Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content



Believe it or not: Less educated legislators do a better job Add to ...

What are we to make of the fact that Canadian legislators (at least at the federal level) are less educated than American legislators?

In a 2009 survey of Canada’s 40th Parliament, the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum found that 69.5 per cent of MPs had university degrees, compared with 92.7 per cent of members of Congress. This brain gap can’t be attributed just to the fact that the Liberals had not yet crashed, depriving the House of Commons of a disproportionate number of PhDs. The survey, after all, gave PhDs the same weight as BAs. No, the explanation is simpler: Less educated legislators do a better job than more educated legislators – and Canada has the economy to prove it.

But the U.S. does confirm the thesis that education is not necessarily a measure of intelligence or job performance. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a daily electronic newspaper for academicians, California has the best-educated state legislators in the United States – and one of the worst economies. The state’s official unemployment rate (12 per cent) is the highest in the country.

Further evidence of an inverse relationship between education and job performance – for legislators – abounds. The Pacific Research Institute’s Alison Meyer concludes that formal education appears to be a negative indicator of good government. “Stellar academic credentials,” she says in a commentary published by the California think tank, “have not lifted [any]state from economic malaise.”

She adds: “Even when averaged together, the top 15 most educated states have an unemployment rate of 8.9 per cent – compared to the 15 least educated states, which have an average unemployment rate of 8.1 per cent. Further, the 15 states with the least educated legislators consistently trump the 15 states with the most educated legislators.”

Meantime, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative Washington-based think tank, ranks California as America’s 47th worst-managed economy. In its annual Rich States, Poor States report, it says six of the best-managed economies were governed by the least educated legislators.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times published notorious examples of the kind of economic decision-making that can flow from America’s best-educated legislature. California’s welfare recipients, the newspaper reported, were withdrawing millions of dollars a year in electronic benefit transfers (EBTs) deposited for them in ATM machines at Las Vegas casinos and on cruise ships travelling to such destinations as Rio de Janeiro.

You do get more, of course, of what you subsidize: With 12 per cent of the U.S. population, California has 32 per cent of the country’s welfare recipients – whose monthly welfare payments are 70 per cent higher than the national average. In one state-conducted investigation of 300 welfare recipients, only five could demonstrate “activity that moved [either the recipient or his or her family]toward self-sufficiency.”

Then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered that welfare “clients” be prevented from withdrawing EBTs from ATMs in casinos and on cruise ships. Indeed, he went further. Ms. Meyer says this message now appears on California’s EBT client website: “You can no longer get cash benefits at ATMs in liquor stores, casinos, poker rooms, card rooms, adult entertainment businesses, nightclubs, bail bond businesses, saloons, taverns, bingo halls, racetracks, gun stores, cruise ships, psychic readers, smoking shops, cannabis shops, tattoo shops, piercing shops, spas and massage salons.” Imagine the hardship.

The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that America’s 7,400 state legislators are “closer to the people” than its 545 federal lawmakers. Some state legislators still describe themselves as self-educated. Here, though, money emerges as another education-related factor.

In California, a state legislator is paid $95,000 a year, is helped by full-time staffers and represents an average of 400,000 people. In New Hampshire, a state legislator is paid $200 every two years, has no full-time staff and, because there are 400 of them, represents an average of 3,300 people.

The contrast is complete. California has the best-educated legislators. New Hampshire has the least educated. But those New Hampshire legislators can count: The state’s unemployment rate is 4.9 per cent.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular