Notorious B.G. on MTV

A discussion of some of the points made in a recent interview Bill Gates did for MTV.

I know I've been plumbing the intellectual depths this week, first with my last post (the invincible points of which no Talkbacker managed to defeat), and now with a post that will consist almost entirely of quotes from Bill Gates. Hey, if you knew how my week has been going, you'd understand entirely (post-edit note: I lied. I somehow found it within me to be opinionated, which should come as a great surprise to most of you, I'm sure).

Anyway, my "boss" (about 329 levels removed) recently did an interview for MTV, during which the crowd chanted his name, women fainted and people grabbed at his clothes after Mr. Gates jumped from the stage into the mosh pit (or something like that). Along the way, he made some incredibly cogent points, some of which I'll quote here.

Regarding competition with China:

India and China advancing and getting rich is fantastic news. What that means is that people who have been living in poverty, had ill health and illiteracy, are now getting jobs that allow them to be educated and realize their potential. If we had a choice today where India and China would be as rich as the United States, we should all want that, because not only would it be great for them, but they'd be buying more of our products. ... Their advancing isn't taking away from a finite pool of jobs. What it does is it grows the global economy. It does mean that we have to renew our skills, renew our leadership, and that largely means investing in the education system. So it doesn't have to be a bad thing, it just highlights that we've underinvested in education and in fact other countries do a better job.

I've said something similar in the past, though in my typical, "let's say in 1000 words what could be said perfectly well in 100" fashion. As Gates noted, the growth of India and China doesn't just mean the growth of a competing labor force. They aren't growing a robot army over there (though the inner geek in all of us would probably think it REALLY COOL if they were).

Growth also means the creation of more wealth in the hands of real human beings who can use it to buy  LOTS more product. Not only will they be a market for our products, but many of those laborers currently competing to supply Western needs will soon be more attracted by their booming local market. It's worth noting that less than 10% of the US economy is reliant on exports. That's typical of large economies (versus, say, Switzerland, where it's closer to 50%), as citizens of large economies tend to spend most of their time catering to the better-understood local market rather than foreign markets.

Besides all that, the growth of India and China has the potential to remove 2.3 billion people from poverty. That's an unmitigated good thing from a HUMAN standpoint, however many ways you slice it.

Gates also made some interesting points about US schools:

I think our current high school system was designed for an era where there were lots of jobs that didn't require a college education. We had a lot of manufacturing and service jobs that were fairly straightforward. Now that's changed and yet we haven't gone back and changed the design. What my foundation is doing is working on a thousand experiments — schools that are designed a bit differently, bit of a different curriculum, often with a theme; schools that will focus on arts or outward bound schools, technology focus, different things that really can make the curriculum more relevant for the students. Over the next several years as we try out these new high schools, I think some models will emerge, and we hope there's some open-mindedness to change the curriculum, to change the measurement and incentive systems and get a more modern approach.

All true, and something I hadn't considered. Still, I think there's a REASON our schools have been allowed to stagnate in this fashion, and it all comes down to the way we decided to manage - and fund - public education.

We should compare the structure of our primary school system (grade school through high school) to our vastly more successful university system. American universities are top notch. They are, quite frankly, the best in the world, and that's a status reflected in the large numbers of foreign students who come to this country (well, assuming the Department of Homeland Security lets them in), the large amounts of R&D conducted in American universities, and just simple comparative analysis of the quality of university education between countries.

Why are American universities so successful? I attribute it to more competition at the university level than we allow at the primary school level. There are public universities in America which are a bargain compared to private universities - particularly for residents of the host state. However, those universities must compete with large numbers of private universities.

Those private universities have access to public funds (such as Pell Grants, or cut-rate student loans) and  are inevitably better funded, have the best teachers, and attract the best students. That raises the quality bar while also meeting a social goal, which is to enable as many people as possible to attend university. It's not equality, but it's better than the Harrison Bergeron-inspired mediocrity which results from our centrally planned public school system.

We don't allow much competition in primary schools in America, and that's a problem.  You aren't usually allowed to shop around for the best public school in town, as you must use the school in your area, irrespective of its quality. Enabling students to take their money to any public school OR private school, EVEN IF those private schools continue to be more expensive than the public schools (which is the same situation at the university level), might do a lot to inject a competitive breath of fresh air into our stagnating public school system.

So, am I advocating school vouchers? You betcha.

Everyone should be able to attend school. That's a social goal derived from basic human decency, and one that has productivity ramifications (starving the mind of an Einstein because he is poor deprives humanity). That doesn't mean, though, that we have to persist with central planning in the provision of public education. Define a social goal, then find ways to use market efficiencies to supply it.