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It's Not The Dependency Ratio, Stupid Clinton Spin: To Make You Forget They Are Democrats

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The Travails of Labor and Education

by Christopher Chantrill
September 04, 2006 at 5:01 am


OVER TWO HUNDRED years ago, in The Wealth of Nations (now available on Google Book Search), Adam Smith applauded the general increase in prosperity in eighteenth century England. Its day-laborers and their wives could all afford to wear leather shoes. Indeed, “The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to be seen without them.” The custom reflected a general understanding that it would be impossible to fall into such poverty “without extreme bad conduct.”

It was the beginning of elite interest in the condition of the working classes.

Smith also expressed satisfaction that the establishment of parish schools in Scotland “had taught almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of them to write and account.”

In our time the elite interest in the day laborer and the education of the common people has concentrated into Walter Pater’s hard gem-like flame, and nowhere more so than in the pages of The New York Times.

Last week the folks at The New York Times reported on problems both in laboring and in education of the common people. “The median hourly wage for American workers,” wrote Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt on August 28, “has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation.”

In education we are struggling with students shocked to discover that they need remedial math when they get to college. Wrote Diana Jean Schemo on September 2: “Michael Walton, starting at community college [in Dundalk, Md], was sure that there was some mistake. Having done so well in high school in West Virginia that he graduated a year and a half early, how could he need remedial math?”

After speculating for 15 paragraphs about the damage that declining median wage rates might do to Republican Party chances in the November elections, Greenhouse and Leonhardt allow an economist to speculate about what might have “eroded workers’ bargaining power.”

But suppose there is something bigger afoot than evil Republican in Congress and labor unions “much weaker than they once were.” Maybe in a world where your iPod reads “Designed by Apple in California. Made in China,” you and I cannot really expect to earn big money as bump-on-a-log employees. Maybe something more creative, more adventurous is required of us than work for a regular paycheck. But this is not a subject fit for The New York Times.

There is a similar concern for the fitness of things in Schemo’s report on education problems. It does not seem to occur to her to wonder, let alone ask tough questions, about the national problem with remedial courses. How could the young man not know that he was unprepared for college-level math? And how could the folks at his Maryland public high school not have advised him? Did they not know that their graduates were being forced into remedial courses? And weren’t they doing something about it?

Isn’t there maybe something really wrong with an education system that allows this problem to develop and then allows it to fester?

Of course you would hardly expect reporters from The New York Times to understand this. They live like educators and children. They enjoy lifetime employment, by virtue of their membership in a journalists’ union, so they are not directly engaged, like Adam Smith’s eighteenth-century day-laborer, in the daily fluctuations of the market for laboring services, or like a twenty-first century businessman, in the daily fluctuations of the global marketplace.

For the folk at The New York Times the problems on the income front for the median wage earner suggest nothing but some new program to manipulate the labor market. The problems on the education front suggest new government attempts to demand better results out of the government education system.

But what if they are missing the point? What if the institution of work for cash wages—the common form of employment since the industrial revolution—is now in its decline, and that people must now offer their services to the market on a different basis?

What if they are missing the point on education as well? In the past generation we have doubled the input into K-12 education, yet the effect as expressed in tests like the SAT has been zero. Could this be telling us something?

Two centuries ago the industrial revolution transformed the world of work for the common people and the elites of the world decided that every boy and girl should go to school.

Perhaps the information revolution will do the same, and provoke an utter transformation in the world of work.

But maybe the bigger surprise will be in education where the contrast between public and private is startling. In the recent “Stupid in America” John Stossel presents an ill-found government education system driving on the rocks with nobody taking responsibility.

But when parents pay $20,000 a year to send a kid to private school that’s just the start. They have to volunteer, fund-raise, and supervise their kid’s homework as well.

John Kenneth Galbraith had it wrong. The danger is from “private health and public squalor” side by side.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990

Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State

Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures

German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh

Living Law

The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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