Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Comparative Advantage and Education Policy

In an earlier post I postulated that not all comparative advantages are equal, reasoning that since technology and inventions are more prized than other specializations, they consequently confer more power. Here's a consequence of this comparative advantage framework that I hadn't considered before:

You'll have noticed that politicians are always talking about expanding and improving math and science educations in K-12 schools. They argue that it's crucial for "staying competitive in the 21st century." In more direct words, I think that means: we need to constantly advance our math and science to maintain our dominion over the realm of inventions. I used to think that emphasizing math and science education was just about helping kids find jobs in their local markets. That's true, but at the same time the bigger picture is that inventions and technology are vital to tipping the balance of power in our favor. In the end, it's about ensuring continuing U.S. hegemony.

Thus, to expand on the conclusion of my earlier post, just as technology and inventions are about power, so are the academic disciplines that produce them. All knowledge is power, true, but math and science generate economic power, and that's the type of power we've deemed most important.

[As a side note, just take a stroll around your local university campus and notice how it's not a coincidence that the math and science buildings are the fanciest and the most well-maintained.]


  1. Hmm, Kunal, that's an interesting way of thinking about comparative advantage in terms of the United States domestic and foreign leanings towards technology. It is true that our greatest fear from my own observations is falling behind in the technology race and losing our status as the undoubted superpower in the world. If I remember correctly many people were angry about a decade ago when Bill Clinton gave computers away to China. Their underlying fear was that those computers would prove the kerosene that would light China and its billions of people on fire.

    It seems that a focus on technology though is easily understood to be the key, as you said, to good jobs and prosperity. One thing that I have noticed especially amongst many Asians is that they can see little to no value in the study of letters and languages, but all the value in studying math and science related fields. While this is sad for me, it is understandable. Scholars study more often than not out of love and scientists study for both love and money.

    However, I do think it is perhaps a little too simplistic if not also a little cynical to say that technology and invention are all about power and that is why politicians in this era are so eager to emphasize them. For example, cave men first harnessed fire not because they planned for war or domination by it, but because undoubtedly they sought a means to stay warm in those cold primitive nights all those eons ago. Only as man explored fire and its uses did he realize he could use it as a means of domination.

    I would say that politicians emphasize (or at least in a Utopia, should be emphasizing) technology and inventions as a means of bettering the human experience and finding means for humans to live in harmony and tame their animal instincts towards conflict. Now, I realize that their need to feel like the U.S. is still the top dog and still has the big guns is ever apparent. Any politician would be horrified if through their actions the U.S. lost that status in the world's eyes. And so, it is inevitable that this is a factor that drives them, but I would hope the reason I outlined above is really what drives them.

    Anyway, that's enough for now. I really miss having discussions about this stuff with you as we used to when you lived at Yuma. Keep writing!!

  2. I agree, science and technology aren't just about power, but I don't think they're about "living in harmony" or "taming our animal instincts" either. If anything, it's the opposite. The fountain of benefits and wealth that S&T produces naturally becomes the source of fights over controlling it.

    Were we still living in the caveman's era, I'd say science was more of the noble quest that you describe. But we've come a long way since then. It seems to me that if we're not satisfied with the comforts we have now, we never will be. That doesn't mean we end all science. It's just a matter of changing focus. The fruits of science are not as important as the process, the sense of inner fulfillment that we get from solving problems, finding cures, knowing more about the universe and appreciating more our place in it. We don't necessarily *need* more inventions, but we do need to always be inventing.

    I believe the goals you mentioned (living in harmony; taming animal instincts) should be the yardsticks of progress, but I'd say science belongs to a separate realm. Science is limited to the world of stuff; and no matter how far we advance in it, it won't help discipline our minds, or reduce our false sense of I-ness and my-ness in everything--two steps which I feel are essential for more peaceful, humane living.

    Science is wonderful for what it does, but we can't stake our salvation on it.