“Soaring inequality isn't about education; it's about power,” wrote Paul Krugman in a New York Times op-ed last week. Krugman cited the declining acceleration of production, the absence of skill gaps and the stagnant inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans. However, not only does his evidence contradict the article’s thesis, Krugman also fails to acknowledge that education is essential in generating the conversation and sympathy necessary to break power-based income inequality.
Krugman makes two points about today’s job market that reject the link between inequality and education. First, technology isn’t actually outpacing the average person’s education as quickly as most people imagine. This point is largely inconsequential; the size of the skill gap does not matter, if there are few institutions to narrow it.
Second, Krugman argues that people are simply looking for jobs in the wrong places, as wages and demand for skilled manual laborers have actually increased. Here, Krugman makes the mistake of assuming that jobs found in areas such as manufacturing industries do not require complete educations. Contrary to the way these professions are represented, they require levels of critical thinking, communication and quantitative skills that the average graduate does not have.
Take, for example, the two jobs that Krugman cites: sewing machine operators and boilermakers. The article that Krugman references noted that to qualify for the sewing training programs, prospects had to demonstrate a language proficiency, “so workers can communicate with their bosses,” and math skills, because “ sewing requires precise measurements.” Boilermakers require even more specific requirements: proficiency in engineering and mathematics, including calculus. These may seem like paltry requirements to students at highly competitive colleges, but most high school students barely pass these criteria.
America’s education system, particularly for lower-income brackets, is embarrassingly bad. Today, only 20 percent of low-income college students graduate in 6 years, which shows that many adults don’t have the basic skills to succeed. In fact, only 65 percent of college-bound students in the lowest income quartile have meet Common Core standards, while only 69 percent have taken math courses beyond Algebra II. If the skills of college-bound students are this deficient, then job prospects will be even worse for adults outside this group.
In the crux of his "power over knowledge" argument, Krugman points out that “one major party” is determined to move policy away from redistributive taxation and spending. The obvious means to addressing this issue is to simply increase political pressure on opponents of redistribution, which can be done by increasing voter turnout, a factor dependent on education. For several decades, there has been about a 25-point gap in voter turnout between individuals with and without college educations. Improving education for students at lower income brackets, who benefit the most from and are the most likely to support redistribution, is therefore the key to generating this political pressure. As greater support rallies, the political climate will either displace redistribution’s opponents or force them to make concessions that are better for stemming income inequality. Even if Krugman is correct in his argument that education does not necessarily reduce structural unemployment, it still functions as a significant, albeit indirect support for what he views as the solution to the power imbalance.
Most importantly, education is itself a form of power because it gives individuals a means and an interest to describe and discuss issues with which they are intimately familiar. Adam Smith once wrote that a lack of sympathy can be explained when “the emotions of the spectator… fall short of the violence felt by the sufferer.” When income inequality is at an all-time high, this idea is particularly germane, as people with higher income receive less exposure to suffering. It is up to the sufferer, according to Smith, to “[lower] his passion to that pitch in which the spectators are capable of going with him.”
Education grants individuals precisely that, giving persons the vocabulary and mediums necessary to re-establish sympathy. One need not look far to see examples of success. In the 20th century, women and children’s rights gained momentum given increasing opportunities for education. Likewise, the Arab Spring represented a breaking point in education and technology for citizens in the Middle East and Northern Africa. While income inequality is different in nature from these movements, they may have similar solutions.
In sum, education still has a place in today’s discourse regarding income inequality. Beyond increasing a person’s market attractiveness, education functions to increase popular support for redistributive policies, and to empower individuals with the vocabulary and rhetorical skills necessary to put pressure on those in power. Most of us are aware of income inequality, but often such awareness is limited to news stories and numbers. The most potent and persuasive pieces of literature come in the form of simple stories, powerfully delivered. Higher-quality education will allow that to happen. It may pave the way for a modern "Letter from Birmingham Jail," or perhaps inspire another flurry of social media that allows us to sympathize on a genuine level with suffering caused by income inequality. Only then will redistributive policies gather the critical mass of support to overcome its current institutional obstacles.