Thursday, March 10, 2011

Trend: Globalization in Higher Ed

Paul Krugman in his opinion piece, "Degrees and Dollars" plays the contrarian when he counters the conventional wisdom that in order to have better jobs we need more money invested in education.

Key Points:

1. Legal research can be done with computers thus making redundant "armies of lawyers and paralegals".
2. The same is true of chip design and engineers.
3. Upshot? Modern technology doesn't just obsolesce the working class job. A college degree does not necessarily insulate one from the shock of technological productivity. Everything we 'know' about jobs and higher education is wrong.
4. This has led to the 'hollowing out' of the middle class as jobs at the low and high wage end grow. And...this hole in the middle is accelerating into the high end jobs as well.
5. Why? We assume that computers benefit mind workers over hand workers, but drawing on the research of economists David Autor, Frank Levy, and Richard Murnane, Krugman points out that this is not the right way to think. Any task that can be made routine can be computerized. Ironically, this does not include manual labor which can't be reduced to explicit rules and is, therefore, safe from the 'productivity' ravages of technology.
6. Plus, there are not many production/assembly line jobs left to be lost.
7. To aggravate matters for middle and high end knowledge workers, Krugman points to the research by Alan Blinder and Alan Krueger which indicates that their jobs are more "offshoreable" than low-wage jobs.
8. Krugman argues for policy changes: equalize the starting line for all college capable students no matter their class.
9. The idea that graduating more students will save the middle class is 'wishful thinking'. A college degree does not necessarily guarantee a good job. And that is less true with each passing day.
10. Krugman says that we need a "more broadly shared prosperity" that can only be gotten by restoring the balance of bargaining power between labor and management and by guaranteeing health care as a citizen's birthright.
11. If we don't do that then a degree might just be a ticket to nowhereville.

Significance: What are our degrees for? Emergent thinking practitioners like Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer would insist that what we need to do is lead from the future. That future is one in which jobs are abundant but only darkly realized. What I mean is that higher education is preparing students for jobs that already exist (although in startlingly fewer numbers if Krugman is to be believed) when we should be getting them ready to step into ones that don't even exist yet. Of course, we can only guess what those jobs might be and with the nearly logarithmic increases in computing power there is no promise that those jobs won't also be partly or completely automated by the time a typical graduate makes it through a program. Krugman implies that institutions of higher education have become complacent because they assumed that they were the only ones issuing tickets to ride or that because they were the only credential around they could get away with being 'dumb' to the forces around them.


It might already be too late to turn around the hied ship of state. There are many impedences to effective change connected at every level and ever direction to hied that will rip and tear when change is even contemplated. It will hurt. People avoid pain as a matter of course, but if the affordances of the change are demonstrated (note I did not say explained) then folks may be persuaded to do so.

Hied must focus not on marketing its benefits other than as a meal ticket. Ironically, if Krugman is right, it must harken to liberal arts and general education as a way into this emergent future. In a roiling sea of change and disruption we need to show our students how to sail. But...institutions do not know how to value or factor in the iconoclasts. Unless we figure out how to do that, the hied's future is tied to an irrelevant beacon receding in the rearview leaving us without a guide ahead.


I hope Krugman is wrong. His solutions to the problem seem truly tacked on so maybe his analysis is wrong as well, but I don't think so. One reason is the rise in for-profit schools. They have positioned themselves to capitalize (quite literally) on the assumption that Krugman takes solid aim at. They milk the idea that hied is an entitlement game--play by its rules and you get the ticket to ride the carousel with the big brass ring. These for-profit institutions will ruin it for all of us who have a more nuanced and realistic view. Imagine the indebted disallusionment of the for-profit graduates who cannot get the promised ride. The corrosive cynicism of even one such person will spread like acid and probably already has done serious damage.

The good news is that Krugman is a prophet who might actually have honor in his own country. Sometimes prophets have to sound the knell of doom just to get our attention. I think that this is doubly so now in an age where everyone tugs on our mind's sleeve and where the hyperbolic is the norm. Krugman may just be extrapolating around the bend, a fancy way of saying he is only guessing and wildly at that.

Futurology is beyond suspect in a world where everything you know is wrong at some point, but there is other evidence that he is at least pointing toward the moon of the zen parable. A recent article in The Guardian, "The Awful Truth: Education Won't Stop the West Getting Poorer," Peter Welby sounds the vuvuzela of doom as well. In the UK real wages have not risen since 2005 and in the U.S. it has barely risen in over 30 years. Citing the same Alan Blinder that Krugman does, Welby is truly scary, "Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the US Federal Reserve, has estimated that a quarter of all American service sector jobs could go overseas." Welby goes to insist that this is not going to be an orderly retreat either as predicted by the neoliberal, flat-earth, morons like Thomas Friedman who argued that such a sucking out of jobs would make more room for higher paid, innovative and new industries and jobs. Instead we will be subject to a new Digital Taylorism--the routinization of all but the most complex jobs so that even monkeys can do them. Low paid monkeys with big student loans.
But as the TV Detective Adrian Monk's theme song proclaims, "I could be wrong" Unfortunately, the song last line drops the other shoe when it resignedly sings out, "But I don't think so."

(As an aside, I have to wonder about Krugman's intellectual integrity. Much of the Guardian article is dumbed down in Krugman's column and while no words are lifted, the spirit of the article is plagiarized and the organization is as well. Just saying. Experts should be on tap not on top else they will break your heart.)


Krugman, P. (2011, March 6). Degrees and Dollars. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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