President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., represent very different political perspectives in America and proposed different solutions, but supporters of both candidates recognize the same problem: the decline of the middle class across the nation. The cause of this decline is a combination of factors, but globalization, automation and education all rank at the very top of the equation.
The economics of globalization are simple. Big banks invest in areas overseas that multinational corporations develop, and they reap massive profits in return. Since labor is the largest expense of any business, profits are based on securing the cheapest possible labor. As a result, Americans simply cannot compete, and as factories move overseas, so does our tax base.
Those taxes pay for teachers, police, firemen and all other government services that define our standard of living. That standard of living is slowly slipping away, however. West Virginia is a perfect example of how this hollowing out of our tax base has irrevocably impacted job opportunities, our standard of living and government expenditures in areas such as public education and other state services.
The economics of automation are equally simple. Companies invest in computers, software and robotics because the cost of labor is, once again, a business’ largest expense.
Eliminating a job by automation saves a small fortune, especially when it comes to medical insurance, retirement, vacation and maternity leave. And automated resources are always available. This cuts the cost to run a business, but it means fewer jobs for more people who need high-tech skills to survive. This dictates that more Americans have to invest in long-term education to remain competitive.
Unfortunately, due to the disparate nature of our public educational system, there is a disconnect between real\-world demands and what students study. There is also the problem of long-term college debt coupled with long-term underemployment, as many graduates can only find work in retail, fast food or hourly wage jobs without benefits.
While our economy desperately needs engineers, computer and medical professionals, many students go to school with no firm idea of what career is right for them. Too many go to law school after discovering that a lack of internships or apprenticeships makes them cannon fodder for the financial markets.
Sadly, even law degrees are overproduced to the point that some lawyers struggle to survive. In short, we suffer from too many degrees in low-demand jobs and not enough in high demand. This is precisely the sort of production imbalance that destroyed the Soviet Russian economy. An obsolete school system, coupled with the debt of ineffective college degrees, equals bankruptcy.
While Democrats and Republicans propose different solutions to the symptoms caused by globalization and automation, neither party will cure our country unless they treat the root cause: education.
We have too many people for too few jobs in certain fields and not enough people for plenty of jobs in other fields, and the result has been poverty and disenchantment.
That’s why so many Americans were willing to vote for a celebrity businessman from New York or a Democratic Socialist from Vermont. It’s also why so many big donors to both parties were fighting to block either candidate from radically up-ending the status quo. While the emerging global elite often benefit from ignorance, poverty and economic desperation, citizens in western democracies will not permit these elites to operate beyond the bounds of a social contract.
Nor will a growing number of Americans continue to go into debt for educations that do not pay. That is why the financial elites were so worried about the revolutionary rhetoric promulgated by Sanders or the violence in the streets promised by Trump. Where, then, is a realistic solution?
Since it is unlikely anyone can entirely stop globalization, or curtail the cost of a good education, the solution is to streamline our educational system to focus on real-world careers in areas where there is real-world demand.
A good start might be to examine tracking students in an appropriate educational program during their junior and senior year of high school. A fulfilling career starts with identifying individual aptitudes and intrinsic interests, and ultimately runs to your strengths.
Given a free hand, guidance and career, counselors can transform our educational system into one that gets back to the basis of any education, preparing people to contribute to society in a manner that maximizes their potential. But this must begin in high school and continue into college. It is imperative that we incorporate internships and apprenticeships as part of every degree program.
If our high schools and colleges fail to prepare graduates for the real world job market, those jobs will be taken by others elsewhere. This will continue to diminish our nation’s tax base, paving the way for further expenditure cuts in public education, and ultimately the number of faculty in those colleges and universities that are failing to provide their graduates with profitable skillsets. It would be a tragedy for generations of Americans to come in more ways than one.
Joseph M. Mazgaj is a substitute teacher in Wheeling.