03/07/2006 03:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tearing the Veneer Off the Great Education Myth

I recently wrote about the political Establishment's Great Education Myth -- you know, the line of reasoning we hear from elitist pundits and politicians that says the economic problem facing Americans is not our corporate-written trade policy that sells our country out, but the fact that workers aren't better educated. Now, it's true -- we do need to improve our education system. No one doubts that. But the idea that better educating workers -- but not fixing our trade policy -- will solve America's problems is at best uninformed, and more likely a deliberately dishonest storyline designed to distract us from the very trade policies the pundits and politicians have rammed down our throats. And you don't have to trust me on that -- just go read the LA Times today.

Times reporter Peter Gosselin -- one of the best in the business -- notes that President Bush in India repeated the Great Education Myth when addressing job outsourcing. "Let's make sure people are educated so they can fill the jobs of the 21st century," he said.

But as Gosselin notes, "the president's assertion that the answer to foreign outsourcing is education, a mantra embraced by Democrats as well as Republicans, is being challenged by a growing body of research and analysis from economists and other scholars." That's right, education "is no longer quite the economic cure-all it once was, nor the guarantee of financial security Americans have come to expect from college and graduate degrees." There's more:

"'One could be educationally competitive and easily lose out in the global economic marketplace because of significantly lower wages being paid elsewhere,' said Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, an umbrella group that represents most of the nation's major colleges and universities. Some analysts think that something like what Steinbach described is already underway...Most studies suggest that beyond the manufacturing sector, the 'offshoring' of jobs has been comparatively modest. But some analysts say the ground has been laid for a substantial pickup. In a recent paper, [Princeton Professor Alan] Blinder offered a rough estimate that suggested that as many as 42 million jobs, or nearly one-third of the nation's total, were susceptible to offshoring. These analysts warn that more education alone will do little to stop the flow of jobs to other countries."

Anthony P. Carnevale of the National Center on Education and the Economy states the obvious: "What's missing here from both parties is a global economic strategy and a worker adjustment strategy." Put more bluntly -- both parties, bought off by Big Money interests, have passed trade policies that sell out America, and undermine the benefits of a good education.

For Republicans, it's clear why they won't address America's trade policy -- these Cadillac Conservatives are in power, and have benefited from the pay-to-play system whereby Corporate America funnels huge amounts of campaign cash to the GOP in exchange for (among other things) continued complicity in our sell-out trade policy.

For Democrats, the picture is also clear -- but far more depressing. Though most rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers are not as bad on trade as the GOP, there have been just enough hacks willing to openly sell off their votes to corporate bidders to make sure America's despicable trade policy continues. Of course, it also doesn't help that President Bill Clinton was the poster boy for NAFTA, WTO and China PNTR, using the Oval Office to crush his own party and pass these pacts that have certainly generated lots of corporate cash for the Democratic Party, but that have devastated working class America.

There is hope, however. As Congressional Quarterly reported last week, the free trade "conflict ripe to erupt in the campaign arena and may play out this November in other places as well: Vermont, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Rhode Island and even Tennessee. In each of these states, a free-trade-voting incumbent senator is either stepping down or likely to face an opponent whose tendencies are decidedly the opposite." In other words, popular anger at America's corporate-written trade policy and the corrupt politicians who have pushed that policy will be playing out in the 2006 campaign. And that could seriously challenge the bipartisan consensus on trade inside Washington's insulated halls of power.

Will the Democratic Party finally realize the error of its ways and start seriously challenging America's trade policy in a wholesale fashion? Or will its courageous populists be shunned by an Establishment smitten by the Party of Davos? Stay tuned -- the answer could both decide the 2006 election and, more importantly, decide whether there will be a real movement to start defending America's middle class.