In the middle of the 19th century, Horace Greeley wrote, “Go west, young man…” Had Greeley been alive a century and a half later, he would have written, “Go to college, young man…” But since he wasn’t available for the job, the rest of society took up the slack and told young Americans everywhere that the key to success was a college degree. I’m 50 years old now, and it was a crock even when I was told it. Pretty much everyone I grew up with — most of whom got college degrees — have found their middle years to be highly uncertain. If you want more details, I recommend reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bait and Switch.
Now there is much concern about the quality of higher education. And it’s appropriateness. As Robert Reich pointed out last week at Salon, students assume that a college degree is the gateway to the middle class. It’s not. Reich points out that for a lot of people, a two-year technical degree is probably a better bet. He’s right. But the problem is so much bigger than this.
We have an economic and political system designed to funnel wealth from the poor to the rich. Over time, this is a recipe for a banana republic. And indeed, that is what we are seeing: lots of poor people, a tiny middle class that depends upon catering to the small group of extremely powerful rich people. Once you reach a certain level, there really is no going back because the rich can control the system and push ever more money and power toward themselves. I fear we passed the point of no return back in the early 1990s.
Those modern Greeleys who were (And still are!) pushing young people to go to college are no less delusional than the people who wax poetic about everyone starting their own businesses. If that ever happened, no one would have their own business; each person would be an independent contractor; and that would be an extremely inefficient system. Similarly, what is the point of everyone getting a college degree? Are we all going to be middle managers?
Look at the 2013 Census data on educational attainment. If you look at people in different age categories, you see that the percentage of people over 75 years old, less than 13% have Bachelor’s degrees. That actually overstates it, because the people with backbreaking jobs generally die younger. The percentage of people my age with degrees is 19%. The percentage of people in their late 20s is 26%!
All this extra education would be a good thing if it were free. But it isn’t. Mostly, it is paid for by the students themselves. So what exactly has happened? Companies have gotten far better trained employees without having to foot the bill. And better than that: because there is such a great supply of such well trained employees, the business community can pay them less! It’s funny how policies we seemingly stumble into — like the cutting of state funding to higher education and the increased reliance on student loans — just so happen to be the policies that further enrich the rich and increase inequality.
The problem is not our educational system. The problem is that young people are desperate. Recently, John Oliver did a segment on the vile for-profit colleges. But they only exist because we have allowed our entire economic political system to get so out of whack that it only tends to the desires of the rich. What else are young people to do? Become electricians as Reich recommends? I suppose that will work for some. But I’m afraid that’s working the margins.
What we require is bold action. We need a wealth tax so that corporations and other representatives of the rich have an incentive not to sit on piles of cash. We need a massive increase in the estate tax so that America stops being the hereditary aristocracy it has become. And most of all, we need a guaranteed minimum income so that businesses have to make working worth while. Is this class warfare? Absolutely. But there’s been a class war for decades with the rich against the unaware middle and lower classes. We must not go gentle into that good night. (Note literary reference — product of a liberal education!)
Image is reduced, cropped, and rearranged from an original by John Fewings.