Posts Tagged ‘education’

Inequality, and a True Progressivism

October 23, 2012

I have discussed inequality before, but apparently haven’t succeeded in ending debate. The Economist (10/13) has published an analysis by its economics editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, which I recommend highly. (Click here; and here for a related editorial). Beddoes addresses inequality in depth and concludes by calling for a true progressivism – not mindless capitalism-bashing (nor government-bashing) but a program for reforming government’s role to better spread capitalism’s benefits.*

I have argued that fixating on inequality per se is misguided (and reflects, frankly, a big dollop of envy). What counts most is your absolute quality of life, not how it compares to others’. The problem of the poor is not plutocrats. Wealth is earned not at the expense of the poor but, by and large, by profiting from contributions toward the betterment of all. And the poor can be raised up – by boosting their ability to so contribute – without dragging down the rich.

A lot of inequality is merely the difference between mature people in the prime of their working lives, with accumulated assets, and young whippersnappers just starting out. Yet classic rich-versus-poor inequality of course exists too. It’s mitigated if the poor have reasonable opportunities to rise – the American ideal. But such social mobility isn’t what it once was. We’ll return to this.

Beddoes elucidates that while inequality is indeed growing in many countries (ours included), worldwide it is falling. That’s not contradictory. Global inequality is indisputably falling simply because less developed (and poorer) nations (mainly China and India) have much higher economic growth than advanced nations. Within those fast growing countries, the rich outrace the poor, increasing intra-country inequality, yet still those poor are outracing rich country populations.

Less affluent Americans are falling behind, in part, because some wealth is now being redirected from them to poorer people in Asia. Bad for us; good for them (at least equally deserving human beings). Thus, again, rising local inequality actually translates into falling global inequality.

Some Americans are losing out because they are becoming less competitive not only in what is more and more a global labor market, but even within America, where economic rewards increasingly go to the more skilled and educated.** Wealth is unequal not chiefly because the rich are hogs, or the game is rigged, but primarily because educational attainment is unequal, and its importance is growing. Once, anyone could earn good pay in factories without a college degree; but that’s sooo twentieth-century, an inexorably shrinking part of the economic landscape. (The President’s “manufacturing” obsession as a jobs panacea is retrograde.)

Drop out of high school, or even college, and you’re likely to have a low-wage job, or none, with your situation often aggravated by lack of marriage, and single-parent children, who grow up to repeat the syndrome. Whereas better educated people are likely to have better jobs, marriages with equally educated partners, and two-parent children who go on to repeat that model.

This is the nub of America’s inequality and declining social mobility.

Government isn’t helping. Our first battleground is in the schools, where entrenched teacher unions fight real reform of a system disgracefully disserving the disadvantaged, trapping them in their plight. And as for wealth redistribution, Beddoes highlights that it’s largely from the affluent to the affluent, especially the affluent elderly (through programs like Medicare, Social Security, and a host of tax preferences like the mortgage deduction). Such welfare for the rich dwarfs any redistribution to the needy.

And government’s interventions in the economy aren’t helping either. I recently listened to anti-capitalist crusader Arundhati Roy rail against a litany of alleged evils of free market economics in India. I kept thinking: she’s missing it completely. Nothing she denounced is actually free market economics; to the contrary, it’s non-free market economics, it’s India’s culture of cronyism, corruption, and over-regulation that stifles competition and economic opportunity; it’s government perverting the free market. So fixated was Roy on demonizing “capitalism” that she couldn’t see this Indian elephant in the room.

This is a key element in the “true progressivism” Beddoes argues for. She says governments can narrow inequality without large-scale redistribution or an engorged state. Beddoes invokes Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting – instead of helping favored businesses, which often means hobbling their competitors, government should be removing barriers to competition (many of them erected by government itself). That expands economic opportunity and the size of the pie for everyone. While such an assault on cronyism and corruption is particularly vital for countries like India and China (where the state itself is directly in business), Beddoes says rich nations “also need more competition in traditionally mollycoddled sectors such as education.”

Health care too, in America. And (sorry, Lefties) we are increasingly over-regulated. Reviewing the regulatory picture, the same Economist issue quips that “If banks once did banking, now they practice law.” Fine for the biggest ones (maybe), but ruinously costly for all other businesses, again undermining competition, economic dynamism, and equality of opportunity. (A friend yesterday alerted me to a 1992 Wall Street Journal op-ed by a hotel owner telling how government regulation contributed to destroying his business. The author: George McGovern!)

Beddoes’s second point is to recognize that the gigantic edifice of state social spending has gotten grossly out of whack, directing the lion’s share of subsidies to the affluent and elderly, rather than toward investing in the young and the disadvantaged, to boost their contributions to future economic progress. Not to mention that out-of-control entitlement spending threatens to wreck our economy altogether.

Beddoes’s third priority is to reform taxes, to improve efficiency and fairness. While the rich do already pay a disproportionately high share of income taxes, our crazy-quilt of loopholes and special interest giveaways is loaded with unfairness and distortions of economic activity that seriously harm the nation’s welfare. Just the sheer cost in man-hours of coping with tax complexity is a huge economic liability.

All these policies would help reduce inequality and broaden economic opportunity; but of course they are good not just for the disadvantaged, but for society as a whole.

Beddoes concludes by noting that some rising countries are progressing on parts of this agenda (one reason why they are rising); but not the richer nations, and “the most shocking shortcomings are in America, the rich country where income gaps are biggest and have increased fastest.”

America’s to-do list should also include fixing immigration, particularly our suicidal near lock-out of the world’s best-and-brightest. This exemplifies today’s American Disease: people’s narrow idea of self-interest short-sightedly undermining their true long-term good. The same applies to all the government subsidies everyone stubbornly clings to, which will ultimately sink our whole ship.

I remain a great optimist about the future for humanity as a whole. But while America is still blessed with a vast reservoir of human creative energy, God has not somehow decreed that we will maintain our privileged status even while refusing to adapt to a changing world. I’m not optimistic about America biting Beddoes’s bullets.

It surely will never happen in a second Obama term. With Romney, and a fresh shuffle of the political cards, maybe there’s at least a chance.

* The blogosphere’s Lefties have mounted the predictable shrill attacks on The Economist for daring to call its prescriptions “progressive.”

** Broadened educational opportunity was probably the key reason why American inequality fell significantly in the last century.

The Marshmallow Test

October 6, 2012

You’re four years old. You’re given a marshmallow and told you can eat it now, but if you wait fifteen minutes, you’ll get a second one. Some kids use various stratagems to resist temptation and win the reward, such as singing to themselves, playing foot games, or even hiding their eyes. Others just can’t wait, and gobble up the marshmallow straight away.

This experiment was started in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel. The kids were tracked through high school graduation. And the two groups differed dramatically. Those who were able to wait, to gain a double treat, were far more on track for success in life.

This was a test of impulsiveness versus restraint, desire versus self-control, and the concept of delayed gratification. Those passing the test grew to be more socially competent, personally effective, self-motivated, and able to cope with life’s ups and downs; more confident, trustworthy and dependable; and far better academic performers. But kids who, at four, couldn’t resist temptation were worse off in all these aspects – on track toward lives of frustration, failure, and social dysfunction.

In fact, the marshmallow test turns out to be a better predictor for such basic life success than any other measure (such as IQ).

Another simple test can be done even earlier, used by the eminent pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. He shows an eight-month old baby two blocks and how they should be put together. Some do it confidently and bright-eyed, expecting praise. Others with a wan, defeatist attitiude. Even so early, the differing personality styles say volumes about how children have already been socialized – and, like the marshmallow test, strongly predict their future life trajectories.

This is discussed in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. He was much influenced by what he saw as a host of worsening social pathologies, including crime and violence – which actually were just then on the cusp of a dramatic turnaround. Nevertheless, it’s still a highly important book. That marshmallow test keeps coming up everywhere I turn.

Goleman’s book is grounded upon Howard Gardner’s model of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner’s insight was that standard measures of intelligence (or “cognitive ability”) such as IQ tests actually gauge only a narrow part of the spectrum of relevant capabilities: managing emotions, self-motivation, empathy, interpersonal effectiveness, handling conflicts and setbacks, etc. It’s plausibly estimated that conventional IQ contributes only around 20% to success in life, the rest hinging on these other capabilities. Thus it’s quite common for high IQ people to mess up their lives, while “dummies” thrive. (Ronald Reagan was not the brightest bulb intellectually, but had other competences that enabled him to succeed and achieve greatly.)

These other capabilities Goleman calls “emotional intelligence,” and the marshmallow test is an excellent indicator for them. Passing that test unpacks into a whole array of positive personality characteristics. The implications are huge.

Now, genetics does play some role in personality development; but it’s actually very limited. So complex is the brain that genes can only prescribe a general guide for wiring up all its interconnections, and the details result from environmental influences. That mainly means parents and their parenting styles. Brazelton believes that the personality dichotomy revealed by his block test is largely down to how parents have interacted with their babies.

I have repeatedly stressed education’s importance for our future prosperity. Conventional subjects like reading, math, science, and social studies are certainly important here. But Goleman’s book shows us that “emotional intelligence” is more important. Traditional academic proficiency will avail a person little if his life is a mess from emotional incompetence. He may not be employable if he can’t work with people. And the book further makes clear that without emotional intelligence, teaching the “3 R’s” is bound to fail anyway. Students with poor emotional intelligence tend to do poorly in school; practically all high school drop-outs probably fail for that reason rather than “dumbness.”

Thus, emphasis on “3 R” education and testing puts the cart before the horse. The most important test for kids is the marshmallow test. Fail that one, and other educational efforts are doomed to futility.

Now, you might say that emotional intelligence should be taught in the home. Sure – ideally. But have you looked at some homes? A single teenaged drop-out mother, living a frazzled chaotic life, is unlikely to inculcate her children with good emotional intelligence. She probably lacks it herself, which is why she is a single teenaged drop-out mother. Thus, even if it’s not in genes, this kind of dysfunction does get passed from one generation to another. And it’s not limited to a particular social class. Upscale parents likewise may be no great shakes at emotional intelligence.

Similar points are made in a more recent book, Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Yes, he too invokes the marshmallow test. Character, Tough posits, is created by encountering and overcoming adversity. The overcoming part is hard for disadavantaged children; but for affluent ones, it’s the encountering part they miss, when parents are so often overprotective. Hence failure to develop important positive character traits is a big society-wide problem.

But it’s not insoluble. People can be educated to be better parents, as in programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone’s “Baby College.” And while as the marshmallow and Brazelton tests show, children from emotionally dysfunctional families are handicapped from the start, the damage can actually be ameliorated in the schools if the problem is understood and the effort is made. Goleman described a number of initiatives showing some success, entailing either special classes teaching kids emotional competence per se, or else systematically incorporating such lessons into the teaching of more conventional subjects, especially reading.

One thing neuroscience has certainly revealed is the human mind’s plasticity. Habits of thought and behavior and even emotive response can be modified through learning. Students getting these lessons can overcome the handicaps revealed by the marshmallow and Brazelton tests, and go on to do better in school and cope better with life’s challenges. And, of course, they will also go on to be more emotionally intelligent parents to their own future children, helping to break the cycle of dysfunction handed down from generation to generation.

All this does require serious rethinking of our whole approach to education, and meets much resistance from teachers, many of whom may not themselves be paragons of emotional competence, and who anyway say they are already overburdened with all the other curriculum elements. However, again – for too many kids, trying to teach them all that other stuff is a waste of time if they aren’t first taught emotional intelligence.

And, once more, this is crucial for being a successful nation full of successful people. We want to be a nation of people who can pass the marshmallow test. We want to be a nation that gets that second marshmallow.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,887 other followers