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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, November 07, 2017

 

Unmaking the American Century revisited

by Tom Sullivan

It is election day once again. Tuesday, for no good reason. The eyes of the media will be on the mayor's race in New York City, and on races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia. Voters will not likely pause the internal horse race narratives long enough to consider what kind of world the competition is creating. They should.

Malcolm Harris wonders whether encouragement to compete against one another hasn't turned childhood itself into "a debilitating endurance test." His “Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials” suggests millennials' reward will not match their investment. Even as educational achievement in the U.S. climbs, wages stagnate. A millennial himself, Harris writes in the New York Times:

The thing is, we don’t even really know what we are racing for, much less how to tone down the competition. And most people don’t seem to be benefiting from this frantic contest, either as students or as adult workers. Americans are improving themselves, but the rewards keep flowing uphill to the 1 percent.
Over the period from 2000 to 2016, high school graduations or the equivalent have topped 90 percent for the first time and post-graduate degrees for people 25-29 have risen from 5 to 9 percent. The debt they incur in boosting their "human capital" was an issue in the election that took place a year ago.

But rather than ensuring a more secure future, the intense competition benefits employers more than prospective employees, Harris argues:
If firms want workers who can speak Mandarin or code Python, why should they pay trainees to learn when they can scare kids into training themselves? Within this system, all an individual kid can do is try to put a sufficient number of their peers between themselves and poverty.

There are some winners, but the real champions are the corporate owners: They get their pick from all the qualified applicants, and the oversupply of human capital keeps labor costs down. Competition between workers means lower wages for them and higher profits for their bosses: The more teenagers who learn to code, the cheaper one is.
Publisher's Weekly dismisses Harris as expecting "nearly everything in life to be remunerative. Readers will come away agreeing that millennials have gotten a raw deal but unconvinced that they represent the new proletariat." But Harris has a point.
In the ’70s, the economist Gary Becker theorized that employers would shift the costs of developing human capital onto workers, from paid on-the-job training to unpaid schooling. He figured that, though they need skilled labor, corporations would be disinclined to pay for training since other companies could then lure away “their” human capital.
But in citing Becker from 1975, Harris misses a more global trend in corporate cost-avoidance that emerged later. U.S. corporations began offshoring the cost of worker training. As I wrote in 2011:
In the Atlantic’s “The Rise of the New Global Elite,” Chrystia Freeland describes the super-rich as “a nation unto themselves,” more connected to each other than to their countries or their neighbors. Freeland writes that “the business elite view themselves increasingly as a global community, distinguished by their unique talents and above such parochial concerns as national identity, or devoting ‘their’ taxes to paying down ‘our’ budget deficit.” Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate, explains that globalization means, “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business …” Why should it be?

In a global economy driven more and more by bottom-line thinking, public education is just another community expense the elite would rather not bear, isn’t it? The rich can afford private schools for their children and have little need for educated workers in the multiple cities where they own houses. How much education do gardeners and waiters really need anyway?
It's not just each other against whom American millennials must compete in what Harris describes as an "academic arms race." It is their peers around the world. And that world is driven by an economy and economic actors who view them as raw material to be obtained at the lowest price possible, then used up and discarded.

Something to consider when we go to the polls today. Do we want to serve the economy or do we want an economy that serves us?

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.