The True Divide In America
For the love of money, the political influence of a college degree is greater than a high school diploma.
Consider a tale of two friends in high school. One goes to college and becomes a dentist. The other goes into trade school and becomes a journeyman autoworker. The dentist graduates and within a few years, he’s earning $180,000 a year. The assembly line worker is still making just $50k after a few years at his job.
10 years later, they meet again for dinner. The dentist is a Republican. The assembly line worker is a Democrat in a union, still making cars. The dentist is now rich beyond the dreams of his friend. The autoworker has a job that is vulnerable to foreign competition. The dentist does not. The autoworker worries that his job will be moved offshore in the coming months. The dentist is confident in his job because he made campaign contributions to a political party that is willing to protect his job from foreign competition, and still tell us that this is how economics works.
This is evidence of the true divide in American life. If you go into the right trade, with the right protection from the government, you can use the excess money that is paid to you to buy more laws that protect you while putting everyone else at a disadvantage.
You can’t become a dentist or a doctor without getting a state license. You can’t get that license without going to a school that is in America. If you’re a dentist, you’re protected from foreign competition. This means that you can use your trade group, in this case, the American Dental Association, to lobby for laws that limit the amount of competition for your job. Even better, you can use the power of your organization to reduce the amount of power that other trades have, thereby increasing your buying power. And this is just one class of professionals.
Dean Baker is an economist at the Center for Economic Policy and Research and he has been documenting this division of power for at least a decade. In his article, Seeing the Last Acceptable Prejudice Clearly: The More Educated Screwed the Less-Educated, he writes:
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.
This is the nature of the true divide in our country. One group, the more educated group, has used their knowledge as power and used that power to create an insurmountable advantage for themselves at the expense of others. There is no question that both the dentist and the manufacturing worker contribute to the economy. But there is little reason why the dentist should escape foreign competition while the manufacturing worker loses sleep at night.
The divide in our country is between the educated and the less educated. This isn’t to say that the less educated aren’t smart. Some of them are very smart. Stephen Jay Gould, was one of the most influential and widely read authors of popular science of his generation, and he made the following observation:
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
I’ve met farmers and they’re pretty smart and practical. I’ve worked in construction and met many articulate and thoughtful construction workers. Everyone must work for a living. Some of us go to college, some of us choose to go to work right after high school. All of us add value to the economy, yet some are deemed far more worthy than others without regard to the actual value they add to the economy. Just ask Jeff Skilling, the former CEO of the now-defunct, Enron. The people with the most money seem to think that it’s OK to donate to politicians that will write laws that set their brothers and sisters an economic disadvantage to them.
So when I think of Donald Trump or Joe Biden as they run for president, I take notice that both are particularly silent on this point. Neither candidate is willing to admit or even discuss the true divide in America. It’s not the haves versus the have nots. It’s the educated people who make the rules up as they go, against the high school graduates who have little to zero influence in how the rules are written.
If a group of people feels that the candidates they get to choose from do not represent them, then they have little enthusiasm for voting. Trump doesn’t speak to the true divide in America. therefore, I have little enthusiasm or patience for him. The same is true of Joe Biden. Both of them seem very concerned about the symptoms, not the causes. I believe that the first president to directly address the divide and the contempt that the well educated have for the less educated, and resolve that divide, will find his political party dominant in politics for generations.
Raising taxes is a symptomatic approach to dealing with extreme inequality. The same is true of lowering taxes. By the time you’re adjusting taxes, you’re too late. You missed the cause. A recent study showed that competition was more effective at lowering the cost of broadband than regulation. Numerous studies have shown that the high cost of health care can be directly attributed to a lack of competition. The dentist has a very high income due to a lack of competition. The union worker suffers wage stagnation on the assembly line is competing with autoworkers in China and Mexico who work for a fraction of his wages. It is not the nature of economics that drives up the income for the dentist, it is our policy choices.
I don’t hear Trump or Biden speaking directly to this issue. Both of them contributed to the conditions under which most Americans suffer from now. Both of them count the wealthy as a constituency that is more important to them than the rest of us. Biden said “Nothing will fundamentally change” to a group of wealthy donors. We know where Trump stands on this, he’s wealthy.
If I were wrong about this, they’d both be directly addressing the problem in simple terms that people can understand. They’re not, and they won’t. Why? Because they’re both products of the same system. They both “earned” their wealth from a system that favors the degree over the diploma, regardless of skills and performance.
Oh, yeah. Performance. Remember the collapse of the housing bubble? Who caused that? Was it the front line worker at the grocery store, the autoworker, or the librarians? Or was it the college-educated geniuses at the Fed, the Department of the Treasury, and Wall Street? It was the fault of the people in power. If you use your money and political power to chip away at the gains made by unions and by ordinary people, so that they earn less and so that you earn more, you can expect an economic collapse. And don’t forget the college-educated geniuses in the White House who let a pandemic have its way with America.
So before we talk about change, let's talk about the cause, the divide between the degreed and the high school graduate. Then we can talk about durable, repeatable solutions that actually help the American people. Because right now, a lot of people are suffering and they’re not quite sure why.