when everyone learns to code, the economic value of learning to code will evaporate

Freddie deBoer
3 min readJul 17, 2020
“Studying” by mer chau is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the fundamental argument of my upcoming book (out August 4th) is that it is both economically ruinous and cruel to maintain a society where the education system sorts economic winners and losers when not everyone enjoys the same academic gifts or abilities. But there’s an ancillary point that I think is just as important even if you maintain the myth of universal academic potential: the economic benefit of education is relative to the scarcity of being educated, and so efforts to spread education universally as a means to spread the advantage are doomed to fail.

One of the single most important pieces of research I pulled for the book, among hundreds, was this 2007 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors examined the college wage premium from 1890 to 2005 and found that it was largely explainable by a simple ratio between the number of college educated people and the number of jobs requiring a college educated. As the authors write, “Overall, simple supply and demand specifications do a remarkable job explaining the long-run evolution of the college wage premium.” But of course they do! How could it be any other way? Educated labor is subject to the law of supply and demand like any other good. If you increase the supply of something until it is ubiquitous, you are necessarily cutting the legs out of the value of that thing. And what is a nearly-universal policy goal of our politicians and think tanks? Universal college completion. Whoops.

Schools of pharmacy have been a site of this phenomenon. People observed that pharmacists were in demand. So colleges, with their long-term wisdom, opened literally dozens of new schools of pharmacy. And what happened? All of those newly minted pharmacy majors had to compete against each other, shifting the negotiating advantage to the employers doing the hiring and filling up all of the available jobs. This was literally inevitable; it had to happen. Every new graduate is competition to other graduates. People talk endlessly about taking “practical” majors without ever really grappling with what they mean. Well, Business would seem to be the most practical major of all, and yet Business graduates writ large have middling economic outcomes. Why? Because we graduate 350,000 of them a year!

And so let us consider “learn to code.” Now, I think that this advice is generally given insincerely, particularly since it became an alt right mantra. But suppose we take it seriously. As suggested above, I think this advice is nonsense because not everyone has what it takes to code. (Certainly I don’t.) It’s not a skill that everyone can learn. I’m sure many computer science professors would acknowledge that there’s such a thing as a natural talent for programming. But suppose there wasn’t and anyone could get into the field. If people did that en masse, the financial advantage of being a coder would be destroyed, because the sudden ubiquity of those skills would eliminate the market advantage of having them. Again, this is inevitable. It’s a simple fact of operating in a market.

Were it possible to get everyone a college education, getting one would cease to have monetary value. Were it possible for everyone to code, coding would offer no special market advantage. Perhaps the near-universal conventional wisdom that universal college education will save our economy needs to be destroyed.

Read the book for more.

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