You Shouldn’t Need a College Degree

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along an article today with the eye-catching title “You shouldn’t need a college degree to have a decent life in America.” The author argued that Americans are too dependent on college for better opportunities and that a Swiss model of education based on vocational tracking had some lessons for us. Here’s the link: Karin Klein, LA Times, June 13th, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/insight/2021/06/13/You-shouldn-t-need-a-college-degree-to-have-a-decent-life-in-America/stories/202106130026

But what was most interesting to me was what the article left out. Firstly, my dad never finished high school, but he got an education in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the Army during World War II, then did factory work (again) until he got on the civil service as a firefighter. And that’s what was essential: a decent-paying job backed up by a strong union. My dad’s pay and benefits continued to increase throughout his career because of the firefighters’ union and its bargaining power. Yet nowhere in the article above are unions mentioned. In fact, in America today unions are often demonized as being against the interests of workers. Instead, we’re urged to trust in the uber-rich like Jeff Bezos to provide high-paying jobs with great benefits. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

My dad’s “education” included two years in the CCC, including time in Oregon fighting major forest fires. He never formally graduated from high school but loved philosophy and opera

Secondly, the article fails to mention anything about a living wage for these workers and their careers. There’s no mention of Joe Biden’s broken promise to pass a $15 federal minimum hourly wage (which really nowadays should be $20 an hour).  Without unions and without a living wage, how are all these high school graduates with vocations going to support themselves? Not all vocations pay that well, and some pay no more than $10 an hour and come without health care. Small wonder that so many Americans turn to college for some “insurance.”

Yet even in college they often don’t find the insurance they’re looking for. America’s collegiate system is often about funneling the maximum number of young adults to college while extracting as much money from them as they and their parents are able (or unable) to pay. What’s “higher” about higher education are often the bills and little else.

Look, I taught for nine years at a vocational college and I’m all for it. At a community college you can gain certificates and associate degrees without assuming a heavy load of student debt.  I agree we need more decent-paying vocational programs. For example, I had a student who trained as a heavy equipment operator.  He didn’t do that well in my class, but he didn’t much care.  As he told me, he was graduating to a job, probably in the fracking fields of Pennsylvania, where he’d soon be earning $75K-$85K a year, and this was circa 2010. Not bad pay at all for his chosen profession.

I’m all for vocational options that don’t require four-year (or longer) college degrees and lots of debt.  But let’s have strong unions and fair pay as well, else many of these vocational graduates will be screwed yet again by a system that deflates wages as much as possible so as to funnel more money to the richest.

Another subject the author fails to develop is how college has become the new high school for too many students.  I saw my share of students where I taught who needed remedial math and English because they didn’t learn the same in high school.  Partly this is because we underfund our schools, underpay our teachers, and often focus way too much on high school sports (football in Texas, anyone?).

I also wonder at times whether our system is designed to produce dead ends for students.  It’s one way you get more than a few eighteen-year-olds to enlist in the military. They’re often seeking educational benefits, vocational training, and sometimes those enlistment bonuses as well. Often those bonuses are tied directly to enlisting in the most dangerous military occupational specialties, like being a combat infantryman. The empire always needs fresh bodies.

In sum, I think it’s a great idea to open more opportunities to high school graduates in America. But while we do that, let’s do three other things: 1) Strengthen workers’ unions in America; 2) Raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15 an hour; 3) Improve high school education across the board through more educational funding. higher pay for teachers, and an ethos in America that values education as essential to active and informed participation in civic life.

The U.S. Postal Service: Ripe for Privatizing?

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W.J. Astore

I got involved in a brief discussion on Facebook about privatizing the U.S. postal service.  Briefly, those in favor of privatization argued that the post office is inefficient and costly, and that exposing it to market forces through privatization will result in much improved efficiency at lower cost to the American taxpayer.

First of all, if you’re looking for a wasteful government agency to privatize, why not start with the department of defense, which spends roughly $750 billion a year, and which has never passed an audit?  Leaving that aside, the privatization enthusiasts assume that “market forces” will necessarily generate improvements in efficiency and improved service.  But what if it just monetizes everything, leading to higher prices and poorer service?

Furthermore, why should “efficiency” be the primary goal for a public service? Many small communities and villages rely heavily on local post offices. Under an “efficient” and private system, these local post offices are likely to be closed or consolidated in the name of efficiency, with prices rising for poor and rural communities. Those steps may be “efficient” to private owners, but they won’t be beneficial to all the people who just want mail and related services (and maybe a place to chat with neighbors).

Service to the public should be the primary goal of a public service, not “efficiency.” Sure, efficiency is a good thing, but so too is affordability, convenience, trustworthiness, courteousness, and so on.  When you elevate efficiency as the goal above all others, and measure that by metrics based on money, you are inevitably going to compromise important aspects of public service.

Consider the state of public education. When you privatize it, new metrics come in, driven by profit.  Private (charter) schools, for example, pursue better students and reject marginal ones as they attempt to maximize test scores so as to justify their approach and ranking.  Public schools have to take all students, the good and the bad, the affluent and the disadvantaged, and thus their ratings are often lower.

There’s a myth afoot in our land that government is always wasteful and inefficient, and that unions are always costly and greedy.  Our postal service employs roughly 213,000 people, fellow Americans who work hard and who, when they retire, have earned a pension and benefits.  Why are so many people so eager to attack public postal workers as well as public schoolteachers?

In my 55 years of living in America, I’ve been well served by a public post office and well educated by public schools. I see no compelling reason to privatize public services just because someone thinks a corporation driven by profit can do it more efficiently.

People think that corporations driven by the profit motive will inevitably produce a better system with improved service.  While profit can be made by providing superior service, it can also be made by providing shoddy service or even no service at all, especially in a market resembling a monopoly, or one where corporations are protected by powerful interests.

To recap: public service and efficiency are not identical. Nor should we think of ourselves merely as consumers of a product, whether that product is mail service or education.  We need to think of ourselves as citizens, and the post office as composed of citizens like us providing a public service for us, a service where “efficiency” is only one driver, and not the most important one.

A final, perhaps obvious, point: often those who argue for privatization are also those with the most to gain, financially, from it.  A lot of people are making money from charter schools, for example.  It’s not “efficiency” that’s the driver here: it’s the chance to make a buck, and despite what Gordon Gekko said, greed isn’t always good and right, especially when public service is involved.

What do you think, readers?

A Cautionary Tale for Labor Day

My Dad in the Army in 1945
My Dad in the Army in 1945

W.J. Astore

In December 2010, I wrote the article below for Truthout.  Even as the economy was sputtering and jobs were scarce, Congress was seeking to cut unemployment benefits.  Eventually, a compromise was forged to maintain the benefits; the price was more tax cuts for the richest Americans.  Angered by the hypocrisy and greed on display, and inspired by my father’s words and experiences, I penned my very own tale of two cities.  It’s not Dickens, but it has the merit of being far shorter.

The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Poorer (Posted originally at Truthout on 12/7/2010)

William Astore

More tax breaks for the rich in exchange for another year’s worth of unemployment benefits for the desperate: Now there’s a compromise that makes me proud to be an American. My father wouldn’t have been surprised. He grew up during the Great Depression and worked in factories before he was drafted and served in the Army during World War II. Dad told me that the harder he worked (physically), the less he got paid. And he told me there was nothing like repetitive and physically-grueling factory work to make you want to improve yourself. By becoming a civil servant (a firefighter), he escaped the factory and its dismal pay for a job that paid enough to provide five children with a lower middle class existence.

Today’s political elites seem to think that the proper way to stimulate economic growth is to empower the exploiters. That way, some of their enormous wealth will trickle down on the little people. My father knew from experience that it usually wasn’t money that trickled down from the high heights of the rich.

In the spirit of the holiday season, here’s a story from my Dad that recounts his attempt to get a dime pay raise at the local factory. Consider it a parable for the realities our working classes face day in and day out in this country:

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Callahan [one of the owners] for a pay raise and he was refused. Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group. In our group he got ten men to approach Harry C. for a raise. But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry. Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise. I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise. Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?” So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise. So Harry said, “How much?” and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise. So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel. We agreed. So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises. Well, Willie, Harry Callahan and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires. No other truer saying than, That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.

Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of class warfare or even Marxism. It’s true that some of the worst abuses have been curbed (for example, my father worked from 6PM to 6AM without the benefit of overtime pay or time-and-a-half), but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be fired; scared that they’ll be replaced by automated robots. Thus they put up and shut up.

So, what’s the moral to the story? Our president promised hope and change. “Hope” has come in the form of more tax breaks for the rich. And “change”? To paraphrase my father: No truer saying than that politicians have no sympathy or use for the poor. 

Quick Thoughts on the Oscars

Sally Field in Norma Rae
Sally Field in Norma Rae

W.J. Astore

I love movies but I can’t say that I love Hollywood.  My wife and I sat through the interminable Academy Awards last night; we should have received an Oscar for patience.  What amazes me is the lack of thanks the winners express to movie-goers.  You know: the little people who shell out $12 or more a ticket to see roughly two hours of often mediocre entertainment.  Instead of thanking the fans, most Oscar winners celebrate themselves (with perhaps a nod toward their fellow nominees) while thanking their publicists, their agents, various power-brokers in the industry, and so on.

Want the Academy Awards to move faster?  Have the winners take the stage, accept the Oscar, thank the Academy and the fans, and sit down.  And shut up.

Hollywood has a certain contempt for the working classes — you know, the people who keep them in their “Capitol” lifestyle (which is why “The Hunger Games” trilogy truly captures the zeitgeist of the American moment).  I was disgusted in watching the Oscar preview to see ordinary Americans caricatured as crumb-infested, couch-ridden, half-naked, clinically obese morons.  Yes, I’m not immune to humor, but to depict the fans who ultimately pay your salaries and keep you living the high life in such a luridly abusive way shows a contempt that is far too common among our “elites,” Hollywood included.

I enjoy Ellen Degeneres.  She has a light touch, good comic timing, and she knows how to zing the audience.  But her “Who wants pizza” skit was unfunny and ungenerous — no pun intended.  Once again, part of the joke involved whether the assembled Capitol beauties were going to stiff the pizza delivery man.  Ha ha.  Let’s pass the hat and take up a collection to pay for the pizza we ordered.  I’m not surprised many of the assembled elect couldn’t find a dime to kick in — they’re so accustomed to their Oscar freebies.

Hollywood has always catered to narcissists.  Nothing new there.  But there was a time when Hollywood celebrities knew how to accept awards (and their glamorous lifestyle) with a certain amount of class, while thanking, even respecting, the fans who make it all possible.  Last night was not of that time.

I suppose the ultimate measure of Hollywood’s contempt for its paying audience is the poor quality of its movies.  Want to make better movies, Hollywood?  Start by treating the working classes with a measure of common courtesy — along with some empathy based on respect for their challenges and sacrifices.

A last comment: It was nice to see, however briefly, a scene from Norma Rae (1979), featuring the great Sally Field as a factory worker trying to unionize her place of work, a gutsy dynamo fighting for fair wages and safe working conditions.  Where is that movie today, Hollywood?  When was the last time you made a sensitive, sympathetic, and generous movie about the tough struggles of American workers?  There must be a few, but none that stick in my head.  Help me out in the comments section, dear reader, if I’m missing some obvious recent examples.