Thursday, April 25, 2013

Is the push for STEM just corporate welfare?

The Washington Post reports on a study arguing that the STEM worker shortage is a myth—that in fact there are lots of STEM grads and not enough STEM jobs for them to fill.

I remain puzzled by the national push for STEM (that is, increased emphasis on education in science, technology, engineering, and math). Regardless of that study’s accuracy, won’t government intervention to increase the supply of labor in a particular industry inevitably lead to lower wages in that industry? Who benefits?

If you’re a liberal, shouldn’t you be bothered by government interventions that seem designed to lower wages in a particular industry?

If you’re a conservative, shouldn’t you oppose government interventions like these, and put your faith in the invisible hand of the market?

If you like big-government corporate welfare, though, this sounds like the program for you.


Billy Zelsnack said...

I am not following how not disallowing additional foreign workers is increased government intervention.

Chris said...

Billy -- By "government interventions," I'm talking about the government's efforts to prioritize STEM education, and to funnel more American students into those careers.

I wasn't intending to take a position on the immigration issue. My guess is that there is a probably an argument that a true free-marketer would see immigration restrictions as unwarranted interference with the market, but I'm not making that argument here.

Regardless of what immigration policy we pursue, I don't see how government interventions to increase the number of STEM graduates won't lower wages in those industries.

Chris said...

Commenter David submitted this comment (which my fat fingers on the iPhone accidentally deleted):

It's astounding to me that, of all the things government could promote educationally, we don't push the humanities and liberal arts. Nothing prepares people for an uncertain future (and the future is necessarily uncertain) than the liberal arts. Nothing hones the mind as well for any type of pursuit, either. Even the best science people -- from Stephen J. Gould to Steven Pinker -- know how to write and put their scientific insights into context, a distinctly liberal arts skill.

I agree with you that markets are perfectly adequate to put the right amount of labor in STEM fields. But do you know where market economics doesn't work? Art. How about subsidizing poets, and making that kind of career path less perilous? The market is incapable of valuing poetry properly and recognizing what it brings to society. That's a situation where subsidies and government direction are appropriate.

Chris said...

David -- I'm leery of any plan to that uses kids instrumentally to promote particular fields or industries, no matter how worthy those fields might be. I think our educational program should grow out of a conception of what it really means to be well-educated. But in my view that would certainly mean a much greater role for the liberal arts. The spirit of the liberal arts--which, to me, is all about curiosity and inquiry--seems more and more scarce in schools today, even as school systems boast about their college admission rates.

FedUpMom said...

During the previous Depression, part of the WPA was the employment of artists to make art. Painters, playwrights, and photographers were employed by the government to paint, write, and take photos. It's an amazing thought. These days, we have no respect for the arts as a basic and necessary part of society.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- As part of a stimulus program, that has a lot of appeal. I like the idea of broad-based debt forgiveness, which would help artists and a lot of other people, too.

Anonymous said...

To answer the question in the title, yes. The enthusiasm for STEM education is not new, and neither is the excess of people in those fields. In the early 1990's the American Physical Society sponsored free seminars for members (Ph.D.'s in physics) on how to find jobs outside science and technology.

Immigration has also been an important part of the strategy of increasing the labor pool so as to depress salaries. You will notice that politicians, reporters, and pundits all talk a lot about bringing in people in STEM fields, but never advocate bringing in people with expertise in *their* areas.