Friday, May 21, 2010


Several blogs I read, notably Daniel Little's Understanding Society and Economist's View have been writing about the correlation between education, skill, and economic "progress".
It is widely accepted that human capital, particularly attained through education, is crucial to economic progress. An increase in the number of well-educated people implies a higher level of labour productivity and a greater ability to absorb advanced technology from developed countries.

Their view is, essentially, bullshit.

The point is not skill. I have skill. I'm literate, intelligent, well read, personable, presentable, and I can use a cash register and make change. I've been programming computers for 30 years. I can pick up new technology quickly (I learned C# and .NET in a couple of months, and the Rule Against Perpetuities in five minutes). I have management and executive experience. I've written successful grants. Yet I've been forced to the margins of the professional-managerial middle class. Today, I can't get an interview, much less an actual job.

It's partly because I didn't accumulate capital in my peak earning years. It's a lot easier to transition your way laterally in the middle class if you can buy your way in. That's pretty much nobody's fault but my own: I thought I could rely on skill and experience... which worked well for 20 years; the last 10, not so much.

It's mostly because I didn't accumulate status. I never got the "sexy" jobs at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sun, etc. And that's mostly because I don't have a college degree — indeed, I'm a high-school dropout. I'm simply not even considered for any middle-class job outside IT (and certainly not general management. I'm often excluded by actual regulation (I cannot, for example, become a paralegal or teach ESL). I won't even be considered for a position outside my exact paid skill set in the computer business (now long obsolete) even though I've taught myself a variety of IT-related skills, including network engineering and administration.

If the Western economy today were hungry for skill, they would be beating down my door. In my prime they actually were beating down my door: I'd put my resume on Monster at 9:00 AM and have 50 calls by noon... and a top 10% paying job the following week.

The point is not whether students learn skills in college (I'm sure they do). The point is not whether I should go back to school and get a degree (I'm reasonably happy farting around in the margins of the bourgeois economy).

The point is that the idea that it's nonsense that the world is hungry for skill, intelligence, judgment, leadership or any other actual intellectually productive skill. The world happened to really be hungry for computer skills in the 90's, and they sure as hell found me. If they were still hungry for skills, they would find me now. If the world were hungry for skills, the professional-managerial middle class would be doing well. It is not: It is (at best) stagnant and many formerly skilled professions have been nearly eliminated.

My profession is a perfect example. The economic driving force in the 80's and 90's was IT, especially software development. And it exploded so quickly that credentials and status didn't matter. And what happened? Ten million Chinese, Indians and Russians learned how to program, flooded the market, and the bottom dropped out. (Indeed, my last two middle-class jobs were managing Russian programmers for very... er... marginal enterprises.)

Skill is (relatively) easy. If we needed ten million brain surgeons, we'd have them in ten years... and they'd make $10/hour. But we don't need ten million brain surgeons, we need only a few thousand, so we can pick out the best of the best — and the luckiest of the lucky — and pay them beaucoup bucks. Capitalism pays on scarcity, not on value, not on skill, not on hard work.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for education (however you get it, and school works for a lot of people, just not me). It's a basic human right. But if we push everyone through high school, a high school diploma won't be worth jack shit economically. If we push everyone through college, a diploma and $2,95 will get you a latte at Starbucks. We just raise the bar: A JD and passing the bar is ho-hum: now you have to be in the top 10% of a good law school and network like crazy to get a good job as a lawyer.

Life is graded on a curve: we pick out the "top" 10%, call it "scarce", and condemn the "bottom" 90% for being "common". It doesn't matter what they do, what they know, what they produce. If everyone were as smart as Einstein, we'd pick out the top 10% of the "super"-Einsteins to live in privileged prosperity and the rest would toil in misery. (Look at the market for scientists. A handful get tenure and a few get Nobel prizes (and half of these are hacks); meanwhile an army of graduate students and post-docs toil in obscurity and poverty. And science is the closest thing we've ever had to a sensible and rational meritocracy.)

Colleges do, of course, teach people a lot of useful stuff. But teaching is a college's secondary economic function: their primary economic function is (aside from collecting economic rent on the middle class) to act as a filter, to keep the supply of college graduates artificially scarce relative to demand. And the demand is not for people with skill, it's for people who have college degrees, precisely because college degrees are scarce. When college degrees are common, the demand will be for graduate degrees, or class standing, or networking skill... or, more likely, for how much money your parents had. The demand will be for what is scarce because it is scarce.

It sounds irrational, but it's not (in a certain sense). This kind of elitism for its own sake emerges from the economic selection forces operating under conditions of primitive accumulation. But we're no longer under conditions of primitive accumulation.

The "problem" with evolution is that when selection pressures change, what was selected for by the previous pressures is still around. It's one thing for animals. Millions of individuals die off, species go extinct: if that's the way God wants it, who am I to criticize. But I must admit to considerably more sentimentality and much higher expectations for human beings. We can think about what we're doing, and how we relate to each other. And we can do better.

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