David Leonhardt is confused about inequality, at least according to his shallow dive into Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Specifically, Leonhardt writes under the delusion that better public education is the key to reversing the continued trend toward more inequality predicted by Picketty’s formulation: r > g. Observing the fact that other developed countries in Europe have seen income gains distributed more equitably throughout the population than in the United States, Leonhardt goes on to argue that what most accounts for this difference are educational outcomes. He makes this claim based, I assume, on intermediary evidence found either in Picketty’s book or elsewhere, but which in either case Leonhardt decides not to share upfront with the reader.
“The great income gains for the American middle class and poor in the mid-to-late 20th century came after this country made high school universal and turned itself into the most educated nation in the world,” writes Leonhardt. And yet, if education were truly the great inequality slayers so many make it out to be, wouldn’t the American middle class and poor be doing even better today since they are more educated than at any other time in the nation’s history? Leonhardt continues,
“Education continues to pay today, despite the scare stories to the contrary. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else in this country is near its all-time high. The countries that have done a better job increasing their educational attainment, like Canada and Sweden, have also seen bigger broad-based income gains than the United States.”
But as Lane Kenworthy showed some time ago, countries like Sweden transfer much larger amounts of money to lower income households than the U.S. does. In addition, international differences in educational achievement come no where close to explaining the differences in Gini coefficients between those same countries.
Maybe that’s why even Leonhardt isn’t too married to his earlier notion that closing the achievement gap in education would do much in the way of shrinking national inequality, deciding by the end of his piece that “changes in education — not to mention the tax code — are not nearly large enough to counteract the forces pushing in the other direction.”
Instead, he concedes,
“A true attack on inequality would require that the country move the issue to the center of every political debate: how we tax wealth, how we tax the income of the middle class and poor (often stealthily through the payroll tax), how we finance schools and measure their results, how we tolerate income-sapping waste in health care, how we build roads, transit systems and broadband networks. These are precisely the sort of policies pursued by countries with better recent middle-class income growth than the United States.”
Still, it’s worth emphasizing, lest Leonhardt and others forget, that far from being a panacea for inequality, education is often the largest driver of it. Matt Bruenig has written often and excellently on this very subject. As long as education remains a gentrified hierarchy and glorified sorting machine, it will always be instrumental to helping one group of people edge out another. A college education is a great investment decision for most, but the financial, social, and cultural advantages it bestows are predicated, in part, on the very fact that others don’t have it. That’s how credentialing works. Could anything be more bizarre than offering up a process designed to separate persons based on skill, knowledge, and/or aptitude as the very same thing that can help make them more equal?
Freddie DeBoer draws out this exact point from a thought experiment Picketty allegedly used to help Leonhardt understand his book,
“The children of the large farmer existed, and their decline relative to the improvements of the children in the small village represents growing inequality. Even if we take Leonhardt’s little fable about education and economics at face value (and we shouldn’t), he’s describing a process that exacerbates economic difference, not that closes it.”
It’s the same confusion that seeps in when people consider the situation facing an individual, and then extrapolate from there in order to offer solutions for the country as a whole. Thus, a teacher who is laid off due to local budget cuts is perhaps rightly encouraged to retrain for a new career, maybe in nursing. But this isn’t a solution for everyone else who is currently unemployed, at least in the current labor market. There simply aren’t enough good paying jobs available at the moment to get one through any other means than by taking it from somebody else.