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Monday, October 31, 2011

David Brooks, "The Wrong Inequality": The Impact of Higher Education Goes Unnoticed

David Brooks has written another fascinating op-ed concerning inequality in the US.

In his latest New York Times opinion piece entitled "The Wrong Inequality" (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/opinion/brooks-the-wrong-inequality.html?_r=1&ref=opinion), Brooks observes that "Blue Inequality," which exists in and around America's major urban centers, consists of doctors, lawyers, engineers and people in sports, entertainment and the media amassing fortunes. These persons can wield "disproportionate political power" and contribute "seemingly little to the social good." According to Brooks, it is also these persons who attract the most attention:

"That’s because the protesters and media people who cover them tend to live in or near the big cities, where the top 1 percent is so evident."

Brooks compares "Blue Inequality" with "Red Inequality," which has gone largely unnoticed. Red Inequality exists outside the big cities and pertains to those who do or do not have college educations. As explained by Brooks:

"Over the past several decades, the economic benefits of education have steadily risen. In 1979, the average college graduate made 38 percent more than the average high school graduate, according to the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke. Now the average college graduate makes more than 75 percent more.

Moreover, college graduates have become good at passing down advantages to their children. If you are born with parents who are college graduates, your odds of getting through college are excellent. If you are born to high school grads, your odds are terrible.

. . . .

Today, college grads are much more likely to get married, they are much less likely to get divorced and they are much, much less likely to have a child out of wedlock."

Brooks concludes that Red Inequality is more important than Blue Inequality and concludes:

"If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.’s. If your goal is to expand opportunity, then you have a much bigger and different agenda."

I am not a social scientist, but Brooks's opinion piece necessarily raises the issue of facilitating less expensive or even free higher education for all. Such an option would require study of the societal costs and benefits, but on its face it appears an attractive possibility. Given the current costs of higher education, persons from a lower income background often cannot bear the risks and burdens entailed in choosing this path.

Also, among its unintended benefits, free higher education would temporarily delay entry of many young persons into the work force, thereby reducing unemployment in a manner akin to the apprentice system instituted in certain European countries.

Certainly worth examining.

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