Joseph Stiglitz is Still Soft on Higher Education

But unlike last time, he’s clear about it now.

Joseph Stiglitz, “Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream,” New York Times Opinionator.

Yesterday, Stiglitz argued that student debt is connected to inequality, and it’s “intertwined” with lack of housing demand. He writes:

It’s a vicious cycle: lack of demand for housing contributes to a lack of jobs, which contributes to weak household formation, which contributes to a lack of demand for housing.

I’m dead certain that student loans crowd out homeownership for individual debtors, but I don’t know to what extent that can be imputed to the whole economy. Stiglitz is arguing that but for student loans, people have the income to afford housing. I don’t think this is true. I think most student loan debtors lack the income period. Thus, the “lack of demand for housing” is caused by untaxed land rents, which isn’t related to student loans.

Stiglitz might be right, but I don’t think every student loan debtor is just a few hundred dollars away from homeownership. I do think, however, that he’s wrong about the value of higher education. Cue the Eloi lawyers and Morlock material movers who have law degrees:

Curbing student debt is tantamount to curbing social and economic opportunity … Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries. No matter what happens with currency wars and trade balances, the United States is not going to return to making textiles. Unemployment rates among college graduates are much lower than among those with only a high school diploma.

I have to credit Stiglitz for actually connecting the trade deficit to jobs to student loan debt. This connection is very real, but it’s not made often because economists know nothing about student loan debt, and student debt advocates know nothing about labor economics. Again, I disagree. If we flip the trade deficit, maybe the textile jobs won’t come back—I don’t see why they wouldn’t, the U.S. is still one of the world’s biggest cotton manufacturers—but the lump of labor fallacy doesn’t apply to individual industries. There’s only so much demand for lawyers, brain surgeons, advertisers, fashion designers, and other knowledge workers. At some point, technology will reduce the labor economy to trading simple services that can’t be automated, like haircuts, waiting tables, etc. These jobs will rarely pay well, which is one argument for taxing the land rent and redistributing it as a citizen’s dividend.

The other big problem with the article is that Stiglitz doesn’t believe that over-generous federal lending enables tuition increases. He makes passing mention to slashed government subsidies to public universities, which is correct, but he thinks the rest of tuition increases are due to “the banks'” and not higher educators trying to sell parents on multi-million dollar athletic facilities. Then, as expected, he attacks the for-profits as though nonprofits and public universities are guileless. He also doesn’t point out that for 85 percent of the debt, “the banks” are the federal government either directly or by guarantee.

As a result, Stiglitz’ policy prescriptions are a muddle. Yes, restoring bankruptcy protections is critical, but thanks to IBR, even for-profits won’t post very high default rates, unless they don’t tell dropouts how to fill out the forms. Consequently, they will likely have access to federal funding indefinitely no matter what federal judges say. Slashing interest rates to the Fed’s discount rate (that’s the rate it quotes for its direct lending to the banks) will reduce debt burdens, but it certainly won’t discourage people from taking out loans they don’t need for degrees that have little value.

Stiglitz supports adopting Australia’s income-contingent repayment system, but I think we should take the government out of higher education finance entirely.


One comment

  1. Academics are loathe to criticize their indu$try, or even their colleagues. They occasionally come out strong against economic inequality, genocide, or war profiteering (you know, the stands that take real integrity). But they do not like to look in the mirror.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s