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College, Politics, and Wagnerian Opera

[1]Upon realizing that the carnality which he desired was beyond his reach, the grubby, dwarfish Nibelung named Alberich cursed love itself in order to steal from the Rhine maidens the magical Rhine gold, which he fashioned into a ring which granted to its wearer the power to rule the world. Thus, the Ring of the Nibelung became an object of envy and the obsession to obtain it became the quest of heroes and gods.

To the baby boom generation, a college diploma was the Ring of the Nibelung; a mystical object which granted you the power to rule your world. It was something to be quested for; sacrifices along the way would be proven worthwhile in the end.

Then, it all changed. The problem is, the same mindset about college is still being pressed upon the next generations. Everybody from elective politics, education, media, and parents across the country try to impress the necessity of college on the young.

If you pay any attention at all to the politics of our nation, you cannot escape the rhetoric. Every single elected official and candidate for office has to give the same perfunctory line about how our economy cannot be healed without greater emphasis on education at all levels.

This is because we became accustomed to having a massive, heavily capitalized economy with large markets for specific services. When the baby boom generation came of age, they were told to attend college and learn how to take advantage of the tertiary economy (service and retail sector).

To the baby boom generation, it was always assumed that there would be enough capital to support a highly productive economy, which would always be able to generate the wealth necessary to support the service and government sectors.

This led to a model of economic growth based on education as the source of employment opportunities. This shouldn’t be new to anybody; I don’t think you are allowed to leave the fourth grade without hearing the lecture about how education makes you more valuable to employers.

This all assumed the existence of a functional, rational economy, and therein lies the fatal flaw of the whole Education-Employment model of economic growth. You are probably still better off with a college degree than without, it is a personal achievement, but it isn’t the safe investment that it once was.

Jobs come from investing capital in business ventures. In an economy where commercial capital is in extremely short supply (perhaps, say, diverted to government bonds and FHA mortgages), then jobs are going to be in short supply as well. You may have heard of it, it was called the Credit Crunch.

But, you might be thinking that the Credit Crunch is over; after all, the Federal Reserve flooded the financial system with cash to restore liquidity. As they did so, the prices of grain, gold, gasoline, farmland, heavy machinery, cotton products, and copper all went up. They can print currency; they cannot print capital.

Now politicians are changing their rhetoric – well, not changing it, but augmenting it with often vague statements about encouraging entrepreneurialism. These statements are always given in conjunction with the usual “education is the foundation of our economy” trope.

My ultimate complaint with the higher education obsession is geared towards our social engineers themselves. Having so thoroughly convinced themselves and others that the economy needs the aggressive action of government authority, government money, and government schools, they are still sticking to the old model despite growing evidence that it has seized up, like an engine without oil.

Half of recent college graduates cannot find work, small businesses cannot access credit to fund expansion, tax revenues are down, the trade deficit is up, and we cannot even generate the wealth necessary to pay for existing social entitlement programs. The collegiate experience itself has also changed, and not towards higher academic pursuits.

Despite all of this, a teenager fresh out of high school can sign promissory notes for tens of thousands of dollars to cover tuition at a private, liberal arts college, and if there are no jobs upon graduation, not to worry; there are always master’s degree programs – because education is the foundation of our economy, and will remain so until the ring is thrown back to the Rhine maidens.