Sunday, May 24, 2009

Economics and Education

This may turn out to be another rant about why America is going to the proverbial inferno in the proverbial vehicle. (This one I am doing on the fly; I usually do the more serious ones off-line and edit them carefully.)

Saw an article in the paper this morning, one of many I've seen the last few years. Basically, it said that middle class jobs of the future will need much more education than in the past. Most people see this as a plain fact; some seem to think it a good thing. I am pretty unusual in seeing it as ominous. If it continues, I believe that it will ultimately be a destabilizing factor in American society. Here's why.

When I was young, a sober, industrious young man (yes, "man" in those benighted days) could aspire to the middle class suburban life with a plain high school diploma. With a decent job at a (usually unionized) manufacturing plant, he could marry, have a few kids and live comfortably in a nice house with some yard, and expect to own it outright by retirement. This was a reasonable expectation for anyone, of almost any background. Even the most run-down inner-city slum high school would provide what you needed for this hope. It required no expensive college or trade school, or even underpaid apprenticeship.

Now, for all practical purposes, this dream is dead. The low-skill jobs, union or otherwise, have mainly left the country. Remaining well-paid jobs require a high degree of some kind of skill. The problem with this is that skill is the result of a combination of talent and training. The training, or education, can be very expensive these days, and government doesn't support education beyond high school. And for people who lack talent, even expensive training is not enough. We now have people who finish high school and have no reasonable chance to get out of the working poor. That can only breed dissatisfaction with their society.

One of my heroes, G. K. Chesterton, said "There cannot be a nation of millionaires, and there never has been a nation of Utopian comrades; but there have been any number of nations of tolerably contented peasants." (Outline of Sanity CW. V. 192) When too many peasants are no longer contented, trouble looms.