Good news: Markets are efficient (bad news: U.S. workers are incompetent)

The low level of education among young Americans has been well-documented (see “Smartest Kids in the World Review”), but what happens when uneducated American young people go through college and enter the workforce? The “International Assessment for Adult Competency” data show our rank against international peers: “Americans Rank Last in Problem-Solving With Technology: New report finds U.S. workers lag behind other industrial countries in using digital skills for tasks” (WSJ). Some samples:

A new report finds U.S. workers rank dead last among 18 industrial countries when it comes to “problem solving in technology-rich environments,” or using digital technology to evaluate information and perform practical tasks.

“When you look at this data it suggests the trends we’ve discerned over the last 20 years are continuing and if anything they are gaining momentum,” said Joseph Fuller, a Harvard Business School professor who studies competitiveness.  … The countries that scored the highest on the problem-solving with technology criteria were Japan, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Poland scored second to last, just above the U.S.

One stark revelation is that about four-fifths of unemployed Americans cannot figure out a rudimentary problem in which they have to spot an error when data is transferred from a two-column spreadsheet to a bar graph. And Americans are far less adept at dealing with numbers than the average of their global peers.

Data on 16- to 34-year-olds, for instance, found even workers with college degrees and graduate or professional degrees don’t stack up favorably against their international peers with similar education levels.

That a growing percentage of U.S. workers are incompetent is consistent with declining labor force participation compared to other countries (WSJ). It is also consistent with industry expanding at a higher rate in other countries where, even if the average worker is not necessarily better educated than his or her U.S. counterpart, wages and taxes are lower. So at least we can say that we are seeing the global labor market functioning in a manner consistent with Econ 101.

[Update: A few hours after this posting went live, we stopped to have an airplane refueled at one of America’s larger airports and higher-grade FBOs (ramp cluttered with $10 million bizjets and a Boeing 737 for a sports team). Here’s a photo of the right wing taken during the final preflight inspection:

2016-03-26 14.38.27

When we got to our destination we rented a car. Here’s how the previous renters had the audio system set up…

2016-03-26 22.03.33

I can’t figure out if the typical audio system setup in a rental car is more or less interesting than the fact that Uber drivers seem unable to find and/or use the “Auto” climate control setting.]



  1. Mitchell Colbert

    March 26, 2016 @ 12:46 pm


    It is worth noting that lower income Americans would be *greatly* over-represented in the 4/5s of unemployed figure, and that those same Americans disproportionately lack access to a home computer and the Internet. Perhaps if we were a country, like Japan, that actually invests in solid technological infrastructure this would be less of a problem from the start. Instead, America’s roads are failing and our electric grid is expected to go soon too.

    I feel like these figures do a better job stressing the greatness of the digital divide in America vs. other countries, rather than showing that Americans are more incompetent than people in other countries. There is an infinite amount of ways to measure competency that do not involve digital technology, making this, at best, a measure of a subset of incompetence.

    I would imagine our police are far more competent at killing potential criminals rather than restraining them through non-violent means, but the studies you mention are focused solely on digital technologies.

    Roughly 40% of people with incomes under 25,000 (poverty line) do not have home Internet access:

    America’s Competant Police:

  2. Yoni Rabkin

    March 26, 2016 @ 2:54 pm


    THE world university rankings places that professor’s university so far behind that if education was the Olympics, Harvard wouldn’t even be considered for a medal, and certainly won’t be offered to pose for a box of cereal cover:!/page/0/length/25. Can you trust a report from a 6th rate university?

  3. Jack D

    March 26, 2016 @ 10:44 pm


    ….those same Americans disproportionately lack access to a home computer

    And yet there is plenty of money for the latest model sneakers.

    Used computers that are a generation or two behind are perfectly functional and yet are practically free.

    The problem of poverty in America is not lack of access to educational resources. Newark, Washington, D.C., etc. spend more per pupil than most suburban districts. The problem starts (and ends) at home.

  4. jack crossfire

    March 26, 2016 @ 11:29 pm


    Is it even worth having The Donald attempt the International Assessment for Adult Competency?

  5. David

    March 26, 2016 @ 11:31 pm


    In this analysis there should be a distinction between the median American and the top 1% (aka those from top cs schools, those who hold tech jobs at top tier tech companies). Just because the average American is incompetent doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no pool of tech-savvy people in the US.

  6. pdwalker

    March 27, 2016 @ 1:32 am


    In other words, the American education system is working exactly as designed.

  7. cfb

    March 27, 2016 @ 11:40 am


    For what its worth, many internet providers (comcast is one) will offer free or nearly free internet ($10/mo or less) and throw in a free or nearly free computer to go with it. There is also free wifi almost everywhere I go and a basic tablet or chromebook can be had for under $100.

    I buy Chromebits from amazon “used -like new” (I guess they have a lot of returns) for $60-65. Plugged into a tv or old monitor it makes for a foolproof computer that’ll serve most needs.

    Some of the poor access to computers/internet is self inflicted. I live in a very affluent town. Half of my neighbors and friends at my sons elementary school won’t let their kids use the home computers or internet because “I don’t want them to break them!” or because its dangerous or not appropriate for kids under 10. When we have computer lab, these kids can’t do the exercises and sometimes break down into tears because they don’t know what to do.

    The same parents don’t vaccinate their children either.

    Fortunately if these kids don’t die from polio, they’ll end up with a nice trust fund/inheritance after expensive degrees and extensive golf lessons. Many will end up CEO’s or VP’s. You know, the ones where when you tell them about something they look at you like you just beamed in from Alpha Centauri and spoke Asgardian?

  8. MD

    March 28, 2016 @ 5:30 am



    Did you complain to the FBO re your open gas tank and overflow mat.

  9. philg

    March 28, 2016 @ 9:34 am


    MD: I didn’t complain per se to the FBO. But I did email them the photo as feedback. The manager responded (on Easter Sunday) that they would discuss it at their “daily safety briefing”. Remember that I am also part of the U.S. workforce. It is probably something that I would have done if I had been working the line!

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