Yes, Education Matters. But It’s Not the Answer to Growing Income Inequality.


David Brooks has a bit of an odd column today:

For many years, Democratic efforts to reduce inequality and lift middle-class wages were based on the theory that the key is to improve the skills of workers. Expand early education. Make college cheaper. Invest in worker training. Above all, increase the productivity of workers so they can compete.

But a growing number of populist progressives have been arguing that inequality is not mainly about education levels. They argue that trying to lift wages by improving skills is an “evasion.” It’s “whistling past the graveyard.”

….Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard. Worker productivity is the main arena. No redistributionist measure will have the same long-term effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

I don’t quite get who Brooks is arguing against here. Larry Summers is the obvious target, but Summers has been clear that he thinks education is important, both individually and for the economy as a whole. He just doesn’t think that improved education is likely to have much impact on growing income inequality, which is driven by other factors.

But Brooks never even pretends to address this. I don’t think there are any prominent Democrats arguing that education isn’t important. Pretty much all of them are on board with good early-childhood education and better community colleges, among other things. That will help individuals and make the American economy stronger.

But will it rein in growing income inequality? As long as inequality is driven primarily by the gains of the top 1 percent—which it is—then it won’t. To address that particular problem, we have to look elsewhere.