Sunday, June 5, 2011

Investment Advice

Sometimes I read things in the news that just make me want to grab people by the shirt collar and shake the stupid right out of them.

There I’d be, standing in a big sloppy puddle of gooey stupid with a person dangling six inches off the ground, held up in my hands, markedly smaller than they were when this whole ordeal began, and I’d say, “There, doesn’t that feel better?” And it would. We would agree on that, and go get something to eat after.

I got this feeling this morning while looking at the latest exploits of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and the reactions that decent people have when confronted by such exploits. Just because Wisconsin isn’t on your local news every night doesn’t mean that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys aren’t still hard at work betraying our past, impoverishing our present and selling out our future. They are nothing if not industrious that way, much like termites, and every day here in Baja Canada is a fecal storm of wonderment at their latest endeavors.

The specific issue today is education.

Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) clearly has no interest in an educated citizenry, such a thing being rather counterproductive to his agenda, and his cronies, minions and lackeys in the legislature have been aggressive – to the point of actually denying the minority party the right even to vote on bills – in pursuing that policy. Even as the cronies &c. have been chopping nearly a billion dollars out of Wisconsin’s public schools, they have still found time to give hundreds of millions of dollars in political welfare checks to their wealthy and connected patrons in the form of tax cuts that will, next budget cycle, force even more money to be cut from education. It’s a neatly self-reinforcing process that way.

These folks apparently think that education is a privilege, one that comes with being a wealthy and connected patron of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries). If you kids wanted an education, why didn’t you become rich first so you could afford one?

The people behind most of the vocal opposition to this plan counter that education is a right, up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and to deny it to anyone – especially if you’re just going to give that money to people who already have more of it than there are politicians left to buy – is thus a crime.

Neither of these positions is correct.

Education is not a privilege. It isn’t something that should be limited to the rich or powerful. It isn’t something that should only be given to a deserving few, however one wishes to separate them out from the common herd of the rest of us. It’s something that needs to be widely distributed, available to all.

Nor is it a right. It’s not like life or liberty or the pursuit of happiness, things that a free citizen of a republic owns as a birthright and which, taken from that citizen, constitute legitimate grounds for rebellion. It isn’t like free speech, suffrage or trial by jury, guaranteed by the founding document of the United States and woven deeply into the fabric of American values. It’s desirable. It’s an unmitigated good. It’s something everyone should have. But that’s not the same thing.

Education is an investment.

It’s something that a wise society does everything in its power to grant to all of its citizens. It’s something that short-sighted and greedy societies try to deny to those citizens. It’s an expense, yes it is. But it’s a necessary expense.

Education an economic investment, for both the student and for society at large.

For the student, education is a path to material success. In today’s job market, there is a direct correlation between education and income. Yes, there are exceptions. My PhD has not led to any great wealth, for example, and there are plenty of people out there without degrees making decent livings. But overall, college educated people make more money than high school educated people, and both make more money than people who never finished school.

And the reason this is something that society should be investing in is that society as a whole benefits from this.

More affluent people are better economic engines than less affluent people. We live in an economy that is driven by consumer spending, and when you run out of consumers – which is what happens when only a few people can afford to buy things and the rest just look on in envy – bad things happen. This is effectively what happened in 1929, and it is more or less the trajectory we’ve been on since 1980. Even CEOs are beginning to notice this fact now, according to news reports, and it will be interesting to see what if anything they do about it once they realize that their own bottom lines are at stake.

Furthermore, the boom in the middle class – and the consumers they became – that the United States experienced between 1945 and 1975 was in large part fueled by education, because it provided new workers with the skills they needed to get the good, high-paying jobs that provided disposable income to be used for consumption. Cut that education – stop investing in the future – and it will go away. As indeed it has.

But that affluence has to come from somewhere. It has to come from good, creative jobs that generate productivity and wealth. The kinds of jobs that require an educated work force, in other words. Sure, you can create jobs for unskilled workers, but those jobs tend to pay little and be worth less in the long run. There’s no multiplier there. So that middle class became self-reinforcing. Educated workers generated new jobs, which required new educated workers. It was a solid feedback loop that rested on a foundation of education.

A society that wants to be prosperous in the long run will bear the expense of educating its children in the short run. That’s what “investment” means.

Education is also a political investment.

That middle class? That’s the foundation of Lockean liberalism, the guiding ideology of the United States since the early 1800s. It is Lockean liberalism that stresses things like the value and worth of the individual, the importance of equal opportunity, the sacred nature of private property, the need for political and civil rights, and the central role of the free market. An Enlightenment theory, it became powerful when it was adopted by the industrial middle class in the 19th century, and so long as that middle class exists it will continue to guide American politics and values.

That middle class now rests on education, providing the foundation for its income. Gutting education now only serves to gut the middle class later. Take the middle class away, and some other political ideology will do the guiding.

Even before the dominance of Lockean liberalism, though, the Founding Fathers understood the importance of investing in education.

This country was founded as a republic. One of the few qualities about republics that all of the Founding Fathers agreed upon was that they required an educated citizenry in order to survive. Republics place great demands on their citizens. A subject – someone living under a monarchy, an aristocracy, a tyranny – needed to be kept ignorant and pliable. But a republican citizen had to be well-informed and able to use that information. He (and at the time it was always “he”) had to be able to put aside his petty private interests in the name of the public good, something that took character – character that was developed by education. This was the meaning of “virtue” when the Founding Fathers used the term.

A society that wants to remain a free republic and not degenerate into authoritarian tyranny in the long run will bear the expense of educating its children in the short run. That’s what “investment” means.

Education is also a social investment.

There are any number of statistics you could cite to support this. Educated people tend to have wider horizons than uneducated people. They are more tolerant as a group, more willing to accept that they aren’t the sole possessors of Truth In Its Most Pristine Form simply because they’ve been exposed to so many different views that make that claim. They tend to support the arts more than uneducated people do – and not just high arts but all arts. They tend to make society more interesting, more vital and more creative – all traits that make it more viable in the long run. They tell its stories, inspire its dreams, and make it want to be better than it is.

You don’t need a whole lot of education to do this. You can be perfectly well educated this way with a high school diploma. Some people even become perfectly well educated this way on their own, though it’s not as common as they’d like to think. And some folks survive a full education even through graduate degrees without ever learning any of these traits. But on the whole, it works.

A society that wants to grow, thrive and dream in the long run – a society that does not want to stagnate into an ever-contracting circle of precedent and limited goals – will bear the expense of educating its children in the short run. That’s what “investment” means.

An intelligent society, one not dominated by short-sighted greed, one whose foundation remains the idea of free citizens in a free republic rather than subjects in an authoritarian tyranny, understands that anything worthwhile comes at a cost. That you have to weigh the costs against the benefits received. That you have to spend now – sometimes a lot now – to get later. That a republican citizen must rise above his or her (now “her” too, thankfully) petty private interests and work for the public good, as those who founded this country intended them to do.

Education is an investment.

The Americans who set up public school systems, who founded colleges and universities, understood this.  They understood that they needed to sacrifice some of their own petty private interests in the name of the long term public good. They invested in their children. They invested in their future. They invested in a free republic that would inspire, dream and lead.

We don’t need to make those investments. There is no requirement that the United States survive indefinitely. It is entirely possible, even historically likely, that it will not. This is entirely voluntary on our part.

But if we want the United States to grow, thrive, prosper and lead for the generations to come, we will invest in education for the generations we have now.


Eric said...

The arguments you make for the importance of education are why it is, in fact, a right granted under the North Carolina state constitution (and, IIRC, enshrined in a number of other state constitutions). We may do a lousy job of protecting the right a lot of the time, but since it IS a right here, citizens have legal redress if it's infringed. Just thought I'd mention that.

And great post, again.

David said...


My hat's off to the forward-thinking constitutional authors in North Carolina, in that case.

I know MA and NJ provide that right too. I should double check about that in Wisconsin. But it isn't in the Federal Constitution, and at this point I doubt whether an amendment to that effect would pass, sad to say.

KimK said...

PLEASE send this to the paper for a guest editorial!

Beatrice Desper said...

I'm with Kim.