16 May 2018

Ideas for Bryan Caplan’s Next Book

Bryan Caplan, Humor 18 Comments

It just occurred to me last night that two books ago, Bryan (among other things) told parents that they should quit worrying, because studies of twins show that parents don’t have any lasting influence on their children’s futures.

Now in his latest book, Bryan tells teachers and professors that education has no lasting influence on their students’ futures.

In this context, here are some suggestions for Bryan’s next book:

  1. When the Diapers Come Off, the Man Is Made
  2. Pacifier, My Only Coach
  3. Big Bird…Or Big Fraud?
  4. Phonics Is for Suckers
  5. I Would Kill the People Who Gave Me This DNA…If I Had Free Will
  6. Turns Out John Calvin Was Right

18 Responses to “Ideas for Bryan Caplan’s Next Book”

  1. Joshua Woods says:

    Hi Bob, having just finished the case against education I think the message is not that education has no influence. It has a large effect but for the signalling reasons not the the human capital that many want to believe. Also the parenting book could be read as saying you have a huge influence. It just comes when you decide who to have children with, not the post birth nurturing. This does still leave some big questions about why people turn out the way they do – Caplan has tentatively offered free will as an explanation but I’ve got to admit this is a complex topic I don’t really know much about.

  2. Tel says:

    For what it’s worth, here’s a pretty good episode worth a listen. It’s about teachers, how to go about valuation of teachers, why the current US system does not both identify good teachers and bad teachers, and the consequence of this.


    It also helps explain this problem of why a basketball player can make a lot more money than a teacher — although they don’t use that particular example. Thing is the basketball player gets immediate feedback in terms of winning or losing games, while the good teacher and the bad teacher can work side by side for years without any particular feedback on what either has achieved. We just don’t have the mechanism to allow “superstar” teachers, so as a consequence there aren’t any.

    Admittedly we do allow “superstar” Austrian economists, at least it’s possible in theory that someone might learn something from an Austrian economist, but perhaps that’s the extreme exception that proves the rule.

    • Matt M says:

      What about someone like say, Sal Khan as a superstar teacher? Or stretching the analogy further… Mister Rodgers? Jordan Peterson? Paul Krugman? Oprah? Bob Murphy?

      Furthermore, I’d be willing to suspect that elite private schools (at any level and age group) have managed to somehow locate better quality teachers than struggling inner-city public schools have. How is this possible if no real mechanism to judge teacher quality exists?

      • Tel says:

        Khan Academy and Jordan Peterson are new phenomena, made possible by modern communication and video technology which has only existed for perhaps the past 10 years (or at least has only been within reach of the average punter for 10 years). The MPEG-4 video standard came out in 2004 and it was perhaps a few years later when video decoders became standard in home computer and laptop video cards.

        So what I’m saying is, very soon after the technology became available, people started changing their behaviour to work with that. However, it’s early days in as much as errr dare I say it “dark forces” are at work attempting to censor people like Jordan Peterson and remove his message. We don’t know how this will turn out, but just taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, the education industry has really not significantly changed methodology for hundreds of years and contains enormous reluctance to accept changes.

        The somewhat political Prager University is attempting to provide alternative types of education (for free) but now find they need to go to court in order to defend their ability to get this message out. I would not be surprised if the same people turn against Khan Academy at some future point. Even though Kahn is somewhat towards the “left” from a political perspective and tries to avoid offending people, but inevitably he threatens the traditional education model.

        As for people like Krugman, he doesn’t even attempt to educate, he just expects his readers to nod along unquestioningly.

  3. Andrew says:

    I remember the true-life story of a boy who was raised by wolves and later discovered and returned to human society as an adolescent. No matter how hard the people who found him tried, they were never able to teach this child spoken or written language. The program made it seem as if the child had passed trough the stage in mental development where learning language would have been possible and was, at the time of his discovery, too old to ever pick it up as a new skill. But thanks to Bryan, I now understand that this child would have fared no better if he had been raised entirely by human parents.

    • Tel says:

      I’m pretty sure Caplan gets his empirical data from the American education system, and not from Romulus and Remus.

      • Andrew says:

        It turns out that I was mistaken about the raised by wolves part. After a little research, I determined that the story I was thinking of was Victor of Aveyron.


        He was a feral child that was found alone in the woods a year or two before he reached puberty.

  4. Harold says:

    There have been popular self help gurus like Peterson since at least Dale Carnegie and “How to Win Friends…” Far from trying t shut him down, I keep seeing and hearing him on mainstream outlets like Radio 4 and Channel 4 over here.

    Prager U is a digital media organisation, not a university and does not offer certifications or diplomas. This is not a “teaching” model but a “media” model. They lost the court case because Youtube is a private organisation and did not contravene free speech rules.

    Sal Khan is really trying to educate using a different model. His academy responds to criticism by correcting mistakes and he views it a supplement to in-class teaching. This is not like Peterson or Prager U at all.

    • Matt M says:

      I feel like you (and Tel above) are using a very narrow and rigid definition of “education” and “teacher” that is heavily influenced by the state’s preferred method of offering/requiring such.

      I don’t really see a huge difference between “self-help gurus” as you call them and university professors, other than the fact that the latter typically have a much more narrow focus and are usually driving towards the outcome of a specific certification rather than general life-improvement (and I’d argue the question of whether or not that results in better outcomes in general is very much up for debate).

      What Bob does here, what Krugman does in the NYT, what Peterson does during a speech, none of these are that different from what the university professor is doing. They are all trying to convey information that they think will benefit us.

      Those who do that well seem to, in general, be rewarded for their performance. They get more money, wider audiences, more prestige, more opportunities to expand into other spaces (podcasts, books, speeches, etc.) Those who do it poorly are stuck with a blog that is visited exclusively by friends and family – and command no authority or monetary rewards whatsoever.

      The question of whether the government-run school system is well set up to reward individual performance is an entirely separate question from whether or not individual performance can be adequately measured at all. Because it sure seems to me that, outside the structure of the state, high performers are easily identified and rewarded for their efforts.

      When the state simply shrugs its shoulders and says “There’s just no way for us to tell which teachers are good and which ones are bad,” I remain unconvinced…

      • Harold says:

        “I don’t really see a huge difference between “self-help gurus” as you call them and university professors, other than the fact that the latter typically have a much more narrow focus and are usually driving towards the outcome of a specific certification rather than general life-improvement ”

        I think that is the difference right there. Self help is a form of education, but a narrow one, that itself is dependant on many other fields. It is not useful as a model for all education.

        Whether the profs are focused on certification or imparting knowledge about their subject, about which they are often passionate, is debatable. Whatever the requirements to “teach to the exam” there is a lot of scope for individual profs to teach their own stuff. At least there is in the UK.

        Your criteria for success is an argumentum ad populum. If many believe they are a good teacher, they are a good teacher.

        Popularity is different from good teaching although there are surely areas of overlap. It is possible for someone to be very popular yet also wrong about what they teach.

        I think teaching will change – we are still using old models and have not moved with the technology. Maybe all teaching will be done by a few “superstars” over the internet, but I doubt it.

        MOOCs are an interesting version of this. They have very high dropout rates, yet because they enroll thousands and thousands they often still pass loads of people per course. These are free to enrol, yet their existence requires the conventional University system to set them up and the content is quality controlled. Some sort of synergy like this may be worth watching, where the benefits of popularity and superstar teaching can be modified by some assessment of quality other than popularity.

        • Matt M says:

          “Your criteria for success is an argumentum ad populum. If many believe they are a good teacher, they are a good teacher.”

          Is this not true about most things?

          Would you claim that it’s impossible to know what makes a quality beer? I could suggest that we know Budweiser is a quality beer based on its sales, but you could easily dismiss that as simply a measure of popularity, not quality.

          To the extent that your point is that there’s no truly objective criteria to evaluate the quality of an educator, I would agree. But that doesn’t just apply to education. There’s no truly objective criteria to evaluate the quality of much of anything.

          Market success is a pretty reasonable proxy though. And once again, I think it sort of applies to the educational job market as well.

          Would you disagree with my assertion that we can generally expect elite private schools to have better teachers than average private schools, which would have better teachers than public schools in wealthy areas, which would have better teachers than public schools in poor areas?

          But that stratification cannot happen if nobody truly knows how to judge teacher quality. The wealthier schools may be willing to pay more, but how would they know they’re getting more?

          • Harold says:

            “but you could easily dismiss that as simply a measure of popularity, not quality.”

            it is a measure of popularity, not quality. It is not a matter of “dismissing” it as such. They are different things.

            We could class a good teacher as one who successfully imparts correct and true information to many students. Or one who gets the most through exams. Or one who inspires. Or many other criteria. Popularity is likely to follow from being an excellent teacher, but is not a sensible criteria to discriminate.

  5. skylien says:

    Didn’t come across Phonics to this day. Interesting.

    I am waiting for “Only impractical men are slaves to some defunct economist”

  6. Josiah says:

    I thought this was a funny joke the first time Bob made it. This version seems a bit over the top, though, and based on some of the comments I think it may be misleading people about what Bryan’s books actually say.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Josiah wrote: “…I think it may be misleading people about what Bryan’s books actually say.”

      OK but if by “it” you mean “Bob accurately condensing the gist of much of what Bryan writes at EconLog about his books,” then fine but I hardly think that is my fault.

      That is kind of my running theme in dealing with Bryan’s public discussions of his books–he seems to go out of his way to make really provocative claims, then people think he’s nuts, and he backs into a much more defensible corner. E.g. he’s not actually making “The Case Against Education” at all. And yet, that’s literally the title of his book.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Imagine if Jordan Peterson’s book were titled “The Case Against Women.” Then the outrage would be a lot more understandable.

      • trent steele says:

        Caplan takes pleasure in using a word that economists have a meaning for, and then injecting some laymen-ness into it, and then proving economists wrong. Or vice versa.

        When I was in grad school we had a couple of Caplan students in class trying to defend his concept of “rational irrationality.” (spoiler alert: you have to use a different definition of “rationality” to make his concept work, which of course defeats the entire purpose)

        Yes, he likes to be deliberately provocative, and then pull a motte and bailey move, as you’ve described.

        I love Caplan and think he’s quite smart, but if you’ve read his “Why I am not an Austrian Economist” you’re already acquainted with his semantic wordplay.

      • Josiah says:


        I agree with you that The Case Against Education is a misleading title.

        Also, on reflection “Big Bird… or Big Fraud?” is a funny title. I may want to use it myself some day.

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