September 02, 2020
I was happy to see Michael Sandel’s piece in the NYT arguing that it is still acceptable to have negative views of less-educated people because of their lack of education. Sandel makes the lonely argument that rather than focusing on improving the lives of people without college degrees, policy debates have been centered on increasing opportunities for people to become more educated:
“We should focus less on arming people for a meritocratic race and more on making life better for those who lack a diploma but who make important contributions to our society — through the work they do, the families they raise and the communities they serve. This requires renewing the dignity of work and putting it at the center of our politics.”
This argument is very well-taken. It should also be warmly embraced by anyone concerned about racial inequality because even if our most ambitious plans for improving the plights of minority children prove successful, people of color will still disproportionately hold lower-paying jobs for decades into the future.
But there is one point where I have to take serious issue with Sandel. He refers to “A global economy that outsources jobs to low-wage countries has somehow come upon us and is here to stay.” While this is presented as a mainstream viewpoint, Sandel also seems to accept that this is something that happened, rather than something we did.
As I argued in Rigged [it’s free] and elsewhere, it was not the natural forces of globalization and technology that made the less-educated big losers, it was how we structured these forces. We made sure that our steelworkers and autoworkers had to compete against low paid workers in the developing world, with predictable results. We largely protected our doctors and dentists from the same competition. We made our patent and copyright monopolies longer and stronger to ensure that a disproportionate share of the gains from technology went to people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, rather than the average high school grad.
In short, Sandel is exactly right, but his case is even stronger than he presents here. Not only do the elites have contempt for the less-educated, but they actively designed policies to screw them. And, they won’t tell you that in the New York Times.