Elusive Equality

Back in my early 20s, after two years in the workforce and two years of gazing out the window at all the people jogging in the middle of the afternoon in Central Park, I decided that I wanted to go to grad school.

I decided on a terminal masters program at the University of Chicago in the social sciences. Looking back on it, it was a shockingly bad decision. It was a masters program, after all, no benefit in that. Masters programs are never funded, so I had to pay for the first trimester on my own before a dean saw my A’s and gave me money. And I had been doing really well in publishing. They were about to give me another promotion. Ugh.

Going to the University of Chicago may have been a terrible career move, but it was an amazing intellectual opportunity. I’ve never read so much, been so challenged, been so scared shitless of smart people. I mean it was an intense place. I knew people who totally lost their minds there. But it was also a brain-feast.

I took one class from an old German Jewish guy, who spent half the year in Israel, about revolutions. We compared the causes and outcomes revolutions in the US, France, China, and Russia.

I remember reading one paper that said that the French Revolution ended up with headless aristocrats and blood in the gutters, while the US was relatively less crazy, because Americans never had the goal of égalité. Americans wanted the equality of opportunity, but never thought that everybody should have the same piles of money. Equality of opportunity is a much more sober goal than perfect equality.

There was a lot of talk here and on twitter this week about whether schools can truly provide equality. (I can’t insert links right now, because I’m typing this up on an old iPad at my mom’s kitchen table as I wait for Ian to get out of his science exam.) On their own, schools can’t do much to move the needle on inequality, which shouldn’t be a huge shocker.

My comment section has had a fascinating discussion about inequality this week. Everybody seems to agree that inequality has risen. Causes discussed include tax changes, de-unionization, declining wages for certain jobs, and regional abandonment. (What did I miss?) Check it out.

So, how nihilistic should we be about schools? Can schools alone make up for all those changes in society and make things more equal? Can they at least create conditions for the equality of opportunity, so the most talented, hardworking people can rise to the top? Some schools do. I’ve seen it. But these are amazing, remarkable places led by charismatic crazy people who work like missionaries to change the work.

Ideally, I would like everyone, who is interested in a brain-feast like I got at the University of Chicago, to get it. It was transformative for me. While my parents didn’t pay for the program or help me in any way get in, they did all the groundwork from ages 0-18, so I that as a young adult, I could apply, figure out costs, and succeed.

And this is why there will never be true equality or even equality of opportunity. You can’t force families to be equal. And with such inequality baked into society, children are already vastly unequal before they even get to kindergarten. Schools can’t fix that.

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36 thoughts on “Elusive Equality

  1. ” Causes discussed include tax changes, de-unionization, declining wages for certain jobs, and regional abandonment. (What did I miss?) Check it out.”
    What I think you missed was China and container ships. Result being that factory made goods of high quality now and for the foreseeable future are far cheaper relative to either housing or chattering-class jobs, and that factory work wages have I think gone down relative to other wages. Factory work wages going down drags other blue collar down with it. Result is I think greater rewards/rent to owners of factors of production (housing, land, warehouses) and… wait for it … rising inequality.

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    1. What I think you missed was China and container ships. Result being…rising inequality.

      And yet the same ships travel to European countries. But somehow many of them manage to prosper and at the same time have Gini coefficients that are far lower than ours. The inequality we have is a conscious choice we have made and not just a consequence of circumstance.

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      1. True, but: 1. Most of them have seen Gini coefficients rising in parallel with the U.S. They started with lower Gini coefficients, and the difference has remained but has not necessarily increased. 2. Most of them have per capita GDP well below U.S. levels. The rich are much richer here, the middle is generally a little richer, the poor are poorer. Not the Rawlsian choice, for sure, but a situation Americans seem to prefer.

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    2. Yes it is a conscious choice. Those of us who think that we could make other choices don’t argue that there are perfect alternatives and no consequences to different decisions about tax rates and regulation and workers’ rights. The roadblocks don’t mean that we must throw up our hands and accept a brutish world for everyone and just try to save ourselves. We can try to work collectively towards choices around the obstacles, while still understanding the impacts.

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  2. ds wrote, “What I think you missed was China and container ships. Result being that factory made goods of high quality now and for the foreseeable future are far cheaper relative to either housing or chattering-class jobs, and that factory work wages have I think gone down relative to other wages. Factory work wages going down drags other blue collar down with it. Result is I think greater rewards/rent to owners of factors of production (housing, land, warehouses) and… wait for it … rising inequality.”

    Yes.

    I’d add immigration and double income households to the list of things that fuel inequality. Oh, yeah, and lack of community and religious engagement.

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    1. And furthermore: it useta be really impossible to set up, say, an auto plant in Mississippi. Sourcing your parts, you had to go to Indiana or Ohio. That was inconvenient, and overshadowed right to work laws. Better communications and transportation meant that the financial advantages of screwing the unions got more important, and then it got harder for the unions to hold on to their gains in the rusting belt. This is on top of sixteen hundred dollar Volkswagens and 2100 dollar Datsun pickups sluicing into California from the increasingly cheap ocean transport.
      Lubbidu, I get your point that some of the costs of ocean transport are not incident on the shipping companies, but that doesn’t change the incentives for consumers.

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      1. ds said,

        “And furthermore: it useta be really impossible to set up, say, an auto plant in Mississippi. Sourcing your parts, you had to go to Indiana or Ohio. That was inconvenient, and overshadowed right to work laws. Better communications and transportation meant that the financial advantages of screwing the unions got more important, and then it got harder for the unions to hold on to their gains in the rusting belt. This is on top of sixteen hundred dollar Volkswagens and 2100 dollar Datsun pickups sluicing into California from the increasingly cheap ocean transport.”

        And let’s not forget to blame the consumer for their role in snubbing traditional US automakers in favor of cars made by non-union US automakers or non-US automakers. It doesn’t matter if a car is union-made back in Germany if its presence in the US weakens the Big Three lock on the US market.

        Show of hands who on the forum is currently driving a Chrysler?

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      2. The economics of industry clusters is something that has really changed over time. Transportation getting cheaper is an important part, but it’s only part. You can build a car assembly plant in a place without an enormous parts industry because that plant is already at the end of a very long global supply chain. So shipping it to Mississippi instead of Ohio doesn’t even change the cost much.

        Electronics is a good counter example though. It’s hard to build electronics in a place that doesn’t have the large local set of suppliers – just how the automobile industry used to be. For example, Apple tried to build the Mac Pro in the U.S. It’s one of Apples most expensive, high-margin (even for Apple!) products with a small relatively price insensitive customer base. Two stories about that.

        First, the failure:
        https://www.theverge.com/2016/12/21/14037030/apple-made-in-america-failure

        Then, part of the reason:
        http://fortune.com/2019/01/28/apple-mac-pro-production/

        This is just one small story, but it’s instructive about larger trends. Changing transportation technology matters. Geography matters. But the human geography is every bit as important as the physical.

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      3. Show of hands who on the forum is currently driving a Chrysler?

        Don’t you mean a Fiat Chrysler?

        We tried to buy a Ford a few years ago. Didn’t work; the dealer reneged on the cash sale, and we wouldn’t agree to a lease. Then again, the particular model we liked was designed and manufactured in Europe, so I suppose that doesn’t count.

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      1. Marianne said,

        “I’m confused about double income households. Are you suggesting only letting one adult per household work?”

        Not at all. I’m just pointing out that double income households fuel inequality. (I believe Elizabeth Warren stumbled across this insight a while back.)

        For example, let’s say (using imaginary numbers) that lubiddu makes $40k a year and that my single-income household makes $80k a year. It’s conceivable that we could live in the same neighborhood and we’d be roughly in the same income band, especially given differences in household size and given the possibility of lubiddu joining forces with another $40k earner. However, if my household became a double income household bringing in $160k a year, we would no longer be in the same financial category, and it would become very, very unlikely that we would live in the same neighborhood and have kids in the same school.

        You could do the same exercise with my household income and bj’s household income or my household income and y81/Mrs. 81 and dave s/Mrs. dave s.

        All else being equal, two income households amplify existing issues with inequality.

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      2. Not at all. I’m just pointing out that double income households fuel inequality. (I believe Elizabeth Warren stumbled across this insight a while back.)

        Did you actually read her book and not understand it or did you just read the title and vacuously insert it to buttress the point you want to make? Because what she wrote was the direct opposite of what you are saying. Namely, her argument was that the pressure to have two incomes was in *response* to rising inequality, that much of the perceived financial gains from a two income family were eaten by additional work and child-rearing expenses, and that the true cost was the added fragility of having to depend on two incomes and the associated loss of the ability to withstand career or medical shocks.

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      3. What Jay said. Unpopular opinions time: it’s a financial luxury for one parent to be a stay-at-home parent. Either that, or it’s the result of a tragedy—one person is unable to work due to illness or injury, or one person has to be a caretaker for a family member who is severely disabled or ill. Most people simply don’t have the financial wherewithal for anyone to spend any significant amount of time out of work. We don’t have a European-style safety net. For most of us, wages are our only safety net.

        To extend the argument you are making—that two high-earners will out-earn a lower-earning two-income household, amplifying income inequality—you could just as easily say that wages for highly-compensated professionals rose to a greater degree, and at a faster rate, while wages for the average earner were depressed.

        And that’s not the fault of “more women entering the paid workforce”, much as conservatives would like to place the blame on us.In my world, not being in the paid workforce, for whatever reason, results in divorce statistics and financial catastrophe on par with terminal alcoholism or heroin addiction.

        Probably also worth a mention: the greater acceptance of women in positions of authority has a helluva lot to do with double-income households being the norm for Generation X and the Millenials. There is a reason for statistics like this: https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/12/29/mens-and-womens-gender-ideologies-ideals-and-fallbacks/.

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      4. lubiddo – I wanted to follow up on a conversation that you started last week.

        You were talking about how rough the job market was for people in the trades. But then another commenter said that around her, on the East Coast, there were a lot of plumbers and electricians who seemed to be doing quite well. They were living in the same towns as the PhDs and the lawyers. But they were home earlier and were coaching all the kiddie sports teams.

        It’s the same around here, too. And I keep hearing more and more families talking about sending their kids to trade school, even in UMC suburbs. It’s not the majority by any means, but enough for me to take notice.

        So, is your situation the result of the abandonment of the midwest or is the decline of the trades in general?

        MichaelB had a link below about Apple’s problem with opening up factories in the US. Yes, workers here expect a living wage. But the other problem is that they didn’t have enough workers with tech skills. Our schools aren’t making people who can help build iPads and iPhones. That seems like a problem that can be fixed.

        By increasing the tech skills in schools, we could bring manufacturing back to the US and employ people. Why aren’t we doing that?

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      5. Surveys are interesting, but not always good guides to behavior. UMC couples–the only kind I know enough of to generalize–normally do establish “neotraditional” divisions of household labor, in which the wife’s career takes a backseat while she assumes primary responsibility for household management and children. I actually have trouble thinking of a couple other than my wife and me containing two committed careerists with approximately equal incomes.

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  3. I’d call it globalization & flat earth, rather than “China & container ships” for factories. And one can add the global labor market for software development, engineering design, animation, call centers, document search, medical transcription, . . . as white collar jobs that required medium skills but not necessarily innovation, entrepreneurship, risk taking, and creativity.

    But, there’s also monopolies (facebook, photoshop, instagram) that actually work better as monopolies (like utilities) but were never regulated. There are the companies that provide the platform and capture the concentrated profit while others reap marginal rewards (etsy, uber, . . .). There is the technology that allows corporations to enter previously regulated marketplaces with no regulations (uber, netflix, education, . . . ). All of these (and, I”m sure more) centralize rewards in ways that increase inequality. The trends are not unprecedented — radio and movies and television changed the dynamics of entertainment, as just one example.

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  4. OT. Laura, since you are interested in people reinventing themselves, I recommend Bruce Dickinson’s autobiography “What Does This Button Do?”

    I think I’m in love.

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  5. Can (schools) at least create conditions for the equality of opportunity, so the most talented, hardworking people can rise to the top?

    Um. I wouldn’t say that, even given perfect conditions, the most talented, hardworking people will rise to the top. Talented by whose definition? Hardworking for whom?

    It seems to me that schools often spend a great deal of time teaching behaviors that do not correlate with great success. Compliant people don’t ask for a raise. They don’t start their own companies. Schools deem people to be “talented” when they produce teacher-pleasing work. And heaven forbid you practice the skill of chatting with your neighbors.

    Lots of ADHD and dyslexic people end up at the top, because they never fit the school model.

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    1. But Laura and I and a few others here are the people who did rise via the educational system. (Not that we were exactly at the bottom to start.) Plus I would say that, at least at good schools, you don’t have to be all that compliant if you are smart and hardworking.

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      1. y81 said,

        “Plus I would say that, at least at good schools, you don’t have to be all that compliant if you are smart and hardworking.”

        That’s a very interesting point.

        A good school is (pretty much by definition) willing to work with a prickly kid if the kid is smart and hardworking. One of my kids is like that.

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      2. So, if a physics PhD ends up driving for Uber, is that the fault of the educational system?

        Is said physics PhD more deserving of being “at the top” (which means, I suppose, public respect, power, and wealth) than, say, those known college dropouts, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs et al?

        I notice that doctors and lawyers are

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      3. It depends on which school and how prickly they are. A lot seems to depend on whether they have the support (logistical, emotional, financial, . . .) to weather the setbacks of their prickly interaction and get back on track.

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      4. Although I do agree that some characteristics (ADHD, dyslexia, autism) might have associations with desirable human traits, I also think that there are plenty of people who have those desirable traits (multi-tasking, visual skills, creativity, hyperfocus, . . . ) who can do school spectacularly (I’ve said this before). In a winner take world, in which any imperfection is a failure, it’s mostly the kids who have it all who succeed spectacularly. And, sometimes, that all includes a variety of legs up (money, connections, . . . ).

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      5. I was the anonymous at 2:36 yesterday. I must have twitched in the middle of composing.

        At any rate, what I meant to continue with, doctors, lawyers, etc.–essentially people who achieve status through the completion of a structured, grueling, expensive educational journey–are very invested in the idea of an educational pecking order. If you hang out on College Confidential (just don’t), you’ll notice the recurrent phenomenon of parents who invest insane amounts of energy in trying to rank all players in the college application process. Students, colleges, programs, you name it, they’ll rank it.

        It never seems to occur to them that the GPA difference between the 1st ranked student at a highly ranked public high school and the 20th ranked student might not be meaningful. That the kids at the middle of the pack in high school might not be doomed. A friend’s son noted that he was attending the same college as high school classmates who went all in on the high-school-as-pressure-cooker way of life. That there’s a level of education that is needed for further success, but that past a certain point, success lies in choosing the path that best fits your talents. We insist that everyone compete as a student in the all-around student league, but the modern world encourages specialization.

        I look around me, and the world is not governed by valedictorians. I do not consider that an injustice.

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      6. The Kling article is a nice summary of some social/moral “failings” of capitalism (ones that I say we need to address even if there are no simple solutions and those solutions have costs).

        I recently stumbled on a podcast, “Reasons to be Cheerful” in which the casters discussed land use in England (and interviewed some experts, who think too much of England is being sold to 1%’ers for investment purposes). In it, they talked about “demand” v “need”. Demand was the classic economic term, in which products (in this case land use) is produced for those who have the resources to spend on it. Need was a place to live, which we all have.

        I feel like we are facing that contrast in our neck of the woods, with a urbanist/development contingent who is trying to meet demand but not need. Our citic council just passed what they call a “backyard cottage” bill. In practice, I think that some backyard cottages are going to be multiple million dollar houses on smaller lots in some of our neighborhoods. Does this meet a need?

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      7. Long sub-thread. Sorry. But I must reply to this:

        In a winner take world, in which any imperfection is a failure, it’s mostly the kids who have it all who succeed spectacularly. And, sometimes, that all includes a variety of legs up (money, connections, . . . ).

        That’s a matter of belief. We’re all imperfect. Getting into Harvard is not “succeeding spectacularly.”

        Is the medical researcher who receives her first grant at 40 or so, with a great deal of student debt, to be envied? There’s no guarantee that her research efforts will be successful, neither professionally nor financially. Anyone can go bankrupt, even the people who seem to have won all the prizes.

        Many of the graduates of good high schools, who did well enough to complete college, go on to be successful. https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/on-retirement/articles/7-myths-about-millionaires

        While most millionaires did go to college, they generally didn’t get top marks. School rewards people who comply with the rules. People who get As are responsible and conscientious. These students grow up to support the system and often do well in their career. But the people who run the system are those who don’t always play by the rules. They sometimes do things differently, succeed in changing the system and go on to lead the next economic boom. While the rules of school are clear, millionaires know that you don’t always earn the biggest paydays by following rules.

        As to the example of the master’s degree recipient, it will be an advantage, if she delays other things to pay back the student loan quickly. Not everyone does that. I recently learned from a relative that a mutual relative still has student loans, as he approaches retirement. If it’s true, there’s no excuse for that. Very bright guy, but he seems to be clueless about basic math.

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    1. cy said,

      “I wondered if that was a trick question.”

      Oh man, I had honestly no idea!

      I just chose Chrysler because it traditionally has the worst reputation of the Big 3 and I wanted to make the point that while people boohoo over the decline of the US auto industry, they often don’t want to drive US cars.

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  6. I will share an anecdote about a masters: I know a recent graduate who just finished her Masters in Education program (in environmental education). It cost 36K (in tuition, two years, probably another 24K in living expenses, some of which were required because there was a residential program at an environmental education center as part of the program). So, 60K total.

    She recently got her first job, teaching elementary school. The M.Ed is raising her starting salary by 11K. Economically worth it in the long run? She didn’t need to take loans, or at least substantial loans. If her starting salary remained 11K higher over 6 years, she’d be paid back the cost (though lost earnings, investment, potentially catching up in salary with experience aren’t being taken into account). So, ot absolutely certain about the economic payout.

    But, she loved her two year experience. She learned teaching skills she will value and that she thinks will impart value to her students. She also had a life enhancing experience. Like Laura, she’ll remember these two years, one of which were spent living in a nature preserve with people her own age, teaching, growing a garden, raising honey bees, learning the stars and the trees and the slugs and the edible plants, for the rest of her life.

    And, she has that M.Ed, which goes on her CV and does expand her options.

    I pencil it out at a win (but, she didn’t have to take on a loan burden, partially because she was gifted some of the tuition).

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    1. Well, Miller and Modigliani would point out that the investment decision is separate from and irrelevant to the financing decision. Whether she financed the degree with savings or borrowing (we will ignore gifts, since we don’t know enough about the terms thereof), if it represents a good return on capital, it is worth doing. Put another way, the extra income will either pay off the loan or replenish the depleted savings to the same extent. However, I do note that the $11K income is taxable, whereas the $60K is not deductible, and that the cost should include any foregone income in excess of the $24K in living expenses. Still, given some plausible assumptions, a return of maybe $7K a year (after tax) on a total investment of maybe $70K or $80K (when you factor in foregone after-tax income in excess of $24K) is pretty good.

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      1. BTW, the preceding comment constitutes really terrible writing. Every sentence except the second begins with a connecting clause. I hate that. As my mother used to say, if your thoughts aren’t written clearly enough to make the connection each sentence and the next apparent, adding connecting clauses won’t help. I wish there were an edit function on this blog.

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      2. But you’ve got to stay in the field and got to keep on working or the numbers are suddenly not so good.

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