Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Meaning of "Economic Mobility"

High-level college admissions are in the news this week thanks to an infuriating scandal. They were in the news last fall thanks to the lawsuit against Harvard and how it selects its freshman class.  I followed that case very closely and have been planning to write something about it for quite a while, but I have not yet done so.  The new controversy has provoked a lot of revealing discussion about how people see the role of our top institutions in our society, and one remark, from an article this morning in the New York Times, especially caught my eye.

The article asks, essentially, whether the very rich parents who bribed their kids into Yale, USC, UCLA, and Georgetown got their money's worth with respect to their children's economic future.  (Whether they got their money's worth with respect to bragging rights among their friends, or their parental self-esteem, would of course be harder to measure, although I suspect those motives were equally important.)  The answer, according to some studies that researchers have done, is probably no.  The children of very rich parents are likely (though not certain) to wind up well-off themselves whether they attend an elite school or not.  The article cites evidence, however, that for low-income students, top institutions can have a dramatic effect.  This paragraph, in particular, caught my eye:

"At the same time, research from the Equality of Opportunity Project found that while many kinds of colleges can help students move to the top 20 percent of the income distribution from the bottom 20 percent, moving to the top 1 percent from the bottom 20 percent almost always requires a highly selective institution. If you’re at all concerned about economic mobility, this underscores the waste of unfairly displacing qualified low-income students from top colleges and universities."

I have two comments here.  To begin with, I honestly believe that that this paragraph captures the real motivation for affirmative action programs for poorer minorities at Harvard and other elite schools.  They understand perfectly well that they are admitting (or retaining) young people into, or in, the topmost ranks of our society, and they want those top strata to be integrated, or, to use the current term, "diverse."  And they are succeeding.  There isn't any evidence that Barack Obama needed affirmative action to get into Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard Law School.  Attending the elite Punaho school in Hawaii was enough to get him onto the top track, and his own achievements kept him there. But his accession to the White House represented the ultimate success of the strategy these schools are pursuing.

Yet that paragraph--and the pride top institutions take in their affirmative action programs--disturbs me a great deal, because it expresses a remarkably obtuse vision of what "economic mobility" means.  Yes, it's inspiring when some one moves from the bottom 20% of the income distribution to the top 1%, and those who managed to do so have been the stuff of American legend from the beginning of the Republic onward.  But a view that measures mobility by the ability of people to move into the top 1% is rather narrow, insofar as it totally ignores the fate of the 99% who will never get there. And these policies are doing nothing for most of them.

Yes, a diverse elite is better than a narrow one, but neither is much good to the bulk of the population within an economy that is trending steadily towards more and more inequality. They can only benefit by returning to the kind of income distribution and society that we enjoyed half a century ago, in which top marginal tax rates had just been cut from 91% to 70%, workers' wages were still rising in absolute terms, and executive salaries were a fraction of what they are today.  Unfortunately, because, I suspect, of the huge expansion in their own personnel, universities today need the much richer 1% of 2019 much more than they did in the 1950s.  Their admission strategies, we have learned, put a high priority on cultivating the wealthiest donors on whom they must rely for their economic future.  And with respect to income inequality--to use a phrase from half a century ago--that makes them part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, no matter how many disadvantaged people they manage to funnel into the top 1%.

The excellent book Winners Take All, which I reviewed here a few months ago, analyzed the moral dilemma of the new superrich: how to feel progressive while remaining solidly within the 1%.  Affirmative action as it is practiced today by elite schools is one "solution" to that problem.  I have thought a lot about who is benefiting and who isn't from the Harvard admissions policies that were laid bare last fall, and I will eventually getting around to sharing my views about that.

2 comments:

Ed Boyle said...

Instead of tokenism for a few minorities to atone for egregious sins of the past they should in general try to improve the entire economic climate. This of course would mean a fair distribution of power and income and would damage them. I recall the comedy 'Trading Places' with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd as typifying the attitude of the corrupt rich. They allow a few people into their insular club for PR reasons but actually have no hearts and are completely corrupt and criminal in manipulating markets and politics to oppress all. Those who fall from grace of this circle through the ever faster pace of destruction by the ever wealthier and smaller percent of wealthy find that they are as dispensable as the poorest minority. These wannabe strivers who populate top universities keep the system going for now. Unfortunately such blatant ancien regime tactics are fomenting the pitchfork type revolutionary backlash. It seems that, as in Russia in early 20th century, Americans are truly too passive and self occupied to revolt and need an external manufactured movement for this. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and colleagues all financed and promoted, and casted, scripted. This group of seven newbies in congress are creating a rucks while their promoters steal campaign money. They, like Lenin's Bolsheviki before them, would have zero chance of election, if fairness, justice would prevail but democracy is not real nowadays. Money talks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1h5iv6sECGU
Video 'AOC is an actress'

Bozon said...

Professor
Great post. Great topic.

These are some questions that initially spring to mind:

Why promote an already overbloated higher education system, or rather enormous fragmented and irrational systems of higher education, in the first place?

Why promote diversity in a system of education increasingly already under the sway of MNCs, run increasingly by the anti civilizational Party of Davos, with their anti patriotic anti civilizational globalist market driven agendas?

Why promote extreme global diversity in them, at any admissions level?

Why promote diversity in the top 1%, if the result of that initiative only results in an increasingly diverse globalist monetary elite following in the train of the Party of Davos, a group already roundly criticized for caring for nothing, nothing, but themselves?

In fact, why promote social or economic advancement of a top 1%, or even a top 10%, to any extent whatsoever, in the first place?

I am to some extent playing a devil's advocate here, but some issues running around in these questions are quite real and pressing.

All the best