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April 13th, 2017 under West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight

Win the birth lottery, lose your education?


It is true, as Warren Buffett says, that once you are born in the US, you have already won the lottery. As desperate and horrible as poverty can be in this country, it beats being desperate and poor in, say, Chad, Mali, Chechnya, or parts of India. Plus, being ambitious here generally means far better opportunities than in any of those countries. To say the least.

But these advantages are in great danger. We are resting on our laurels. Every year, we slip farther down in rankings of student skills in reading, science, and math. We fail so miserably at education that it reminds me of the story of Argentina, the sixth richest nation in the world in 1900 – its Buenos Aires was the Paris of Latin America – but today a basket case. Even glancing in that direction would be devastating for us. Forget that China is beginning to eat our breakfast, lunch and dinner. Education is money, and while money isn’t everything, lack of money is not good.

OECDWe can quibble with the methodology, but the following data from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are representative of surveys everywhere. And it is always dangerous to look at two items and say they are correlated or that one is the cause of the other. Nevertheless, let’s take that risk with education and GDP growth. First, education, using reading, math and science.

Reading: US is a poor 24th in world, of 65 countries (barely above OECD average). Countries above us, apart from the usual Scandinavian and western European nations, include China, Estonia, Poland, Vietnam, Czech Republic, and France. Americans love to make fun of France, and when I was in junior high, we made Polish jokes at summer camp. Who’s got the last laugh now?

Math: We are an abysmal 36th (below average), same situation as above, plus Latvia beats us (my husband, by virtue of his parents’ birth, is a dual citizen). Latvia, seriously? Yes. Now experiencing its longest independence – 25 years – after centuries of Swedish, German and, most devastatingly, Soviet rule (at risk from Putin’s territorial ambitions), Latvia is killing us. Just one factor: It has among the top 10 average internet speeds of any nation, way ahead of the US.

Science: The US is 28th (below average). Same country situation as for reading and math.

Now, instead of income per capita, let’s try GDP growth. In 2015, the World Bank scored the US 105th in GDP growth. Caveat: The law of large numbers is important here, because the bigger the base number, the harder it is to achieve the same percentage growth. It’s easier to grow 100% from $1 to $2 than $2 gazillion to $4 gazillion. That’s why some suffering Africa and Asian countries exceed our growth rates. Still, the “greatest nation on earth” is one hundred and fifth? We lag (once again) behind China, Ireland, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand (not exactly an emerging economy), Korea, and – once again – Latvia.

Education begins at home, with an environment that values and is conducive to reading, writing and arithmetic. Then, schools help. We must support struggling families, students and schools. We are not going to increase business investment and jobs by producing underqualified graduates, who cannot then save and invest dollars, let alone fight the social and economic despair that has led us to unprecedented meth and opioid addiction and a race to the bottom in politics.

Because education in this country is primarily locally funded, we must start at home. In Marfa, there is the Marfa Education Foundation, one of a movement of such foundations around the country to benefit schools in districts that are starved by low tax bases, state policy, and more. Visit

Is this idealistic? Sure, but what’s the alternative – surrender? Not in our Big Bend.

Tom Jacobs was a high school teacher for seven years. He is also the Marfa-based fee-only Investment Advisor and Portfolio Manager of Huckleberry Capital Management. You may contact him for an informal and free consultation at and 432-386-0488.

Story filed under: West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight

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