Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Education Reform: Charges and Countercharges

Discussions of the state of education in this country have become as contentious as those between Democrats and Republicans on raising taxes. With regard to education, the teachers seem to have become the main focus. Teachers obviously play a critical role. A reasonable person would conclude that better teachers would produce better results, and that we could do more to provide good teachers. A reasonable person would also conclude that providing improved educational results involves much more than just policing our teaching staffs. Unfortunately, we seem to be running short of reasonable people. Those who focus on reform have been aggressive in calling for changes in the way teachers are evaluated and rewarded. Those who represent teachers have been aggressive in their defense charging that the approach pushed by the reformers is flawed. Both sides are right—and wrong. There is a middle ground here that needs to be found, but both sides seem more interested in issuing polemics than negotiating.

Richard Rothstein has added to the discussion with an article posted on the Economic Policy Institute website: Grading the Education Reformers. The immediate target for Rothstein’s ire is a book by Steven Brill, Class Warfare. He levels this accusation at Brill and the collection of “reformers.”

“Brill's briskly written book exposes what critics of the reformers have long suspected but could never before prove: just how insular, coordinated, well-connected, and well-financed the reformers are. Class Warfare reveals their single-minded efforts to suppress any evidence that might challenge their mission to undermine the esteem in which most Americans held their public schools and teachers. These crusaders now are the establishment, as arrogant as any that preceded them.”

Rothstein summarizes the tale they have concocted and told so often that he fears it has become the conventional wisdom.

“Student achievement has been stagnant or declining for decades....Teachers typically have abysmally low standards, especially for minorities and other disadvantaged students, who predictably fall to the level of their teachers' expectations....Although teachers' quality can be estimated by the annual growth of their students' scores on standardized tests of basic math and reading skills, teachers have not been held accountable for performance. Instead, they get lifetime job security even if students don't learn....Protecting this incompetence are teacher unions, whose contracts prevent principals from firing inadequate (and worse) teachers....Union negotiations have produced perpetually rising salaries, guaranteed even to teachers who sleep through their careers. Breaking unions' grip on public education is ‘the civil rights issue of this generation,’ and some hard-working, idealistic Ivy Leaguers and their allies have shown how.”

Charter schools with herds of dedicated, young, non-union teachers are the solution, of course.

Rothstein counters this picture by correctly pointing out that

“Given the charter school hype in Waiting for Superman and Class Warfare, it may seem hard to believe that students in charter schools do not, on average, outperform those in comparable regular schools.”

Just as there are good and bad public schools, there are good and bad charter schools. Rothstein also takes issue with the habit of blaming unions for everything.

“You wouldn't know from Class Warfare that students don't do any better where teacher collective bargaining is prohibited. In non-union Texas, for example, students perform about the same as socioeconomically similar students in union-dominated New York.”

He also disputes the characterization of our students as having made little or no progress over recent decades.

“Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades....”

Rothstein falls into the same degree of overstatement for which he is so critical of the reformers when he discusses teacher evaluation. He implies that student scores on tests will be the dominant determinant in ranking teachers. That may have been suggested by some initially, but most reformers are now more interested in an evaluation process that matches more closely that used for other professionals. Test scores would be one component. To merit rank a professional, one requires some means of assessing accomplishment, some means of determining degree of difficulty of assignment, and a comparison with peers. Teachers and their unions should be willing to give that a chance. It is difficult and it is subjective and it is not always fair, but it is better than assuming everyone is equal.

Rothstein is correct in pointing out that the shouting match between the two sides allows the major point to be missed. Test scores measure student performance. If the student is not performing well, why is that automatically the teacher’s fault? Why not spend equal time studying the psychology and home environment of the children to see if there are better means to provide motivation. The charter schools that seem to perform best are the ones that are structured to essentially replace whatever home and neighborhood environment students emerged from.

Perhaps the most efficient means of producing a high-performing student is to have he or she born to high-performing parents. We recently wrote of South Korean mothers who were up in arms because the government had the audacity to intend to discontinue Saturday classes. We have regions where systems are going to four-day school weeks to save money. Where is the uproar? The era of supposed poor student performance coincides with the era of two-income families. Perhaps our mothers are too tired in the evenings to tiger-up anymore. Our students also have to compete with countries that provide quality preschool care for working mothers. That is another factor to consider.

We recently discussed the paper that compared each state’s students’ scores against those of other countries. Our states spanned the performance spectrum. We had states that performed as well as the best countries, and we had states that compared with the poorest performing countries. How can one look at that data and declare that the teachers are responsible. Something is responsible, but it is likely a complex combination of a number of factors, including school systems, parents, culture, and economics.

It would be nice if people stopped yelling at each other and got back to some productive arguing about the best way forward.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Immigration: Economic Effects on the Nation

Immigration is a rather sensitive topic in this country. The arguments made against it often have economic underpinnings, although one suspects these only serve to mask less noble motives. Recently two rather conservative, business-oriented magazines have come out with articles essentially demanding that immigration be encouraged—because of the economic benefits! The Economist published an article under the heading Let them come. Businessweeek carried an article by Charles Kenny which was titled Set Them Free in the paper edition. In the on-line version, the same article was more provocatively titled: How to be a Patriot: Hire an Illegal Immigrant.

Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron, and Meera Balarajan have recently written an authoritative discussion of the topic: Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future. This book contains everything one might want to know about immigration—and much, much more. It is spare in style and is chock full of facts and figures, so it is a dense read. It is one of those books that “can be put down,” but it is well worth staying the course for those with interest in the topic. We will use this work as a basis for discussing the economic issues associated with immigration. We will use the term immigrant because the interest here is on the host country. Since every immigrant is also an emigrant, there is also an interesting story to be told about the economic effects on the source country. That will have to be saved for another day.

We are interested in immigration in developed countries such as the US. These economies have all evolved into forms that depend on two classes of work. The first consists of relatively well-paid jobs that are not hazardous and not too arduous. These are the positions preferred by the native workers. The second class of labor involves dirty, difficult, and perhaps dangerous work that is low-skilled and pays little. The natives try to avoid this work, leaving immigrants as the only option. The authors quote this very relevant example.

“In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Labor found that around 85 percent of the 670,000 farm workers in the United States were migrants, many of whom were undocumented.”

One must also keep in mind that immigrants feed both of these work classes. Most publicity is devoted to the low-skill immigrants who fill the low-paying positions. At the other end of the spectrum are the educated and skilled immigrants. These people are highly valued and the developed countries are beginning to compete for their services. Most enter the country legally under student or work visas.

The authors see the net economic effect of immigration as positive, even for the low-wage undocumented category. They quote macroeconomic studies to support that claim.

“A recent longitudinal study of OECD countries found that increased immigration is accompanied by commensurate increases in total employment and GDP growth.”

This is the means by which immigrants contribute.

“Low-skilled foreign workers often take jobs that are considered less desirable by natives, or they provide services—such as home care or child care—that release skilled workers into the labor market. Highly skilled migrants typically work in growing sectors of the economy, or in areas....that are short of native workers.”

“Between 1995 and 2005, 16 million jobs were created in the United States, and 9 million of them were filled by foreigners. During the same period, migrants made up as many as two-thirds of new employees in Western and Southern European countries.”

The demographics of developed countries generally include a native population that is decreasing, and at the same time getting older. This process requires a source of new workers, both to keep the economy moving, and to service the increased needs of the growing population of the aged.

The fact that many of the low-wage immigrants would be undocumented is of no great economic consequence.

“Paradoxically—given public concerns about the potential social burdens they bring—undocumented workers make significant contributions to the public purse. In the United States they have a higher rate of labor market participation than native workers or other migrants.

Often using fake social security cards to obtain work, the collected taxes end up as pure profit for the treasury.

“Between 1990 and 1998, the U.S. government accumulated more than $20 billion in unmatched social security contributions that will never be claimed as benefits. About two-thirds of undocumented migrants in the United States also pay income taxes through automatic deductions, and they pay sales and property taxes like everyone else. Afraid to reveal their status, these workers rarely claim welfare benefits and therefore make a substantial net contribution to public finance.”

The economic benefits accrued from skilled immigrants can be enormous.

“By 2000, migrants accounted for 47 percent of the U.S. workforce with a science or an engineering doctorate, and they constituted 67 percent of the growth in the U.S. science and engineering workforce between 1995 and 2006. In 2005, a migrant was at the helm of 52 percent of Silicon Valley start-ups, and a quarter of all U.S. technology and engineering firms founded between 1995 and 2005 had a migrant founder. In 2006, foreign nationals living in the United States were inventors or coinventors in 40 percent of all international patent applications filed by the U.S. government.”

The authors find that although the net benefits from immigration are definitely positive, there are also costs that are incurred. While the benefits are distributed and often not immediately identifiable, the costs are highly visible and they are not evenly distributed.

“To the extent that immigrants produce fiscal costs, they tend to be small, short-run, and local. In the United States and Europe, the fiscal impacts of migrants are +/- 1 percent of GDP. According to one economist, there is a ‘ of consensus’ among scholars that high-skilled migrants make a substantial fiscal contribution to their host economies and that low skilled migrants who settle permanently impose a minor cost on taxpayers.”

One has to assume that a low-wage, unskilled native worker also imposes a similar cost on taxpayers.

In recent years the US has attempted to make it harder for both highly-skilled and undocumented immigrants to enter the country. They have succeeded in limiting the skilled, and failed at limiting the undocumented. That doesn’t appear to be very effective policy.

Based on this information, it would appear that immigration concerns are way out of proportion to the issues involved. Perhaps our greatest concern should be that we are not producing enough natives who are willing to do the heavy academic lifting required to make contributions in the high-tech world in which we live.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lost Growth: How Deep a Hole Are We In?

The Economist is always a source of interesting data, interestingly presented. It takes note of the concern over the recent decline in growth rates and suggests a longer look at the situation. It wishes to answer the question as to which of the developed countries fared best and worst during the economic crisis? It argues that the appropriate measure of GDP for comparison is GDP per capita. A country like the US has a population that grows about 1% per year. It would have to grow at the 1% level to break even by this measure. Other countries have stagnant or shrinking populations. They provide this graphic:

The bright blue lines represent observed growth (per person). Germany looks like the clear winner with net positive gain in GDP since the crisis hit in 2007. Canada sits solidly in second place, while the US does not too badly in fourth. Not everyone was a loser during this period.

“In contrast, China’s GDP per person rose by an impressive 35% in the same period and India’s was up by 22%.”

The article maintains that an appropriate index of pain is represented by the dark blue lines. Average growth in the ten years prior to 2007 is extrapolated forward to the present as if the Great Recession never occurred. The difference between this extrapolated number for GDP and the current actual number is what might be referred to as lost growth. By this measure, Britain is clearly the country hit hardest. The US is second last, barely edging out Italy for this dubious honor. Even Germany is in the hole from this perspective.

The US saw GDP growth “climb” to the 1% level during the last quarter. Now we have to consider that as even worse than we thought. Sigh....

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Nuvigil, Placebo Effects, and Billions in Profits

Businessweek carried an article on a drug called Nuvigil which is a follow up to a drug called Provigil that is about to lose its patent protection. Critics of the drug industry point out that Nuvigil is merely a minor variation on Provigil that will allow the company, Cephalon, to continue charging high prices for essentially the same product that will become available as a generic. For some reason the FDA allows this, enhancing its reputation as a tool of the drug industry rather than a protector of consumers. Cephalon has combined this approach with another tried and true marketing tactic: every new drug should have a new disorder that it treats. Cephalon is touting the existence, and wide-spread incidence of “shift work sleep disorder.”

It would appear that everyone who works an irregular schedule and feels sleepy is now being encouraged to regularly consume psychoactive drugs. Remember these pills are not the same thing as a cup of coffee or tea, or a piece of candy to act as a stimulant. Provigil is also used to treat depression, ADHD, and schizophrenia. A drug that can be claimed to alter the brain function of the schizophrenic is not something people should be taking because they are merely sleepy.

The Businessweek article provided this information:

“Cephalon’s media campaign is its first to widely trumpet alertness pills by stressing the recognition of shift work disorder by doctors and sleep experts, who estimate the malady may affect one in four shift workers. Although Cephalon doesn’t claim Nuvigil works better than other approaches, the company says that between 2007 and 2009 it studied 359 shift workers for six weeks and found 77 percent of those who took Nuvigil said they were more alert for the last part of their shift and the drive home, compared with 57 percent given a placebo.”

First of all, any “results” provided by a drug company should be treated with skepticism. Independent testing generally provides different results. Also, there is no way of knowing how many samples of shift workers were evaluated in order to obtain the quoted results, and there is no way of knowing how the shift workers were selected. There are many ways to insert bias into medical trials.

Drug testing when mental states are involved are particularly susceptible to errors and bias. There is nothing to measure, and everything depends on the self-reporting of the subject. Most testing is involves providing some subjects with a placebo as a means of assessing drug effectiveness. Neither the patients nor the testers are supposed to know which subjects receive the placebo and which the drug. What is striking about the data provided is the size of the placebo effect in the quoted number: positive effects for the drug at 77%, positive for the placebo at 57%. In other words the placebo is 74% as effective as the brain-altering drug. The placebo works pretty darn well. Combine a sugar pill with a cup of coffee and you have a dollar's worth of alertness as opposed to the medically risky $12 Nuvigil pill.

This 74% placebo effect has been encountered before.

A medical researcher, Irving Kirsch, spent years trying to determine the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs. A description of his findings can be found here. Kirsch surveyed the data available in the medical literature and concluded that placebos were 75% as effective as the antidepressant drugs. Does that number look familiar? Kirsch then used the Freedom of Information Act to extract the more complete set of data that the drug companies provided the FDA. Using those results he determined that, for six common antidepressants, the placebo was 82% as effective as the drug. Kirsch also noted that drugs that supposedly had no connection with depression often worked as well as the antidepressant drugs. He hypothesized that this result depended upon the drug having a side effect that the subject could discern. To test this notion he performed a study in which the subjects were provided a placebo with an agent added that would cause a dry-mouth effect. These results indicated that the “active” placebo was equally effective as the drug. This was referred to as the “super placebo effect.” If a person with a mental condition is told that they are being given a pill that will make them feel better, they will tend to feel better. Clinical subjects can only feel confident they are receiving the actual drug if they experience a side effect—hence the super placebo result.

This suggests that the Nuvigil results could be entirely due to a placebo effect.

The moral of this story is that one should beware of all people who would encourage the taking of drugs. Not all dangerous drugs are obtained on the street. One must also take care in classrooms and in doctors’ offices. With drug companies providing much of the medical literature, doctors often only know what the drug companies tell them. And what drug companies tell them is not always appropriate. Cephalon, for example, pled guilty to criminal acts and paid $475 million in fines for misleading marketing activities in 2008. When in doubt, do your own research.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Assessing Clarence Thomas: Buffoon?—or Threat to Our Way of Life?

Jeffrey Toobin has a fascinating profile of Clarence Thomas in The New Yorker: Partners. Toobin actually profiles both Thomas and his wife, a conservative political activist with strong Tea Party connections. The interaction between Thomas and his wife’s activities is an interesting tale in itself, but here we will focus only on the description of Thomas, his legal philosophy, and his perceived influence.

Toobin begins by reminding us what we know best about Thomas. Foremost are his bizarre confirmation hearings where he was accused of sexually aggressive behavior by Anita Hill. Toobin claims that all information that has emerged in the intervening years has supported Hill’s accusation. Clarence Thomas was (is?) a sleazy individual. The second most memorable thing about Thomas is that he has now passed five years without asking a question during an oral argument. This is not a record likely to instill confidence in a person’s legal capacities. Toobin also adds this interesting tidbit about Thomas’s comportment during hearings.

“What makes Thomas’s silence even more peculiar is his behavior in the courtroom, especially in recent years. The Justices all sit in high-backed leather swivel chairs, and Thomas has set his so that he can recline so far that he appears almost to be lying down. He stares at the ceiling. He rubs his face. He does not appear to be listening. He closes his eyes and sometimes appears to be asleep. The over-all effect is rude, if not contemptuous.”

Thomas has also received negative publicity due to his wife’s political activities. Seventy-four members of Congress have suggested to Thomas that he recuse himself from any considerations of the healthcare law because of her outspoken opposition. He was also caught neglecting to disclose his wife’s income from political sources.

If this is what one knows of Clarence Thomas, it is logical to conclude that he is some sort of bizarre joke played on our legal system. Toobin then proceeds to tells us that nothing could be further from the truth.

Thomas is described as the Justice most dedicated to the concept of originalism (Scalia is described as only fainthearted in his embrace of the concept). To Thomas, originalism has a very specific meaning. He believes that the words in the Constitution must be interpreted in terms of the public understanding of the meaning at the time they were adopted. This may sound reasonable, but, as Toobin points out:

“It is true, too, that the framers often disagreed profoundly with each other, making a single intent behind the Constitution even more difficult to discern, and the twenty-seven amendments (all with their own framers) created another overlay of complication. For all of Thomas’s conviction, originalism is just another kind of interpretation, revealing as much about Thomas as about the Constitution.”

The difficulty of ascertaining any precise meaning to the words contained in the Constitution has led justices over the centuries to lean on judicial precedents as a means of inserting stability and continuity into our legal system. This protects us from having the country thrashed about every time a new justice comes up with a different interpretation. Thomas will have none of that. He believes it is most important to “get it right” no matter what the consequences. And he gets to decide what is “right.”

Thomas’s originalism has led him in strange directions. In interpreting what “cruel and unusual punishment” might be, he wrote an opinion that detailed a number of punishments that were considered “cruel and unusual” in the eighteenth century. He catalogued things like burning at the stake, disemboweling, and quartering. He concluded that these would be what the Framers of the Constitution meant as cruel and unusual.

“The point of this grotesque catalogue was to assert that the Eighth Amendment prohibited methods of execution that were also forms of torture—nothing more. Such a standard meant that Thomas was implicitly writing out of existence decades of precedent on the Eighth Amendment. Over the years, the Court had vetoed the imposition of “hard and painful labor”; rejected disproportionate sentences for minor crimes; abolished the death penalty for rape; and outlawed life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder. Under Thomas’s narrow reading of the Eighth Amendment, all these cases would be wrong; under his approach to stare decisis, all would be overturned.”

How far can Thomas go with his interpretation of the constitution? Consider his views on the Commerce Clause. Toobin provides this background.

“Early in the New Deal, the Supreme Court struck down several of President Roosevelt’s signature initiatives as violating the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. If the law did not directly affect commerce “among the several states,” in the words of Article I, the Nine Old Men on the Court said that Congress had no right to pass it.”

Some timely changes of personnel and at least one change of opinion allowed Roosevelt to pass the New Deal legislation. A series of opinions gave Congress wide latitude in interpreting what was included in their mandate. The issue lay dormant for decades until Thomas raised it again.

“In a characteristically lengthy and detailed opinion, Thomas said that the early New Deal Court—the Nine Old Men—was right, and all the Justices over the following six decades were wrong. Thomas wrote, ‘From the time of the ratification of the Constitution to the mid 1930’s, it was widely understood that the Constitution granted Congress only limited powers, notwithstanding the Commerce Clause.’ By Thomas’s reading, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act, to say nothing of Medicare and Medicaid, might all be unconstitutional.”

It is quite obvious what Thomas’s vote will be when the healthcare legislation reaches the Supreme Court.

While most would consider Thomas’s views extreme, he has been successful at moving the Court in his direction.

“In several of the most important areas of constitutional law, Thomas has emerged as an intellectual leader of the Supreme Court. Since the arrival of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., in 2005, and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., in 2006, the Court has moved to the right when it comes to the free-speech rights of corporations, the rights of gun owners, and, potentially, the powers of the federal government; in each of these areas, the majority has followed where Thomas has been leading for a decade or more. Rarely has a Supreme Court Justice enjoyed such broad or significant vindication.”

Toobin attributes the current legal dominance of gun rights based on Second Amendment arguments to an opinion by Thomas that raised the issue and set the table for the gun advocates. Thomas was also a driving force behind the Citizens United decision, again overturning decades of precedent regarding political campaigns. Perhaps the most frightening indication of his effectiveness is the manner in which he has convinced others to follow him in overturning established legal positions. The other conservative Justices at least pay lip service to precedent. The procedure seems to involve a gradual erosion of the basis one decision at a time—a process that has been referred to as “death by a thousand cuts.”

Toobin provides a picture of a man driven to strike back at the “elite” who he believes have mistreated him, both because of his race and because of his humble origins. Whatever his motives, he has become someone to be reckoned with—and few people are laughing.

Friday, August 26, 2011

New York City, Hurricanes, and Global Warming

Heidi Cullen has written an interesting book titled The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet. She devotes the first part of the book to a discussion of climate modeling in order to convince any doubters that change is truly on its way. The majority of the book covers several locations around the globe in an assessment of the local effects of climate change. This is actually the more interesting part of the book. It seems an appropriate time to recall that one of the locations Cullen investigated was the city of New York.

The future anticipated for New York consists of hotter weather and more severe storms. The increase in temperature will mainly affect the power grid with the anticipated overloads causing more frequent brown-outs. This seems like a likely location for some infrastructure investment.

New York is hampered by an archaic drainage system. Flooding is already a common occurrence during heavy rains. New York City has a single sewer system for sanitary waste and for storm drainage. A heavy rain can overload the system and cause waste water to be expelled into the rivers. A very heavy rain can cause the water to back up and cause flooding in the city.

The nightmare scenario that Cullen considers is a category 3 hurricane that takes direct aim at the city, an occurrence that she views as inevitable. New York is extremely vulnerable in such an event. She provides a list of locations susceptible to flooding because of the elevation: Canal Street Subway station +8.7 feet, Christopher Street Station -15 feet, Holland Tunnel entrance (NY) +9.5 feet, and La Guardia Airport +6.8 feet.

“According to a 1995 study by the U. S. Corps of Engineers, a category 3 hurricane in New York would create a surge up to 16 feet at La Guardia airport, 21 feet at the Lincoln Tunnel entrance, 24 feet at the Battery Tunnel, and 25 feet at John F. Kennedy International Airport. And that is with sea level measurements of 1995. The impact could be even greater if the storm hit at high tide....The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that as many as 3 million people would need to be evacuated from New York City.”

Cullen tells us that there have only been two direct hits on the city in recent history:

“....the Great September Gale of 1815, and a storm that came on September 3, 1821, and made landfall at Jamaica Bay. Both were category 3 storms and both did extensive damage. With wide-spread flooding in lower Manhattan as far north as Canal Street, the 1821 hurricane set the record for the highest storm surge in Manhattan—nearly 13 feet.”

One can understand why New York has responded so quickly and so forcefully to the approaching Irene. It is a massive storm that may not approach as a category 3, but if the surge doesn’t cause flooding, the heavy rains certainly will.

The lesson that emerges from reading Cullen’s various scenarios is that climate change is going to require massive investments in infrastructure. New York City’s issues are perhaps the easiest to visualize. Consider this little nugget that Cullen provided.

“New York City has regulators. So when the tide goes out, the pipes—the storm sewers— are exposed and the water flows out of them and into the river. But when the tide comes in and there’s flooding, the regulators shut, or else you would have all the river water flooding New York City. Now if there’s a sea level rise to where those regulators are always shut, there is no place for any storm water to go, and it will all spill onto the street...”

That would seem to be a very short-sighted manner in which to set up the drainage for a city. Much of New York’s infrastructure is a century old. Do people think it can last forever?

If anyone wonders where the jobs are going to come from, think about how many workers it would take to make New York storm-safe. And then consider how many other locations will have their unique issues to deal with. There is plenty of work—we just need to figure out how to make it happen.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Men, Education, and the Economy

Don Peck provided a discussion of a number of important issues in his article in the Atlantic: Can the Middle Class be Saved? A recurring them throughout his article was the role played by men. They are portrayed as being trapped by male stereotypes that drive them—or allow them—to avoid upgrading their education and training, and to avoid moving into non-traditionally-male occupations. The ramifications of this behavior are plentiful. Besides the obvious individual economic pain from low wages or unemployment, society suffers the effects of changes in the male-female relationship. As in most societies, women do not look to marry men who are financially unreliable. With a lot of economically unreliable men around, marriage rates have fallen and divorce rates have risen. Peck sees a growing cultural inequality that tracks the more familiar income inequality and he attributes much of the responsibility to the inability of men to accommodate the changing economy. The fear is that males who “get left behind” will breed children who will get left behind.

“The troubles of the nonprofessional middle class are inseparable from the economic troubles of men. Consistently, men without higher education have been the biggest losers in the economy’s long transformation (according to Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, real median wages of men have fallen by 32 percent since their peak in 1973, once you account for the men who have washed out of the workforce altogether). And the struggles of men have amplified the many problems—not just economic, but social and cultural—facing the country today.”

We have discussed the cultural issues previously here. The focus now is on steps that can be taken to correct this decline.

Peck’s answers for the problems of men would seem to focus on nudging them out of their stereotypical roles. He points out that the need for education has escalated. Whereas a BS or BA degree once was a near guarantee of a healthy financial future, such a state seems now to require post-graduate education or a professional degree. Meanwhile, men have failed to up their game. The fraction of men with bachelor’s degrees now is about the same as in 1980. Men still seem to prefer chasing the ever fewer “manual” jobs in manufacturing or in the crafts.

Peck’s solution involves raising the expectations of men and introducing them to other role models. If one is determined to work in what Peck refers to as a manual job, the educational system ought to at least prepare him to compete in that arena. He points out that vocational training has withered away due to the focus on preparing students for a four-year college. He suggests “career academies” as a means of introducing students to the full range of employment options.

“....schools of 100 to 150 students, within larger high schools, offering a curriculum that mixes academic coursework with hands-on technical courses designed to build work skills. Some 2,500 career academies are already in operation nationwide. Students attend classes together and have the same guidance counselors; local employers partner with the academies and provide work experience while the students are still in school.”
“Vocational training” programs have a bad name in the United States, in part because many people assume they close off the possibility of higher education. But in fact, career-academy students go on to earn a postsecondary credential at the same rate as other high-school students. What’s more, they develop firmer roots in the job market, whether or not they go on to college or community college. One recent major study showed that on average, men who attended career academies were earning significantly more than those who attended regular high schools, both four and eight years after graduation. They were also 33 percent more likely to be married and 36 percent less likely to be absentee fathers.”

These academies could introduce young men to non-traditional roles via male role models and perhaps divert their interests more to careers in service occupations where opportunities are greater.

He also indicates that the country can do a lot more in terms of dealing with those who have been displaced economically.

“Grants, loans, and tax credits to undergraduate and graduate students total roughly $160 billion each year; by contrast, in 2004, federal, state, and local spending on employment and training programs (which commonly assist people without a college education) totaled $7 billion—an inflation-adjusted decline of about 75 percent since 1978.”

Peck’s greatest fear is that a significant number of men will fall out of the economy entirely—while continuing to breed children. More could be done to encourage a continuing desire to work and improve oneself. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) was designed to encourage a work ethic. People who were willing to accept low wage work would receive additional support via this credit. Unfortunately, the system is designed for families or single mothers with children. The credit can be as high as $5000 for a family with two children. For a person without children, or custody of children, the maximum benefit is $438.

“We should at least moderately increase both the level of support offered to families by the EITC and the maximum income to which it applies. Perhaps more important, we should offer much fuller support for workers without custody of children. That’s a matter of basic fairness. But it’s also a measure that would directly target some of the biggest budding social problems in the United States today. A stronger reward for work would encourage young, less-skilled workers—men in particular—to develop solid, early connections to the workforce, improving their prospects. And better financial footing for young, less-skilled workers would increase their marriageability.”

A recent article by Neil Irwin and Brady Dennis in the Washington Post suggests that males are beginning to move in the direction Peck views as necessary. These authors point out that men actually seem to be doing better than women in capturing jobs in the current economy. They provide this chart.

The reason for this surprising result:

“Men are accounting for a growing proportion of jobs in the private education and health-care industries — economic bright spots of the past two years. Simultaneously, women are losing teaching and other local government jobs at a disproportionately high rate as municipalities cut back, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.

“But it is clear that men, having borne the brunt of the downturn, are looking outside their traditional fields to find work. For example, men held about 23 percent of health-care and education jobs before the recession but account for 39 percent of the jobs added in those fields since the summer of 2009.”

It is encouraging to see these trends developing. Women have shown that they are capable of moving well out of their traditional roles; it is time for men to do the same.

One cannot help feeling that those “manual” jobs are going to make a comeback. Aging infrastructure and the coming effects of global warming are going to provide more hands-on work than we can handle. Let’s not forget to keep teaching and upgrading those skills also.
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