The Political and Educational Benefits of Economic Justice

HarvardAn article by Kate Bachelder in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal and Corey Robin’s online post Sunday at Salon have reaffirmed my belief that America must confront economic injustice head-on.

I define economic injustice the way Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography. I know it when I see it. Economic injustice is homeless people being told to shuffle along rather than sit on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk while billionaires spend three months a year in an otherwise empty duplex 50 yards straight up. Economic injustice is East Palo Alto where over 60% of kids don’t graduate from high school compared to Palo Alto, where the dropout rate is 4.5% Economic injustice is Baltimore where 37% of young black men are unemployed while only 10% of young white male Baltimoreans lack a job. Most poor Americans are white but African-Americans and Hispanics are more than 2.5 times likely to be impoverished than whites.

Ironically, neither Bachelder nor Robin discusses wealth disparities, unemployment, or poverty directly. But the circumstances they decry are logical outgrowths of an economically unjust society in which the most affluent 1% control 40% of the nation’s wealth and more than 1 out of every 5 Americans is poor.

Bachelder describes sympathetically the quest of Florida businessman Yukong Zhao to prod the Justice Department into investigating whether Harvard University’s admissions practices discriminate against Asian-Americans. Robin bewails the pervasive political influence some corporations exercise over their employees.

According to Bachelder, Asians comprise approximately 21.5% of this fall’s incoming freshman class at Harvard even though 30% of National Merit Semifinalists are Asian and a whopping 49% of New York City’s public magnet Hunter College High School 2013 grads were Asian.

Harvard is not the only elite university to enroll a seemingly low number of Asian students given the percentage of qualified Asians high school graduates. The percentage of admittees at various Ivy League universities last spring ranged from 17% to 25%. By comparison at Cal Tech and Cal Berkeley, two schools with explicitly race-blind admissions policies, the percentage of Asian students is over 40%.

Cal did not always ignore race when considering applicants. After businessman Ward Connerly championed a successful statewide referendum in 1996 changed, the state had to change its practices. The results were stark. “The year after California’s ban [on race-conscious admissions] took effect, the number of black, Latino and Native American students plummeted by roughly half at Berkeley and UCLA, the UC system’s most sought-after campuses.” The number of Asian matriculants likewise jumped.

Despite the opposition of businessmen like Zhao in Florida and Connerly in California, some educators prefer race-conscious admissions policies. “It’s frustrating,” said Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor of student affairs at Berkeley. “Many times we lose [desirable black applicants] to elite privates that can actually take race into account when they admit students.” Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers contends it’s “critical that our most selective institutions that look at least somewhat like the rest of our society”.

I am sensitive to the concerns of educators who want the demographics of our best-educated to mirror society at large. Likewise, people of color can legitimately claim that overcoming racism and generational poverty are accomplishments that colleges and universities should recognize when judging applicants with unremarkable GPAs and test scores.

On the other hand, I understand the resentment of high achieving Asians, denied entry admission into an Ivy League school despite near-perfect test scores and grades. They recognize correctly that a degree from Princeton or Yale is the closest thing to a golden ticket academic America confers. Many are first or second-generation immigrants who, like African-Americans and Hispanics, have had to overcome significant obstacles that many whites have not faced.

In the past, some unsuccessful white applicants attributed their failure to secure acceptance at top universities to affirmative action. This belief likely caused some of them to vote for the apparently anti-affirmative action Republican party. Despite the higher admissions standards for Asians at Ivy League schools, they remain overwhelmingly Democratic. In any case, fear of losing votes is a poor reason for a politician to abandon a successful policy, although surely a common one.

The conflict among demographic groups for the few places at top universities reflects the long-term value of the degrees that they award. It also underscores the significantly reduced prospects of those who don’t manage to gain admission to a most competitive university. While studies suggest that less well-known less expensive schools may offer a better rate of expected return to graduates, there is no doubt that the biggest paychecks and most prestigious political offices go to Ivy League graduates.

Every current Supreme Court Justice studied at Harvard or Yale Law School and all but Thomas attended an elite undergraduate school. Most of our recent Presidents with a few notable exceptions graduated from Ivy League schools. The nine colleges with the most graduates who ultimately became a CEO of a Fortune 500 company are in order: Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Cornell, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Columbia, Yale. It should come as no surprise that the competition for admission into these elite private schools between individuals and demographic groups is so fierce.

There are good arguments in favor of and opposition to race-blind admission policies. By contrast, it’s hard to find anything good to say about the political positions that, as Corey Robin describes, some employers mandate for employees.

Per Robin:

Supervisors [at Ohio’s Murray Energy] pressure new workers to sign up for an automatic payroll deduction; one percent of their wages is taken out for the company’s PAC. . . The company uses tables and spreadsheets to keep track of which worker has or hasn’t contributed. In August 2012, the company even required workers at its Ohio mine to attend a Romney rally, without pay, where participants held up a sign that said “COAL COUNTRY STANDS WITH MITT.”

“Workers are dependent on employers for their well-being [making] them vulnerable to their bosses’ demands, about a great many matters, including politics,” Robin explains. Robin concludes: “Without economic democracy, there’s no political democracy.” (Emphasis supplied.)

Robin does not define “economic democracy” but he may be thinking of the German co-determination system. Under the law of co-determination, if a company employs over 500 people, its board must include labor representatives. Companies with directors elected by employees are unlikely to coerce them to participate in political rallies for anti-labor candidates. On the other hand, it’s quite a stretch to call Germany an economic democracy. In small and owner-operated companies, the capitalist still calls the shots. Even in large co-determined companies, capital has primacy over labor in important respects.

Still Robin is onto something. To the extent labor has a true voice in management decisions, those decisions are more likely to reflect the reality that workers are human beings with a right to self-determination on and off the job.

In addition to economic democracy, there’s another way to protect American workers from management intent on controlling political action, economic justice. Economic justice doesn’t level the playing field, it guarantees a relatively high minimum standard of living for the poor and, at least compared to today, a relatively low maximum standard.

Corey Robin tells us that fear motivates workers to kowtow to imperious managers – fear of hunger, of losing healthcare, of homelessness, of having to move. In an economically just society, these fears would be alleviated in several ways. Economic policy would focus on generating good well-paying jobs so employees would no longer find themselves dependent on any one employer. Corporations maintaining an oppressive work environment would quickly lose their workforce.

Beyond ensuring low unemployment, an economically just America would guarantee to all food, clean safe shelter, great pre-K through 12th grade public education, and health care. All qualified students would have easily affordable access to higher education.  By eliminating working-class fears of destitution, an economically just America would severely hamper the ability of corporations to dictate politics to its employees.

An economically just America would also limit the total income and wealth that can accrue to any one individual. Top marginal income and estate tax rates well above 90% would result in an America where nobody’s income is much more than the amount when the top rate kicks in. Limiting a business owner’s potential wealth, would lessen his incentive to force employees to embrace conservative politics because the expected net financial return from a Republican victory would be reduced.

When it comes to college admissions, specifically race-conscious versus race-blind policies, economic justice would also have important positive ramifications. As discussed above, admission to elite colleges and universities can provide spectacular returns. With a ceiling on those returns, the competition for a place at Harvard or Yale would be reduced.

In addition, American poverty is widespread and has a brown face. Top academic institutions feel a duty to remedy this manifestly unjust situation. Providing preferences to black and Hispanic applicants is one way that academics assuage the guilt they feel as prosperous citizens in a morally fraught nation.

In an economically just nation, the government would take seriously its responsibility to eliminate poverty. Decent-paying jobs would be available for all but the incompetent (who would be protected from penury) and the economic advantage of a Princeton education, while still significant, would not be exorbitant. Freed of the burden of redressing society’s wrongs, educators at our finest universities and colleges could focus on their proper task of educating our most accomplished high school students.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *