At the Daily Beast, Megan McArdle sees college as the American middle class’s last desperate bet for economic security in the fast-shifting global economy:
If employers have mostly been using college degrees to weed out the inept and the unmotivated, then getting more people into college simply means more competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs. And in the current environment, that means a lot of people borrowing money for jobs they won’t get.
But we keep buying because after two decades prudent Americans who want a little financial security don’t have much left. Lifetime employment, and the pensions that went with it, have now joined outhouses, hitching posts, and rotary-dial telephones as something that wide-eyed children may hear about from their grandparents but will never see for themselves. The fabulous stock-market returns that promised an alternative form of protection proved even less durable. At least we have the house, weary Americans told each other, and the luckier ones still do, as they are reminded every time their shaking hand writes out another check for a mortgage that’s worth more than the home that secures it. What’s left is … investing in ourselves. Even if we’re not such a good bet. […]
In Academically Adrift, their recent study of undergraduate learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that at least a third of students gain no measurable skills during their four years in college. For the remainder who do, the gains are usually minimal. For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.
When I read McArdle’s reflections above, I can’t help but think of the Confucian guilds of China 500 years ago, by which rigorous exams were used, not to locate talent for economic growth, but to identify in a tight job market the smartest and most obedient managers for perpetuating a stagnant system.
I also think of politics. In a fast globalizing world, middle class populations are desperate for some protection from the viscitudes of markets and will vote for politicians who promise them something (from police and military protection on the right to healthcare and free education on the left). The irony, of course, is that governments in a globalized economy have little maneuvering room to provide these things. If they run high debts, their credit ratings are harmed on global bond markets. If taxes are too high, they hurt the private sector’s competitiveness. If they try, through regulations, to protect populations from things like pollution, this too harms global competitiveness.
Has it always been this cold?