Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reading Capital... in the 21st Century (part 7 of x)

Piketty repeatedly resorts to the sarcastic comment that "Earth must be owned by Mars" when referring to the recurrently negative global balance of payments, a phenomenon which his frequent collaborator Gabriel Zucman has been able to trace to unreported financial assets held in tax havens. Yet as someone who writes science fiction, I find it an evocative image, and cannot help but begin to think of a story in which the colonization of Mars starts out as a tax-avoidance strategy.

Another subchapter in Piketty that is likely to be of greater interest to those of us who work in elite higher education than to the general public (see my last entry for a prior example) is the one entitled "Do Educational Institutions Foster Social Mobility?" (484-487) Here's the super-short version: No. The details are worth reviewing, however, because the data systematically undermine the basic theses of meritocratic ideology.

  • As anyone capable of comparing job listings today with those twenty years ago has likely suspected, "qualification levels shifted upward... a college degree [represents] what a high school diploma used to stand for". (I would add, having reviewed job listings for which I am eminently qualified by virtue of experience, Masters' degrees and even PhDs are becoming "requirements" for positions in which they are utterly useless. Credential inflation, in which academic institutions tend to lead the way, becomes a means not of ensuring a requisite level of preparation but of screening out those who may not have acquired a certain type of cultural capital through prolonged education.)
  • "The intergenerational correlation of education and earned incomes, which measures the reproduction of the skill hierarchy over time, shows no trend toward greater mobility over the long run, and in recent years mobility may even have decreased." (484, citing work by Bjorklund and Lefranc in Sweden and France respectively. I seem to recall having seen sociological work in the U.S. which shows this even more strongly, though the citation is not coming readily to mind.)
  • Intergenerational reproduction of class stratification is highest, among the wealthy countries, in the United States. (On this, Piketty cites the work of Markus Jantti. Again, I suspect there are others who have been working in this area.)
  • He also cites a Russell Sage Foundation-funded study by Duncan and Murnane showing that "the proportion of college degrees earned by children whose parents belong to the bottom two quartiles of the income hierarchy stagnated at 10-20% in 1970-2010, while it rose from 40 to 80 percent for children with parents in the top quartile.
  • As Piketty's earlier statistics show, however, Duncan and Murnane's division into quartiles does not adequately capture the class stratification in U.S. society: We need to look at the 1% and the 9%, and then further stratify the remains of the "patrimonial middle class". If 80% of the top quartile's kids are earning college degrees, we need to look in more detail at where different strata are earning their degrees, who are going on to earn advanced and professional degrees, and what are their post-graduation earnings. The Obama administration's plans for issuing "rankings" of U.S. colleges and universities have (rightly) been criticized by many in higher education, both for potentially adding a new level administrative burden (and with it, new administrative staff positions that will have to be filled, adding to the cost-bloat syndrome of higher education), and for focusing attention on the purely transactional aspects of higher education. Nonetheless, where you go to school does make a difference in terms of what you can hope for afterward, and the administration's plans will likely add a new set of data which social scientists can mine.
  • This is good, because Piketty's explication of how class privilege translates into admissions decisions at elite universities devolves into clumsy innuendo. He cites, for example, a study by Meer and Rosen showing that "gifts by graduates to their former universities are strangely concentrated in the period when their children are of college age." (485) This is the famous "legacy" issue, which deserves attention (though, frankly, I would be more suspicious of alumni legacy gifts having an influence on admissions if they were concentrated when their kids were of high-school.). But there are far more subtle and widespread ways in which parents' combination of wealth, income, education and social capital can and do translate into their kids' college admissions process than simple bribery.
  • At some point I should probably review the data in Piketty's online technical appendix through which he estimates the average family income of Harvard students as $450,000, since I am skeptical. I suspect that this is a mean, not a median, and that in a manner typical of Pareto distributions the mean is far higher than the median due to some very high-income outliers. In terms of gauging the access of those who are not the richest of the rich, the median is actually a more relevant measure. And given the fact that more than 70% of Harvard undergraduates receive aid, I suspect that the median is much lower. This is an area where Harvard, by virtue of its massive endowment, is able to do much better than places such as my employer.
  • "It would be naive, however, to think that free higher education would resolve all problems. In 1964, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron analyzed, in Les héritiers, more subtle mechanisms of social and cultural selection, which often do the same work as financial selection." (486) This is first time I've seen Bourdieu favorably cited in a book by a non-Marxist economist.

On balance, one should be very skeptical of any theory of social change which is premised upon access to higher education as a means toward greater social mobility.

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