It’s The Real Economy, Stupid
Wealthy political pundits are living in an alternate reality
Bill Gates caused quite a stir when he recently tweeted a graphic produced by Our World in Data (a Gates Foundation-funded organization) indicating how much progress the world has made in combating poverty over the last two centuries. Critics rightly seized on Gates’s observation as well as the data and analysis, quickly dismantling the neoliberal argument that the world is so much better off because of the proliferation of free market ideology and policies. We shouldn’t be surprised, however, that Gates agreed with data he helped pay for.
Gates’s obliviousness is reminiscent of other wealthy pundits’ struggle with the ideas of many Democratic Presidential candidates. These commentators’ constant questioning of whether various Democratic contenders are “too far left” and the ire they have expressed at the opposition to the Amazon deal reveal the massive economic gulf between elite analysts and the majority of the population. Indeed, the indignation expressed by the folks on Morning Joe the day after the Amazon deal collapsed provided an excellent snapshot of this alternate reality.
Once we understand what’s happening in the real economy, it is pretty easy to see why policies such as Medicare for All or free public college tuition appeal to many people, especially younger voters. Wages for most people, including many college graduates, have been largely stagnant for decades. Despite our low unemployment economy, the lack of financial security is widespread, regardless of what anyone says.
It’s simultaneously comical and maddening to watch elites scoff at these policies as lacking seriousness, frequently pointing out they have no chance of passing. Apparently they and their kids don’t have to worry about suffocating student loans, or about getting a decent job after college (not to mention getting a job without a college degree), or about getting decent, affordable health care. Can the source of the disconnect really be this simple? It can. If living through two years of the Trump administration has taught me anything, it’s that the most obvious explanation for the motivations of those in power is quite often the correct one.
Enter billionaire would-be presidential candidates Howard Schulz and Michael Bloomberg to set everyone straight. Schulz talks incessantly about “growing up in the projects.” Perhaps he should go back to his old neighborhood (assuming it’s not gentrified) and mingle with a few people, asking them about their daily lives. Or he and Bloomberg could hang out with the masses who attend public higher education in this country. Getting outside of their social circle would enable elites to see that their own experience is the exception, rather than the rule, in the real economy.
It’s time to recognize that for most people, the economy bears little resemblance to the one described in TED talks and innumerable Tom Friedman columns. The real U.S. economy is one in which, according to the taxpayer-funded Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS’) annual projected occupational openings, none of the top ten most numerous jobs in the country requires any education beyond high school, and only two of the top 20 require a bachelor’s degree. The average median annual wage for the top ten jobs in 2016 was $24,110.
Recent data from the Census Bureau (also not funded by the Gates Foundation) that education-obsessed elites would surely rather not talk about shows that Americans have higher levels of educational attainment today than ever before. At just under 90 percent, we have achieved nearly universal high school completion in a country in which only 55 percent graduated from high school less than fifty years ago. And while roughly 10 percent of Americans over 25 had bachelor’s degrees in 1970, 35 percent have earned at least a bachelor’s today, with just over 13 percent also attaining graduate degrees. Yet under 26 percent of all jobs require at least a bachelor’s. Again, I’m using taxpayer-funded BLS data, not data from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). The CEW, which paints a much rosier picture of education and the job market, is, not coincidentally, also funded by Gates, along with the Joyce and Lumina Foundations; JP Morgan Chase is a sponsor of CEW’s “Good Jobs Project,” and even advertises on the organization’s website.
We live in a low-wage economy in which there are a few winners and large numbers of Americans trying to get by. If out of touch pundits and billionaire politicians ever got out of their self-imposed bubbles of extreme privilege, they would understand that policies like Medicare for all and free public higher education are politically popular precisely because of the wages most people earn.
And while we’re getting back to reality, can we please also jettison the mindless repetition of the tech-created jargon that has penetrated nearly every square inch of our public sphere? Specifically, I’m talking about the non-stop use of terms like “innovation” and “start-ups.” Terms like these, and euphemisms like “the gig economy,” only serve to distract us from the actual world of work and its relationship to education.
In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics records that only a small percentage of people — about 10 percent of all workers — are currently self-employed, and the majority of them are not involved in tech “start-ups.” Rather, individuals of all education levels start their own businesses in construction, sales, landscaping, financial advising, or they might be opening restaurants, bars, coffee houses, or even becoming farmers. Meanwhile, the word “innovation” has been used so frequently it has no real meaning at all anymore. The vast majority of people work, they don’t innovate, nor do they want to or need to. Despite what the business class says, our economy does not, and has never, needed everyone to innovate. The telephone, penicillin, and the Internet were innovations. There is certainly nothing inherently innovative about simply doing something new, or differently, usually just to cut costs.
People want to get a decent education, secure a good job, and have access to affordable, quality health care. People want to be happy. A lack of economic security for so many, however, makes all of this much more elusive. It’s unfortunate that so many elites are unable, or unwilling, to grasp this simple fact. Perhaps progressives can begin to shape public debate and elite discourse toward an explicit recognition of the characteristics of the real economy.
Neil Kraus, professor and chair of the political science department, University of Wisconsin, River Falls, has published two books and many articles on urban politics and policy, and is writing a book on education policy and inequality.