John Stossel is a Fox Business News reporter. Stossel is an unabashed “libertarian” with a strong Austrian orientation on economics who focuses on economic issues. He’s made a living out of being indignant and disgusted by “liberals” and “big government” which he sees as the root of all economic problems. He’s been quite successful over the years, first at ABC News and now at Fox. He also writes a blog to go with his Fox News show.
In other research I was doing recently I stumbled upon a post of his from Sept 15 called “Stupid in America” in which he asserts that schools have gotten too expensive and don’t deliver the goods. In Stossel’s own words and graph:
School spending has gone through the roof and test scores are flat.
While most every other service in life has gotten faster, better, and cheaper, one of the most important things we buy — education — has remained completely stagnant, unchanged since we started measuring it in 1970.
It looks appalling right? Scores have increased by 1% but the cost of an education appears to have increased by approximately 246% ($43,000 up to $149,000). Except it’s very deceptive and the obvious product of an economic illiterate. There’s two clear, elementary economic errors here.
First, he’s comparing test scores, a measure that’s in absolute terms on fixed scale to dollars spent in nominal terms over a 40 year period. Dollars are not fixed units of measure. They change value over time because of inflation. If you want to compare test scores to dollars spent “buying” those test scores, then you need to use real dollars with the inflation taken out.
So let’s do that. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator, we find that what $43,000 purchased in 1970 would require $241,660. in 2010. Yes, inflation has changed purchasing power that much. Inflation compounds so even a 2% annual inflation rate would more than double nominal costs in 40 years. In the late 1970’s we had some years of inflation in the double-digits. So really, the graph is telling us the opposite of what Stossel wants us to believe.
The second big problem is that Stossel is assuming that the all money spent on education goes to buying improved test scores in math, science, and reading. He also is assuming that the inputs, the students being educated are the same in 1970 as in 2010. They aren’t. He ignores that we might be paying for something else in addition to math, reading, and science test scores.
Stossel then goes on the attribute all of the problems to education being a government monopoly. Again, he ignores facts. Facts are inconvenient for Stossel. Competition has been brought to K-12 education in many areas. Maybe not as much as he would like, but it’s a significant change since 1970. As his test scores indicate, it hasn’t helped much.
Finally, I want to note that it’s poor practice to not cite your sources and more precisely define your data series. The graph is labeled “Source: NCES”. NCES is a huge website and archive of a lot of data. Stossel doesn’t give a source. Is it because he wants us to take him at his word and not verify or check it out for ourselves? He doesn’t even label what the spending series is to which he refers. I am assuming it is a “spending per pupil over 12 years” type of series. A search of NCES for a series labeled as he has it turned up nothing.
I find it enormously ironic that Stossel would make such elementary errors as to not deflate a data series or to not label his measures precisely. That’s what we demand in principles of economics courses. What makes it ironic is that on August 23 Stossel takes Congress to task for being “economic illiterates” and not having degrees in economics or business. Pretty rich stuff from a guy with only a psychology degree who makes elementary economic errors.