The French like not working incessantly. They are consciously sacrificing a bit of economic growth in order to devote more time to leisure. It’s a perfectly legitimate choice for a society to make. But it’s never represented that way in domestic punditry, as we exclusively evaluate policy decisions based on their effects on measurable economic indicators. […] in contemporary American discourse, it’s almost impossible to justify any policy that won’t plausibly increase economic growth.
The American model has been regarded as proposing a kind of bargain. This is not Europe: Here, idleness and incompetence are sternly punished—but merit gets rewarded. Much more than elsewhere, your class background will neither prop you up nor hold you back. If you deserve to succeed, you will.
It is an inspiring, energizing offer—and still a profoundly influential one. It colors the national debate about taxes, health care, and other aspects of economic policy. But it is false advertising.
[…]America stands lower in the ranking of income mobility than most of the countries whose data allow the comparison, scoring worse than Canada, all of the Scandinavian countries, and possibly even Germany and Britain. […] According to one much-cited study, for instance, more than 40 percent of American boys born into the poorest fifth of the population stay there; the figure for Britain is 30 percent, for Denmark just 25 percent.
And finally, Andrew Leonard on preschool:
University of Chicago economist James Heckman (a Nobel Prize winner in 2000) and University of Michigan doctoral candidate Dimitriy Masterov marshal an impressive argument in support of early intervention preschool programs for children from disadvantaged backgrounds as the best tool for ensuring later success in life. The evidence compiled is conclusive. Children from such backgrounds who gain access to such programs are more likely to graduate high school, less likely to end up in jail, and will score higher on aptitude tests. And the longer society waits to try to fix the problem — by boosting funding for secondary school education, or by providing tuition help for college, for example — the less of a positive effect you will have.
[…] For a civilized society, that should be enough, right? Helping out disadvantaged children at the point in their lives where it can do the most good is the obvious moral thing to do, isn’t it? As the authors note, “most analyses have cast the issue of assisting children from disadvantaged families as a question of fairness or social justice.”
But not Heckman and Masterov. For them, the real challenge is that the U.S. economy is facing a looming shortage of skilled workers.
[…] Not only are the baby boomers becoming decrepit, but “educational attainment rates” are stagnating. “College-going rates have stalled out” and “the high school dropout rate has increased over time if one counts GEDs as dropouts, as one should, because GEDs earn the same wages as dropouts, and graduate from college at the same rate as dropouts.”
In short: The United States is faced with a dire crisis that needs no elaboration by tiresome moral or social equity considerations: “The growth in the quality of the workforce, which was a mainstay of economic growth until recently, has diminished.” So get those poor kids from single-family households in the ghetto some quality preschool care! We need better workers!
So America has traded leisure time and social supports for economic opportunity. But we don’t actually get greater opportunity out of the trade. And the penalty for failing social supports may be a worse economy. Meanwhile, a few smart investments can both help the worst off and increase prosperity for everyone.
Seems like now would be a good time to start having our cake and eating it too.