I Lose a Bet with Bryan Caplan

An entry in the “unsurprising facts” department.

It occurred to me that Bryan Caplan should have contacted me by now to tell me that I had lost a bet to him. The fact that he didn’t led me to consider two possibilities: (1) I won and he’s purposely not telling me, or (2) I lost but he’s too busy to notice.

I immediately rejected the first possibility. Bryan is way too honorable a person to do that. And it wasn’t exactly the second. Instead, it was that Bryan had forgotten the exact end point of the bet and thought that we had to wait another year to find out. It turns out we didn’t have to wait.

Here was our bet, formulated in 2011:

I [Bryan] propose that we use the official numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Table 212.  2009 is the latest available year of data.  29.6% of 18-24 year-olds were enrolled in 4-year institutions.  I bet that in 2019, that percent will be no more than 10% lower.  Rounding in your favor, I win if the number is 26.7% or more.  If the number is lower, you win.  If the data series is discontinued, the bet is canceled.  Stakes: $100 at even odds.

I lost and I lost spectacularly. It wasn’t just that the number we bet on didn’t fall. I don’t think Bryan would have been surprised to see the number go below 29.6%. What did it do? It rose. In 2019, it was 30.4%.

I commented by email that I might have had a shot if we had bet on 2021 data. But if I had won, it wouldn’t have been because of the normal factors pushing potential students to other options. Instead it would have been because of the pandemic-induced shutdowns of in-person college. As I put it to Bryan, neither of us was betting on whether thousands of college administrators would go bonkers.

One thing I feel good about: I think I’m the first person to lose a bet to Bryan who contacted him to tell him that before he contacted me. Am I willing to bet on that? No.