Beware Silver Bullets

In his column, Don’t Go, John Stossel writes:

Politicians such as Hillary Clinton promote college by claiming that over a lifetime, college graduates “earn $1 million more.” That statistic is true but utterly misleading. People who go to college are different. They’re more likely to have been raised by two parents. They did better in high school. They’d make more money even if they never went go to college.

Politicians like to promise silver bullets. Silver bullets make for great campaign promises. But they usually confuse causes with signals. The world is usually more complex than the silver bullets.

Does a college degree cause higher earnings or is it just a signal of something people with higher earnings ambition do?

I like to reference the home ownership example.

Responsibility used to be a prerequisite for home ownership. First you established responsible behaviors, which led to savings for a down payment, good work history, history of paying your bills on time and a good credit score for a loan, then you became a home owner.

When politicians mistook home ownership as a cause, rather than a signal, of responsible behavior they believed they could create responsible citizens by eliminating responsible behavior as the pre-req for becoming a home owner. That did not end well.

Likewise, politicians like Hillary Clinton mistake college degrees as the cause, rather than the signal, of higher earnings.

Could it be that folks with higher earnings have a number of traits that lead to higher earnings? Might those traits include things like responsible behavior, grit, ambition, self reliance, delayed gratification, an openness to trying new things, getting along with a diverse group of people and abilities to handle stress, manage time and prioritize well from a host of choices?

If so, it is these behaviors that should be encouraged, not simply mimicking one signal of this group of people.

That’s about like dressing people up in a costume. Certainly, you can buy a costume that makes you look like the President, a movie star or even a witch, but just looking like one doesn’t make you one.

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