Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

by Jesse Saffron

“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong,” wrote H.L. Mencken in 1917. The “Sage of Baltimore,” who carved out an epic career in the first half of the 20th century by satirically attacking conventional wisdom, influenced a legion of writers (P.J. O’Rourke being an obvious and contemporary example) and forever changed the lexicon of individualists and Big Government opponents. But it was Mencken’s uncompromising pursuit of the truth, however counter-intuitive and unsettling it may have appeared to the readers of his day, that stands the test of time.

I’ve always been drawn to the kind of truth-telling and counter-intuitive reasoning employed by the Menckens of the world. Those methods attracted me to the study of economics as an undergraduate and heavily influence my reading choices today. That’s why I was thrilled to see Michael S. Teitelbaum’s latest article, “The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage,” at The Atlantic. Although Teitelbaum avoids the flights of rhetorical fancy applied so masterfully by Mencken, his analysis of the science and engineering workforce is relentless, and his critique of the “echo chamber” that misinforms the public about the “national emergency” caused by an alleged shortage of scientists and engineers is unequivocal and comprehensive in scope. 

Since World War II, politicians and policymakers have, for various reasons, routinely sounded alarm bells about the need to increase the number of scientists and engineers. Those alarm bells were usually followed by programs and policies designed to increase the supply of such workers. “Unfortunately [they created] painful busts–mass layoffs, hiring freezes, and funding cuts that inflicted severe damage to careers of both mature professionals and the booming numbers of emerging graduates, while also discouraging new entrants to these fields,” notes Teitelbaum. 

Today, American colleges and universities are conferring far more science and engineering degrees than there are science and engineering jobs (the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Jay Schalin was one of the first commentators to call attention to this new phenomenon). Wage rates are stagnant and slow-growing. New technology, price shifts, outsourcing, and even geography can quickly affect the profitability and attractiveness of a particular S & E-related field. But despite the glut of science and engineering graduates, as well as the near impossibility of accurately predicting the patterns of S & E employment and job growth, the conventional wisdom emanating from the political class, from lobbyists, and from mainstream editorial writers is that S & E “workforce shortages” will damage America’s “global competitiveness.”

The number of high school students choosing to pursue science and engineering degrees is on the rise. Will this new generation of graduates live through the employment frustrations and hardships experienced by previous generations? “The repeated past cycles of ‘alarm/boom/bust’ have misallocated public and private resources by periodically expanding higher education in science and engineering beyond levels for which there were attractive career opportunities,” writes Teitelbaum. “In so doing they produced large unintended costs for those talented students who devoted many years of advanced education to prepare for careers that turned out to be unattractive by the time they graduated, or who later experienced massive layoffs in mid-career with few prospects to be rehired.”

Will the opinion molders pushing for more science and engineering graduates learn any lessons from such cautionary tales?

Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.