Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment.

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Why Expanding Colleges Won't Fix Income Inequality

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 6:47 AM EDT

On the blog of the respected Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Vedder, a researcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, recently made a strikingly counterintuitive argument against expanding access to college. Using a regression analysis of 2000 census data, he found that states with higher college graduation rates had worse income inequality. He also found that the opposite was true of those states in the 1970s, when the nation's college graduation rate was much lower on average but wages were more equal.

What's going on here? "I suspect the law of diminishing returns is at work," Vedder writes. "When college attendance/graduation is relatively rare, expanding it does bring in a number of able students who graduate and become productive members of the labor force." But when the number of graduates outstrips the number of available high-paying jobs, "the incremental graduates do not fare as well economically."

Vedder is no doubt onto something here. His findings illustrate why we can't save the American middle class by investing in education alone; we'll also have to figure out how to revive unions, fix tax and trade policy, and make the kinds of investments in technology and infrastructure that put Americans back to work.

That said, Vedder's findings are no cause to give up on publicly funded higher education. The five states with the highest college graduation rates all rank above average for median income. So college graduates aren't doing worse than non-graduates per se. In economically stratified (and highly educated) places like New York, Connecticut, and Silicon Valley, income inequality is to a large degree a gap between the affluent and the spectacularly affluent.

More important, Vedder fails to account for how inequality is widening between colleges themselves. Between 1999 and 2009, private research universities increased their per-student spending by about $7,500, to almost $36,000. Meanwhile, spending on the average public community college student stayed nearly flat, at slightly more than $10,000 per student. It should come as no surprise then that graduates of prestige schools continue to outpace other collegians.

As a conservative, Vedder wants to see schools tighten their academic standards and teach people the kinds of skills that they need to get jobs. Those are fine ideas. But we also need to stop eviscerating the budgets of public universities and colleges even as they expand enrollment. You don't have to be a Harvard grad to understand that you get what you pay for.

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The Life of Rick Perry As Told Through Taiwanese Animation

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 1:22 PM EDT

You've got to hand it to the Taiwanese for doing whatever it takes to educate the masses about politics. Ok, so maybe Karl Rove didn't really have a snake shooting out of his mouth when he convinced Rick Perry to become a Republican, and maybe Slick Rick has never ridden an elephant or shot up the governor's mansion with lasers, but who cares? It's a metaphor, dude. If you still think those Carly Fiorina Demon Sheep clips are weird, you've obviously never seen this masterpiece from Next Media Animation:

H/T Texas Tribune

Chart: Happy Labor Day! (If you're a CEO)

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 5:34 PM EDT

Just in time for Labor Day, here's a handy illustration of how labor is getting shafted by Corporate America:

Source: Jared Bernstein, Center for Budget and Policy PrioritiesSource: Jared Bernstein, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

The red line is the share of the economy taken up by wages, salaries etc. The blue line is the share taken up by corporate profits. So the graph shows that corporations have bounced back from the recession even as workers' share of the economic pie continues to narrow.

Why is this happening? Jared Bernstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who put together the graph, says companies have raked in the dough by selling into emerging markets while cutting costs through outsourcing and automating domestic jobs. I'd say the demise of unions certainly also plays a role.

As the chart also makes clear, widening income inequality in America is no longer just a matter of stratified wages. Today's investment class—the CEOs, the hedge fund managers, the bankers—owns a stake in an economic system that no longer needs to share much of its wealth with anyone else. In other words, it takes money to make money. And of course, spending some of it to buy off Washington doesn't hurt either.

How Perry Pushed Donor's Nuclear Waste Dump

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 6:46 PM EDT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to remove a state commissioner who opposed expanding a West Texas nuclear waste dump run by one of his largest political donors, Reuters reports today. When it became clear that Bobby Gregory of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission might be able to block the dump from accepting out-of-state nuclear waste, Perry's office offered him an alternative job—a prestigious post on the board of regents of a state university.

The news is certain to fuel the longstanding political scandal over the dump, which was licensed in 2008 by Perry's top environmental regulator, Glenn Shankle, over the objections of his staff, three of whom resigned rather than sign off the on the deal (Shankle later left to become a lobbyist for the dump's parent company, Waste Control Solutions). WCS is owned by Harold Simmons, a billionaire corporate raider who has given Perry's campaigns at least $1.2 million.

As I reported in March, WCS had been trying to expand the dump from a fairly limited repository for waste from Texas and Vermont into what could become one of the largest nuclear waste dumps in the country. Approving the expansion was up to the compact commission, which was composed of six Perry appointees and two appointees from Vermont. But with the Vermont appointees likely to be replaced by anti-nuclear Democrats and Gregory and another Texas commissioner opposed to the expansion, Perry's office apparently saw a need to replace someone on the commission with a crony more friendly to Simmons.

After Gregory refused the governor's job offer, Reuters reports, the commission was called to vote on January 4th, before the terms of the Vermont Republicans ended. It approved expanding the dump by a vote of 5-2.

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