A Lesson for Future Presidents and Children

Moshe Adler
Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. Adler is also an economic consultant, specializing in the effects of…
Moshe Adler

The No. 1 problem we face is inequality, and the beginning of a new school year is the appropriate moment to ask what role education plays. Are schools part of the solution or are they part of the problem?

According to Barack Obama, more schooling is the solution. In his latest speech about the economy, the president declared: “The days when the wages for a worker with a high school degree could keep pace with the earnings of somebody who got some sort of higher education — those days are over.”

Of course, the days in which a college education provided a route to economic security are also over. A study by Georgetown University researchers found that in 2010-2011, the rate of unemployment among recent college graduates was 7.9 percent, and for those seeking jobs in computer science and information systems, these rates were even higher: 8.7 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively. A 2013 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for College Affordability & Productivity found that 37 percent of college graduates hold jobs that do not require more than a high school degree.

But even when it existed, economic security through schooling was an individual, rather than a social, solution. Truck drivers, for instance, are poor. In 2010, the median annual wage in the U.S. of heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers was only $37,770, whereas on average a full-time worker produced a value of $119,791 (i.e., value-added per full-time employee). And their lives are hard. The Bureau of Labor Statistics warns those who consider this career: “Working as a long-haul truck driver is a major lifestyle choice, because these drivers can be away from home for days or weeks at a time. They spend much of this time alone.” So how would a truck driver stop being poor by having more education? And, for that matter, how would health care workers, cooks, garbage collectors, factory workers, farmworkers or construction workers earn more by having more education?

To be sure, had there been enough jobs for college graduates, with such an education the truck driver would likely not have been a truck driver, and he would have earned more. But even then, education would have been an escape route from poverty only as long as not all workers took it. If every person in society had a Ph.D., the number of truck drivers, health care workers and garbage collectors among them would have been exactly what it is today.

Low-paid workers are indispensable. If they were to stop working and insist on higher wages, their demands could not be ignored. But here’s the catch: They themselves do not recognize their value to society and do not consider themselves worthy of equal pay. Why? Because in school they have learned all too well the two lessons that they were taught repeatedly throughout their childhoods, from the age of 6 until they reached 18. The first lesson was that they were less worthy than their peers. Children who got high grades also received accolades, prizes and admissions to better schools. For the others, since they did not receive top marks, there was always remedial work, endless advice about how to do better, and parents gripped by the fear that their child would end up as a low-paid worker.

The second lesson they learned was that remuneration is determined not by the contributions a person makes to society, but instead strictly by individual accomplishments. How much a child enhances the well-being and happiness of those around her does not count in school. Only achievements that are strictly personal are measured and then rewarded. It is not surprising, therefore, that people who have learned these lessons do not seek higher pay that reflects the real value of their work.

Perhaps the most glaring example of what’s wrong with what schools teach is the fact that Obama, a graduate of elite universities himself, offers a personal (and obsolete), rather than a social solution to the problem of low wages. The abundance that we produce — $119,791 per worker per year — is a team, not an individual product. What makes it so high is the division of labor in society — and it’s a division with no hierarchy. Pull out occupations that require only low levels of education or ambition from that division and all production will crumble. Subtract occupations that require high levels of education or ambition and the result would be the same. The claim that some occupations are more productive than others and therefore deserve higher pay is utterly false. Yet this is what our schools teach and this is the view they inculcate.

Our economic system is indeed in crisis, but this is not because workers lack schooling. It is in crisis because of what our education system teaches. The reason that some workers are low paid is not that they did poorly in school, but that some other workers take more than their fair share. This is the most important lesson that children — among them future presidents — should be taught.


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