Education and Infrastructure

One way to think about any work is whether it helps understand a range of problems. Brett Frischmann’s Infrastructure does precisely that. Indeed, when done, I was not satisfied, despite the range of topics he addresses, such as roads and transportation, telecommunications, environmental, and intellectual infrastructures. Like a good novel, I wanted more. The framework and ideas Frischmann set out apply to complex problems society faces today. As a good theory and framework should do, Frischmann’s work digs into several areas and cries out for future work. One example that comes to mind is education.

Education has been a crisis issue in the past several decades; Frischmann’s Infrastructure sorts major questions that I believe society misses in this area. An assumption is that education is a public good. Yet, I think we are straying from how we manage such goods. As education seems to be failing, the United States has turned to market solutions. The somewhat standard cry of government mistakes, lack of competition, etc. fit into one model of managing the issue. Yet, as Frischmann explains, education may be understood as a merit good and as such there is a demand side problem: “systematic undervaluation of the merit good in market settings.” (p. 45) I would add that mistakes in proper valuation of education as infrastructure lead to the creation of an education aristocracy that leads to problems of the so-called One Percent type many decry today (but are unwilling to address with tax reform).

Recent evidence from Finland shows that taking an infrastructural approach leads to outcomes that we would want, but currently fail to reach. As the article describes:

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality. … When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.

This approach strikes me as a good example of how thinking in terms of infrastructure, social goods, and externalities (p. 49) allows us to recognize different ways of managing complex societal issues. Furthermore, this example has data behind it. Finland is persistently in the top of PISA scores on language, math, and science. And if one wishes to say that Finland is homogenous, different than the U.S etc. there is a control. Norway went with the American model and did much less well. As the article points out, education is a state policy in the U.S. Some states are smaller and more homogenous than Finland. I suggest that a truly innovative state program would look at such an investment to allow the state a competitive advantage. California was arguably such a state with its plan for undergraduate education until folks, wait for it, undervalued education and stopped paying for it on the broad basis.

Deven Desai

Deven Desai is an associate professor of law and ethics at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also the first, and to date, only Academic Research Counsel at Google, Inc., and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and the Yale Law School. Professor Desai’s scholarship examines how business interests, new technology, and economic theories shape privacy and intellectual property law and where those arguments explain productivity or where they fail to capture society’s interest in the free flow of information and development. His work has appeared in leading law reviews and journals including the Georgetown Law Journal, Minnesota Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, and U.C. Davis Law Review.

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6 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    A small point: your praise of California refers to it pre-Prop 13, right? I’m not sure that Prop 13 was so much an undervaluing of education as simply a desire on the part of Baby Boomers’ parents to keep more of their own money, especially after their kids were out of public school.

    Possibly a larger point: Where is the evidence that the Finnish school reforms were motivated by a desire to be “competitive,” rather than, say, a desire to reduce inequality within the country? This sounds more like the American author’s spin than like anything the quoted Finns are saying. Should a nation value the reduction of inequality and other social gains only for enhancing its international “competitiveness,” or might such a reduction be a worthy goal in itself?

  2. Brett Frischmann says:


    Thanks for the great post. I think you’re right to push beyond the examples in the book and I’m glad you focused on education. Education and healthcare are often regarded as “merit goods,” which are systematically undervalued in market settings. With respect to both education and healthcare, people often ask me: Is “it” infrastructure? Initially, I struggled with this question because there is something fundamental and infrastructural about both education and healthcare, yet the two words alone are too amorphous. Put it this way: what is the resource under analysis when you refer to education or healthcare? Is it the system through which society supplies educational and health care services? Is it the level or quality of education or health care possessed by each individual? Is it something else? Is there even an “it” – a resource?

    Perhaps the best way to apply the theoretical framework in the book to the education and health care sectors is to think about the infrastructural resources upon which the educational and health care systems themselves depend. What are the sharable, general –purpose / multi-use capital resources that enable these systems to function? Frankly, I am brainstorming here, but we might identify the different types of capital aggregated within an education/healthcare setting—physical capital like buildings and equipment, human capital like teachers/doctors and administrators, institutional/governance capital like norms and rules, intellectual capital like tacit knowledge and educational materials, and so on—that are used and reused (shared year after year) to generate human capital, knowledge, healthy people, and so on. (Note that when we think of education or healthcare as a merit good we are probably thinking about these “outputs.”)

    If this type of analysis is intriguing, I did something similar in an earlier paper, The Pull of Patents, published in the Fordham Law Review, when I examined science and technology research systems within universities. Here is a short excerpt from that piece to illustrate:

    A university science and technology research system is a system of productive resources aggregated within a university setting and used to produce a stream of research-related outputs, as well as other important outputs, e.g., educated citizens. The system is comprised of at least five different sets of related, complementary resources, including
    1. human capital, including complementary networks of people such as professors, researchers, students, administrators, technicians, and other support staff;
    2. governance capital, such as rules, norms, policies and other collective constraints that guide system participants’ behavior;
    3. physical capital, such as land, facilities, and equipment;
    4. intellectual capital, such as knowledge, information, and ideas; and
    5. financial capital.
    Each of these capital resources is an essential component of the system, although the bundle of such resources and manner in which they are bundled varies considerably across universities. I have referred to the various components of the system as capital because, aggregated together within a university, these resources are used (and reused) collectively and continuously as inputs into a variety of production processes, including research, education, training, and socialization, among others.

  3. Ben says:

    It’s worth noting that in education there are several different historical goals of education, some of which are public and some private. There are also several possible constructions of education particularly as a public good. For example, education can be aimed at supporting a robustly functioning democracy or supporting international economic competitiveness. Even if one positions education as a public good, the precise goal choice still matters in how an education system should be set up.

    This is all to say that there’s more than the public good/private good distinction. It’s a useful analytic tool, but precise goal framing matters.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    I agree with Ben.

    BTW, as for the description of “science and technology research systems,” how do they differ from other “systems” within a university? Don’t Classics departments, e.g., use the same types of “capital”? Don’t they also have “research-related outputs as well as other important outputs”?

    Even if they do, why must the justification for universities be an economic one, e.g. “knowledge creation and talent,” with “[s]mart people [being] the most critical resource to any economy, and especially to the rapidly growing knowledge-based economy on which the U.S. future rests”? (“Pull of Patents” @ 2164.) The proliferation of types of “capital,” “production processes,” “outputs,” etc. in this analysis makes one think of the old saw about people who hold hammers. As Ben suggests in his comment, and as I do in my question about the Finns, there are many other values that can — and indeed ought to — be important for framing policy choices.

  5. Brett Frischmann says:

    I agree that there are multiple values that matter in determining how to set up an education system. That is in fact one of the points made in the book with respect to various infrastructures and in particular infrastructures that support or enable private, public and social goods. The book goes well beyond the public good/private good distinction.

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