Posts Tagged ‘education’

“This is education,” U.S.-style [ht: sm]—privately run, publicly funded, and irregularly regulated. . .


Is education the solution to the problem of growing inequality?

As I wrote in early 2015,

Americans like to think that education is the solution to all economic and social problems. Including, of course, growing inequality.

Why? Because focusing on education—encouraging people to get more higher education—involves no particular tradeoffs. More education for some doesn’t mean less education for others (at least in principle). And providing more education doesn’t involve any structural changes in society—just more funding. (Of course, suggesting more education under current conditions—when public financing of higher education continues to decline, and students and their families are forced to take on more and more debt—is itself disingenuous).

As a result, there’s a broad consensus in the middle—among conservatives and liberals alike—that encouraging more young people who have yet to enter the labor market and existing workers who want to get ahead to obtain a college education will solve the problem of inequality.

And I proceeded to show how, in terms of declining wages for workers at various levels of education and increasing inequality within the top 1 percent, more education does not actually solve the problem of inequality.

But education is still the preferred solution of mainstream Democrats, and inequality itself is receiving less attention. And Thomas Frank [ht: sm] (in an interview with Jennifer Berkshire aka EduShyster) explains why:

Tom Frank: The Democratic party really doesn’t care about inequality because they’re now a party of the professional class: affluent, white-collar professionals. They themselves say this all the time; they talk about the professional class as being their constituency. But we don’t often try to put the pieces together and try to figure out, well what does it mean to be a party of the professional class vs. the working class? One thing it means is that inequality is seen as the natural order of things. In fact, professionals believe in inequality. They think of inequality as totally fair and the way things should be, and they think that because they themselves are the winners in the great inequality sweepstakes.

EduShyster: There are many great lines in Listen, Liberal, but one of my faves is that whenever the kind of liberal you’re describing stumbles upon an economic problem—say, the collapse of the middle class—s/he sees an education problem.

Frank: That’s one of the lines in the book that I’m quite proud of. The liberals I’m describing are an affluent group, by and large, who’ve done very well, and they attribute their success to their education. The professional class is defined by educational achievement. That’s who they are. They’re defined by how and what they did in school. So they look out at the rest of the country that’s going in reverse, at the middle class dream that’s falling apart, and they say *you know, it’s really your own fault. You should have tried harder in school. You should have gone to the right school.* But defining every economic problem as an education problem is basically a way of blaming the victim.

EduShyster: Here, allow me to repeat that for emphasis, but with italics to emphasize the condescension: you know, it’s really your own fault. You should have tried harder in school. You should have gone to the right school.

Frank: There is nothing that gives the lie to the meritocratic view of the world than what’s happened to humanities PhDs. These are people with the highest degree there is. They spent the most time in school of anyone. This is where the idea that education solves economic problems totally breaks down. I spent 25 years in school and got a PhD in history at the University of Chicago, a degree that used to be valued in the marketplace. But the marketplace figured out a way to casualize university labor. The whole idea of the professional, meritocratic way of looking at the world is that if you study, you’ll win—good things will come to you. I studied hard, and I got good grades and I got a PhD and my dissertation was even published. None of it made any difference. What my generation learned, and what everybody is starting to understand now, is that it’s not about education—it’s about power. It’s about power in the workplace. And we didn’t have any.

Basically, mainstream liberals, like their conservative counterparts, believe in “just deserts,” the idea that everyone receives what they deserve in capitalist markets. That means, if there are fundamentally unequal outcomes (which barely anyone attempts to deny these days), it’s because that’s what people deserve.

But of course some within the mainstream do believe inequality is a problem, if only because it might incite a reaction that calls into question the existing order. And that’s where conservatives and liberal begin to differ: whereas conservatives tend to want to eliminate government intervention (e.g., because it creates a dependency on social welfare programs), liberals look to education as the solution (to the problem of inequality as well as to issues of declining productivity, slow growth, and much else).

What neither conservatives nor liberals want to see is unequal power in the workplace—and that’s a problem more education simply can’t solve.


Joan Robinson famously quipped, “the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

In the United States right now, workers with a college degree, with an unemployment rate of only 2.8 percent, are forced to endure the misery of being exploited by capitalists; while workers with a high-school diploma or less, with an unemployment rate between 5.4 and 8 percent, have it even worse: many of them confront the misery of not being exploited at all.

That’s because, as a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce [ht: ja] makes clear, of the 11.6 million jobs created in the United States after the Great Recession, 8.4 million (72 percent) went to those with at least a bachelor’s degree. Those with associate’s degrees or some college education got 3.1 million (27 percent) of the jobs. The remainder, 80,000 jobs (less than 1 percent), were left for workers with a high-school diploma or less.


Now, it’s true, Americans with only high-school diplomas represent a shrinking share of the workforce. This year, for the first time, college grads made up a larger slice of the labor market than those without higher education, by 36 percent to 34 percent, respectively. Including workers with an Associate’s degree or some college, workers with postsecondary education now make up 65 percent of total employment.

But the divided nature of the current recovery for American workers among themselves is even more stark.

Workers with a graduate degree (Master’s degree or higher) experienced no decline in jobs in the recession and maintained a stable employment growth throughout the recovery. Workers with a Bachelor’s degree struggled until the second half of 2011, but have since seen fast job growth, and in fact have exceeded the gains of graduate degree holders. . .Workers with a graduate degree have gained 3.8 million jobs since January 2010. Over the same period, workers with a Bachelor’s degree have gained 4.6 million jobs.

Workers with some college or an Associate’s degree have experienced a lot of volatility since 2007. They rode the recession to its depths, losing 1.8 million jobs. Those workers have now ridden the recovery back up; the economy recovered all those jobs by mid-2012. Over the next three and a half years, this group of workers experienced decent job growth, with a net gain of 1.3 million jobs since the beginning of the recession. Overall, this group of workers has added 3.1 million jobs since January 2010.

The workers who have suffered the most are those with a high school diploma or less. They lost the most jobs in the recession and have seen almost no growth in the job market during the recovery. They remain 5.5 million jobs short of their pre-recession employment level. Further, the current economic trends fail to provide any sign that those lost jobs will be returning in the near future.


The growing gap in the job situations of college haves and have-nots is certainly part of a long-term trend, based on structural changes in the U.S. economy beginning especially in the 1980s. But their diverging trajectories since the crash of 2007-08 have only exacerbated the previous trends. That’s due in part to the precipitous decline in the construction and manufacturing sectors of the economy (which have still not recovered) and the fact that workers with college degrees or at least some postsecondary education have taken most of the new jobs at all skill levels: high, middle, and low. For workers with a high school diploma or less, low-skill jobs have been just about the only jobs available—and, even in those occupations, they’ve been forced to compete with workers with higher levels of education.

Here’s the problem: while would-be workers may be able to exercise some choice in obtaining more education (and thus jump over the gap between college haves and have-nots), they still don’t have any say in determining either the quality or quantity of jobs. Those decisions are still in the hands of the small group of employers at the top.

That means all workers—with or without college degrees—are forced to endure a choice between the misery of being exploited by capitalists or the misery of not being exploited at all. And that’s no choice at all.


Special mention

69a21afad71e11af62affdf36f38a90a 179506_600


Mark Tansey, “Triumph Over Mastery” (1986)

Reading the current debate about how we should approach the teaching of introductory economics, it’s clear the participants actually need to go back and take Epistemology 101.

Now, I’m the first to argue we need to change how we approach Econ 101 (as readers of this blog know). It’s a key course, because it’s the only economics course most college and university students will ever take: it’s where they’re introduced to the kinds of approaches and policies academic economists work with; it’s also a space to discuss the economic dimensions of individual and social life, both historically and in the contemporary world. Given the hundreds of thousands of students who every year are exposed to economics through such a course, its content is crucial.

The course, however, is also often badly taught. That’s in part because the material is many times presented in a mind-numbing manner, as a set of ideas and facts that need to be memorized in order to pass quizzes and exams. But, even more important, it’s because many of those ideas and facts—from the effects of minimum wages to the patterns of international trade—serve to naturalize both mainstream economic theory and the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists. In other words, students are generally taught that the limits of debate are defined by the parameters of mainstream economics.

I know, then, I should welcome a debate about what we should teach in Econ 101—but, as it turns out, not this one. Michael R. Strain wants to keep things pretty much as they are:

An economics 101 textbook is a treasure. The information therein captures the leaps forward in intellectual history, in our understanding of society — indeed, in our understanding of daily life. . .

Look. Understanding society and the economy is tough business. Economics 101 textbooks have a large responsibility to do that right and well. Does the theory of comparative advantage presented in 101 tell you most of what you need to know to understand the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement? Nope. But that’s a ridiculous standard to hold for an intro class. Are economics 101 textbooks perfect? Of course not, and they can and should be improved. But existing 101 textbooks are one of the best tools society has to prepare young people for responsible and informed citizenship.

James Kwak, following Noah Smith, argues Econ 101 should be based on a combination of the mainstream theoretical models Strain wants to focus on (which, in Kwak’s view, provide “some incredibly useful analytical tools”) with empirical studies.

A friend and labor economist said to me that when thinking about the impact of a minimum wage, the natural starting point is the supply-and-demand diagram, because it’s so powerful—but you don’t stop there. The model is incomplete, like all models, and if you don’t realize that you will make mistakes.

Professional economists know all this, and hence many think that models need to be balanced by empirical research, even in first-year classes. Strain doesn’t buy this because “economists’ empirical studies don’t agree on many important policy issues.” I don’t understand this argument. The minimum wage may or may not increase unemployment, depending on a host of other factors. The fact that economists don’t agree reflects the messiness of the world. That’s a feature, not a bug.

Here’s the problem: both sides of the current debate (Strain as well as Kwak and Smith) treat theory and facts radically separate from one another. Thus, for them, there is one theory (separate from the facts) and one set of facts (separate from the theory).

This is where Epistemology 101 comes in. If the participants in the current debate took such a course, they’d learn that the idea of separate theories and facts forms the basis of only one theory of knowledge (which comes in two forms, rationalism and empiricism). But they’d also learn there’s an alternative theory of knowledge, according to which there are different theories and different sets of facts. Each theory has its own set of facts (and, of course, its own validity criterion). And, of course, these different theories and sets of facts interact and change over time.

From the perspective of the second theory of knowledge, then, the professors of Econ 101 would introduce students to different economic theories (neoclassical supply and demand, to be sure, but also other theories that serve as criticisms of and alternatives to neoclassical economics) and different sets of facts (including wages that are equal to the marginal productivity of labor as well as wages that are equal to the value of labor power, after which there is exploitation). And they would include the complex, discontinuous history of those theories and facts, including the debates amongst and between them.

Now, that would be an introductory economics course worthy of the name—and one that is consistent with Epistemology 101.


Over the course of the next month, millions of high-school and college students will be graduating. And, to judge by the circumstances of other young workers these days, the world that awaits them is pretty dismal.

It’s not their fault. They may be gifted and full of energy but the economic stars are aligned against them. Capitalism is failing them.


Consider high-school graduates. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the official unemployment rate is 17.9 percent (compared to an overall rate of 5 percent)—and the underemployment rate (which combines official unemployment with workers who would like a full-time job but can only find part-time work and those who are so discouraged they’ve given up even looking for work) is an extraordinary 33.7 percent.


Even college graduates, whose official unemployment rate is much lower (at 5.6 percent), face a very high underemployment rate (of 12.6 percent). That’s 1 in 8. And that doesn’t even take into consideration college graduates who are forced to have the freedom to take  jobs that don’t even require a college degree (e.g., the young college graduate working as a data-entry clerk).


And there’s the issue of wages if and when they find a job. The real hourly wages for high-school graduates—both young and overall—are no higher today (at $10.66 and $17.11, respectively) than they were at the beginning of 2000 (when they earned $10.86 and $17.01).


Again, college graduates are better off than workers with a high-school degree. But their wages, too, have been stagnant for the past decade and a half. Young college graduates today can expect to earn, on average, about $18.53 an hour today compared to $18.39 in early 2000; while all workers with a bachelor’s degree receive $31.40 an hour today, which is only slightly higher than in 2000 (when it was $29.39).

The usual argument one hears is that young people should be encouraged to go to college, after which they’ll face lower unemployment and receive higher wages.

That’s fine. I’m all in favor of increasing the chances and lowering the barriers for young people to study in the nation’s colleges and universities. But for young people, no matter how much education they’ve managed to obtain, current economic arrangements are failing them.

The members of the Class of 2016, no matter how gifted, have every right to be worried about what’s next.


An anti-austerity protest has brought 150,000 people—students, workers, and others—to the streets of London to demand David Cameron’s resignation.

The March for Health, Homes, Jobs and Education was organised by activist group the People’s Assembly. The demonstrators called for an end to austerity, and demanded that David Cameron quit over the revelation that he profited from his father’s offshore investment fund. . .

The People’s Assembly used the protest to make “Four Demands”. With regards to health, they called for an end to Government spending cuts and the alleged privatisation of the NHS. The protestors’ demand over housing included rent controls and the protection of social housing.

On jobs, they called for a universal living wage and the scrapping of the Trade Union Bill, and they also demanded an end to student tuition fees and “the marketisation of education”.