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With The 12-Point Platform, this won't happen: An aristocracy of credentialism in the 20%

This paper, or pre-draft, or sketch, or whatever it is, started out with this title: "With The 12-Point Platform, this won't happen: An aristocracy of credentialism in the 20%." But then I realized I'd gotten in deeper than I thought -- one of those posts were the framework and the notes overwhelm the original idea -- and as it turns out its more noodling on set membership functions and identity politics. Nevertheless, the starting point is education, even if we end up somewhere else.

Except not! The post is too long, so I'm going to change my mind, and return to my original plan!

* * *

Previously we've urged this definition of conservatism:

What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?

Q: What is conservatism?

A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?

A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

(The relationship or overlap between conservatism and neo-liberalism is a topic for another day.) Now, in the 20%, we can see an aristocracy developing based not on dynastic wealth, but by credentialled families and clans in the 20%. The Economist writes:

An hereditary meritocracy

America’s elite is producing children who not only get ahead, but deserve to do so: they meet the standards of meritocracy better than their peers, and are thus worthy of the status they inherit.....

This is partly the result of various admirable aspects of American society… In aggregate, though, they increase the chances of wealthy parents passing advantage on to their children.… According to Sean Reardon of Stanford the past decades have seen a growing correlation between parental income and children’s test scores. Sort the students who took the SAT, a test for college applicants, in 2014 by parental income and the results get steadily better the further up the ladder you climb...

On graduation, many members of America’s future elite will head for the law firms, banks and consultancies where starting salaries are highest. Lauren Rivera of Kellogg School of Management interviewed 120 people charged with hiring in these sectors for a forthcoming book. She found that though they did not set out to recruit students from wealthy backgrounds, the companies had a penchant for graduates who had been to well-known universities and played varsity sports (lacrosse correlates with success particularly well). The result was a graduate intake that included people with skin of every shade but rarely anyone with parents who worked blue-collar jobs. “When we are asked to identify merit,” explains Ms Rivera, “we tend to find people like ourselves.”

in the second half of the 20th century a corporate elite where family networks and religion mattered most was replaced by one whose members required an MBA or similar qualification from a business school. This makes the managers better qualified. It also means they are the product of a serial filtering that has winnowed their numbers at school, college and work before they get their MBAs.

And the recession -- it's so symptomatic that we don't have a name for it, unlike "The Great Depression" -- made the "serial filtering" worse for students who chose the wrong birth parents and have to attend public schools, thus reinforcing class divisions:

It used to be that students such as Bayne could attend a public university and graduate with little to no debt. Then came the recession, when state governments slashed funding of higher education and families began paying higher tuition bills.

Now, even as the economy recovers and taxpayer revenue is pouring back in, states have not restored their funding, and tuition keeps rising, leaving parents and students scrambling to cover costs.

Total student debt now surpasses $1 trillion and is growing by the day. For the first time ever, according to a recent study, families are shouldering more of the cost of public university tuition than state governments.

“The recession taught legislators that families will bear the cost of higher tuition, so that sent a signal to the state that it is possible to transfer the buck,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Now there is little incentive to reinvest.”

At this point we pause to note once again Obama's miserably inadequate and -- despite the predictable hosannas from career "progressives" -- insulting proffer of community, two-year, college. Is Obama really really saying that working class kids, the children of the 80%, don't deserve a real university education? Why, yes; yes, he is. Is Obama really saying that the country will be better off if working class kids don't have the same chances that the aristocrats do? Yes again! Back to the Economist:

Both [left and right] can agree that the blending of merit and inheritance is un-American. Neither has plausible ideas for what to do about it.

Well, I don't know what The Economist thinks "the left" might be. But the 12-Point Platform does have an "idea" of "what to do about it:"

7. Free Public Education, pre-K-16

And we know this idea is "plausible" because Germany already does it. Are we -- as a country -- more poor than the Germans? From Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times (revealing headlne: "Obama's free education proposal: Why stop at community colleges?"):

But the proposal fails to address one glaring flaw in the nation's overall system of public higher education: It should all be free. That's the way it is in Germany, for instance, where there is a long tradition of low-cost university study. In 2014 the last German state holding out against free university education threw in the towel; now anyone, including foreign students, can study at a German university at public expense.

Free higher education to qualified students was also the rule in California, where the University of California had no tuition for state residents until Gov. Ronald Reagan demanded it in the early 1970s. Once the door was cracked open for tuition charges, it swung wide; a Berkeley or UCLA education was pegged at $12,192 for state residents in 2014-15, plus myriad other fees.

Some other American university systems were known for tuition-free education, notably the City University of New York, which maintained the policy until the New York fiscal crisis of 1976.

Free tuition has since come to be viewed as an anachronism, charming to contemplate in the abstract but simply incompatible with modern life. But the numbers don't support that conclusion. The real obstacle to reinstating it is that it represents a path to social mobility for the working class and the poor--that's the aspect that's anachronistic in our grasping modern world.

Exactly. And I'm surprised and a little encouraged to see such views in a mainstream newspaper like the Los Angeles Times. It's also nice to see Hiltzik, an ObamaCare supporter, not putting his thumb on the scale to favor what the Democrats want to deliver, but coming out strongly in favor of the right thing.

But is the "idea" of a free university education, to use The Economist's word, "plausible"? Reducing "plausible" to "How much will it cost?", sure. From The Atlantic in 2013, so add an inflation factor, we have this proposal. (I'm not advocating the proposal as such; I'm using it to get my head round the numbers.)

Here's Exactly How Much the Government Would Have to Spend to Make Public College Tuition-Free

A mere $62.6 billion dollars!

According to new Department of Education data, that's how much tuition public colleges collected from undergraduates in 2012 across the entire United States. And I'm not being facetious with the word mere, either. The New America Foundation says that the federal government spent a whole $69 billion in 2013 on its hodgepodge of financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants for low-income students, tax breaks, work study funding. And that doesn't even include loans.

If we were we scrapping our current system and starting from scratch, Washington could make public college tuition free with the money it sets aside its scattershot attempts to make college affordable today.

[R]ather than simply using our resources to maintain a cheap public system (and remember, public schools educate 75 percent of undergrads), we spill them into a fairly wasteful and expensive private sector. At one point, a Senate investigation found that the for-profit sector alone was chowing down on 25 percent of all federal aid dollars.

$62.6 billion for universal tuition-free college that we already spend sounds "plausible" to me. (I know I'm leaving out living expenses, but this is a sketch....) So where's that money going now? For-profit (that is, corrupt) universities are part of the problem. The Atlantic again:

The under-funding of public university systems and Washington's attempts to compensate have also helped nourish a giant barnacle on the side of higher education: the for-profit college industry. As scarce classroom space at community and open-admission state colleges has filled up, students turned towards alternatives like Kaplan University and University of Phoenix, which charge tens of thousands of dollars for degrees with dubious job market value. They get away with it because of federal aid. I call it the 10, 25, 50 problem: They educate around ten percent of students, who receive about a quarter of federal student aid and are responsible for about half of all loan defaults. They suck up about $8.8 billion, or around 25 percent, of all Pell Grant money

And the metastatizing aristocracy in the 20% is another part of the problem. Assuming we scrapped the current system:

Striving upper-middle-class families who want nothing more than to send their children to an Ivy League school would feel some of the pain as well. In 2009, families and students claimed $15 billion worth of tax breaks for tuition. About 26 percent of that money went to families earning $100,000 to $180,000 a year. Those deductions would be off the table.

To be fair, scrapping the currente system would also hurt some in the 80%:

The biggest loser would be students at private colleges, including traditional nonprofits and the for-profits. They would suddenly see their access to Pell Grants cut off, along with their eligibility for tax breaks like the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which lets students or parents deduct up to $10,000 worth of tuition expenses over four years from their returns. The upshot of this is that fewer poor and lower-middle class kids would attend the Harvards and Stanfords of the world. That's a big potential trade-off: About 15 percent of students at the 50 wealthiest colleges receive at least some Pell money. But there are reasons to think the impact wouldn't be disastrous. Top colleges might simply increase their financial aid. And beyond that, those students would still have loans available. And going into a bit more debt for an elite education, and the professional network that comes with it, would probably still pay off.

And then the Atlantic proposal assumes that universities current cost structure -- including a bloated, overpaid, and corrupt administrative layer that should be gutted -- would remain unchanged. I don't think we should do that, in fact we should encourage a thin administrative layer, with all our energy going to teaching and research, precisely the opposite of what we're doing.

With non-loan aid to their students cut off, traditional private colleges and for-profits would also be forced to reconsider their pricing.

Pricing, and cost structure!

I think the country owes all its children the chance of a university education. I don't think that county owes every child a diploma from Harvard, Stanford, or Yale, and if the public universities were funded properly, as they once were, kids would do fine at those institutions. And I especially don't think we owe our already advantaged >$100K 20% families more advantages in the form of a spot on the lacrosse team at one of the Ivies. In any case, we ought to be funding education, and not professional networking. And if the big private universities aren't getting the, er, "income diversity" they want, then they can damn well subsidize the 20% on their own dime. At Harvard Law School, "the tuition for its 1800 students could vanish and it would only cost the school $92.23 million a year, merely 5% of the $1.7 billion endowment." There's no reason for the public to be doing this.

And, as Frank Herbert has some old Fremen say, "Now it's complete because it's ended here." Left on the cutting room floor, but to be included when I approach this subject again:

1) The Atlantic proposal is suffused with the neo-liberal "How are you going to pay for it?" mentality, which is wrong, as MMT teaches us (Reform #7: MMT Macro-economic Policies). It's real resources that determine what we can and cannot do, not digits in the Fed's money-tracking (and "printing") computers.

2) In fact, Free Public Education, pre-K-16 "pays for itself" by making the country as a whole more productive, since all wealth comes from the productive labor of humans, not financial manipulation;

3) Assuming arguendo that we had to fund this program by killing another, the F-35 program, a humongous boondoggle, is an excellent candidate

My bottom line is that the Economist is right, wrong, and wrong. Right that "blending merit and inheritance is un-American." Wrong to imply, by omission, that there are no "plausible" ideas; I've supplied one. And wrong that there are no ideas on "the left" (assuming the 12-Points Platform to be on "the left," instead of being, say, in front.


[1] "The total cost of all higher education in 2002 was $289 billion" (Wikipedia). But I'm proposing K-16, not grad school. Suffice to say that if living expenses are included, the cost is greater than $62 billion. I would think that tuition would be free, and aid for living expenses would be steeply progressive.

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metamars's picture
Submitted by metamars on

(Off topic, but I know how much you love Hilary Clinton):

As per Kelly Riddell, investigative reporter of the Washington Times, Pentagon, viz., Secretary of Defense, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Adviser were against the Libyan fiasco, but Hilarious Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power were for it, and won over Obama.

Clinton is gone, but Obama is still there…..

Riddell is interviewed by Scott Horton, who is associated with, here