Higher Ed, Income Inequality & the American Economy (Part 4)

Misdirecting Blame: Unwitting or Deliberate?

In the first of three parts of this series, I discussed the general topic of what has been called a “jobless recovery,” following the Great Recession of 2008. In parts two and three, I examined at length the culprits that have been implicated as being the cause of our weak economic recovery: an outmoded and, to date, unresponsive system of higher education; and income and wealth inequality.

Analyzing the root causes of this unusually poor economic recovery is important not merely to ensure that blame is correctly assigned. The real importance lies in our efforts to remedy the problem: If we are focused on the wrong cause, not only will our solution fail to revive the economy, but also the potential for harm in repairing something that wasn’t broken could be enormous – and, in the long run, further negatively impact the nation.

And it’s not possible to look at the issue of misdirected blame without asking if the misdirection has been inadvertent or purposeful: Are there people of power and influence who are knowingly misrepresenting the cause of our weak economy in order to protect another possible cause – or their own interests – from closer inspection?

Let’s first consider some recent articles that link our weak economy to income and wealth inequality:

  • Economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz says that income inequality is no accident, in an opinion piece in The New York Times (“Inequality Is Not Inevitable,” June 29, 2014):

    “If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide [in income and wealth], what is it? The straight-forward answer: our policies and our politics.”

    “So corporate welfare increases as we curtail welfare for the poor.”

    “The true test of an economy is not how much wealth its princes can accumulate in tax havens, but how well off the typical citizen is.”

    “Ensuring that those at the top pay their fair share of taxes – ending the special privileges of the speculators, corporations and the rich – is both pragmatic and fair. We are not embracing a politics of envy if we reverse a politics of greed.”

  • New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter (“Income Inequality and the Ills Behind It,” July 30, 2014) is explicit in describing how politics has supported and maintained income inequality:

    “Supreme Court rules allowing a rush of private money into political campaigns have underscored how plutocracy could purchase the policies it wants to maintain its privilege, locking inequality in forever.”

  • And in a more recent New York Times column (“Equation Is Simple: Education = Income,” Sept. 11, 2014), Eduardo Porter provides a graphic analysis of the impact of income redistribution from the poor and middle class to the rich, over the past 35 years:

    “Imagine if the United States government taxed the nation’s one-percenters so that their post-tax share of the nation’s income remained at 10 percent, roughly where it was in 1979. If the excess money were distributed equally among the rest of the population, in 2012 every family below that very top tier would have gotten a $7,105 check.”

    Porter notes that income inequality also spills over into K -12 education:

    “It contributes to the residential segregation that cordons off rich school districts from the poor and reduces support for public education among the wealthy Americans who can opt out.”

    Finally, Porter comments on the effect of income inequality on higher education, noting that college graduation rates have leveled off at about 44 percent (a figure that includes associate’s degrees), and the U.S., having once led the world in the percentage of adults with college degrees, has fallen to 11th place. Porter quotes a professor at Harvard in explaining how we have failed, as a society, to provide low-income people a path to a college degree and a better life:

    “College pays off on average, but it has a ton of risk. Lower-income families can’t buffer that shock.”

However, these reports and opinions have done nothing to stanch the flood of finger-pointing at higher education as being the root cause of our weak economy, resulting in no shortage of recommendations for how to fix the system. Consider:

  • Forbes, “Beltway Needs New Higher Education Ideas,” June 26, 2014, protesting the costs of higher education:However, these reports and opinions

    “The current proposals to allow more students to afford what is an increasingly expensive education would try to shift that burden back to taxpayers through the government, which itself is already in debt.”

    “Lowering interest rates merely encourages students to continue to seek what are increasingly unaffordable educations.”

  • U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) wants to break up the higher education “cartel” by allowing states to accredit non-traditional providers of education, thereby permitting them to offer credit-bearing courses (Slate, “Smash the System?” Aug. 6, 2014):

    “Under state accreditation, higher education could become as diverse and nimble as the job-creating industries [that are] looking to hire. Authorized businesses could accredit courses and programs to teach precisely the skills they need for their employees. Apple or Google could accredit computer courses. Dow could accredit a chemistry program, and Boeing could craft its own aerospace engineering ‘major’.”

    (Of course, businesses used to do exactly that kind of training for their new employees, but training then was built on top of an existing college degree. Businesses now want new employees to arrive job-ready, claiming that they can’t afford to train them themselves. However, if they could charge their prospective employees with training costs, by being empowered to offer credit-bearing courses, they would have an entirely new business line – and in the process, they would be able to eliminate the middlemen – those institutions known as “colleges” and “universities.” Brilliant! Why has no one thought of this before?)

  • In the Huffington Post, (“U-Lab: Prototyping the 21st Century University,” Aug. 11, 2014, the writer claims that higher education is “overpriced,” is “out of touch with the changing market needs,” “the curriculum is outdated,” and “its purpose is outdated,” resulting in:

    “…the need to regenerate the university from its roots by reinventing its purpose in this century.”

  • The governor of North Carolina sees the purpose of higher education to be entirely about creating employable workers (Inside Higher Ed, “North Carolina Governor Doubts Value of Some Degrees,” Sept. 29, 2014):

    “We’ve frankly got enough psychologists and sociologists and political science majors and journalists. With all due respect to journalism, we’ve got enough. We have way too many.”

    (The Governor’s undergraduate major was political science. Perhaps he means we once needed political science majors, but we don’t need them today.)

  • An article in the Los Angeles Times (“Student Debt Carves $83 Billion a Year from Housing Industry,” Sept. 22, 2014) has a subhead that says it all:

    “414,000 home sales will not happen in 2014 as high payments [for student loans] reduce purchasing power.”

    (Wow! If ever there was a demonstration of how overly expensive higher education was destroying the nation’s economy, this must surely be it!

    Except…the firm that did the study is hardly a neutral observer. It makes its living advising the housing industry. The conclusion is based on the impact of student debt payments of people aged 20 to 40. The firm calculates that every $250 in monthly student loan payments translates into $44,000 less in purchasing power and extrapolates that to $83 billion in lost sales.

    There are several things wrong with this analysis.

    First, it is by no means certain that if there were no student debt, all of the money now used to pay off loans would be used to buy houses.

    Second, there is considerable anecdotal evidence that many young adults are in no hurry to buy a house, and that they do not have the same level of interest in home ownership as did their parents.

    Third, college graduates have, as a whole, much greater lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Had they not gone to college, they would have had no debt – but their low income as high school graduates would still have prevented them from buying a home.

    Fourth, loan payments of $250 a month amount to $3,000 per year – but as we saw in the last blog post in this series, median income for college graduates aged 25 to 34 has declined by more than $4,000 since 2007. If college graduates were being paid today at the same rate as in 2007, they could pay off their loan and buy a house. So the problem is not that college is too expensive, necessitating student loans. It is that young college graduates are being undercompensated in a troubled economy.)

There are also many reports that indicate that the wealthy, politicians and pundits are not exactly falling over themselves to address income inequality in order to create a stronger economy. For example:

  • An article in The New York Times (“Fighting Back Against Wretched Wages,” July 27, 2014) quotes the CEO of Caterpillar, a company that recently imposed a six-year wage free on its employees, despite corporate profits of $5.7 billion last year:

    “I always try to communicate to our people that we can never make enough money. We can never make enough profit.”

    (The Times also points out that the CEO’s own compensation has increased more than 80 percent over the past two years, so apparently when he says “we can never make enough money,” he is not referring just to the corporation.)

  • And New York Times columnist (and Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman (“Those Lazy Jobless,” Sept. 22, 2014), quotes House Speaker John Boehner, as he channels his inner Barry Goldwater in declaring that laziness is holding back employment:

    “[People have] this idea [that] I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around.”

    Krugman points out:

    “Only 26 percent of jobless Americans are receiving any kind of unemployment benefit, the lowest level in many decades. The total value of unemployment benefits is less than 0.25 percent of G.D.P., half what it was in 2003. It’s not hyperbole to say that America has abandoned its out-of-work citizens.”

    “Now, as anyone who has studied British policy during the Irish famine knows, self-righteous cruelty toward the victims of disaster, especially when the disaster goes on for an extended period, is common in history.”

  • In an op-ed from the Heritage Foundation (Providence Journal, “Government Loses America’s 50-Year War on Poverty,” Sept. 27, 2014) the author reviews the current state of affairs, 50 years after Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty:

    “For the last 45 years, there has been no improvement [in self-sufficiency] at all…The culprit is, in part, the welfare system itself, which discourages work…”

    (Perhaps it is only coincidental, but it was 45 years ago that the minimum federal wage had its greatest buying power.)

    The writer of the op-ed also claims that the level of poverty is overstated, because the:

    “Census ignores almost all [federal] welfare spending.”

    (So in a brilliant leap of logic, he says that having a low enough income to qualify for federal welfare benefits means that you’re not poor, because the welfare benefits bring you out of poverty! No need, then, to raise the minimum wage. But as we saw above, Speaker Boehner blames the welfare system for creating laziness and dependency. So there are those who want to sharply reduce welfare benefits but not increase the minimum wage, an outcome that would do nothing to reduce poverty, but would certainly increase misery.)

It’s not that there isn’t public support for addressing income inequality. For example:

  • Regarding the peaceful demonstrators who were demanding an increase in the federal minimum wage, an article in the Providence Journal (“Higher Pay Turning into Civil Right,” Aug. 3, 2014) states:

    “Although surveys generally find that 8 in 10 Americans back a minimum-wage increase, a sizable contingent believes that wage hikes aren’t necessary. These include some think tanks, business owners, trade associations and ordinary citizens who think low-wage workers are paid what they’re worth, as a free market system dictates.”

    And, in a hopeful sign, not everyone thinks that colleges exist solely to create workers:

  • Columnist Frank Bruni (The New York Times, “Demanding More from College,” Sept. 7, 2014) quite rightly notes that all of the recent criticism and conversation about college seems to be directed at linking a college education and a good job. He believes that there is a need:

    “for college to confront and change political and social aspects of American life that are as troubling as the economy.”

    He wants students to:

    “use college… as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.”

    “College can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes.”

Where do we go from here? How do we break the logjam?

Let’s start by acknowledging we are nibbling around the edges of a huge problem: reviving the American economy. We are looking for easy answers, because the real answers are just too hard. And our ostensible leaders are too focused on keeping their own jobs to provide anything that resembles leadership.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt did his level best to lead this country out of the Great Depression. He was loved by some and despised by others for his efforts – but he tried to do what he thought was right, rather than placing his reelection at the top of his agenda. He gave us the minimum wage, Social Security and federally insured banks, none of which existed before he was president and none of which we would, as a nation, be prepared to give up today. He was a leader.

Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, and gave us the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare – and the opposition to all of those actions was loud and demonstrative. Yet few Americans today would argue for repealing any of them. Lyndon Johnson was a leader.

John Kennedy asked people to think of what they could do to help their country, rather than the other way round. Americans rallied to his call. Would they do so if such a call were issued today? We may never know, since our leaders are too timid to ask. They would rather mislead than lead. They would rather try to focus our attention on the wrong issue than to lead on the right issue. Their dithering – and, even worse, their deliberate deceptions – are endangering not just the long-awaited economic recovery, but also the very fabric of what has made America great.

In 1944, President Roosevelt proposed the GI Bill – a device for putting returning servicemen (and servicewomen) into college. A terrible idea! The notion that people from the blue-collar classes could attend college? The presidents of Harvard and the University of Chicago – giants in their field, in a way no college president is today – vociferously opposed such a plan.

They were wrong, of course. The number of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose from five percent in 1940 to more than 20 percent in 1970 – a quadrupling in just 30 years, a growth unprecedented before or since – and the American economy blossomed as never before. Americans invested in the nation’s infrastructure, focusing on creating a better future, rather than greedily focusing on their own immediate interests. President Eisenhower, in the middle of a huge national expansion of colleges and universities, also pushed for an interstate system of highways. How did he pay for such an ambitious agenda? At the time, the top tax rate was 91 percent – essentially a confiscatory rate on earnings above a certain level – but the economic pie was expanding so quickly that those who were very economically successful by and large saw the benefits of creating more broadly shared wealth.

American democracy is grounded on creating a balance between the opposing principles of the free market and individual liberty on the one hand, and shared benefits and success for all on the other. The balance point changes over time, and in the 20th century it moved toward the idea of broader and shared success: witness the expansion of educational opportunity, first with universal, free, K–12 education, and then with publicly supported higher education. Now the balance point has shifted in the other direction, and the priorities and values of the 20th century seem to have abandoned and forgotten.

We are a nation in peril. We seem to have lost our way. There is no national consensus, because our leaders have focused more on telling us what they think we want to hear, rather than taking the risk of telling us what we need to know.

We need leadership, not blame and recrimination. We need truth and candor, not lies and obfuscation. We need to recognize that America’s economic strength will ultimately come from broad and shared success, not just the success of the one percent. We need to address income inequality and restore economic balance, and we need to stop blaming higher education for all of our economic woes.

Where is the leader with the courage to take on the tough issues? Who will stand up for America?