Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Real Economic Education

People on the low end of the economic totem pole - the Sears clerks, the delivery boys, the Mexicans working hard in the factories for $5 an hour - any worker on the mucky end of the stick - should probably be thought of as ready to revolt at any time if not for two mitigating factors. Those factors are a) the reasonably-often-satisfied hope that step-on-the-ladder economic progress will come for those who work hard, and b) the expectation that the brilliant or the lucky can jump to the top. We might encapsulate these promises as "functionality" and "freedom" - the system will work for you if you work for it, and if you can get ahead on your own hook, God bless ya.

Without these, the system is a rip. I can't get ahead if I work? I can't get ahead if I luck out? I can't get ahead if I invent Viagra? A system with these characteristics would suck. A system with these characteristics is about as good as we're going to get in this imperfect world.

I have some unease deriving from a fear that both prongs of this two-prong test are decaying in the current situation. There seems to be a profoundly anti-wealth sentiment sweeping both the chattering and the ruling classes, one that seems informed by a kindly egalitarianism but no sense of the hard-headed economic realities - trustafarian socialism. The idea that wealth can be legitimately attained or kept seems to be dwindling.

This endangers the freedom prong. (Wouldn't "Save the Freedom Prong" make a great t-shirt?)

Much more dangerous in the long run is the strain on the prong of functionality. I think that for a long time we have been able to "coast" in many ways economically, and our citizenry has learned very bad economic habits (dependency, dissolution, divorce). The 21st century is not likely to be a time of placid social adaptation to centrally-planned trends, but instead a brawling chaos as the planned trends snap back on their nitwit originators. We've got a workforce that to an extent expects hierarchy and stability in a world where they need independence and flexibility. Most painful is going to be the fact that parts of the population have seen the light and are doing the 'right' things (or at least the things that will later get them complained about by the less fiscally successful), and others are stuck in well-meant but ineffectual paradigms and can't or won't succeed under the real rules. This is going to cause more and more gaps. Add in state policies that favor the rich - more accurately, that reward wealth-building strategies - and the perception, if not the reality, that the system is broken spreads further. A previously-functional system with dysfunctional people in it won't work for long, especially when a perception (and reality) is created that hard work is for suckers.

I think part of the source of the problem is that kids have to be educated for life in a materialist and capitalist culture, but that we instead saddle them with a load of wouldn't-it-be-nice stories. This is beneficial for the 5% of the kids whose ruling class parents re-inculcate them with the proper capitalist martial virtue, but dooms the other 95%. The 95% are easy meat for the 5% in the hunt. If the 95% got the same factual education as the 5% (by which I mean the same essentially correct economic outlook, not the material circumstances of the education) the economic picture would look different, because the distribution of information between the participants would be different. By the time reality kicks in at age 35 or so, it's a bit late to forego the class on French romantic poetry in favor of "Statistical Thinking In a Numerate World."

(This "classic" post brought to you courtesy of my slamming deadlines this week.)

1 comment:

mythago said...

Kind of a mishmash. Unless you're saying 'let's play straight with the lower 95%, so they'll revolt,' which I tend to doubt.

The work-hard system is effective when hard work does, in fact, lead to a decent standard of living and advancement. It can't do that in a system where credentialing and social class are used to raise the bar--sorry, Mr. $5 Janitor, we don't really care if you can do this white-collar work because you don't have a degree.

The chattering classes are hardly "anti-wealth".