August 21, 2011

No, Obama, college won't help

From a long, insightful article in the Atlantic about the hollowing out of the middle class comes this observation that the normal BA or even BSBA won't help a person's bottom line so much any more, nor will it offer so much unemployment protection:
But even among the meritocratic elite, the economy’s evolution has produced a startling divergence. Since 1993, more than half of the nation’s income growth has been captured by the top 1 percent of earners, and the gains have grown larger over time: from 2002 to 2007, out of every three dollars of national income growth, the top 1 percent of earners captured two. ...

“It’s useful to make a distinction between college and post-college,” (MIT economist David Autor) told me. “Among people with professional and even doctoral [degrees], in general the job market has been very good for a very long time, including recently. The group of highly educated individuals who have not done so well recently would be people who have a four-year college degree but nothing beyond that. Opportunities have been less good, wage growth has been less good, the recession has been more damaging. They’ve been displaced from mid-managerial or organizational positions where they don’t have extremely specialized, hard-to-find skills.” ...

College graduates may be losing some of their luster for reasons beyond technology and trade. As more Americans have gone to college, Autor notes, the quality of college education has become arguably more inconsistent, and the signaling value of a degree from a nonselective school has perhaps diminished. Whatever the causes, “a college degree is not the kind of protection against job loss or wage loss that it used to be.”
Takeaways, to shorten Autor?
1. A Harvard degree is worth more than ever, rightly or wrongly, due to "branding."
2. Finding the LinkedIn/CareerBuilder "hot field" is important, but ... what he doesn't say, is a matter of luck as much as anything else.

Autor then and also notes, as I've blogged elsewhere, that more and more paralegal work, or first-year post-law-school grunt work, can be done by computer. Other work like that, which he doesn't directly note, can and will be outsourced to India with a growing English-speaking middle class wanting to do more than call center/customer service work.

And, some of the social decline that started happening to "just high school grad" families in decades past is now starting with "just college" families.

And, going beyond Peck, I'll even say that some grad degrees will get "hollowed out."

Take "service" degrees in psychology and social work. People who know anything about MIT and Weizenbaum's famous ELIZA program, and who are as sardonic, or worse, as I am about the future of America at times, has to wonder why a Fortune 500 EAP program doesn't seriously say, "Why are we sending people to human counselors instead of something like this?"

But, there's yet more to ponder, and to refute:

Meanwhile, some religious stereotypes are also being eroded.
One stubborn stereotype in the United States is that religious roots are deepest in blue-collar communities and small towns, and, more generally, among Americans who do not have college degrees. That was true in the 1970s. Yet since then, attendance at religious services has plummeted among moderately educated Americans, and is now much more common among college grads. So, too, is participation in civic groups. High-school seniors from affluent households are more likely to volunteer, join groups, go to church, and have strong academic ambitions than seniors used to be, and are as trusting of other people as seniors a generation ago; their peers from less affluent households have become less engaged on each of those fronts. A cultural chasm—which did not exist 40 years ago and which was still relatively small 20 years ago—has developed between the traditional middle class and the top 30 percent of society.
I think the switcheroo in religious affiliation appears to reflect the rise of the Social Darwinist "success gospel."

That said, the author is flat wrong on calling places like the DC Village a "meritocracy." Per Autor's comment about how "branded" degrees have more value, and how "legacies" have a leg up in admission to Harvard, etc., what we really have is semi-heritable royalty.

And, that said, per my friend Leo Lincourt, much of Peck's solution is neoliberal dreck. When I see things such as "less regulation" being promoted, the idea that American education is meritocratic and simply needs to be more so being touted, etc., yep, it's neolib dreck. Citing a Whole Foods as a likely realistic example of how to make service jobs in general more productive is also dreck. Short of forcible reformulation of the American business mindset, service jobs that involve electronic effort will be computerized or outsourced. The only service jobs that will be reformulated are, like Whole Foods, ones that serve non-meritocratic neoliberals.

He does identify the real problem:
Over time, the United States has expected less and less of its elite, even as society has oriented itself in a way that is most likely to maximize their income.
Why? He doesn't take note that the increasingly non-meritocratic elite are setting the rules for themselves.

As for that issue?

Were I the Platonic philosopher president, I'd tell the rich, "Cough up more taxes, before our police go broke and can't stop the anomie from entering your gated communities."

Yeah, it's class warfare. And? The non-meritocratic elite have practiced it for decades.


Collin said...

Eliza may well outdo a human on a school-graded case. But that's all the worse for grading standards, not vice versa. Eliza is a parody of what's wrong with counselling.

And funny you should mention Eliza, because the virtues of good counselling that Eliza so exactly lacks are necessary in all but the most menial jobs. Relating to customers, coworkers, superiors, and subordinates with civil rational discourse is the one thing computers will never master.

And every computer program has to be designed and maintained by groups of knowledgeable and well-communicating humans. This can only be learned at some form of college. The Rub is merely what that form should be.

Gadfly said...

True on the maintenance, Collin. But, Eliza was around 30-plus years ago. So, surely, something better yet cheaper would be relatively easy to do today. Per Siri, voice recognition's gotten pretty good pretty cheap. Good enough that a wider variety of canned phrases than Eliza had probably would be easy.

Whether you or I want something like that wasn't the thrust of the blog post. What WAS the thrust was whether or not Big Biz wouldn't possibly drool over something like that.

In the real world, customer service call centers have been in India for a decade or better and none of our bitching can wipe out a line of that, per Omar.

On the broader issue of what computers can or can't do? I've written plenty about how fanboys of "hard" AI have consistently overstated claims. That said, "never"? I don't do absolutes, especially on predictions.