Home > Uncategorized > Education, inequality, and power

Education, inequality, and power

from David Ruccio

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.

  1. robert locke
    August 17, 2016 at 7:52 am

    If people want to stay within the US educational structures, then what is said here is accurate. But if you do comparative studies of national systems as I have all my life, then it isn’t. One example: In Germany 60% of students at the 10th grade enter apprenticeship training programs. Those who do are very respected in German society and rise to top levels in firm management. We have no equivalent education in the US. Is this German system part of a meritocracy? Not using US educational metrics. But it is a part of the meritocracy in German, of which Germans are proud.

  2. David Chester
    August 17, 2016 at 9:25 am

    It also depends on what you learn! many university degrees are not providing useful data and at best only demonstrate thinking power.

    • robert locke
      August 18, 2016 at 3:33 pm

      Right. A good example is the MBA curriculum in US business schools. It, and the popularity of finance as a business school major, directly contributed to the decline of manufacturing in the US. I find it instructive that neither Germany nor Japan adopted the US business-MBA model. The vast expansion of business education in this model is responsible for the ineptitude of US management in manufacturing to face up to foreign competition, hence the call for protectionism to save manufacturing.

  3. jlegge
    August 17, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    The frontier myth seems deeply embedded in the American psyche: the concept of “just deserts” isn’t found in orthodox Calvinism or Irish Catholicism. The Book of Job must be the least read of all the Bible in the USA. When Obama said “you didn’t do it on your own” reaction in the rest of the world was probably, “why is he stating the bleeding obvious?”

    Henry Lawson is no longer a staple of Australian primary education, but he was of mine. http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/lawson-henry/the-fire-at-ross-s-farm-0002036 is sentimental and the love story obscures the real point: you can’t fight a bushfire on your own. Australia is one of many cultures where group solidarity is at least as valued as individual achievement. (People overdosing on American ideology call it the “tall poppy syndrome.”)

    I see much to admire in both America and Germany; but if I had to choose a model for a national education system it would be the German one.

  4. August 18, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    What you’re all missing is the idiom of American “exceptionalism.” Standing at the intersection of history and nature, fact and value, and defining for all time the liberal dreams of the Enlightenment, the US was and is the “shining city on the hill.” The US is outside of history, outside of the limitations of politics. Whatever actions it takes will lead inevitably to the best possible outcomes and salvation for the world. Very difficult to negotiate with perfection, especially when it has over 4,000 nuclear warheads and an active CIA. If you think this idiom has been extinguished or even diminished, think again. Donald Trump may be a parody of it, but Barack Obama is not. Neither is Hillary Clinton. Not just their current campaigns but their entire lives and political careers are based on it as “fact of life.”

  5. graccibros
    August 18, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks David. I liked Thomas Frank’s book a lot, and have said so at my postings at the Daily Kos. I’m afraid that “it’s your own fault,” your own lousy lazy character is a conclusion reached by American Protestantism, fundamental and evangelical. Whether this is a departure from continental Calvinism I can’t say with “biblical” certitude, but, I’ll be damned, forgive me Protestants, if so many high ranking Germans in office and in power in the economic elite don’t sound like Greek character flaws are responsible for their sad Depression ridden state, and hard working Germans are where they are because of their own virtues.

    It reminds me of what first caught my attention back in 2012, if I have the year right from memory, when I first read the essays of Yanis Varoufakis at Naked Capitalism. Amidst the footnotes was this one, for James A Morone’s “Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History.” Morone was, and may still be a professor at Brown University, and this book is one that must be read for “foreigners” to fully understand us over here in the USA. Why: his central thesis is this, in question form: When things go wrong in the US, who do we blame, the individual or the system? He says that our history shows an overwhelming tendency to blame the character flaws of individuals, and David and Mr. Frank have captured this nicely in the their comments on education advancement as solving the inequality problem, or at least mitigating it. The meritocracy is not to be questioned, although as George Orwell once pointed out, in the great economic race, it’s only fair (if then) at the first running, after that their are spoils and rewards and advantages which skew the next “heat.” Pick your American obsession or fixation: drugs, alcohol, gambling, sports, sex, shopping, surfing the internet…or yes, even unemployment and the expansion of Social Security Disability, not to mention the horrors of the black ghetto: it’s all due to bad people with serious character flaws that the upper middle class success stories don’t have. Just ask Charles Murray’s ;laughable assertions in “Coming Apart.” The working class has lost their good character traits – “Fishtown in Philadelphia” is the bad model, while the achievers in a suburb outside Boston thrive with the same traits as the Founding Fathers.

    Morone says that only when the system has completely broken down, or nearly so, do the mass of Americans ever consider that there might be systemic problem behind their own unhappy fates, and look how look it took before things began to stir in the Great Depression…not until 1933-1935 did popular protest really get moving. I think we’re seeing, this election year of 2016, a similar delayed reaction to 30 years of wage stagnation if not erosion, and the sharper effects of 2008-2009.

    Never underestimate the power of American anti-intellectualism and the blaming of victims for broader troubles to divert attention. But even these traits wear thin under the pressure of negative economic decades…

  6. August 21, 2016 at 7:13 am

    You’ve mentioned some the history of the US that helps us understand events today and possibly tomorrow. But only some. Along with anti-intellectualism there is intellectualism. With rationalism there is the faith of a variety of religions. With homo economicus there is homo aristocrat, homo farmer, homo patriot, homo philosopher, homo nation builder, homo criminal, etc. Most nations have these actors at some time and in some number. But the US has had them all in chaotic mixes that changed over time and lead to great struggles set against the background of millions of acres of land open for the taking. Greed and money speculation became the norm for the US almost as soon as it was founded. Even Washington and Hamilton speculated in land. Neoliberalism (although not always by that name) is a uniquely American invention and it’s been around even before the US became a nation. But until the 1970s it was a minority tradition. While many of its origins lie in Europe it’s realization as a way of life (not just economics) came in the US. Small and limited government, the preeminence of business and business”men,” a mostly money economics protected by the government, focus on the individual and individual rights, low or no taxes on business, ultimate importance of private property (particularly revenue earning property), government’s only function is to protect private property rights and use of private property, and of course the celebration and protection of the perfect economic device, the market. While not directly part of neoliberalism the positions above lead to such effects as opposition to labor organizing and labor unions, opposition to government programs to help the poor, mistrust of science and scientists, a strong need to control the nation, especially the poor and “radical.” One more thing we should not ignore about neoliberalism is its opposition to democracy and its often close and comfortable working relationship with totalitarian arrangements of varying sorts. Throughout US history neoliberalism was not just a small minority perspective but was actively ridiculed and attacked as unworkable, ridiculous, and un-American. That is until good salesmen like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Paul Volcker, and Deng Xiaoping enter. They and the smart adverting professionals they worked with in less than 50 years turned unworkable, ridiculous, and un-American ways of life into sine qua non of American everyday life. While I wholly reject neoliberalism I have to complement this achievement. Almost as good as Charles Baudelaire’s, “The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

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