Human Capital Depletion Worries

Someday this current economic climate will pass, and we’ll still have a country and an economy and a world here. A lot of worry gets focused on Baby Boomers, retirees, savings, banks, etc. I want some effort directed at the next generation of Americans however, those in their mid-to-late teens and early 20s. It is important that they are given the right opportunities to invest in themselves to build a long-term prosperity for America.

60 Minutes does a heartbreaking story about the massive layoffs at DHL in Wilmington, Ohio. You can watch the video through the link (wordpress doesn’t let me embed video easily).

It’s sad to watch, but I want to point out a scene at 7m15s that is devastating – a mom cries about how her son had to drop out of college because of his parents being laid off (neither of them went to college). There is absolutely no reason for this – that kid would potentially be my generation’s doctor, or engineer, or lawyer, and he left school (presumably, we don’t know of course) because his parents couldn’t chip in an extra $2000/year, or the student loan industry dried up, or he needed to work to cover Cobra. More generally, if we are losing the edge to have the best educated workforce in history because school funding is drying up, we need to combat that ASAP.

Someday the boomers will all be gone, but my generation (I’m 29) will need its executives, managers, scientists and professionals. It’ll need people to help the world globalize productively, and chemists to cure diseases and engineers to find new fuel and carbon-reducing technologies. To put it a different way, like a rail station that may or may not get ground broken in 2009, our knowledge base is a resource – infrastructure – and an incredibly important stock to keep built up for our sake and the future’s as well. I think part of what adds value for students in college is their exposure to other, like-minded, students – and the more that quality individuals have to drop out due to short-term financial crisis problems, the more that hurts the overall knowledge stock.

This is a terribly neoliberal “human capital” approach to the issue, but it is an important one – that kid who dropped out in that video could have made the carburetor that gets 150mpg or the vaccine for alzheimer’s in the year 2020. It is very likely that, now, he’ll have a lot of life opportunities lost. The late teens missing college now are unlikely to get the life chance back to put themselves on that professionalized track – and that potential brilliant mind won’t get the resources it needs.

I see, in some of my generation, a disappointment with the idea of college. (If I ever wrote a Things White People Like, it would be “Boasting about regretting going to college.”) N+1 had a pamphlet where they talked about college, and many of the writers concluded at the end that college was a waste of their artistic talents. Ok. I’m of the opinion that the Land Grant system of public universities is one of the best investments the United States has made, and that the people who go through them get more equitable access to life opportunities than would have been otherwise. Keeping that commitment to high quality low cost public education in the 21st century should be at the front of any liberal government.

Beating the corrupt private student loan industry into a bloody mess would be a good start; helping state governments not turn their flagship universities into a credit card with increased tuitions to maintain their accessibility is another. More grants would be a solid idea. I think Obama knows this, and has a handle on it. Hopefully.

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