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The Education Fantasy

I posted a New York Times article to my Facebook feed about how West Virginia used to be a Democratic stronghold, back when the Democratic Party stood up for working people. I selected a pull quote warning that "when the average American feels looked down on, his interests minimized or ignored, he can not only become less generous, he can also sometimes become downright ugly." To this, I added my own admonishment; "Keep demonizing and denigrating rural whites".

Some people clicked "like." Some posted their affirmation with references to the work of the late Joe Bageant. One person doubled down and posted a link to a video that explained what vile, hideous scum white people are and always have been, and one person, an old college friend of mine, wrote that it was too bad that the displaced workers of Appalachia didn't vote for the candidate who would have funded the vocational re-training that would have allowed them to once again contribute meaningfully to the economy.  He explained that it is automation that is putting people out of work and that that is nobody's fault. The now useless blue-collar workers can only look to education for redemption because "the days of high pay for work you can train a monkey to do aren't coming back."

Before I go on, I should say that the person who trotted out that familiar panacea about education being the shining hope for keeping the vast majority of workers relevant and engaged in the glorious high-tech future was a lovely person in college; a gentle soul with a passion for playing the guitar. He wasn't anything like a merciless Randroid or libertarian bootstrapper. I haven't kept up with him since college, but if his Facebook profile and photos are any indications, he is a mainstream Clinton Democrat with off-the-shelf "enlightened" values. I mean only to demolish the retail received wisdom that he produced on cue, not to demean him or impugn his character.

I reminded him that the notion of technology putting people out of work is anything but a novel concept. Humans have been fantasizing about offloading dangerous and monotonous work to robots since long before anyone had any practical notion of how to fabricate an integrated circuit. The dream of automation was that it would free people up from monotonous and dangerous work, but instead, it has allowed companies to shed workers thereby increasing corporate profits while denying large swathes of the population of their livelihoods.

Automation is not a force of nature, and there are many ways that it could be incorporated into our economy. Corporations now use automation to serve large customer bases with an ever-shrinking corps of actual employees. The former employees, who receive none of the profits their cybernetic replacements generate, are left to improvise some new means of meeting their financial obligations. Many of them find sympathy with a judge and manage to limp across the finish line into retirement on disability. Most are not so fortunate.

It didn't have to play out this way, and it is incorrect to say that the resulting hardship and humiliation is nobody's fault.  The tax code makes employees a liability to companies while the machinery that replaces workers is considered a capital investment which lowers the corporations' tax bill. The tax code incentivizes replacing workers with machines. Again, that would be fine if the work of the machines subsidized the diminished livelihoods of displaced workers, but the gains all go right to the masters.

The idea that education will turn middle-aged, blue-collar laborers in Appalachia into high-tech entrepreneurs able to go head to head with Millenial wunderkinder in the digital marketplace is absurd. That's the implication when people allude to job training and "education" as the remedy for technolgocial unemployment. No amount of government-subsidized job training is going to turn 40-year-old former coal-miners or steel-mill workers into Silicon Valley whiz kids. Heck, in Silicon Valley, they burn through those young prodigies like disposable lighters. They live packed into tiny dorm-style apartments, paying as much for a closet to live near Google and Facebook as they would for a 3 bedroom house in West Virginia.

When technology eliminates categories of labor that used to provide lots of people with middle-class wages, it creates a tiny fraction of high-skill jobs for all of the "low-skill" jobs it destroys. Again, no amount of job-training or subsidized education is going to overcome that dynamic.

Yes, Donald Trump is a disaster, and most of the people who voted for him, i.e. the non-billionaires, voted against their own economic interests, but comparing people without a college education or IT skills to monkeys only increases their sense of being despised by the liberal classes and drives them further into the arms of populist demagogues like Trump. The argument that the beleaguered working class should have made better educational and occupational choices and no need to buck up and get with the program rather than rally behind the short-fingered vulgarian comes across as, "Stupid hicks got what they deserved." People who make that argument deserve 8 years of Trump and company, and that's exactly what they'll get. Unfortunately, so will everybody else.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 14th, 2017 04:12 am (UTC)
re: The Education Fantasy
I agree with many points of your post. And, tossed off "Monkeys" references is no way to make a point about those being addressed as such. I'm sure that was not his intention.

Your suggestion that he is angling that their retraining would be to replace Silicon Valley workers is silly and dishonest as an argument, unless that was stated. Who suggested that? Would that other, perhaps GREEN, industries be embraced by US and State Governments, there could be many manufacturing jobs for which Americans could receive training. That could have been a possibility under a presidency by the defeated candidate. A number of other retrofitting occupations could better situate us for the future are also possible, but all of that would require a belief that energy/climate actually intersect and require a fix.

The last paragraph tells me less about the people who voted for Clinton than it does tell me about yourself. I don't understand it though. Who implied that "the beleaguered working class should have made better educational and occupational choices." Or, is that your reading? Thank you
for your post.

Edited at 2017-03-14 04:13 am (UTC)
Bill Hulet
Mar. 15th, 2017 12:41 am (UTC)
It's a hard meme to kill---
I can remember graduating from university during the late eighties, which were if anything, worse than nowadays for trying to get a job. You never saw a sign saying that people were being hired---instead you saw lots saying "don't bother, we aren't taking applications". I went to my home town for Yule and the local bar was giving free turkey dinners to people (hard times.) I remember sitting around a table with guys that I went to high school with. Two of us had jobs---I'd been accepted for a Master's degree in philosophy and had a pittance of a teaching assistanceship, and another guy had a commission to paint a mural on the city hall. The rest---who had all studied "practical" subjects were out of work: engineers, heavy diesel mechanics, etc. One guy exclaimed "I didn't have any fun at all at university and I still don't have a job!"

Education doesn't create jobs. If you graduate lots and lots of engineers, you just make the competition for engineering jobs harder and the lot of the people competing for those more miserable. I work at a university that graduates lots of STEM people, but there are a lot more people with the degrees than there are jobs for them to do. In fact, the stress level from competition has got so bad that I was at a work training session the other day where we were told to look for the signs of students who are suffering from the strain of the competition. In fact, we were told that the counselling services are so over-strained that we have to accept that sometimes we are it and do what we can.
Mar. 15th, 2017 02:08 am (UTC)
Good observation. It's amazing how old and thoroughly debunked this trope is:

...[It] is evident that intelligence, which is or should be the aim of education... can operate upon wages only by increasing the effective power of labor.... And it can raise the wages of the individual only in so far as it renders him superior to others. When to read and write were rare accomplishments, a clerk commanded high respect and large wages, but now the ability to read and write has become so nearly universal as to give no advantage.... The diffusion of intelligence, except as it may make men discontented with a state of things which condemns producers to a life of toil while non-producers loll in luxury, cannot tend to raise wages generally, or in any way improve the condition of the lowest class—the "mudsills" of society, as a southern senator once called them—who must rest on the soil, no matter how high the superstructure may be carried.

Henry George, Progress & Poverty, 1879, Book IV, Chapter I, paragraph 19.

That book almost single-handedly started the Progressive Movement, yet is all but forgotten today, forcing the unreflective liberal voices you mention to repeat the fallacy P&P logically destroyed almost 140 years ago.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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