Here he is on excessive signaling in education:
This example illustrates the concept of inefficient signaling: the effort to make yourself look better than others comes in part at the expense of those others, which means that all else equal we do too much signaling.
Signaling is an important concept. Nearly everything we do can be reduced to signaling. I'm getting a PhD to signal my intelligence. I'm posting about jazz to signal I'm not a complete loser/nebbish. But Robin is arguing that this can go too far. Here are my comments:
My fear is that Robin's analysis is just the sort of thing that leads to government intervention. Somebody says that women spend too much money on boob jobs, and so the government must ban them. I say move away from California if you don't like boob jobs. In essence, I am very skeptical of any argument that presumes to understand the social process. As Adam Smith recommended, when in doubt, go with individual liberty.
Robin, I know this is just an example, but I still think you're not covering all the bases appropriately.
Your example is privately inefficient but not necessarily socially inefficient, since you have ignored the benefit to employers of sorting the good employees from the bad. I'm sure you know that it is socially efficient if the marginal benefit is greater than the marginal cost, which here equals either 12 or 6. Looking at real world numbers, let's assume all of the costs of attending grad school are opportunity costs. So it's one year's salary, say $50,000. I think it's plausible that employers would value this employee quality information at more than $50,000, since the employee's career is likely 20+ years. Further, it's plausible that the costs of education would be shared between employees and employers.
The only clear reason I see for inefficient signaling in this real world example is that grad school is subsidized by the government. Mere social approbation and disapprobation I do not see as necessarily producing socially inefficient levels of signaling. Please explain how that might be.
Addendum: To clarify, I think what Robin does is illuminating and of great value to society, but I hope public policy types completely ignore him. Perhaps society would be better off if economists could agree to only publish their work post-humously, kind of the way presidents do. Maybe I should start by blogging less.
OK, enough of that. But I think it goes to an important question, which Dan Klein has thought about considerably: Should economists turn inward and remain academic, or should they address the Everyman? See his answers here and here.