We can’t all be high-end service workers in an hourglass economy

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Sometimes things seem blatantly obvious to a person but doesn’t appear to be so to others. Maybe you’re the type to speak your mind anyway. I’m an insular person and a relatively slow thinker so I don’t often mention it, because surely I must be missing something. But then someone way smarter, and quicker, essentially makes the same observation and I feel better.

Matt Bruenig on education and inequality:

In closing, it is perhaps helpful to rehearse the reason why education won’t solve our distributive woes. Education confers upon people some absolute advantages that are not zero-sum, but more than that it confers upon people positional advantages that are more or less zero-sum. Education puts you above others in the competition for scarce high-paying economic positions. Our joint-production economy can sustain only so many managers, accountants, engineers, bankers, lawyers, and so on. Minting new degrees does not cause matching jobs to pop into existence. We can’t all be in the professional or creative class because, if we were, who then would do the work?

It’s not the first time Bruenig has made this point, but this was in response to an otherwise good write-up of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by David Leonhardt in the new policy-centric NYT blog The Upshot.

I was similarly disappointed when Leonhardt sort-of settled on education as the practical takeaway in addressing the possible future of a self-perpetuating wealth inequality fueled by r>g (if you need a primary for Capital read Vox’s summary here). As Bruenig goes on to note education is important, providing many economic benefits, but it’s not a pencil for erasing and rewriting the way income and wealth is distributed in America. Education is just number four in the paint-by-numbers picture of how to get ahead in an unequal society.

So advocates are indeed saying that we should provide more pencils to color that box in a bifurcated labor market where there will still only be so many high-skilled jobs afterward. The same advice we give to any one person — get an education to gain the greatest possible positional advantage — doesn’t work for everyone as a whole. Conflating the two is a depressingly common occurrence, even on the left. We can’t all be high-end service workers in an hourglass economy. I don’t understand how this escapes the erstwhile sharp.

Update: By chance Bruenig has a new piece in Salon today restating the case. This time is in reference to education reformers continuously pointing to Finland as the answer to solving America’s distributive woes:

Education boosters bizarrely think that providing everyone a high-quality education will somehow magically result in them all having good-paying jobs. But, as Finland shows, this turns out not to be true. Apparently, it’s not possible for everyone to simultaneously hold jobs as well-paid upper-class professionals because at least some people have to actually do real work. A modern economy requires a whole army of lesser-skilled jobs that just don’t pay that well and the necessity of those jobs doesn’t go away simply because people are well-educated.

The whole piece is worth reading for this specific context but the broader idea stands. We don’t need more stillsuits, we need a terraformed Arrakis.


One response to “We can’t all be high-end service workers in an hourglass economy

  1. Reblogged this on Casey Jaywork and commented:
    Ddoublep on the fallacy of thinking that higher rates of education will automatically create equitable wealth redistribution. For expansion on his closing thought, see Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ : “The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”

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