Pseudonomics and our schools


I’ve written before about the two and a half things most people remember from Econ 101 (supply and demand, markets reach efficient solutions, and something about opportunity cost), and about how this creates a dangerous assumption among the public and too many policymakers that the right way to fix any problem is to create a market around it. Over the weekend, a friend pointed me to an article that touched on the core of this pseudonomic argument about education.

While the piece, written by longtime education journalist John Merrow, touched on many different points, its title summarized one of the core questions about how we see education: “Public Good—Or Commodity?”

A couple of quick definitions first:

  • Commodity, as defined by the article, refers to “a scarce resource that we are willing to pay for.”
  • Public good refers to something—air, a public park, etc.—that is available to everyone (in econo-speak, “non-rival and non-excludable”).

To most progressives, it’s clear that universal public education is a public good. To those with a pseudonomic belief in the omnipotence of the market, education is a commodity.

Education does seem to have all the markers of a commodity. “Customers” go to a building and receive a service from the employees there. What’s more, for much of education’s history, it was actually a restricted commodity, available only to those who met certain demographic conditions and had families that could pay.

We don’t live in those times anymore. We live in the era of universal public education. As a group, we have decided that everyone has the right to an education and that we are all better off when more people go to school. Even a childless person who only attended private school is still better off living in a society with strong public education than he or she would be living in a society where only a privileged few reap the benefits of schooling. In short, we have realized education ought to be a public good.

The commodity view of education is dangerous, pulling us backward to a time when (even more so than now) the “right” kind of people got a good education and everyone else was left to support the luxuries of the upper classes. Such pseudonomic thinking ought to be resisted.