Technology Trumping education in Enequality

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans        I read a piece recently in the Times by Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University.  The headline, about inequality and education, caught my eye.  I thought it would be the usual, tired saw that starts and ends at the proposition:  more education means less inequality.  This, however, was different and intriguing, because Professor Cowen seemed to be arguing that education just can’t keep up, and therefore is failing us in our hopes of creating a more equal society.

    Look at this quote: “Income distribution thus depends on the balance between technological progress and access to college and postgraduate study.  The problem isn’t so much capitalism as it is that American lower education does not prepare enough people to receive gains from American higher education.”

    I am hugely disturbed by all of the voices starting to be increasingly heard that essentially argue that the race is lost virtually before it has begun.  We talked about the piece recently regarding language acquisition being stunted by the amount — the pure volume — of words that lower-income children hear from their parent/s at home compared to middle-income children, leaving such children permanently in second place, even before they get to school.  Professor Cowen is following an argument made by Lawrence Katz and Claudia Golden that says that part of the widening spread in inequality rests on the fact that “…technology …raised the gains for those with enough skills to handle the complex jobs.”  So, the winners in the race to reduce inequality would be the people who get the training and skills in handling technology and new skills quickly enough to sneak ahead of those that have not yet gotten the memo, so to speak.  Worse, if the early years of education do not prepare students to receive the gains of higher education, then the primary source for skill upgrading (and therefore improved equality of income) just doesn’t work out at all as a premium in pay for having done the time.  

    It is certainly no secret that the widespread access to community colleges and post-secondary education is being bedeviled by remedial programs that attempt to regain ground that others expected the primary and secondary system to have delivered with some mastery and success.  The notion that the gains from college are being dissolved for the mass of students, increasingly because of the inability of all levels of education to deliver the goods and keep up or more importantly transfer the knowledge that allows the student to get ahead, is sobering and depressing.

    Professor Cowen’s nails it harder:  “Nonetheless it will, sooner or later, become increasingly difficult to deliver the gains from college — not to mention post-graduate study — to the entire population.  Technology is advancing faster than our ability to educate.  So even if inequality declines today, it may well intensify in the future.  Even if American education improves at every level, the largely not-for-profit educational sector may simply be less dynamic than the progress of new technologies.  The lesson is this:  Economists are honing in on the key to the inequality problem, but don’t think any solution will necessarily last long.”

    Gulp!  We are still arguing about the digital divide for low- and moderate-income families, while up the road and over the hill in the choice schools and richer neighborhoods they are turning somersaults on top of us.  

    This bootstrap stuff is not getting it done.

Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University