Missing the Point
22 December 2011
A disingenuous financial press
keeps up the same old drumbeat
…or, how not to learn your lesson when the lesson is staring you in the face
The photograph above (which I found somewhere on the internet — I don’t recall where) I first used in Existential Due Diligence, since it so perfectly captures the sense of privilege and entitlement that informed most of the early “Occupy” protests (before they became pretexts for a criminal element to camp out in city centers). I know that this is an unpopular point of view to take, but I still have a visceral feeling of revulsion over the level of entitlement vouchsafed by these signs and these protests. Of course, the individual who lettered this sign knows that it sounds like entitlement, and has probably had this thrown in their face on several occasions. The pictured sign was, in fact, a response to charges of comfortable entitlement.
As I said, I know that this is an unpopular perspective, and it is still, by and large, my point of view. But I have modified — perhaps even also, yes, moderated — my point of view a little. In a previous post I mentioned a series in the Financial Times called Is America working? One of the articles in this series, Skills gap hobbles US employers, was easily as irritating to me as the protesters themselves. This article is such a tiresome rehash of economic cliches from the business community that it is difficult to take seriously:
“US companies that are growing say an unqualified workforce is already a significant barrier to hiring.”
“In a September poll of owners of fast-growing, privately held US companies undertaken by the non-profit Kauffman Foundation, the inability to find qualified workers was cited as the biggest obstacle to growth. Some 40 per cent of respondents said they were being held back by the skills gap, compared with just 13 per cent by lack of demand.”
The article, however, wasn’t all bad, since it did contain a few items that were all-too-easy to believe:
“…companies may not be trying very hard to fill jobs, while workers in receipt of unemployment insurance may not be trying that hard to find them.”
One of the most prominent complaints of the Occupy protesters has been the amount of money that they have spent on education. Now, I certainly don’t think that their school debt should be forgiven — an individual must bear the costs of their decisions, even if those decisions result in a lack of a viable future — but it should be acknowledged that money has been flowing into the bottomless coffers of the US school system at an unparalleled and unprecedented rate. A quick search will reveal numerous studies that show that the costs of higher education have been outpacing inflation for many years, and, with the credentialing industry in full swing, there has been a spiraling escalation in credentials that means that not only is higher education costing more, but that people are getting much more of this more expensive education.
And what good is it doing them? In many cases, these students and prospective members of the workforce have been sold a bill of goods: parents have told them that they need to get a good education to get a good job, advisors have told them they have to submit their applications to many institutions and accept the offer of the best (and probably most expensive) one, peers and professors have put them on notice that the world is a competitive place, and prospective employers have given the impression that, if a little education is a good thing, a lot of education is just great.
As I wrote previously in Existential Due Diligence, “Populist movements consist of people who followed the rules of society, or believed that they were following the rules of society,” and this conformist imperative is even more evident in the case of educated and privileged individuals whose efforts did not land them the choice socio-economic role that they expected to have. Unlike marginal members of society — and there are many ways to be marginal, many ways to exemplify social deviance — who accept the fact that their jobs will not be exciting and their pay will only be enough to get by, the educated elite with large school debts are the ones who most completely bought into the dominant narrative of success — the secular equivalent of pie in the sky when you die.
Of course, you will be shaking your head and saying, “but they got the wrong kind of education,” or, “they should have gotten a degree in something practical.” You are right to so object. I dealt with this at some length in Our Less Than Optimal Labor Market, which I think was a rather good post, but it has not been much read. There I pointed out how the traditional ideal of a liberal, humanistic education has no place whatsoever in industrialized society. We still say nice things about this ideal, but we do not, as a society, reward those who are most committed to it.
I think that this is an important point to make, because it also demonstrates a connection with another point that I have recently been trying to make, which is the irrelevance of ideology to socio-economic organization. In Blighted Lives I wrote about how the ideologically antithetical economic programs of nationalization and privatization have, to a large degree, come to the same thing: privileged elites have manipulated the process in their favor, enriching the few at the expense of the many. I repeated this point in The End of the Chinese Dream and added that whether in a one-party communist state like China or in a capitalist duopoly like the US, or even in the parliamentary social welfare states of Western Europe, the privileged elites have manipulated the social structure to limit if not eliminate social mobility.
In an essentially feudal society, the only individuals for whom the ideal of a liberal, humanistic education has any meaning is the small elite that creates elite cultural institutions for its own consumption. The laboring masses — and whether they are laboring on farms during the high middle ages or laboring in factories and offices today does not matter — have no use for such luxuries as humanistic education or high culture.
While I personally find this elitist vision to be hideous — it is, in fact, much more viscerally revolting to me than pampered, entitled protesters — there is a certain economic logic to it, and it is this same implacable economic logic that is slowly and surely forcing mature industrialized economies into the mold of crony capitalism.
The structures of crony capitalism in the US are still in the process of formation and consolidation, which means that socio-economic relations are in transition. Those organs of public discourse most wedded to the old paradigm that is passing away will continue with the same old drumbeat about the need for education and the difficulty of employers in finding qualified workers, but this is an analysis that no longer reflects economic reality. So long as these arguments continue to be made, they will be missing the point. And once the arguments are either utterly falsified or overtaken by events, they will no longer be made — not because those who once made them “saw the light,” but because they will be irrelevant given the changed socio-economic conditions. A new era of history will have begun.
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