January 9, 2014

Education bubbles and rising inequality

Below are a series of comments I left on a post at Steve Sailer's. They look at the history of the relationship between rising inequality and education bubbles, as well as discussing some of the mechanistic links through which more and more schooling (and a more and more academic focus within schools) breeds widening inequality. Hence, all of these elite liberal plans to cure inequality by expanding education will make the problem worse. A populist liberal plan would scale back pointless education, and give it a more practical focus for most folks.

In Peter Turchin's model, status-striving drives inequality, and one of the most reliable signs of striving is a higher ed bubble. It turns out that, at least in America over the last 200 years, this bubble spread more broadly to pre-college schooling. Now it's extending toward a pre-K schooling bubble.

Once upon a time, not only did few people go to college, they didn't even bother with high school. My hillbilly grandfather spent most of his school days roaming around backwoods Appalachia hunting whatever little animals he could scrounge up for meals, and generally enjoying himself. He grew up to get good union jobs, mostly as a carpenter but also as a coal miner. That was during the Great Compression (he was born in 1914), when folks weren't going to harass him for not showing up to class -- he was already getting the education he needed.

I saw the same attitude in my aunt's senior yearbook from 1963 -- shop class for guys and home ec for girls. That reflects a practical rather than academic orientation, even for those who did continue through senior year of high school (and only about half of the freshmen would bother, when they could begin working instead).

However, this isn't just "the past" vs. "the present," as such scenes would have struck a Gilded Age observer as disturbingly backwards. Surely our great nation was headed down the sewer now that the proliferation of colleges was grinding to a halt and school kids weren't expected to be familiar with Greek or Latin.

Thus the changes with the status-striving phase of the cycle are both quantitative (more students enrolled, more colleges founded, more graduates competing against each other) and qualitative (more academic rather than practical).

Anyway, here are the comments, unedited, hence more off-the-cuff and probably agitated than if I re-wrote them into a post.

* * * * *

Not only a "liberal" issue -- conservative morons have been in hysterics about mediocre schools dragging down our prosperity and international competitiveness since 1983, A Nation at Risk, which recommended the requirement of 3 years of high school math. No Child Left Behind built on that foundation.

Conservatives are not challenging the silly notion that Americans need more education -- a greater share of a given age group, a greater range of age groups, and for a longer duration of the school day and school year.

Nor do they challenge the elitist agenda of making the content all academic. Show me the thriving grassroots conservative movement that wants to bring back home ec for girls, shop class for boys, and vocational training more broadly.

Nope, all that they argue over is what academic topics and instructional techniques will be used in service of the unchallenged goal of more ed, and more academics.

E.g., focus on rote memorization rather than self-discovery of principles -- not asking whether the thing they're learning is worth everybody learning, or whether it'll be a huge waste of time, no matter how they learn it. The quadratic formula, for instance.

A Nation at Risk complained about how few high schoolers could write a persuasive essay. Why does a plumber need to know how to write a 5-paragraph essay? All that time, effort, and money to achieve the goal is pure waste.

Also, what kind of goal is it to have all Americans be able to BS their way through a half-baked argument? Might that turn us into a national of BS-ers?

As for inequality, expanding education leads to wider inequality. A brief overview of the history of American education:


There was rising inequality from circa 1820 to 1920, falling inequality from then until sometime in the '70s, and rising again after then through today.

Compulsory education for youngish children was absent in the early days of the Republic, and only began spreading during the rising-inequality period, beginning in 1852 and ending in 1917. The high school movement was a little later, but also a Gilded Age / Turn-of-the-Century phenomenon.

Then, as now, the emphasis was on academics and classics, a waste of time for almost everybody passing through.

The rising-inequality period also saw an explosion of higher ed, both number of colleges and student populations. Sound familiar? Peter Turchin looked through data on law school enrollments, and found an explosion of law school attendance during that time as well. Again, ring a bell?

The Great Compression, when inequality was falling, saw the society putting a lid on the older status-striving pursuit of more and more education. The proliferation of colleges wound down, lots of kids skipped school and weren't punished, and vocational and practical classes started to develop. That was the heyday of home ec for girls and shop class for guys.

Pursuit of more ed, and more academic ed, is nothing more than status-striving. Hence, status-striving had to decline before inequality did, and it had to re-emerge before inequality could rise again.

The Progressive movement around the 1910s were pushing for vocational training, and inequality fell shortly afterwards. The Great Society programs began the "excellence for all" discontent and return to status-striving, and inequality began rising by the later '70s.

The grassroots change has to target the spiral of status-striving in this country, not inequality itself, which is an effect. I don't see that turning around any time soon, though, even with conservatives or lower-status folks. They take it as an insult, like "Oh, so you don't think my kids would benefit from high school, or an academically focused curriculum? My kids deserve more than you think, and I'll show you."

Less schooling, and a more practical focus in school -- that's what we need.

What's the mechanistic link between the expansion of education and widening inequality? It equips the aspiring elite with the skills and knowledge necessary to crush other people's skulls in order to climb to the top, and to BS your way through a self-advancing argument. So, the ceiling on incomes will rise.

It also wastes the formative years of the lower majority of the population, training them for a way of life that they'll never ever make a living in. It's worse than just sitting around doing nothing -- it's *mis*-direction of their efforts. They could have been learning a trade, apprenticing, or by middle and high school, working in wage labor. Earn early, save early, and retire early.

If they also get trapped in the expansion of higher ed, they're also mired in debt for life, while the successful elite will be able to pay of their student loans.

Establishing and continuing to run an expanding public school system requires public funding, i.e. taxes. Except for those too poor to pay taxes, the middle 70% (or whatever) of the population is paying regularly to have their children be misdirected. Schooling isn't exactly cheap.

Eventually, the elite's goal is to privatize schooling in order to mire the majority in debt for K-12 schooling, not just for college. And then pre-K -- $20,000 in student loans by the time you're 5 years old!


  1. I couldn't agree more with your commentary that schooling should focus more on the practical. I'm one of those that people call "book-smart, but lacks common sense". It kinda hurts when people close to you say it, but there's probably some truth in it for me. In school they don't teach you how to balance a checkbook, show you what can happen with credit cards, or college loans, or what majors lead to which careers, etc. But hey when I was 18 I could recite the definition of sine and cosine like it was nobody's business! And I knew the supposed pros of gay marriage.

  2. Mexicans stop out of high school. In my high school, which had a large immigrant population, the senior class was half the size of the freshman class.

  3. "And I knew the supposed pros of gay marriage."

    When we were talking with my brother and his son over Skype during vacation, he said something about wanting to marry some girl in his class. Then, without any prompting from the grown-ups, he added, "And sometimes a boy and a boy get married, and sometimes a girl and a girl get married."

    He lives in one of the reddest states in the country, no NAMs in sight. But there it is in kindergarten -- pro-homo propaganda.

  4. "In my high school, which had a large immigrant population, the senior class was half the size of the freshman class."

    That's got to be on the decline by now. All those DREAM act people and their supporters. It may have taken some time, but Mexicans and other immigrants assimilate to local norms of status-striving, like owning a big-ass new home, pursuing higher ed, and spending on credit rather than saving.

  5. Great article, you are correct. But the biggest error that most people make is equating education with school. There are many people who are all for education, but against school. I'm of the opinion that public schools should be like public housing, a means of last resort.

    Have you read the works of John Taylor Gatto? He's the author of "The Underground History of Public Education." Very revealing stuff.

  6. "not asking whether the thing they're learning is worth everybody learning, or whether it'll be a huge waste of time, no matter how they learn it. The quadratic formula, for instance."

    Didn't you argue that aptitutde testing is more common in rising equality?


  7. Also, business and Spanish majors.

    I know a recent graduate who said that majoring in Spanish helped her land a technical consulting position.

  8. My grandfather also didn't graduate from highschool. He became ill during his senior year and couldn't graduate, so he just joined the workforce (and the military not too long after when WW2 began). This was in relatively rural Minnesota.

  9. I know it's just Wiki, but interestingly, the argument here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_inequality#Education -

    "During the mass high school education movement from 1910–1940, there was an increase in skilled workers, which led to a decrease in the price of skilled labor. High school education during the period was designed to equip students with necessary skill sets to be able to perform at work.

    In fact, it differs from the present high school education, which is regarded as a stepping-stone to acquire college and advanced degrees. This decrease in wages caused a period of compression and decreased inequality between skilled and unskilled workers."

    This is somewhat similar, but also divergent.

    It's kind of the opposite of the present situation, where mass immigration and globalization are lowering the unskilled price, while having lower effects on the skilled price, while at the same time, education is less effective at producing marketable workers at the end of a financially affordable cycle. And where achieving high levels of education (requiring high intelligence and capital) has large dividends.

    Low prices for skilled compared to unskilled workers also mean more intelligent people end up going into unskilled work, and thus a more even mix of intellectual levels among occupations.

    I don't really think "status striving" is in any kind driving seat here. This is where your tendency to want to see cultural changes as driven by behaviors in the masses (cocooning, status striving) which can be moralized about is getting the better of you. Desires for more education are driven by inequality related phenomena, "college for all", and fairly egalitarian concerns about equality of opportunity, competition with other nations in the "education" race, etc.

  10. Peter Turchin's analysis of the status-striving and inequality cycles shows that first the status-striving variables change, then the inequality variable changes, with a lag of about 5-10 years.

    For education, the surge in the number (or pop. share) of law school students began circa 1970, whereas inequality didn't start rising until the late '70s.

    Elite 20-somethings took the harmony of the Great Compression for granted, and began asking why they shouldn't go for all that they deserve. Law school being one of the most reliable ways to climb your way up the pyramid of status, wealth, and power.

    Bill and Hillary, for example.

    After the elites begin to loosen their focus on harmony, the next layer down figures they'd better start striving too, in order to not be left so far behind. So the higher ed bubble gets going a little later, late '70s / early '80s. And so on outward.

  11. I know Steve Sailer has talked about the problem of bilingualism. In order to be bilingual, you would have to attend a special school from a young age or have parents who speak the second language at home.

  12. In the Real Housewives of New York City, one of them has a French au pair.

    Amy Chua brought in a Chinese au pair to speak to her children in mandarin.

  13. I got suspended in high school for cutting SAT prep.


  14. http://news.yahoo.com/latest-airline-perk-safe-distance-masses-083509479.html

    They can't even stand to be around each other, much less the proles in coach.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."