Education is THE Economic Issue of Our Time

cool hand lukeApplying Input-Output Logic Heuristically to Detail a Program Responsive to President Obama’s Assertion—“Education is THE Economic Issue of Our Time”—and to Develop Public Enthusiasm for Implementing Such a Program

In the few weeks since President Obama so emphatically linked his education program to his effort to revive the US political economy, the President has not been pressed to detail either the substance of his education program or his procedure for winning support from a public that is increasingly cynical, skeptical, frightened, and angry. More importantly, Mr. Obama’s opponents have not yet cornered him with the politically sensitive question, “And what do you propose to do when the most recent unemployment compensation program expires?”, ready to trump any temporizing reply from the President with the politically damaging reply: “Surely you have something more substantive than just renewing that program again!”

This article borrows from the logic of economic sectors already used in National Income Accounting, and especially in the intermediate product portion of Input-Output analysis, to identify a logically consistent set of educational opportunities that is sufficiently coherent, comprehensive, expansive, visionary, and sound both to restore the economy itself and to revitalize public confidence in President Obama’s ability to turn the economy around. It should be emphasized that the proposed approach draws on these two economic practices heuristically; that is, for their internal logic, rather than for any mathematical operations often associated with them. In other words, these categories are used in ways that are accessible to common citizens.

The basic idea proposed here is relatively straightforward, once you know it is there. It begins with the categories used in National Income Accounting, which are treated as having been constructed to be both all-encompassing of economic activity. They are also treated as having been constructed to be mutually exclusive. (Because their usage is limited to heuristics, these conditions need not be met precisely here.)

With these preliminaries, then, the idea is to use the intermediate product cells (basically, value added elements) of Input-Output Table to identify “teach the teacher” opportunities available in the short run and “up-educating” opportunities for teachers teaching workers in the longer run. Additionally, researchers familiar with particular cells would observe efforts undertaken in their “cells of expertise”, and a team of non-specialists would work with a “cell experts”, in an attempt to resist discipline-grounded cooptation.

If funding is short or timing becomes crucial, the President could prioritize some categories higher than others, deflecting challenges advanced under the banner of “Free-Market Anti-Industrial Policy” on fundamental grounds: to twist Cool Hand Luke: What we have here is already a market failure to communicate.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.


  1. says

    If this article is meant to typify the products of the ‘education’ that it pretends to advocate, no wonder people aren’t impressed.

    The article plays ‘bait and switch’, gives prominence to utterly undefined terms, and pretends to follow up on an Obama message while omitting a key ingredient of that message.

    ARTICLE PLAYS BAIT AND SWITCH. Rather than living up to its title by showing us how ‘education is the economic issue of our time’, the article is instead a rather unmotivated plug for first launching a project wherein some kind of economists’ tool kit will supposedly identify economic opportunities in education (as if less sophisticated and more direct means can’t do that).

    ARTICLE FAILS TO DEFINE KEY TERMS. The article claims to be based on s recent Obama statement which allegedly links education to revival of ‘the political economy’. Pray tell, what on earth is ‘the political economy’?

    ARTICLE OMITS KEY INGREDIENTS. Contrary to the article’s indiscriminate usage of the word ‘education’, Obama’s actual statement – insofar as given correctly by the article’s supplied internet link to a UK pub – does not refer to education in general but just to higher education.

    • Robert A. Letcher says

      Thanks, Joe, for taking time to reply. I really do hope that you intended your comments to be substantive, rather than to impugn my character. I assure you my motives are honest. In fact, my purpose for signing in just now in order to ask for substantive feedback on what those “cells” one at a time might hold, and more importantly to seek suggestions for how to reconfigure the I-O Table to support learning our common ways out of the current structure and into another one. For example, out of a system built around waste being added in later to “waste” being handled as a “joint product”, with negative utility; or a transition to an industrial ecology approach to siting production facilities, according to the “natural law” that “waste = food”.

      As for your comment that “the article is instead a rather unmotivated plug for first launching a project wherein some kind of economists’ tool kit will supposedly identify economic opportunities in education (as if less sophisticated and more direct means can’t do that).”, an important part of my argument is that the overall substantive and economic impact of all the efforts would be bigger than the sum of the parts, possibly big enough for people who object to any government effort to at least consider not opposing the approach. Something akin to Kennedy’s call for going to the moon within ten years, a target we hit but could not now afford.

      Somehow, Airbus sells a lot of planes, you know.

      • Robert A. Letcher says

        Further comment: I use the term “political economy”–as do many other people–to emphasize what i see as two, mutually penetrating and mutually constructing aspects of a social order. What some people refer to as “political” institutions construct and constrain what they refer to as “economic” institutions, and vice versa. As i used the term, i had in mind the American tendency to oversimplify things, so i wrote “political economy” to provoke argument, and it worked. Thank you!

        Stephen Gill and David Law, THE GLOBAL POLITICAL ECONOMY

        My mention of Airbus I intended to evoke such examination of the fact that the European Airbus and American Boeing both fly, but are each produced in a different political-economic order.

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