Do you want to give greater economic opportunities to more Americans? Then education is not the way to do it, Paul Krugman writes in today's New York Times. It's one of the more incredible and demonstrably untrue assertions he has made so far this year, and that's saying something.
Here is the conclusion Krugman reaches after discussing the supposed trend of good-paying white collar jobs being automated:
[I]f we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.
What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.
The implication is that instead of leveling the playing field through education, we should be encouraging white collar workers to do two things that college-educated workers (and voters) stubbornly refuse to do -- unionize and vote for single-payer health care. In making his argument, Krugman cites few numbers but he does offer this broad assertion:
[T]here are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.
And this sounds like a reasonable notion. We've heard so much about the cheapening of college education, even as it becomes more costly.
But what do the numbers actually tell us? The chart that follows is a comparison, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between the wages of American workers who have been "given" college degrees (nearly 50 million American workers), and the wages of those with less than a bachelor's degree (about 107 million). If Krugman is right, then we should see the advantage supposedly guaranteed by a college degree diminish "with each passing decade":
Of course, the opposite is the case. But perhaps Krugman wasn't referring to PhDs like himself. Perhaps he just meant to say that a bachelor's degree provides less and less of an economic guarantee with each passing decade?
Nope, sorry. College graduates have in fact widened their earnings advantage, in percentage terms, over non-college graduates since 1975. It almost makes you wonder where he gets this stuff.
Bear in mind that both charts show a period during which the percentage of American workers with bachelor's degrees or higher nearly doubled, from 16.5 percent to 32 percent. So even as a larger (and more diverse) swathe of our population is earning higher degrees, the economic advantages of doing so continue to grow. Krugman's concern for the college-educated white-collar worker seem somewhat misplaced. (We won't even get ito the fact that college graduates' unemployment rate is about 4 percent right now.)
College degrees are probably not the solution to every problem. Perhaps they are overvalued by employers. And perhaps someday, the phenomenon that Krugman imagines has been going on for decades will in fact materialize. But that hasn't happened yet. The data suggest that college education is in fact doing precisely what Krugman tells us it can't -- creating "a society of broadly shared prosperity," and more broadly shared as more people are educated.