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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Losing the Middle Class: An Educational-Industrial Policy

Beneath the headlines showing new figures on unemployment (which do not include the unemployed who are no longer looking for work or applying for unemployment compensation) is the story of the changing distribution of jobs in the American economy. That distribution in turn can give rise to cultural or societal changes. When the jobs in the economic middle are disproportionately lost, American society increasingly resembles a tale of two cities—and by this I do not mean Augustine’s heavenly and earthly cities though the realms of the “haves” and “have nots” could admittedly be called as such by materialists.
According to CNBC, a “report looked at 366 occupations tracked by the Labor Department and clumped them into three equal groups by wage, with each representing a third of American employment in 2008. The middle third — occupations in fields like construction, manufacturing and information, with median hourly wages of $13.84 to $21.13 — accounted for 60 percent of job losses from the beginning of 2008 to early 2010.” The job market turned around since then, but those fields represented only 22 percent of total job growth. “Higher-wage occupations — those with a median wage of $21.14 to $54.55 — represented 19 percent of job losses when employment was falling, and 20 percent of job gains when employment began growing again. Lower-wage occupations, with median hourly wages of $7.69 to $13.83, accounted for 21 percent of job losses during the retraction. Since employment started expanding, they have accounted for 58 percent of all job growth. The occupations with the fastest growth were retail sales (at a median wage of $10.97 an hour) and food preparation workers ($9.04 an hour).” By mid 2012, each category had grown by more than 300,000 workers since June 2009.

Essentially, the job expansion in the wake of the 2008 recession proceeded on two fronts—the high and low ends, rather than in the middle. Microsoft, Google, and Facebook represent high-end employers, while McDonalds, Walmart, and Starbucks hire at the lower end. The wealthy increasingly shopped at Whole Foods while the service industry employees bought their food at Walmart. This rendering is of course simplistic, but separation of two distinct cultures based on wealth is clear as gated communities were becoming increasingly popular among the upper middle-class and the rich in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
In terms of education, the wealthy can send their kids to an Ivy League college, while the pro-profit colleges give a training-based inferior education to the service employees. In actuality, those employees are being trained rather than educated. The lack of education can be seen by the reliance on scripts for employees at many retail establishments. The unthinking herd mentality can be observed from the ubiquitous “have a good one!” which is grammatically incorrect and generally vacuous in meaning. A good what? The antecedent is never specified. The sheer reliance on scripts suggests that were the customers to gleam the true condition of the employees, there would be shock and awe, as in, how could we as a society have so failed the younger generation? Put another way, the centralized training of the chains (we are born free but chained to the culture invented by retail) supplants the education (not training!) that every young person should have. The eclipse of the value of education is a salient though invisible feature of the earthly city, while the inhabitants of the heavenly city make sure that their kids are well-educated. In the earthly city, the blind are leading the blind, and nobody believes he or she can be wrong. Yet how different is the actual condition on the ground!
In the post-industrial society, government policy can emphasize education for the masses, such that the higher-end vocations are “filled to the brim” and the lower-end jobs minimized. The United States can and should orient its citizenry to areas of comparative advantage rather than simply relying on the labor market to assign the distribution of jobs. For example, after its import-substitution policy, India stressed “home grown” computer science and engineering vocations in line with the view of G.D. Birla and J.N. Tata that British India needed to replicate British industry rather than be dependent on it (Gandhi opposed this strategy). In the United States of the twenty-first century, expanding excess to college and university education that is not immediately eclipsed by training would ironically enable people entering the workforce for the first time to go into the higher-end professions. In short, America needs an industrial policy that highlights education such that the upper- and middle-income professions expand proportionately at the expense of the lower-end jobs.


Catherine Rampell, “Majority of New Jobs Pay Low Wages, Study Finds,” The New York Times, August 31, 2012. http://www.cnbc.com/id/48858760