Thursday, June 23, 2005

Skills Beget Skill

Following the advice of Arnold Kling and Don Boudreaux, I spend a good chunk of time--very productively--reading this interview with Jim Heckman in the Minneapolis Fed's The Region. Harkening back to some earlier posts about Freakonomics and what's right and what's wrong with the economics profession, these paragraphs resonated with me:

We tell stories in nursery school, such as the story of the tortoise and the hare and the story of the little train that could. I read these to my kids, and they were read to me. All these folk tales, all these pieces of wisdom, the fact that a mother's love matters and all this stuff, we tend to dismiss them in our formal models of education policy. We economists like to write down specific technologies and make things very precise. That's a useful discipline, and that's what I am doing with various coauthors. We are making this subject precise. But sometimes I have my doubts. Some of what economists do is to explain to fellow economists what most intelligent people already know. A lot of what economists do is explain to themselves what the rest of the world already knows. There's a real risk of being caught up in that.

However, it's important for policy purposes to make ideas precise, to try to understand which interventions are the effective ones. So I don't think our research is just putting simple ideas into the terminology that economists like. I think there is scientific merit in what we are doing. In fact, I've found that in response to some of the papers we have written, where we write about the critical and sensitive periods of child development, and we use the economists' technologies to explain these ideas, the neuroscientists get very excited. I've had several prominent psychologists coming up to thank me at professional meetings of psychologists for helping them to organize their way of thinking about their life's work. Economics can be very powerful in taking ideas, organizing them in the forms of technology, intervention and basic causal factors. That's why I feel there's a lot for economists to do in this area. But there's also a lot to listen to as well.
Big ideas and good scholarship should cross the conventional disciplinary boundaries. On the substance of the economic issues that Heckman is discussing, I think his views about the importance of noncognitive abilities in generating economic outcomes and the interactions between genetic and environmental factors are fascinating and will grow in importance as more research is done. Here is an insightful part of the Q&A about job training programs:

Region: Is job training effective in any form? Are there any types of programs that do work?

Heckman: Most job training is actually being done in private companies, not in the public sector. And who is more likely to get private job training? People who have higher cognitive and oncognitive skills—the same abilities that helped them get the job in the first place. These people earn high returns to private job training.

Region: So, it's a selection issue.

Heckman: Yes, it's a selection issue. It's a consequence of the dynamics of skill formation that we talked about earlier—that skill begets skill. Public training programs are aimed at the bottom of the barrel, at people who've been put out of schools, or maybe they've been given high school degrees through social promotion but can barely read or write. And the typical, short-term job training program tries to remedy lifetime deficits in a few months. They are based on the hope that society can solve 17, 18 years of neglect of a child with a short-term program that can transform people who have grown up in extreme disadvantage.The dynamics of human skill formation are such that high levels of skills acquired early in life make it relatively easy to acquire later skills; they put the child in a position to benefit from later interventions. It's the self-productivity idea we discussed earlier. There's a growth trajectory, and people with different early conditions start to diverge in their development. Those who receive skills early on are more likely to get jobs and enhance those skills through private job training. Those who don't get those early skills are unlikely to benefit much from short-term public training programs later on.
Enjoy the whole thing.

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1 comment:

Roland Patrick said...

"A lot of what economists do is explain to themselves what the rest of the world already knows."

Of course, Heckman's remarks about job training programs would be a good illustration of the above.