Thursday, September 3, 2009


An Interesting Theory of Higher Education Costs

When I got back in my car after leaving the gym--what, you thought this figure was natural?--I turned on the radio to discover a familiar voice on NPR's "Marketplace." The commentator gave a theory of the high price of college tuition.

Out of the 310 words in the commentary, the word "government" appears 0 times. Instead, the commentator said that higher education was a form of placebo effect, and concluded with, "Colleges and universities may appear inefficient or overpriced, but it's a business model likely to stand the test of time. As long as we keep on thinking that it works, it probably does."

I don't need to tell you who the commentator was, do I?

I can never tell if Tyler Cowen really is as Aspergery as he sometimes seems, and is being used as a tool by various people to trot out old, bad ideas in a slicker, more quirky, novel guise. Or if he's wise to it all and is just milking it for all it's worth.
"Colleges therefore are very concerned with prestige, status, and yes, pretense."
Is Tyler getting worse, or was he always like this? I follow some of the other GMU bloggers, and I get the impression that some of his colleagues over there are bewildered by him sometimes, too.
I don't know, Stewart. Incidentally, the reasons I get so worked up about Tyler are:

(a) Somebody from GMU once told me he was the smartest libertarian alive, so when I realized he had a blog I was very interested to see his genius, and

(b) it can't help that he is far more successful than me as a professional economist, author, and all around guru. When I am bigger than Tyler, he will stop annoying me so much.
Bob, you've got that whole ToplessBath.JPG thing going for you... I doubt Cowen's got anything like that on his site.

Seriously though... if I were to tell an economist that I'm attending college right now and taking advantage of student loans so I'm not going to have to pay for several years, and even then I plan on deferring payments until I'm dead... would any serious economists response be "yeah that placebo effect is really making it expensive!"

Turns out the answer must be yes.

Is Cowen just lying?
I wouldn't have guessed it was Cowen.

I just bought his most recent book "Create your own economy" and had to return it. His insights where interesting, but not wholly novel. He's also very repetitive.

I, too, think Cowen is getting less interesting over time.
I think Tyler's colleague and close friend, Bryan Caplan, explained Tyler best when he wrote, "You can count on contrarians to be contrarian. Consider Tyler, my favorite contrarian. You can be almost sure that he's not going to give a clear, unadulterated answer to a controversial question and stick to it. Yes, he may change his mind; but when his mind changes, it changes it to another contrarian answer."
"I just bought his most recent book "Create your own economy" and had to return it. His insights where interesting, but not wholly novel. He's also very repetitive."

Same here. The book was extremely overhyped. I was quite excited about it so I went out to get it only to be very disappointed and have the same reaction you did.

It's basically 5 or 6 of his blog posts (which as you know are generally very short) turned into an almost 300 page book.

Cowen seems like a nice enough guy, and I enjoy reading his blog largely because of the range of topics he'll mention or link to, but I've increasingly found him to be long on gimmickry and short on substance.

I can't really blame him for being entrepreneurial and taking advantage of the role of quirky, somewhat off-beat, not too mainstream, economist/academic/"libertarian" offered to him by the mainstream media. He clearly earned at least part of this status from his popular blog. But at the end of the day, he's just fulfilling a niche as a part of the mainstream ecosystem.

Cowen doesn't have much substance and insight, but is quite adept at being the personable face of the role essentially provided to him by the mainstream press.
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