will be more schools like Berea College which charges zero tuition and focuses enrollment on the financially strained. Payments could only be due starting the first few years after college, when incomes are lowest and most in flux. Improve secondary education and encourage trade schools so fewer students drop out (dropouts are most likely to default). We are awash in better solutions.

Not only are these alternatives less costly and more just than free college, they're also far smarter.

Monday, January 18, 2016

In Favor of Designer Babies

The ethics of designer babies--humans with an enhanced genome--was a big topic last year; I imagine it will be again this year. And I imagine most of the arguments will, again, be against. This is a problem.

The pro-ban argument hinges on inequality: only the rich could afford giving their kids the genetic advantage. There would be haves and have-not. The gap between the rich and poor would widen.

To be clear: this widening does not come from the poor will be poorer. It would occur because the rich will be richer (or at least more secure in their wealth). And those gains will not come from corruption or favorable tax laws or money from a dead relative. Those gains will come from genetic enhancements. Intelligence is the clearest candidate but other traits such as work ethic, memory, and ambition could theoretically be boosted.

This is where the pro-ban argument falls apart. If there are more people who are smarter, without anyone being stupider, that's a better world. If there are more people who have great memories, without anyone being more forgetful, that's a better world. It means more and better inventors, doctors, entrepreneurs, and all the other occupations we associate with a better world. The designer babies will grow into designer adults who will be wealthy because they made the world a better place.

Designing your baby is no different than the many other things parents do to give their kid an advantage. Smart people tend to mate with other smart people because they don't want to risk having a stupid kid. No one argues that provides an unfair advantage, though the advantage is as fundamental as genetic engineering. Reading to your child gives them a huge advantage. As does raising them in a loving household.

When it's argued that we should do these things less, it's clear how backward a designer baby ban is. Last year, philosophy professor Adam Swift claimed parents shouldn't read to their kids because some kids have parents who don't read to them. It's an unfair advantage, he says. Same with loving your kids: a stable and caring household is an unfair advantage. But, obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a few minutes, the best response isn't to read to or love your kids less. It's that people should do these things more. 

And that's the final nail in the coffin for the pro-banners. All technology starts out as only for the rich but falls in price as production improves. Costs came down for computers, for cars, for air conditioning, for cell phones. Why not for genetic engineering? Imagine a world where a cocktail of genetic improvement is as standard as an ultrasound. Where everyone is cancer-resistant, Einstein-smart, and lives to be 200. That's a strictly better world.

But it can't happen if it can't ever get started.