By Chrystia Freeland
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In New York, this summer has lived up to its reputation as the silly season with a pageant of political theater comic enough to entertain even the most jaded tabloid sensibility. That made President Barack Obama's wonkish speech this week about how to strengthen the middle class particularly welcome.
Obama addressed a familiar problem. Indeed, his comments were an intentional echo of a commencement address he delivered at the same place, Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, eight years earlier. What was important was not, therefore, their novelty. Instead, it was the reminder that, beyond the froth of personal scandal, politics today is confronted with an existential question: How to ensure broadly shared middle-class prosperity in the 21st century.
As he did in his original 2005 speech, Obama put the issue in broad, historical terms. The postwar era, he said, had offered the middle class "a basic bargain."
"Whether you owned a company, swept its floors, or worked anywhere in between," the president said, the United States was a place where "your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement and, above all, to hand down a better life for your kids."
That pact held across the entire Western industrialized world, where the postwar era was a time of strong, and widely shared, growth.
In recent decades, however, as the president put it, "that bargain began to fray." He pointed to the most important and most worrying evidence that it had broken down: "The link between higher productivity and people's wages and salaries was severed — the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, while the typical family's barely budged"
Obama pointed to some of the familiar political drivers of this shift — weaker unions and tax cuts at the top. But, to his credit, he also noted the structural factors — in particular, technological change and globalization — that have helped hollow out the middle class. These are the heart of the problem, because they are both largely positive and hard to change. We can't stop them, and most of us don't want to — but we surely do want to reverse their devastating consequences for the middle class.
That is what makes a new paper by Frank Levy, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and Richard J. Murnane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, so timely.
In his speech this week, Obama pointed to education as one of the central elements of his effort to rebuild the middle class. In one of the best lines in the address, he argued, "if you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century."
True enough. The value of Levy and Murnane's work is that they delve more deeply into the question of precisely what kind of education we need to prepare middle-class workers for 21st-century jobs.
They start with some surprising observations. The first is that this is not at all a new problem. Obama referred to his own speech about the hollowed-out middle class in 2005. Levy and Murnane point out that nearly half a century ago, prescient advisers sent President Lyndon Johnson a memo warning about the beginnings of the same phenomenon.
"A new era of production has begun. Its principles of organization are as different from those of the industrial revolution as those of the industrial era were different from the agricultural," they cautioned. "This results in a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor."
The second point Levy and Murnane make is even more striking. Just as it is a truism that education is an essential solution to the plight of the middle class, we have gotten used to complaining about how badly schools have declined. It makes sense — the middle class is in trouble, so schools must have gotten worse, too.
Levy and Murnane tell a different story. In their view, the problem isn't that schools aren't as good as they once were, it is that education needs to be transformed to meet the demands of a new age.
"American schools are not worse than they were in a previous generation. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary," they write. "Today's education problem stems from the increased complexity of foundational skills needed in today's economy."
So, how can schools meet the challenge of, as Levy and Murnane put it, preparing our kids to dance with robots? One of their strongest conclusions is about the importance of preschool education. We have all mocked the helicopter parents who torment their infants with flash cards, but at least directionally, they are right.
As Levy explained in an email, "The computerization of work (and offshoring) increase the need to acquire new information by eliminating repetitive jobs that can be performed by following directions. The jobs that remain and that pay well require much more solving of new problems that require getting new information.''
It turns out that this ability to solve new problems by getting new information is closely correlated with having a strong vocabulary as early as kindergarten. In one way, that is good news — teaching 3- and 4-year-olds to read and to talk seems a lot less challenging than teaching 16-year-olds calculus and computer programming.
But it is also a reminder of another problem that the president — and Levy and Murnane — address: The connection between a hollowed-out middle class and declining social mobility. If what you know when you are 4 will shape your future professional success more than ever, being born into the right family may matter more than ever, too.
(Chrystia Freeland is the managing director and editor, Consumer News at Thomson Reuters. Prior, she was U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. Before that, Freeland was deputy editor of the Financial Times, in London, editor of the FT's Weekend edition, editor of FT.com, UK News editor, Moscow bureau chief and Eastern Europe correspondent. From 1999 to 2001, Freeland served as deputy editor of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. Freeland began her career working as a stringer in Ukraine, writing for the FT, The Washington Post and The Economist.
She is the author of two books: "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich and the Fall of Everyone Else," published by Penguin in 2012 and "Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution," published by Crown Publishing books in 2000.)
(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)