Outsourcing, Education, and Thinking about the Future

I was hopeful that some of our better-known companions would be smart enough to ignore the attempt by McMegan (University of Pennsylvania, Bachelor’s in English Literature, mid-1990s) to argue, in a magazine that aspires to be People, that going to college—and most especially getting a degree in the Liberal Arts—is not cost-effective. We can forgive Felix; getting to write a riff such as this one is like fiddling with your guitar and coming up with “Sweet Emotion” or “Take Five” or “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” even with the occasional clunker conditional. Sadly, though, Brad did his imitation of Mark-Thoma-when-pressed-for-time, pulling greatest hits and writing a lede that is more analgesic than enlightening. So let’s think about the Big Employment Picture. What can you (1) study in college, (2) learn reasonably well in four years, and (3) still practice with a reasonable certainty that your job will not be outsourced in twenty years? Let’s start with eliminating the easy things: Technology. Think of all the people who have been programmers for a couple of decades, starting with Fortran or C or even COBOL. (Remember the jokes about the COBOL programmer who works in preparation for the millennium, has himself cryogenically frozen, and is thawed out in 9998? Ask anyone who works IT for, say, an Insurance Company if they don’t think it’s realistic.) Those people are already losing their jobs to Indians who aren’t paid the equivalent of US$40,000 a year who have IIT degrees. Engineering: Even less reliable employment than Technology and, again, already being outsourced. Mathematics: Anyone really want to claim this is non-rival good? Sure, if you’re Press and Dyson, maybe. But we already know that poor Indians have been competing with the rest of the world for a century. Anyone really believe that China, with twice as many secondary school graduates (as a percent of population, let alone overall) cannot produce chimera-Ramanujans, or even just multiple Morris Klines, in the next generation or two? That’s three-quarters of the STEM model that is supposed to Save American Jobs: all will face (at best) downward pressure and declining domestic futures under current tenets. What will be a stable career? My ex-roommate points to Tyler Cowen in the Globe and Mail:

[Q:]Can advances in AI create great numbers of jobs? [Cowen:]No. A lot of people will be hurt by it. Owners of intellectual property, and capital and manufacturing plants will do very well. Output will go up a lot. But in many areas, wages will fall and jobs will disappear. So the U.S. trend – falling labour force participating rates – will continue. But people who get quality education will be better off. [emphasis mine]

Not everyone will be born as the son of a Governor or a Captain of Industry; most of those people will have doors opened for them naturally, in the manner of this classmate of Barack Obama’s who has led his current company in the manner of his previous one. So the last two are out. That leaves us with the italicized section above. Who are the “owners of intellectual property.” Well—initially—it’s the creator of art. For all the films made in India, very few match the worldwide appeal and box office command of the U.S. industry. Similarly, while Lawrence Norfolk’s latest novel means I stopped reading everything else (well, except for Press and Dyson, above) on this New Year, it’s Amazon rank tells us that almost 23,000 other people are buying more copies of something else from them. Even musicians are finding that controlling their catalog is more important—and lucrative—than signing with a label in this era of pump and dump. Or, as Chris O’Leary noted:

Bowie had been built, in part, by RCA and EMI, by their worldwide sales channels, their sacks of promotional dollars. The labels had been irritated about putting out a Low or a Tin Machine, but they still bought trade ads and in-store promo material for them, they still made the records available for someone in Kankakee to buy, they still had pushed them on the radio, if indifferently. If clueless and occasionally corrupt, the dinosaur labels that had released the bulk of Bowie’s oeuvre had provided a level of patronage that’s inconceivable for a musician of Bowie’s bent today…he spent the Nineties as a free agent, jumping from label to label, sometimes going it alone, always on the hustle, and so offering a preview of the lot of the average pro musician in 2012.

The model has changed, with most songwriters and performers knowing better than—or learning quickly not—to sell “publishing rights” to a label that will attempt to treat them “as work for hire.” What are the jobs least able to be outsourced? Writer. Musician. Artist. Filmmaker. (It’s probably not coincident that Bowie’s son is making movies.) Exactly the jobs that McMegan is telling people to avoid. Perhaps speaking autobiographically, she declares:

“It’s very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in,”

As Felix Salmon notes (also quoted by DeLong), “That’s only true if you somehow contrive to drop out of college at the very last possible minute.” Otherwise, to borrow a term from microeconomics, you have “signaled” that you can complete something you started, which makes employers who don’t want to sell half-finished products (that is, all of them) much happier than the alternative. McArdle’s piece wasn’t just bad analysis; it’s bad economics. You would think that someone with an MBA (even if it is from the University of Chicago) would know better.