Intellectuals are Freaks

Michael Lind on the weakness of intellectuals’ approach to inequality:

The views of intellectuals about social reform tend to be warped by professional and personal biases, as well. In the U.S. the default prescription for inequality and other social problems among professors, pundits, and policy wonks alike tends to be: More education! Successful intellectuals get where they are by being good at taking tests and by going to good schools. It is only natural for them to generalize from their own highly atypical life experiences and propose that society would be better off if everyone went to college — natural, but still stupid and lazy. Most of the jobs in advanced economies — a majority of them in the service sector — do not require higher education beyond a little vocational training. Notwithstanding automation, for the foreseeable future janitors will vastly outnumber professors, and if the wages of janitors are too low then other methods — unionization, the restriction of low-wage immigration, a higher minimum wage — make much more sense than enabling janitors to acquire BAs, much less MAs and Ph.Ds.

I’m a member of the very intellectual class Lind describes. I share his concern that our “intellectual class” is too isolated from the experiences of the majority of our fellow citizens and that this can lead to ideas/policies that would work great for Belmont but fail to address the needs of Fishtown.

But does that mean the “intellectual class” solution of “more education” is the wrong answer?

Every year, fewer jobs are available to those with only a high school degree. If we want to expand opportunity for working class Americans, it means ensuring a greater portion earn a BA - it also means that we need more people completing career/technical education and earning 2-year degrees.

Lind argues for short-term protectionist solutions to address low wages: more unionization, less immigration, and higher minimum wages. These may sound attractive, but they are ultimately stopgap measures that don’t address the systemic challenge in our economy, illustrated in the graphic below:

Why did wages for the Western working class stagnate while the Asian middle class grew just as much as the income of the most affluent? As Yuval Levin explains in The Fractured Republic:

“In the 1950s, the nation produced more than half of the world’s total manufactured goods—a mind-boggling, if obviously transitory, advantage.

The equality of the postwar era was a unique moment in American history, subsidized in large part by the devastating impact of WWII on competing economies. As other nations rebuilt and technology facilitated the rise of globalization, the wage premium for American labor withered away. Protectionist policies can only attempt to insulate against this trend - they don’t address the fundamental challenge that work historically performed by high school graduates in the US can now increasingly be performed more cheaply abroad or by robots.

The long-term solution is obvious: more education (both career and college oriented) to help more people access highly-skilled jobs with high wages, but we also need to consider shorter-term solutions to help make this transition less disruptive without resorting to protectionism. This will certainly involve a re-thinking of our social welfare system, either by re-imagining A Better Way to run our current system, or replacing it with something more radical, like a Universal Basic Income.

While I disagree with Lind’s proposed solution to inequality, I agree that more members of the “intellectual class” need to get outside of our bubbles to better understand the lives of working class Americans. Our nation is currently a fractured republic and coming apart - those of us in the “intellectual class” need to actively work to reverse the isolation we experience and cultivate more relationships and empathy for people of all backgrounds in our society.