Make Public Education Much Cheaper

I’ve been reading “The Case Against Education” By Bryan Caplan. It makes a convincing argument that most of time spent in school is wasted in a signalling game.  I haven’t gotten to any suggestions to improve the situation, but maybe they are towards the end and this post will just be inferior to the ideas in the book. Whatevs.

Most of the book focuses on higher education, and for that the answer of how to decrease cost/waste is fairly obvious. Colleges could just require fewer pointless courses and let people graduate more quickly or by going part time.

For primary school a big part of value is getting the kids out of the house and under someone else’s care for 7 hours so that solution wouldn’t work. But maybe  we could dramatically decrease the amount of time that children spend in a fully supervised classroom setting where there is a highly trained, highly compensated teacher and only 20-ish students. Instead, break the day up so that 1/3 to 1/2 is that sort of intense and expensive interaction and make the other 2/3 a lower cost more free form experience.

Supposing its 1/3 classroom time then while Group A is getting their time Groups B and C do the free time and then switch off. So each teacher can effectively teach 3 classes or 60-90 total children without having to actually attempt the impossible task of dealing with 60+ children at once.

The “free time” could then be divided between activities that don’t require the same level of adult interaction. There could be “quiet time” where children have to read/do educational stuff on the computer/do art or whatever. And then active times where they can play and/or engage in semi-organized sports. These times could be supervised by a smaller number of educators + community volunteers or school administrators. The point would be to make activities available to the students, but not direct them or force them to engage in them. And then to prevent/break up fights and stuff. The children would direct themselves based on their own interests but they wouldn’t be able to just watch youtube or completely waste time. They would have to actually confront boredom and make decisions about how to use their own time.

Of course with less classroom time there would be less classroom learning for sure. But the learning done in the classroom could be more intense and focused on things that really matter.  For young children there are already lots of breaks that occur during a school day. My daughter has play time, recess, phys ed, library time, lunch etc. But a lot of that still happens in an environment where the teacher is present. There is no real efficiency gain. By segregating the classroom time with teacher from all the breaks and play time, the teacher could be free to teach more kids.

For older children classroom time is focused but often focused on things that are unimportant. Let high school students take a smaller number of important classes and then head to the library to do independent study or online learning. There seems to be very little gain from making children sit through classes that they correctly believe will be of no use to them later in life, so let them follow their own interests or pursue what they think will be valuable and they will enjoy it more and be no worse off than they are now.

This system would not only reduce costs dramatically but it would make children happier and make education work better. It would teach the extremely valuable skill of self-directed learning which is the cornerstone of a successful adult life. Children who are less bored and defeated by endless class time could put more energy into the classes they had. Students old enough to watch themselves could be allowed to leave school and spend time apprenticing. It would be a hybrid between public school as it exists now and the unschooling method championed by David Friedman.

What Do You Even Want?

When I was a kid in the late 80s I had a rattail, possibly the coolest haircut feature ever designed by man.  But at some point I thought to myself, what do I imagine myself looking like as an older person or an adult. Do I ever imagine having a rattail? The answer was no, so I cut it off. If you know where you want to get to, then you can identify the simplest ways to get closer to there. If you never define that ideal then you may miss easy actions that would have a big impact.

A lot of political discussion/argument (especially when it is done on unfriendly terms) is about speculating about people’s true motivations. What ideal are they actually aiming at? The truth is that most people probably don’t even have an ideal in mind. They don’t know what the government should look like in their perfect world. They only know what immediate positions seem right or have the right people endorsing them. Except on the fringes, no one asks about ideal systems so most people simply never give it much thought.

So I thought I would list out a few questions that I think help define an overall view of how an ideal government would look along with my answers, and then anyone else who wants to could leave their answers or thoughts for additional questions in the comments. The goal is to make a comprehensive but short list of questions that everyone could answer as a starting point for any debate about particular issues. Not only would answering the questions clarify an individual’s own beliefs but they would allow people to know very quickly where the other side in a debate is coming from without having to make uncharitable guesses.

In contrast with the usual political quiz like this that is based on giving gut instinct answers to vague questions and getting a position on a political map, these questions are intended to provoke deeper thought and create a clearer vision of what different people really want from the government.

Q1: In an ideal system what percentage of GDP would the government consume/control?

A: Asymptotically approaching 0 as GDP goes to infinity

Q2: What assistance would the government provide to the poor or disabled?

A: Nothing

Q3: How much free education would the government provide? 

A: None

Q4: What would military spending look like? 

A: The minimum necessary to make aggression prohibitively expensive for our enemies.

Q5: What kind of healthcare would the government pay for? 

A: Only for on-the-job injuries for government employees.

Q6: What socially valuable activities would the government subsidize?

A: Only those with clear market-failure/free rider problems.  Like say deflecting giant meteors. Not simply things that take a long time to pay off or require a large investment since ideally the private market would have much more financial resources than the government.

Q7: Should the government be allowed to levy taxes?

A: Yes. free ridership is a genuine problem.


Q8: Should taxation fall more heavily on production or consumption?

A: Consumption, since generally production generates positive externalities and consumption generates no or negative externalities.

Q9: In an ideal system how often would people feel the need to engage in physical self-defense?

A: Never

Q10: Would any “victimless crimes” be prohibited? 

A: No

Q11: How would criminal punishments be determined? 

A: To maximize deterrence while minimizing societal cost.

Q12: In an ideal system what groups would be protected from private discrimination? 

A: None

Q13: In an ideal system, what restrictions would their be on political speech or donations?

A: None

Q14: In an ideal system, how common would abortions be? 

A: Rare

Q15: In general how should regulation work?

A: Activities which do not pose a clear systemic risk should be generally unregulated. If an activity ends up causing harm that can be redressed in the court system. There should not be any precautionary regulation except in the case of systemic risk, in which case a high risk/benefit hurdle should have to be overcome.

Q16: How should the government treat citizens and domestic entities vs. noncitizens and foreign entitites? 

A: The government should be a zealous advocate for citizens at all times and grant courtesies to noncitizens only is so far as it is in the best interest of citizens. The government should seek every advantage for its citizens in any dealings with other nations, and have no other agenda.

Q17: Should the government issue fiat currency and if so how should it manage supply? 

A: Yes and it should manage supply to maximize the net present value of seigniorage.