Tuesday, May 10, 2011

America's Big Social Problem

Back in the 1950s, writes David Brooks, something like 96 percent of adult men were in the labor force. Only about one man in twenty was not working or looking for work. Today, around one fifth, 20 percent of men, are out of the labor force. It's worse at the bottom, of course.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35 percent of those without a high school diploma are out of the labor force, compared with less than 10 percent of those with a college degree.

So what does David Brooks propose to deal with this social problem? He worries about all the money we spend on Medicare when we should be spending it on the structurally unemployed.

It will probably require a broad menu of policies attacking the problem all at once: expanding community colleges and online learning; changing the corporate tax code and labor market rules to stimulate investment; adopting German-style labor market practices like apprenticeship programs, wage subsidies and programs that extend benefits to the unemployed for six months as they start small businesses.

I see. So government is the solution to this problem.

There's another way to look at this. It is to say that government is the problem. Thomas Sowell worries about one little problem, students that "can graduate from some of the most prestigious institutions in the country without ever learning anything about science, mathematics, economics, or anything else that would make them either productive contributors to the economy or informed voters who can see through political rhetoric." He is talking about the problem of over-educated people in the developing countries, graduates of government universities, that can't get jobs.

The problem is much bigger than a question of funding--or even the problem of the glut of university graduates stupid enough to spend money on a degree in underwater postmodern basket-weaving.

The problem is that government can't be trusted with education. That's because in the hands of government, education becomes captured by the teachers and special interests. For decades, high schools have turned out graduates that need remedial course in colleges. What has happened? The problem has gotten worse. Of course it has. Because angry parents and students can't fire their schools and go down the street. The education industry is too powerful.

But even the problem of government schools doesn't really address the problem. The problem was illuminated years ago by George Gilder in Visible Man. It was about a disabled ex-Marine who knocked up an underage teenaged girl. He married her and got a job at a lumber yard, and supported her and their baby. But when she reached 16 and could go on welfare and get an apartment, well, then their relationship broke apart, and pretty soon the ex-Marine broke apart too.

It's an old story, and it points out a timeless truth. The big social problem is not the suffering working class or traditionally marginalized communities or any other liberal fantasy. The problem is how to socialize the boys, and turn them towards productive work and away from their natural instinct for mayhem and rapine.

And about that, our modern educated elite has nothing to say.

All of which means that things are going to have to get much worse before we can have a hope of making them better.

We will know when there is hope. It will be when the quota conservative at The New York Times feels able to propose to his liberal readership solutions to social problems that go beyond rearranging the government programs on the deck of the Titanic.

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