September 5, 2006
The Travails of Labor and EducationBy Christopher Chantrill
Over two hundred years ago, in The Wealth of Nations (now available on Google Book Search), Adam Smith applauded the general increase in prosperity in eighteenth century England. Its day—laborers and their wives could all afford to wear leather shoes. Indeed,
The custom reflected a general understanding that it would be impossible to fall into such poverty "without extreme bad conduct."
It was the beginning of elite interest in the condition of the working classes.
In our time the elite interest in the day laborer and the education of the common people has concentrated into Walter Pater's hard gem—like flame, and nowhere more so than in the pages of The New York Times.
Last week the folks at The Times reported on problems both in laboring and in education of the common people.
In education we are struggling with students shocked to discover that they need remedial math when they get to college. Wrote Diana Jean Schemo on September 2,
Only after speculating for 15 paragraphs about the damage that declining median wage rates might do to Republican Party chances in the November elections, do Greenhouse and Leonhardt allow an economist to speculate about what might have "eroded workers' bargaining power."
But suppose there is something bigger afoot than evil Republicans in Congress and labor unions "much weaker than they once were." Maybe in a world where your iPod reads "Designed by Apple in California. Made in China," you and I cannot really expect to earn big money as bump—on—a—log employees. Maybe something more creative, more adventurous is required of us than work for a regular paycheck. But this is not a subject fit for The New York Times.
There is a similar concern for the fitness of things in Schemo's report on education problems. It does not seem to occur to her to wonder, let alone ask tough questions, about the national problem with remedial courses. How could the young man not know that he was unprepared for college—level math? And how could the folks at his Maryland public high school not have advised him? Did they not know that their graduates were being forced into remedial courses? And weren't they doing something about it?
Isn't there maybe something really wrong with an education system that allows this problem to develop and then allows it to fester?
Of course you would hardly expect reporters from The New York Times to understand this. They live like educators and children. They are not directly engaged, like Adam Smith's eighteenth—century day—laborer, in the daily fluctuations of the market for laboring services, or like a twenty—first century businessman, in the daily fluctuations of the global marketplace. For the folk at The New York Times the problems on the income front for the median wage earner suggest nothing but some new program to manipulate the labor market. The problems on the education front suggest new government attempts to demand better results out of the government education system.
But what if they are missing the point? What if the institution of work for cash wages—the common form of employment since the industrial revolution—is now in its decline, and that people must now offer their services to the market on a different basis?
What if they are missing the point on education as well? In the past generation we have doubled the inflation—adjusted monetary input into K—12 education, yet the positive effect as expressed in tests like the SAT has been less than zero. Could this be telling us something?
Two centuries ago the industrial revolution transformed the world of work for the common people and the elites of the world decided that every boy and girl should go to school. Perhaps the information revolution will do the same, and provoke an utter transformation in the world of work.
But maybe the bigger surprise will be in education, where the contrast between public and private is startling. In the recent show, "Stupid in America", John Stossel presents an ill—found government education system driving on the rocks with nobody taking responsibility.
But when parents pay $20,000 a year to send a kid to private school that's just the start. They have to volunteer, fund—raise, and supervise their kid's homework as well.
John Kenneth Galbraith had it wrong. The danger is from "private health and public squalor" side by side.