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David Sirota

David Sirota

Posted: November 15, 2007 02:40 PM

Election '08 Meets The Great Education Myth


Regular readers know my frustration with what I previously deemed The Great Education Myth in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle. This myth, omnipotent in our media and political debate, states that America's problem with stagnating wages, job loss and benefits cuts is a problem of education. If only workers were better educated, the myth goes, their economic problems would be over.

This myth, which is a lobbyist creation designed to divert political pressure away from reforming labor, trade and economic policies, was most recently vomited up by a top editor and "expert" at one of the largest magazines in America - and then obliterated by government data and at least one leading presidential candidate.

That's right, the latest regurgitation of the myth comes from none other than U.S. News & World Report's chief financial reporter, James Pethokoukis. In the midst of an article asserting that "income inequality may actually be a good sign," this brave defender of royalism flippantly claimed "It really is all about education." He went on to state:

"Advanced economies, whether America's or Denmark's, are knowledge economies. And knowledge economies reward education. Get a degree, expand your skills, and you will do just fine."

Pethokoukis, in a non-sequitur, cites one macro unemployment stat, but offers up no actual data to support his central claim that if you just "get a degree and expand your skills you will do just fine." This is one of the top editors of one of the supposedly most Serious magazines in America regurgitating lobbyists' Great Education Myth without even bothering to check the most easy-to-find data - data reported in publications that are not exactly bastions of anti-capitalist sentiment.

Fortune magazine, for instance, recently reported that economic data proves that "the skill premium, the extra value of higher education, must have declined after three decades of growing." Specifically, "the real annual earnings of college graduates actually declined 5.2 percent, while those of high school graduates, strangely enough, rose 1.6 percent." Similarly, Businessweek has reported that "real wages for young Americans with a bachelor's degree have declined by almost 8% over the past three years" and "economists suspect that global competition has something to do with it."

That's an understatement, as shown in a stunning new report out today from the good folks at the Economic Policy Institute. Using government data, the think tank finds that "the educational group most vulnerable to offshoring are those with at least a four-year college degree." That vulnerability helps drive down wages for better-educated workers because they know that if they try to demand good pay, their employer could simply pick up and leave.

Obviously, this has everything to do with America's corrupt NAFTA-style trade policy - a policy that the U.S. House ratified last week in its vote for the Peru Free Trade Agreement, and that now awaits Senate ratification. This trade policy without enforceable labor, wage, environmental, human rights or product safety standards encourages large corporations to manufacture a race to the bottom in which workers have to keep accepting lower and lower wages (or other standards) in hopes of keeping their employer in their country.

This ain't rocket science to understand. Sure, we should all support improving our education system, because better education is just a good thing. However, it is not a cure-all to our economic challenges - not even close. No amount of education and retraining can overcome the effects of unfair trade agreements. And no amount of "customizing", to use Clinton administration jargon, by an American worker can beat an equally "customized" Chinese or Indian worker, particularly when such workers earn pennies, rather than dollars, per hour.

As I said to start, the Great Education Myth is a corporate creation. It exists to distract the public from demands to change our trade and economic policies so as to raise up all workers. If Big Business can get us all to be mad at the education system alone, then theoretically we won't demand serious populist reforms of an underlying economic system that is currently benefiting the Big Money players in Washington, while crushing the rest of us.

Now, the whole Great Education Myth is hitting the presidential campaign trail. Both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have announced their support for the NAFTA-expanding Peru trade deal all while - rather shockingly - engaging in a true Theater of the Absurd by continuing to tell union audiences that they oppose the NAFTA trade model. John Edwards, by contrast, has come out strongly against the Peru deal, and yesterday issued a statement tying the upcoming Senate vote on that trade deal to the Great Education Myth and the Economic Policy Institute's report. Here are some excerpts:

"Today, the Economic Policy Institute issued a report that should come as a clarion call to everyone concerned about the impact of unfair trade agreements and practices on America's working families. In their report, the EPI concludes that between 25 to 30 million American jobs -- about one in five American jobs -- in states all across the nation, are at risk for being offshored over the next decade. And it's not just manufacturing jobs - the report shows those jobs that require at least a four-year college degree are actually the most at risk. This report makes clear what the labor community has known for far too long: bad trade deals, cheap foreign labor, illegal foreign subsidies and foreign currency manipulation are having a devastating effect on American workers...Given this reality, I find it alarming that Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have chosen to support a flawed Peru Trade deal that will only further expand the NAFTA-model that has already cost us well over a million jobs."

How this plays out on the campaign trail is anyone's guess. As we see from Pethokoukis's piece and from many other political pundits like him, the Great Education Myth is such unquestioned orthodoxy among our elite media and politicians that it has become an assumption that is flippantly forwarded without even a flinch toward basic factual substantiation.

That means candidates like Edwards (or anyone other such populist) who dares to challenge the Great Education Myth and the Washington Consensus in support of NAFTA-style trade policies face not only hostility from other candidates chasing down Wall Street cash, but hostility from what is supposed to be an objective political press corps.

Cross-posted from the Campaign for America's Future