Current Events

Creating Scaleable Innovations to Help the Poor

The traditional interpretation of human capital is formal education leading to increased earning power.  But investments in human capital, in the broadest sense, are resources devoted in the present in the development of a human being that result in greater lifelong happiness and well-being.  Improved test score performance and degrees from accredited institutions are merely subsets of the beneficial results from human capital investments.

For instance, an investment that reduced the probability of premature violent death, teen pregnancy, incarceration, drug and alcohol addiction, etc. is an investment in human capital.  There is evidence that participation in some religious communities reduces the incidence of criminal behavior as well as various teen pathologies.  Investments that increase such participation increase in human capital.  Some religious communities also have better health statistics than the norm.  Participation in such communities is yet another form of human capital investment.

Although academic elites routinely ridicule (or are horrified by) religious schools, those with Rawlsian predilections might transcend their loathing of such schools on the grounds that they improve the lives of the poor.  Very few of those who graduate from high school, marry, and get a job will experience chronic poverty.  If a religious school reduced the probability that a child would be among the chronically poor, it ought to be regarded as a wise choice.  (Research on voucher recipients selected at random from lotteries, most of whom attended religious schools, shows significant increases in college attendance among low income African-American students).

Martin Seligman, the leader of the positive psychology movement, notes:

The prevalence of depression among young people is shockingly high world-wide. By some estimates, depression is about ten times more common now than it was fifty years ago. . . . Depression now ravages teenagers: fifty years ago, the average age of first onset was about thirty. Now the first onset is below age fifteen. . . .

The epidemic of depression is part of a broader trend in the collapsing of adolescent well-being since the 1950s.  While deaths due to communicable diseases and injuries have decreased, suicides, homicides, substance abuse, pregnancy, venereal disease, and eating disorders have increased.

Meanwhile, William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence,

Research in the PYD (Positive Youth Development) developmental tradition has taken seriously the role of moral and religious beliefs in shaping children’s identities and perspectives on the future, and research has demonstrated a strong relationship between religious faith and at-risk children staying out of trouble.

As positive psychologists continue to validate ancient moral traditions (Consider Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom), we should take seriously the notion that purposiveness and a moral tradition is crucial to adolescent happiness and well-being.

With respect to earning capacity, many high paying jobs are sales jobs and/or require high-level presentation skills.  Neither sales nor presentation skills are typically developed in traditional education.  They could be developed by a different approach to education – which would be another investment in human capital not measured by test score and degrees.  Reliability, punctuality, manners, responsibility, initiative, etc. are traits that are valuable in the market place.

Many entrepreneurs and tech industry leaders are high school or college drop-outs, including Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Steve Jobs along with dozens of less well-known billionaire entrepreneurs on the Forbes list.  “The Millionaire Next Door” cites research showing that the average American individual with a net worth of more than a million dollars was not a particularly good student – the most common profile is a “B” or a “C” student who owns a small business.  Most are not members of the educated elite.

Despite these facts, some believe that correlations between income and education, success in school-as-we-know-it is crucial to professional success.  But when occupational licenses require educational credentials, the result is a system that legally mandates school as a prerequisite to professional success.  And occupational licensure has been growing for decades.  When all the tall-stalked dandelions are mowed down, after awhile “the empirical evidence” is that dandelion flowers tend to be low to the ground.  In addition, the ever-growing regulatory state favors big business.  Big business hires high-powered lawyers, accountants, and quants.  The result penalizes business leaders whose competitive advantage consists of integrity and community spiritedness.  Over time these selection effects will result in a world in which increasingly the empirical evidence shows that educational level correlates with income.  To what extent are such correlations an artifact of the regulatory state?  We’ll never know.

Perhaps a market in human development, combined with occupational freedom, might provide more opportunities and greater well-being for the poor than does a regulatory state with government schools that require that everyone “pass” algebra and world history.  Suppose:

  1.  The most powerful way to improve the lives of the next generation of the poor is by means of the effective transmission of valued cultural capital.
  2. The most important means of ensuring a greater degree of happiness and well-being in young people of all classes and ethnicities is by means of schools that provide a sense of meaning, purpose, and community.

Then an evolving system based on the preferences of parents which rewarded those educational entrepreneurs who do transmit valued cultural capital as well as creating schools based on meaning, purpose, and community will produce new forms of human development that more effectively achieve these goals.

Some educators are able to produce some outcomes more consistently than others.  Some of those educators will be able to transmit their ability to produce consistent outcomes to others.  In order for their work to scale with quality, they will need to create quality control systems that certify those teachers and schools which will also produce consistent outcomes.  These quality control systems will go by diverse brand names once we have a full-fledged market in education.  Because those brand names that produce consistent, desirable outcomes will receive more customers (students), they will grow.  Because they are growing, they will also receive more more financial support (capital investment in the case of for-profit entities, philanthropic support in the case of non-profit entities).  This will allow them to scale while also engaging in a process of continuous improvement and innovation with respect to their core competence.

This is the only means by which we will be able to scale and innovate systems that specialize in the development of “soft” skills, including design, creativity, entrepreneurship, relationship skills, “emotional intelligence,” personal responsibility, etc.  In culturally homogenous countries traditional cultural traits may be passed on by means of mass public education.  But in a large, culturally diverse country such as the U.S. in which cultural norms are diverse and changing, we need to develop systems that will allow for the most valuable forms of cultural capital to be transmitted and refined based on diverse parental preferences.

Tomorrow: Can markets in the technology of cultural capital provide improvements as dramatic as those we’ve seen in technology?

  • good_in_theory

    ” If a religious school reduced the probability that a child would be among the chronically poor, it ought to be regarded as a wise choice. ”

    If brainwashing reduces the probability that a child would be among the chronically poor, it ought to be regarded as a wise choice. Does this hold as well?

    Perhaps there are worse things than chronic poverty, like, for example, ignorant tutelage and blissful delusions. (argumentum ad “the Matrix”, I guess)

    If being disabused of a belief in fairytales makes one’s life harder and more miserable, it’s not clear to me that one should pick delusion over misery. Does the Enlightenment only stand on its ability to contribute to well-being? So much for the eradication of superstition and delusion if those superstitions and delusions were… useful?

    • Rob Gressis

      Just out of curiosity, would you be for the abolition (not necessarily government enforced) of religious schools in general, even if those schools made their students significantly better off on average?

      • good_in_theory

        I’m not sure.

        I lean towards yes. But the point was more that this should at the least raise to the level of concern, especially among non-utilitarian libertarians. “Truth” seems like a pretty good candidate for a value that should not be sacrificed to welfare. In fact I have trouble seeing how one could sacrifice truth to welfare and still maintain the priority of liberty to welfare, given that you’ve now endorsed the perpetuation of fraud out of a paternalistic concern for the welfare of others.

        • Because of course you have a monopoly on truth.

          • good_in_theory

            It’s not that I have a monopoly on truth, it’s that there are a plethora of groups with very obvious monopolies on falsehood.

          • WalkinFella

            I think you might be interested in this book

        • Rob Gressis

          Do you think it’s possible that someone educated in a religious school might be likelier to have insights into some other parts of philosophy or ethics than someone educated in a public school? In other words, I’m asking: what if people raised in a religious school get deluded into believing their religion (assuming, of course, that some central metaphysical tenets of their religion is false) but also end up having more sophisticated views on, say, social justice than someone raised in a public school? If so, do you think it’s better that they (a) end up as non-religious but also less concerned about social justice or (b) end up as more concerned about social justice but also religious?

          Note that I’m not saying that the non-religious can’t be concerned about social justice; I’m just trying to see whether you think having the right views about metaphysics is the sine qua non of any good education.

          • good_in_theory

            I think in general, it is *wise* to continue to work in service of “secularization”, construed not just as the rendering private and tolerating of religion, but also as the gradual elimination of superstitious, spiritualist, and supernatural beliefs, and of religion of any kind, in the end. Note that working in service of secularization does not mean banning religion or religious schools. It means saying that it may be unwise to go to certain kinds of religious schools, no matter how happy they make you.

            In general, I’d say I’d rather people have wrong beliefs for good reasons than good beliefs for bad reasons, such that the primary object of one’s concern should be the reasons people have for their beliefs, not the beliefs themselves. I’d guess the intuition behind that is that good/true reasons are internally related to good/true beliefs.

            Though I realize that this is based on the supposition that the beliefs we find follow from the reasoning process we use. If the reasoning process we use follows from the beliefs we hold, I’d have to reconsider. Either way, the concern is that someone be educated such that they are most likely to arrive at true conclusions about the world. I think that is probably done by educating them in the use of the best processes we have for tracking and finding truth.

    • J D

      “If being disabused of a belief in fairytales makes one’s life harder and more miserable, it’s not clear to me that one should pick delusion over misery. ”

      I’m not sure any group has as thoroughly failed to earn its smugness than today’s generation of e-atheists. Sorry Bub, I realized that “magic isn’t real” when I was 14 too, but it’s more complicated than that. You reduce religious culture to the acid test of literality not because it is shallow, but because you are.


        Well said!

      • Fallon

        100% Win.

      • good_in_theory

        You’re offering pretty strong evidence of membership in a group that has “failed to earn its smugness.”

        Wait, wait, let me try – I deride your petty and baseless ad hominems not *just* because they are stupid and shallow, but because you, too, are stupid and shallow. Did I get the silly rhetorical flourish right?

        I haven’t done anything to religious culture. I have implied some religious beliefs are delusional, something which is without a doubt true, given the wide variety of beliefs which are religious in nature. All I did directly was question whether it is actually *wise* to teach falsehoods in order to improve welfare.

        Let’s keep it simple. Should education value truth-seeking over welfare-improving?

        If yes, then might it be the case that it is not *wise* to endorse varieties of education which encourage processes of belief formation and acquisition that do not hold any relationship to seeking the truth?

        If yes, then might it be the case that at least some *faith based* methods of education might, you know, not seek truth, and hence are not a *wise* choice?

        In sum, excuse me for thinking that education might be about more than just welfare, and might actually have something to do with truth.

        *One should note, for the truth’s sake, that the Wilson review to which Strong links explicitly criticizes the book under review for offering merely correlations, not demonstrations of causality, and hence the claim that religion *reduces* anything, at least on the basis of the cited evidence, is, well, unsupported.

        • J D

          You chose not to account for proportion or disagreement in order to force a false choice. Reading your comment one would imagine that religious schools haven’t simply answered a metaphysical question differently than you have, but that they fail to teach the truth in all other areas as well. Totally absent is the possibility that they may develop excellent curricula and graduate whole, literate persons. Also absent is acknowledgement of the fact that one may emphatically accept science while maintaining faith on other grounds. Suddenly someone who believes in “delusional fairytales” becomes “someone who disagrees with me”. Oops.

          You reduced religion and religious stories to the matter of their literal veracity, thereby defining religious educators by one criterion instead of the several required to produce anything that isn’t caricature.

          “In sum, excuse me for thinking that education might be about more than just welfare, and might actually have something to do with truth.”

          It’s funny that you went from writing that you “lean toward” the abolition of religious schools to posing on the cross of truth-seeking like this. Was it a tough climb?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well said, again! I like your style.

          • J D

            Thanks, Mark. I look forward to reading your book on Nozick.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            If you do, you will approximately double my readership. Cheap Kindle version now available, paperback version by year’s end.

          • good_in_theory

            The only person imposing a false choice here is you. You’re simply dreaming up the position you would like to refute. Do me a favor and take your self-satisfied strawmanning elsewhere. Nowhere have I said that *all* religious schools are incapable of ‘graduating whole literate persons.’ Nowhere have I said that *no* religious views are compatible with science education.

            You reduced religion and religious stories to the matter of their literal veracity in order to caricature my opinion.

            I deduced the claim that it is wise to support the cultivation of any belief, but specifically false and superstitious ones, so long as they increase welfare, from the claim that it is wise to attend any religious school *so long as it increases welfare*, because *any religious school* includes *religious schools which teach any belief whatsoever,* and *any belief whatsoever* includes *false and superstitious beliefs*.

            Now, from the fact that I have expressed an objection to the principle that the teaching of *any* belief should be considered *wise* so long as it is *welfare increasing*, you conclude what, exactly? That I don’t think there are religious schools which create intelligent individuals? That I don’t think there are religious schools which accurately teach science and history? The only person drawing caricatures here is you.

            The question, which I will repeat, is whether it is *wise* to privilege welfare over the truth.

            Now I don’t know what your hyperbole about posing on the cross has to do with anything. I suspect it’s just more willful misinterpretation of my argument.


          In case you haven’t noticed, you are getting greatly “disliked” here, and I suspect that most with this reaction does not come from people holding deeply traditional religious views. Let me try to help you understand why. You say: “I haven’t done anything to religious culture. I have implied some religious beliefs are delusional, something which is without a doubt true, given the wide variety of beliefs which are religious in nature.”

          However, it is equally obvious I would hope that many secular beliefs “are delusional…given the wide variety of beliefs which are [secular] in nature.” So, why focus on religious beliefs?

          You say: “All I did directly was question whether it is actually *wise* to teach falsehoods in order to improve welfare.” But Mr. Strong didn’t actually recommend “teaching falsehoods” at all, or anything close to that. He simply said that we should not condemn out of hand religious schools simply because we don’t share their theology. That position is called “liberalism” (broadly construed). Just trying to be helpful.

          • good_in_theory

            It is equally obvious that many secular beliefs are delusional. It is not equally obvious that secular methods of acquiring knowledge are as poor as religious methods of acquiring knowledge/generating justified true beliefs.

            Mr. Strong implicitly recommended teaching anything so long as it increases welfare. I challenged that criterion, on liberal grounds. Unless *liberalism* is to be divorced from the anti-clerical, deist and atheist radical Enlightenment tradition embodied in Hobbes, Spinoza, Voltaire, Diderot, &etc? But believe whatever makes you happy, I guess.

            Civil toleration concerns not legislating or condoning violence against others because of their religion, and is connected with liberalism. Ridiculing religion was an active part of the culture out of which liberalism grew and a practice of many liberal thinkers. Perhaps not ridiculing beliefs is also a part of liberalism. That would be a topic of debate.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            In addition to always insisting on the last word, however trivial, I am noticing another interesting quirk in your style of argument. When one of your claim’s is refuted, you simply shift ground and pretend that your original claim was other than as stated or was not what you meant. So here, when I challenged you on why your original statement about delusional religious beliefs was a fair criticism in light of equally delusional secular ones, rather than responding to my point, it turns out that what you really meant “It is not equally obvious that secular methods of acquiring knowledge are as poor as religious methods of acquiring knowledge/generating justified true beliefs.”

            But this is just more rubbish. Of course in matters of religion as such, the method of “acquiring knowledge…” is different than in the secular realm, because religious beliefs don’t purport to be scientific. That’s why religious folk, myself included, refer to ourselves as being “people of faith,” rather than “people of knowledge” (with respect to our religious convictions). On the other hand, as JD pointed out to you already, we are perfectly happy to recognize the authority of science within its realm of competence. So, again as JD noted, your antipathy towards relgion simply amounts to an irrational prejudice against people who hold different metaphysical views than you do.

            Your attempt to shift ground on your statement that Mr. Strong recommended “teaching falsehoods” is equaly contrived. But this doesn’t even bear argument. People should simply read his post and your interpretation, and decide for themselves.

            What Mr. Strong actualy said was that we shouldn’t withhold support for schools with religious affiliations on this ground alone. Your unwilingness to accept this brands you as illiberal. Finally, on a trivial side note, your understanding of the Enlightenment is defective in two ways. First, anti-clericalism certainly doesn’t equate to atheism in any fashion, and second, many leading Enlightenment figures were deeply religious, without following an orthodox path, including Newton, Kant, Descartes, Leibniz and others.

          • good_in_theory

            Whenever one of my claims is misconstrued, I insist on construing it accurately. If that leads to a tendency to insist on the last word when conversing with people who continuously mis-represent my position (and the positions of others), so be it.

            The claim that the existence of delusional beliefs should tell us anything about how we should treat religious schools which encourage delusions is entirely your own. Mr Strong merely implies by omission, and I highlighted this omission and challenged its implication *in general* (hence why I ask about the parallel but not equivalent case of “brainwashing” which obviously only overlaps with religion).

            My claim is strictly that some religious schools teach delusions that may be welfare increasing, and that the tension between truth and welfare here is of importance.

            Religious beliefs may, or may not, purport to be scientific (creation science/YEC anyone?). Some people think that their religious convictions are objects of both faith and knowledge, or that faith is a method for acquiring knowledge. I’m not sure why you think otherwise. My alleged “prejudice” for people with different “metaphysics” is irrelevant. But if I am “prejudiced” against people who think God or gods exert causal influence over the world – influence of which they have knowledge through their faith – so be it.

            You are putting words in Mr. Strong’s mouth and you are putting words in my mouth. You “ought” to do neither.

            Mr. Strong never “actually said” that we shouldn’t withhold support from schools with religious affiliations on the grounds that they teach falsehoods alone. I said that this was implied by his position on the grounds by which we should extend our support to educational institutions, and it is so implied

            There is nothing illiberal about criticism. There is nothing illiberal about calling the decisions of others unwise. There is nothing illiberal by objecting to the notion that I *ought* to consider it wise to enroll a child in a religious school simply because it increases his lifelong welfare.

            Finally, your understanding of my position on the Enlightenment is defective in two ways.

            First, it assumes that I think anti-clericalism and atheism are synonymous, when I explicitly separated anti-clericalism, deism, and atheism as distinct positions.

            Second, it assumes that I think the enlightenment was exhausted by the figures which I asssociated with an explicitly *radical* Enlightenment which was highly critical of religion, emphasized by my selection of materialist and allegedly atheist Enlightenment thinkers (and Voltaire, who was a brutal satirist, and possibly a materialist, but not suspected of atheism).

            The Enlightenment is multifarious. That’s why I referred explicitly to specific aspects of the Enlightenment, not simply “the Enlightenment.”

            In the future, if you would like to avoid my having the last word, please do not so thoroughly misrepresent what I say, and what others have said.

          • good_in_theory

            As to “why” I’m being disliked, I think it clearly has to do with the fact that religious schools are private and secular schools are public, so an attack on religious schools is construed as an attack an private property rights while an attack on public schools is construed as an attack on “statism” and “statists”, or whatever. Hence Sean’s claim that public school is an efficient producer of defenseless, gullible, dupes. How dare anyone imply that some religious schools teach superstitious and inaccurate beliefs. But go ahead and call everyone who attends a state-run school a mindless lemming. That’s fine.

  • Well said and reflects exactly what I feel

  • Wow, that is a lot to think about, and off the cuff I am inclined to agree with most of your assertions. Indeed I have long railed against the creeping “credentialism” of our culture.

    And as someone who used to manage and hire people I can attest the young people with some moral or religious background tend to be much more dependable.

  • Sean II

    Hahahaha! If your goal is to end up with a solid adult atheist, one of the best things you can do is send a kid to Catholic school or a Hebrew academy. Those places fabricate skeptics in truly admirable numbers. Most of the other atheists I know in flesh-n-blood world have a recitation of the catechism or a Torah portion filed away in their memory, under the heading “bitter and not to be repeated”.

    On the other hand, if your goal is to end up with a defenseless, gullible dupe who can swallow massive lies and absurdities without gagging, so long as they are served up by political or academic or religious authority figures…well, then public school is definitely the place for you.

    The kids who acquire their worldview in a state-run classroom aren’t agnostic about much of anything. They believe what they hear and do what they’re told.

    • good_in_theory

      Of course, sending your kid to an evangelical protestant Christian school is one of the best ways of ensuring that your kid comes out more religious than he would going through any other school.

      One suspects the effects of certain varieties of madrassa, which many such evangelicals are so fond of raving about, are also pretty effective at encouraging dogmatism.


        You really are unbelievable. Madrassas? What the hell are you talking about here? Relevance? If you write a book, make a film or otherwise do anything to mock Islam, many Muslims (obviously not all or even a majority) will try to kill you.

        On the other hand, idiots like you who are too gutless to even use his/her real name are free to mock any other religion in this country, including evangelical protestant Christians, and not have a worry in the world. Dawkins, Hitchens and other write best-sellers and give public talks and don’t have have to hire extra security. Religious schools might make people more religious–big f**king deal. They pose a threat to you only in your twisted, bigoted imagination.

        • good_in_theory

          Sean made an assertion that some schools are associated with a decline in religiosity. (This is an empirically supported finding, though I don’t remember if the evidence I saw was relative to the ex ante situation or relative to having gone through a secular or public school).

          I countered with that assertion that some schools are associated with an increase in religiosity (this is an also an empirically supported finding.)

          I’m talking about whether religious schools increase religiosity, which is the issue Sean raised. (A certain kind of) madrassa may fall on one side of this question. This is why I mentoined it.

          Clearly, religious schools making people religious pose a great threat to *you*, given your hysterical, bigoted reaction to the mere mention of an Islamic religious school.

          What I have argued, is that some religious schools may pose a threat to *wisdom*, and as such one is not necessarily *wise* to attend them simply because they increase one’s welfare, on net.

          • Sean II

            Really I was suggesting a more general point about young people; namely, that miseducation can only cripple their minds, without necessarily implanting this or that specific idea in them.

            Try to make a kid religious, or a socialist, or a piano player, or whatever else, and there is a decent chance he will rebel and grow up to become an atheist, a Randroid, a football player, or whatever he thinks is most infuriatingly opposite to the wishes of his parents and teachers….and especially, whatever he thinks is most safely in keeping with the wishes of his peers.

            What you can do – and what I believe public schools do very well – is to therapeutically lobotomize the child so that he never develops the ability to properly criticize anything. After that he’ll pretty much absorb whatever ideology is thickest in the air around him.

            In other words: it’s the culture-at-large that uploads the content, the school merely formats the disk by cleansing it of any potential interference from logic, reason, individuality, empathy, and other such viruses of the mind.

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