Goldin and Katz’s The Race between Education and Technology is a monumental achievement that supplies a unified framework for interpreting how the demand and supply of human capital have shaped the distribution of earnings in the U.S. labor market over the 20th century. This essay reviews the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of this work and documents the success of Goldin and Katz’s framework in accounting for numerous broad labor market trends. The essay also considers areas where the framework falls short in explaining several key labor market puzzles of recent decades and argues that these shortcomings can potentially be overcome by relaxing the implicit equivalence drawn between workers’ skills and their job tasks in the conceptual framework on which Goldin and Katz build. The essay argues that allowing for a richer set of interactions between skills and technologies in accomplishing job tasks both augments and refines the predictions of Goldin and Katz’s approach and suggests an even more important role for human capital in economic growth than indicated by their analysis.
The New York Times -
The authors skillfully demonstrate that for more than a century, and at a steady rate, technological breakthroughs — the mass production system, electricity, computers — have been increasing the demand for ever more educated workers. And, they show, America’s school system met this demand, not with a national policy, but in grassroots fashion, as communities taxed themselves and built schools and colleges.
Beginning in the 1970s, however, the education system failed to keep pace, resulting, Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz contend, in a sharply unequal nation.
The authors allow that a decline in union membership and in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage also contributed to the shift in who partook of a growing pie. But they rule out the usual suspects — globalization (trade) and high immigration — as significant causes of rising inequality. Amid the current calls to restrict executive compensation, their policy prescription is to have more Americans graduate from college.
If only it were that easy.
The authors’ argument is really two books in one. One offers an incisive history of American education, especially the spread of the public high school and the state university system. It proves to be an uplifting tale of public commitment and open access. The authors remind us that the United States long remained “the best poor man’s country.” A place where talent could rise.
The other story rigorously measures the impact of education on income. The authors’ compilation of hard data on educational attainment according to when people were born is an awesome achievement, though not always a gripping read.
History Net and Peter Linkert write:
Where next for research in the economic history of American education? This is the perfect time to ask, now that Goldin and Katz have achieved closure on so many questions. The view from their shoulders reveals two key areas to explore.
First, who was it that under-invested in education? Did private individuals pass up money lying on the sidewalk, or was it the political process failing to realize high social rates of return that took into account both fiscal effects and knowledge externalities? For the purposes of their book, Goldin and Katz are able to finesse these tough questions. By focusing on contrasts between American epochs, they successfully explain the contrasts in “returns” in terms of movements in wage ratios that were dramatic enough to drive movements in all definitions of the rate of return on education. Yet we still need to explore the separate levels of the private versus “social” (private and fiscal only) versus overall rates of return, the last being the one that draws on the recent literature on externalities. Only then can we distinguish private irrationality, or private capital constraints, from a failure of policymakers to capture high societal returns to extra years of education. The new research will have to proceed on different levels for different time periods. For the present day debate, scholars will have to jump the higher econometric hurdles imposed by Heckman, Lochner, and Todd in their rejection of the convenient Mincer return analysis. For earlier periods, it should suffice to make rougher contrasts between the likely private and fiscal returns for different eras and different places.
A related frontier is the political economy of education finance. Who voted for or against taxes for schools, in which states, and why? Goldin and Katz have advanced the political economy agenda with econometric evidence on the determinants of high school and college attendance, and the funding for public state universities. Yet there is much more to be done.
On both these research frontiers, our progress will be accelerated because Goldin and Katz have paved the way.