This is a sort of book report, part 1. Claudia Gilpin & Lawrence Katz have written The Race Between Technology & Education (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University; 2008), which is chock full of interesting data and which might, if fully understood, tell us a lot about the impact of infusions of capital and new technologies on labor forces and on the demand for skilled workers, about the education levels and characteristics of those workers, and about economic growth and economic inequality.
And you gotta admit it, those seem like particularly worthwhile topics at this juncture. So what follows is a review of my first claw-through of about 100 pages. The book is thick with stats, and at times it's way clumsy--but worthwhile. I’ll go back in subsequent posts to fill in detail, and I’ll go forward to catch up to my reading. (Thanks to Claudia Lamoreaux, who is sharing this book with me.)
It turns out that, to put it in lay terms, increases in levels of education are linked to increases in inequality. Who knew? But if you consider the situation for a while, you might guess that the connection runs through a “demand channel”: As the demand for more-educated workers increases, so does the price premium paid to them. One year of high school in the first half of the 20th century is worth something (about 11 percent per year, as near as I can make out). These returns diminish over the course of the 20th century to about 8.7 percent. Meanwhile, returns to a year of college clock in at 14.8 percent in 1914 and 14.8 percent in 2005.
(Many, many questions aren’t answered by Katz and Gilpin. Like, these are annual returns, yes? And the returns to a year of college are relative to those of a high school graduate? Or…? And so on. Even at its best, which is sometimes very good, this book swerves into the most aggravating prose imaginable.)
As mentioned, this is a demand-driven phenomenon. However education as a commodity is variably supplied, was variably supplied in the US to some degree even in the early 20th century. Which means that the premium paid to education—a year of high school, a year of college—wasn’t available to every young woman or man.
(Interestingly, the US provided equal education more or less to girls very early on in the history of the republic. In the early 20th c, more girls than boys graduated from high school. However because the labor market was less egalitarian than the education system, girl graduates had very limited impact on the demand for skilled workers in manufacturing.)
So demand is going up as a result—according to Gilpin and Katz—of technological changes in manufacturing that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Earlier in the Industrial Revolution, say from the late 18th century through almost all of the 19th, changes in manufacturing process decreased the need for specific skills: goods ranging from hats to carriages that were produced by artisans and craftspeople were increasingly replaced by similar goods that were produced in factories, taking advantage of inventory controls and other processes. In the early 20th, however, manufacturing processes began to involve batch operations for the manufacturing of chemicals, dairy products, liquor and what-not, and continuous-process operations for products that need little assembly, such as oats or canned foods. Both of these processes apparently (I mean, it’s not my field) depended on better-skilled workers.
So, here’s the titular race as it’s presented in The Race Between Technology and Education: As technology increases in complexity, demand for skilled workers increases, as does inequality; as the education system in—ponderous, poorly executed—response increases opportunities for students to acquire high-demand skills, productivity increases as a result of more-full usage of technology, and inequality decreases. Except that it’s obviously not a race, it’s a journey or a kind of “impossible journey” quest, in which technology, education and capital are all involved collaboratively, in some ways, and in which other forces, such as property ownership, ethnic or gender primacy and so on, operate competitively.
That’s it for the first 100 pages or so. More in a while. Except to note that while Race between technology and education focuses on the US, in the main and in comparison with other countries, there are potential corollaries to the economic and educational dynamics of large and diverse developing economies, such as Indonesia’s or India’s, and for small economies in transition, such as Rwanda’s.