Whew! I finally finished another book by an economist — challenging reading for this literature scholar — but fascinating, none the less. Sixteen years ago in “The Future of Success”, Robert Reich predicted much of the economic reality that we are now experiencing.
Early in the book, Reich compares the Industrial Revolution of the past to our present Technological Revolution. Although this is not primarily a political book, the realities it describes imply a drastic change of political dynamics. As the farm families of an earlier era had to adjust to factory work, many traditional jobs today are being lost to technology. Much community life was lost during the Industrial Revolution, as people moved to find jobs, or bought items made far away. Now we compete with workers in an even larger marketplace. Even an advanced college degree no longer guarantees a good job. The relationship between management and labor is no longer limited to national politics. As Reich points out, in the new marketplace, people sell themselves and their ideas individually to an international market, or they sell services locally. What Reich does not point out, but what I have observed to be true, is that as private industry escapes their influence, unions look more and more to the public sector to support their organizations. This has a profound effect on politics.
One thing that Reich notes which is of special interest to me as a career homemaker, is that workers pay other people a great deal of money to do things for themselves and their families that we once did for ourselves and each other. Some examples are child care, meal preparation, gardening, housecleaning, care of elderly relatives, home repairs, etc. Reich also notes how less intimacy and more scheduling stresses us to the degree that we need more touching and personal care from others, like massage, for instance. Ironically, being able to work from home does not liberate us from the office in the way that we thought it would. Our computers and smart phones enable us to be constantly on call, so that in one sense we can never really get away from our work. We can opt for a simpler life, of course, but since the people at the top will make such prodigious amounts of money, fewer people will be willing to give that up. Therefore, the new middle class must come from these service providers.
“How can we reap the advantages of the new economy while preventing its excesses and tempering its injustice?”
In the last chapter of the book, Reich finally does suggest some possible political responses to the new realities, some of which sound good to me and some which don’t. He asks the question, “How can we reap the advantages of the new economy while preventing its excesses and tempering its injustice?” Reich recognizes as I do that equality of opportunity rests with education. Again, this is of special interest to me since since I have been in and out of the classroom at every level from elementary school to community college over the years, either as a paid professional instructor or a volunteer. One of his ideas is to shift the financing of schools away from local property taxes, perhaps by creating a national educational fund which finances all public schools equally, regardless of the neighborhoods. Other ideas involve giving poorer students vouchers to attend better schools, making these students attractive to those schools because they bring lucrative funds with them. Or he suggests requiring developers to build some lower income housing in high income neighborhoods, or to give poorer families vouchers to buy expensive homes.
As an educator, my problem with these ideas is the whole concept that throwing more money at a problem makes a school or community automatically better. Effective education is more the result of teacher talent (admittedly sometimes related to pay), teacher commitment (which isn’t), and effective teaching methods. Also, there must be enough discipline and cooperation in the classrooms for learning to take place. A huge factor is parent support at home. No matter how talented or committed a teacher is, he or she cannot be effective if the classroom is overloaded with unruly students who vary widely in their readiness to meet curriculum expectations.
One way more money would help students from disadvantaged family environments is to hire more teachers and specialists to work with smaller classes or individuals. The affluent must be willing to help with this burden. One trend we need to discourage is the new trend in some wealthy housing developments to establish independent townships in order to keep all their local tax money in their own coffers. Such selfishness and short-sightedness in a country that has allowed us to achieve or retain wealth is not magnanimous, and can only lead to a backlash down the road. It will result in greater than ever intervention of big government that is out of touch with the needs of local school children dictating to teachers even more decisions about how and what to teach.