Did You Read Thomas Piketty’s Comments on Public Education?

Thomas Piketty is the French economist and author of the best selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which he critiques rising income inequality.  Earlier this week in a television interview later reported at SALON.com, Piketty endorses investing in the U.S. public education system—the institutions that serve the 99 percent. He condemns political strategies, specifically those of Jeb Bush, that emphasize competition in an education marketplace.

About Bush’s record on education, Piketty says, “From what I can see he doesn’t want to invest more resources into education.  He just wants more competition… there’s limited evidence that this is working.  And I think most of all what we need is to put more public resources in the education system.  Again, if you look at the kind of school, high school, community college that middle social groups in America have access to, this has nothing to do with the very top schools and universities that some other groups have access to.”

When asked if American economic inequality is the result of a failing education system that ill-prepares students, Piketty blames other factors affecting American workers: “There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the rhetoric of conservatives who condemn inequality while failing to support policies like an increased minimum wage and ramped-up infrastructure spending.” “The minimum wage today is lower than it was 50 years ago, unions are very weak, so you need to increase the minimum wage in this country today.  The views that $7 an hour is the most you can pay low-skilled workers in America today… I think is just wrong — it was more 50 years ago and there was no more unemployment 50 years ago than there is today.”

In the interview Piketty recognizes the importance of education, but he says the idea that education alone can be blamed for America’s current inequality is naively simplistic.  He adds that a society must be willing to pay for quality education. “You need wage policy and you need education policy.  And in order to have adequate education policy, you also need a proper tax policy so that you have the proper public resources to invest in these public services… You cannot say, like many of the Republicans are saying, we can keep cutting tax on these top income groups who have already benefited a lot from growth and globalization over the past 30 years.” “So I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy in this conservative rhetoric about the skill gap and the education gap.  If they are really serious about the skill gap and the education gap, then they cannot at the same time cut tax on the rich.”

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2 thoughts on “Did You Read Thomas Piketty’s Comments on Public Education?

  1. Piketty’s book is a challenging read, but well worth the effort if you really want to understand what is causing income inequality, and what is not. Here’s a summary quote:
    “One should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms. In particular, the reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all the consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war. Similarly, the resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due largely to the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation and finance. The history of inequality is shaped by the way economic, social and political actors view what is just and what is not, as well as by the relative power of those actors and the collective choices that result.” (pg. 20)
    In other words, inequality is a result of choices, choices made by people who have power. So-called “right to work” laws, like the one recently passed in Wisconsin, are a prime example. The growing influence of big money in politics, and in turn in education policy, is another glaring example. That the Democratic party is so often under the thrall of a similar donor base means that the power that is driving inequality has a limited, at best, counterbalance right now.

  2. Always heartening (in a dismaying kind of way) to see a person of Thomas Piketty’s stature and broad perspective coming to these conclusions about public education in this country. But will they sink in with those who should be paying attention?

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