President Obama in his recent education speech said his goal was to “lay the foundation for lasting, shared prosperity.” It’s a great goal. A two pronged question suggests itself:
- In America, what is the foundation for lasting, shared prosperity?
- What is a workable plan for strengthening this foundation?
Obama says it’s all about education: “The source of America’s prosperity … is how well we educate our people.” He says, “It is time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world. It is time to give all Americans a complete and competitive education from the cradle up through a career.”
Pursuing such an education goal would require a lot of money, but, if the expenditure of huge amounts of money on education would assure “lasting, shared prosperity,” of course, it would be money well spent. But Obama’s theory of prosperity — that the foundation for lasting shared prosperity is the educational level of the citizenry — deserves close inspection. To me, this theory isn’t credible. It is contradicted by statistics that show that many college graduates in our present economy are either unemployed or underemployed. This article reports: “The share of college-educated workers found in low-wage, non-routine occupations rose from 19.9 percent to 23.6 percent from 1980 to 2005. Moreover, the average age of those with college education working in such jobs rose by 6.7 years during this time.”
Many underemployed college graduates, regardless of their superior education, are today far from participating in “shared prosperity.” Creating an even greater number of college graduates in the future will most likely mean even more college graduates will be similarly underemployed. The idea that education translates into shared prosperity, even for college graduates, simply is not true. If many of the winners in our educational system, our college graduates, are not now sharing in prosperity, it hardly seems reasonable to argue that future college graduates, generally speaking, will do better.
It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the future losers in the system will do better, either. And, the system assures that there will always be plenty of losers. After all, only 20% of students will ever be in the top 20%. I argue in this post, Expensive Education Fails To Increase Economic Opportunities For Many Citizens: “It seems clear that however hard we try to educate or however much money is spent on educational programs, inevitably, a huge block of citizens will not realize much economic benefit from the investment.”
Obama’s theory of prosperity would make a good debate — “Resolved: The source of America’s prosperity … is how well we educate our people.”
Such a debate would develop some key questions. For one thing, it’s a great question: What is the source of America’s prosperity? Much of our prosperity comes as gifts from nature — rich farm land, plentiful water and resources, temperate climate. We live in a very rich country. Our forefathers came here with good reason. The great mystery about America’s prosperity is why there is not more of it. In America, we are faced with a great puzzle of unused potential for which there seems no obvious answer. We have tremendous potential for wealth creation, but only a small fraction of this potential is ever actualized. We should all be much richer.
- zillion of acres of underused farm land
- tremendous natural resources
- great infrastructure
- thousands of factories that are empty or working far below their capacity
- the capacity for new manufacturing using new generations of technologies and robotics that would greatly exceed anything we’ve ever witnessed
- millions of underemployed and unemployed willing workers.
We have tremendous unused potential, yet we have millions of citizens who are deprived of the material needed for a quality life, who lack adequate housing, food, education, health care, transportation.
The big question our democracy must address is: Why is our system so dramatically underperforming? Why are we not all a lot richer than we are? Americans, in general, should be enjoying great prosperity and security and should be anticipating a prosperous, enlightened future for their children. The big question is: Why are we so far from the prosperity we should be enjoying? What can be done to help our system better achieve its potential?
Obama’s in his speech says prosperity is all about education. This is an easy answer that tickles a lot of ears. For one thing, those in the educational establishment are happy with the thought that Obama will push a lot of money their way. And Obama’s answer supports the popular notion that the foundation for lasting, shared prosperity lies within the individual. Americans love to glorify the individual. And individuals in America who enjoy material success, “The American Dream,” like to take credit for their success and like to justify their material success in terms of their efforts and education. Yes, individuals can break through in our society. Michele and Barack are living examples. But many individuals, through no fault of their own, regardless of their hard work and good citizenship, never enjoy economic success. Many individuals in America are doomed by the system to live in poverty.
In my judgment, the foundation of an answer about prosperity in America, is not the individual — the education or preparation of the individual. (See my argument, Why Are We Rich?) I keep coming back to W. Edwards Deming’s conviction that it is the system, the system, the system. Deming said that the system accounts for 85% of quality and all other factors amount to only 15%. The foundation for prosperity is the system itself.
Our system, we know, is not working effectively and, as cited, today cannot accommodate 23.6 percent of its college graduates. The old Soviet Union had a citizenry of many, many, talented, highly educated individuals — all living in poverty. There was no way that the Soviet centrally planned, autocratic system could bring much prosperity — even for their top 20%. The system could not be made to work, because the system itself was fatally flawed.
But the United States has a system that has the potential to work. We need a transformation of the present system. In order for the system to be transformed — to provide peace, harmony, material abundance — America needs an educated and engaged citizenry that has the capacity and inclination to work democratically together. Such a citizenry, democratically engaged, would bring the best and the wisest among us to positions of authority and leadership. We need to vitalize our democracy so that it will center on problem solving, center on advancing the common good.
So, I disagree with Obama that education is the foundation for “lasting shared prosperity” — at least not the education he speaks of, education as technological training, etc. In my view, the foundation for shared prosperity is within the system, not the individual. Spectacular increases in education in the old Soviet Union did not translate into widely shared prosperity for Soviet citizens. The Soviet system itself prevented such an outcome. What we need to acknowledge is that in America our system also prevents such an outcome. But unlike the Soviet system, the American system is based on democratic principles. The problem is these principles are in disuse. (I wrote, For Our Future’s Sake, We Must Transform Our System of Elitism To a System of Democracy”)
To answer my two pronged question:
- In America, I believe, the foundation for lasting, shared prosperity is our system itself, our system of democracy. We need to find a way to make the system effective so that it will begin to produce wise and thoughtful leaders committed to the common good — with good ideas of how to advance the common good — leaders who will work, “for the people.” The key to prosperity is found in making the system work. We need to invest in making our democracy more effective.
- A workable plan for vitalizing our democracy, I’m thinking, must involve articulating a very different vision of public education from what now exists and it must involve creating many authentic grass root communities.