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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Think about this: just how valuable is getting your bachelor's degree today, compared with 30 years ago? How about even 15 years ago? Not very. Although a bachelor's degree is a requirement for most "white collar" jobs — office jobs — it is hardly any longer guarantee of a comfortable economic existence. I'm sure the readers of this column are well aware of that.

Now, think about this factoid: only between three and four out of every 10 Chicagoans has a bachelor's degree. Think about that: having a bachelor's puts you in a minority in this huge, economically flush city. Free marketers would tell you that that means you should be in greater demand (due to your relative scarcity); yet, as we realized in that first paragraph, it hardly means much. And in fact, as more and more people get bachelor's degrees — and that number increases all the time — it will mean even less.

That is why I am against the idea that "education" is a cure-all.

Well, I'm not really against education. I'm against the myth, that really took shape during the Clinton presidency, that simply getting a post-high school degree is the solution to all of the economic violence that destroys so many American lives. This myth has done more to damage economic progress than anything since the creation of the modern Republican Party.

The two, of course, go hand in hand.

There was a time in this country where simply getting a full-time job meant you could be certain of at least some level of economic security. That time was the post-war era, when New Deal policies and high union density made sure that jobs were valuable and productivity was rewarded by wage increases.

The modern conservative movement, embodied in the person of probably demonic Ronald Reagan (remember the conspiracy theorists who pointed out that when you count the letters in Ronald Wilson Reagan you got 6 6 6?) put an end to all of that by deregulating everything and decimating collective bargaining. The result? Well, how abut this fact: between 2000 and 2006, worker productivity increased by an unheard of 18 percent, as Americans reacted to the Internet bubble burst by clinging desperately to their jobs. Did real wages, adjusted for inflation, increase by 18 percent, or anything even approaching it? Nope. In fact, if you guessed it was anything over 1 percent, you'd be wrong, because the correct answer is 1 percent. Or about $3.20 a week, according to a column by Bob Herbert in Monday's New York Times.

So people are working almost 20 percent harder for 1 percent more money. Do you want to guess how much CEO salaries have increased in that time period? By about $1 million, or close to 10 percent. In 1980, the average CEO made 40 times what the average American workers took home. In 2005 that number was 411. Conservatives cheer and say it's the free market, but of course its not. These corporate executives all sit on each other's board and vote themselves raises while crying about the labor costs their corporations face.

All this, and people are more educated than ever. The number of bachelor's degrees awarded between 1990 and 2004 increased by a full third, 33 percent. Here are some more numbers: in 1972, 12 percent of Americans had a bachelor's; in 2002 that number was 27 percent. But average Americans are still earning less in real dollars and are falling way behind executives.

In his column, Herbert points out that between 2000 and 2006, real earnings for Americans 93 million — that's 93,000,000 — non-supervisory, non-agricultural employees increased by about $15.4 billion. That is less than the executive bonuses given out by the top five Wall Street firms in one year.

More people with bachelor's degrees won't solve that problem. Dramatically changing an economic system where literally several thousand individuals control all of the wealth and choose to re-route it to themselves can be the only solution. In other words, reward work.

How do you reward work? First of all, you regulate corporate governance. Public corporations love to have all of the zillions of privileges that incorporation gives them — no liability for anything, near-infinite ability to raise funds, all of the rights of U.S. citizenship, and on and on and on — but whenever we try to regulate their myriad abuses, they mewl and puke about government. It's one way or the other — either government is good because it protects your rights as a "citizen" and grants you so many privileges and protections, or its evil for any regulation. Not both.

Next, you allow individuals to make the choice to bargain collectively. Conservatives want to deregulate all economic activity, as long as it doesn't benefit honest work or minorities. Collective bargaining has been turned into something political, but it isn't. It's business. Individuals get together and enter into an economic agreement with each other to bargain collectively for wages, benefits and conditions. This process has been made nearly impossible by 30 years of assault on collective bargaining. Protect this activity by removing the third party (e.g., the employer) from the decision making process.

Finally, you eviscerate the health insurance system that allows corporations, who are all so intertwined and interlocked, to offer ridiculously over-valued "benefits" as part of an employee's compensation (e.g., "I haven't gotten a raise in four years, but I get great health insurance!") while essentially not actually providing anything, because the insurance companies, despite being paid to provide a service, actively try to avoid providing that service.

Taking some night classes at a local vocational school will not cure poverty in this country. It may help the random individual or, more rarely, family, but it is not a systematic solution. If a single mother came to me and said, "I need to make more money to support my kid. I live with my mother so she can watch my kid occasionally." I would probably reply, "Have you considered maybe nursing school? It's hard work but nurses make pretty good money."

If the entire West Side of Chicago wrote you a letter saying, "Poverty is destroying our neighborhoods," would you reply with, "Take some classes at Truman College!" Of course not. It's not only wrong, it's ridiculous on its face.

Making sure that the average Americans' productivity is fairly rewarded will more or less wipe out systematic economic violence. Every American getting a bachelor's degree will just mean everybody has a bachelor's degree. The economy still needs tens if not hundreds of millions of people to work the low-level production, retail and service jobs that require basic education but more so just need warm bodies, ability to learn and a good work ethic. Until those jobs are meaningful, poverty will ravage communities, and the middle class will be tortured by an economic insecurity that tells us, over and over — with just a little bad luck, with just one extra-greedy, thieving CEO, we can be left with nothing — our retirement savings wiped out, our homes taken away, our health care neglected. So work harder. Like, 20 percent harder. But we're keeping that extra cash.

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jerry 101 / January 10, 2007 9:56 AM

Has someone been reading David Sirota?

All kidding aside, great column. It should get greater visibility. Something like DailyKos or MyDD.

brian / January 10, 2007 1:33 PM

"So people are working almost 20 percent harder for 1 percent more money."

This is a false analogy.

An 18% increase in productivity doesn't necessarily mean everyone's working 20% harder, just that they produce 20% more goods. There's a difference.

RfC / January 10, 2007 1:52 PM

Well, it's not a "false analogy" technically speaking, since there is no analogy being present. If you mean that productivity and amount of effort (or work) do not correlate, then you may be right, but if a person is 20% more productive (not just at producing goods, but also at producing service or in some cases "results" of various kinds--a salesman who is 20% more productive implies he is selling 20% more, not producing 20% more of the goods he's selling) then the implication is that he is performing 20% "better". Doesn't it follow that their compensation should correlate, at least to some degree?

Productivity is the measure of a rational entity's success (theoretically, an irrational company could continue to produce more and more despite having no or at least not a correlative amount of demand).

nu / January 10, 2007 2:49 PM


This morning on my way to work I was listening to the radio, and the incessant commercials to get "certificates" and "associates" at Harper/Roosevelt/etc. I was thinking to myself - "I have a MASTERS and only make $37/year. Why are they lying to people and pretending this country rewards knowledge?"

This country rewards wealth. Not brains. Not work.


Good luck if you don't have any to begin with.

mike / January 12, 2007 10:17 AM

As an economic argument, yes, collective barganing for the poor and middle class would do better in making economic inroads and breaking corporate control; however, we should remember that, while the United States rewards wealth and not knowledge, that an education inherintly creates options and access, and goes an extraordinary length in easing violence. As a teacher at a high school in Humboldt Park, I see daily how options and access change individual lives and collectively the community. To be in a position to "bargain" for anything, an individual and a collective need a level of civics and education. For this very deficiency, it is often very difficult to organize at-risk neighborhoods. While bachelor degrees might not solve these problems, options and access work to ease economic and social violence. Remember, at heart, Americans want options and security. Social mobility is secondary to this. While I do believe there are strong values in a bachelor's degree, we would go further as a society to re-invest in our high school system, which in the past served as a powerful gateway to middle-class America, career opportunity, and civic and economic barganing.

In addition, we must remember that those of us with professional degrees, vocational training, and/or bachelor's, have access and further choice in the direction of our lives. By rewarding WORK starting in high school, as Richard states, we would be creating that access and choice earlier and give Americans ( especially minorities and poor rural whites) the momentum to bargan against the theivery of thousands of executives.

So, let's alsowork 20% harder in reforming primary and secondary education - the B.A.'s may not be making what they want, but at the end of the day, they're fine.

Jack / January 12, 2007 1:10 PM

Dead on right. I think your exactly right about both the problem and the solution. Tons of research shows that we're just not creating "middle quality jobs" in this country since the 1990s. You've got tons of crappy jobs and a good number of really high skill, high paying, high education jobs, but nothing in between and little hope of moving up the ladder. Collective bargaining, making those crappy jobs into middle quality jobs, is definetly one of the most important solutions. Unionize or end up like a 3rd world country should be our mantra.

I just stumbled on this column a month ago and I love it. Keep up the good work

Jack / January 12, 2007 1:11 PM

Dead on right. I think your exactly right about both the problem and the solution. Tons of research shows that we're just not creating "middle quality jobs" in this country since the 1990s. You've got tons of crappy jobs and a good number of really high skill, high paying, high education jobs, but nothing in between and little hope of moving up the ladder. Collective bargaining, making those crappy jobs into middle quality jobs, is definetly one of the most important solutions. Unionize or end up like a 3rd world country should be our mantra.

I just stumbled on this column a month ago and I love it. Keep up the good work

Dan Johnson-Weinberger / January 14, 2007 11:32 AM

Another crucial policy tool is taxation. We tax work too much and we don't tax wealth enough. The new Democratic majority in Congress ought to raise taxes on wealth, particularly capital gains, estates and high incomes, while cutting taxes on work, particularly payrolls.

Rene Gonzales / January 16, 2007 6:04 PM

Being a 28 year old student in City College Iíve been wrestling with this question myself. Do I struggle through to get my BA in psychology and see what happens? Or do I try to join the LAPD or become a nurse or pursue something more attainable such as these options.

As you might have discerned, I was a late bloomer as far as my intellectual development was and is concerned (there's no escaping the past), and feel I must choose the answer soon. I have learned so much and have a 3.7 GPA and can't help feeling that I will be missing out on valuable education and, mind expanding not to mention personally empowering knowledge and this just from the general ed requirements. Iím of the belief that individuals that are well rounded in knowledge are more valuable to any institution be it business or country. taking this into consideration I feel a responsibility to my country to pursue higher education however if at the end of that that road I find frustration and economic strife I wont be much good to my country frustrated and ever so marginalized due to my lack of wealth and excess of debt. So what do I do?

On the subject of education I would like to introduce or reintroduce you all to the Republic Of Gondour, Mark Twain wrote of his memorable visit there. Look it up.

(I would not have had the pleasure of discovering this if I hadnít taken political science in college. See what I mean higher knowledge is more than just pecuniary it helps us grow and mature, evolve you might say. I say might because I understand the analogy is not technically perfect)

RfC / January 16, 2007 8:07 PM


Kudos to you on your continued education. Believe me, I think its important for as many people to get a well-rounded education as possible. Ideally, everybody could get a solid public school education and have the choice to pursue a higher education if they can.

The reality, though, is that millions of Americans don't have even an opportunity to make that pursuit--they have family responsibilities, or their primary and secondary school experiences didn't prepare them for it, or some other tragedy or situation prevents them from devoting a significant amount of time to schooling.

For those Americans, the jobs they do get should at least reward them for the work they do. I'm sure you'd agree that just because somebody missed out on an education, doesn't mean that their labor is next-to-worthless; surely if somebody works hard and excels at whatever job they do have, that job should provide them a living.

The sad reality is that in America, work is almost never rewarded.


About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at

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