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Considering Thomas Piketty, inequality and family fragmentation

REUTERS/Charles Platiau
French economist Thomas Piketty is hot these days.

French economist Thomas Piketty is hot these days, contending that capitalism doesn’t lift enough boats and may lift even fewer as we sail further into the night.  For the sake of argument (and only that), let’s say he’s right. 

But to what extent might Piketty be correct at this moment in America, not because of any fundamental flaws in capitalism, but rather (at the risk of even more marine metaphors) because enormous numbers of potential boaters are habitual no-shows at docks? Men and women (but mostly men) who are insufficiently equipped to climb aboard anything seaworthy, making it exceedingly hard and often impossible for them to participate in the most successful economic system ever devised by human and/or invisible hands.

Early in his big and important book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Piketty writes of the essential role played by education and training in reducing inequality. 

“Knowledge and skill diffusion,” he argues, “is the key to overall productivity growth as well as the reduction of inequality both within and between countries.” And a page later: “It is obvious that lack of adequate investment in training can exclude entire social groups from the benefits of economic growth. … In short, the principal force for convergence – the diffusion of knowledge – is only partly natural and spontaneous. It also depends in large part on the educational policies, access to training and to the acquisition of appropriate skills, and associated institutions.” By “convergence,” Piketty means decreased inequality.

Sounds on-target. But in considering the current nature of inequality (and, thereby, mobility) in the United States, it’s not as if we haven’t been investing tons of money in education and training. As reported, for instance, by the National Center for Education Statistics earlier this year, spending on K-12 education in the United States, at last count and from all public and private sources, was 39-percent higher per full-time equivalent student than the average among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 34 member nations.  As for postsecondary education, the United States spent almost twice as much per FTE as did OECD nations on average. But as documented regularly, no matter how much we spend on education, achievement needles and gaps barely budge. Factors other than parsimony would seem to be at play.

What in blazes is going on here?  Obviously, any number of educational policies and practices are seriously deficient.  Take your pick which ones, but young people generally don’t preemptively forfeit the rest of their lives for reasons so ultimately thin. One would like to think not anyway. Sure, critics of capitalism, especially if they’ve spent too much time in graduate school, might argue that it’s precisely capitalism that’s provoking such all-purpose defeatism, sometimes to the point of French-flavored ennui. But most Americans hold markets in higher esteem than that, even if they’re partial to pommes frites with their burgers.    

Growing up with shortages of guidance

My own explanations for so much failure, first academically and then occupationally, are not as philosophically fancy. Rather, they focus in large measure on the fact that the United States has just about the highest family fragmentation rates in the industrial world, meaning that far too many American boys and girls are growing up with shortages of guidance, often immersed in disorganization. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin summarizes matters this way:

There is more marriage but more divorce. There are more lone parents but also more repartnering. Cohabiting relationships are shorter. Over the course of people’s adult lives, there is more movement into and out of marriages and cohabiting relationships than in other countries. The sheer number of partners people experience during their lives is greater.

Which takes us to about 40 hours of interviews with 40 exceptionally smart Americans from California to northeast of the New York island for a new book of mine coming out in August.  Among other topics, I asked them to talk about the ways in which they believe massive rates of family fragmentation are causing great educational and other problems in the lives of many millions of Americans, both kids and adults. Here are comments by Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, of whom I had just more specifically asked how he rated family fragmentation as a problem facing the nation.

On a scale of one to ten, probably a fifteen; it’s the biggest problem we have. It’s having a tremendous impact on children. … Until the last thirty years or so, we led the world in education, now we’re way down the list. We have so many studies regarding fragmentation’s effects on children with so many techniques, including longitudinal studies with very good data, controlling everything we can control for, and over and over again we get the same results.   

A tragedy with real impacts

Referring to the chaos in many single-parent households, with mothers and fathers moving on to new relationships, Haskins said:

So imagine these households. Anybody who has ever suffered through the breakup of a serious relationship knows the consternation and drama involved. This is the environment in which many single mothers are trying to raise their children, but pretty soon they have kids from two fathers or even more in the same household.  It’s a tragedy and it’s going to have real impacts on the country.

Now, it’s true that other respondents, scholars on the left such as Elijah Anderson, Stephanie Coontz, and Elaine Tyler May drew connections between the effects Haskins describes and capitalism’s alleged hammers, as when University of Minnesota historian Ann Tyler May conceived family fragmentation as “a symptom of economic hardship, oppression, and lack of opportunity.”

This is not the moment for my debating May, so let me just note I very much enjoyed meeting and interviewing her, as I did all respondents with whom I disagreed on various points. And to be sure, I also acknowledge that no economic system is free of problematic byproducts. Still, an essential point to be made is that the surest way for young people to avoid what critics might condemn as capitalism’s collateral and unequal damages, or escape “strip-mined communities” (as Yale’s Elijah Anderson graphically put it), is for them to get a decent education. A route Piketty would applaud.

But further complicating matters, of course, is that as long as many American communities have nonmarital birthrates of 70 and 80 percent and more (whatever the reasons may be), chances are slim that many of their young people will make it through college since their chances of making it out of high school may not be better than 50-50. With all this sadly holding true no matter how much more money we realistically spend on education, either in Minnesota or elsewhere across the nation.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His newest book, “Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future,” will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in August.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/21/2014 - 03:13 pm.


    Maybe there’s a real connection between the two or three ideas discussed in his commentary but I’m not persuaded Mr. Pearlstein’s has succeeded in making them in this brief commentary. The topic of what he defines as “family fragmentation” is probably book in itself. Since Mr. Pearlstein has written such a book apparently, I’ll leave that aside for the moment.

    What does “family fragmentation” have to do with Thomas Piketty’s take on “Capitalism in the 21st Century.”? I haven’t yet read Mr. Piketty’s book so I can’t comment either on Mr. Pearlstein’s description that somehow it comes down to lack of educational resources. I’m a bit skeptical that Mr. Pearlstein may be setting up a straw man here. From what I’ve read about Mr. Piketty’s book, his critique of capitalism goes beyond just the matter of educational resources.

    And is it really true as Mr. Pearlstein says that “most Americans hold markets in higher esteem” than graduate school critics of capitalism ( especially those with French accents)? Maybe. But so what? This comment reflects a red herring form of fallacious reasoning known as “argumentum ad populum”: the idea if many people believe something to be true then it must be true.

    The capitalism most of us have known throughout our lives has been a government controlled or regulated capitalism that has increasingly and with little fanfare been reverting to its former, pre-reform, predatory ways. Americans got a little taste of the neo-capitalism in the 2008 depression and shakedown of our government by the big banks which has still not brought about any recovery. As they become more familiar with the ways and means of this new order of capitalism, I wonder if so many Americans will continue to hold markets in higher esteem than their graduate school critics, even those with French accents?

  2. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 07/21/2014 - 03:44 pm.

    Capitalism and families

    Mitch Pearlstein laments that “far too many American boys and girls are growing up with shortages of guidance, often immersed in disorganization.” This, he asserts, is because we don’t have enough marriage–or the marriages we do have don’t last long enough, hence children don’t do well in school even though we are spending lots of money on education. And, though he doesn’t say this directly, it’s boys who don’t get educated enough so they don’t make good husbands so women have children without marrying or gives up on them when they can’t or won’t hold up their share of maintaining family, either economically or providing guidance. Finally, he brings Thomas Piketty and his critique of capitalism into the discussion because capitalism is wonderful, Pearlstein believes, and can’t be the part of this problem.

    What Pearlstein fails to acknowledge is that under capitalism as practiced here in the U.S. is that we don’t pay most individuals–male or female–enough to support a family. It takes two earners who ought, but often don’t, share the work of caring for home, family and guidance for the children. If one earner–too often the male–won’t share the family work or even understand that raising a family and taking care of a home is also work, he or she isn’t a good partner in a marriage. And, frankly, American society puts too much emphasis on the romance of a marriage and not enough on the work of a marriage. Romance doesn’t do the dishes or the laundry or take time to guide the kids.

    So, Mitch, you guys have to make marriage more satisying–and I don’t mean sexually–and hold up your end of the family partnership or women will continue going it alone, doing the best they can. Sorry, that’s reality. If capitalists want good workers men better start getting real about family work, doing their share of it. The days of father knows best and should be obeyed because he provides the family income are gone.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/21/2014 - 05:49 pm.

    A couple of points that

    Mr. Pearlstein does not mention:

    One, low median wages have been paired with an increase in the number of two wage earner families (sometimes more if you include working children). This obviously is connected to a lack of guidance at home.

    Second, some basic economics.
    In a working free market an shortage of a good or service is supposed to result in an increase in its price.
    So a shortage of skilled labor in certain areas should result in an increase in wages in that area. We are not seeing that in most fields. Instead most income growth is in nonproductive occupations such as hedge fund managers. More top college students are going into Finance than into STEM.

    I suppose that the one thing that the current situation has in common with promiscuity is that most of us are getting screwed.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/22/2014 - 09:27 am.

    Another point

    that Pearlstein overlooks is the basic anomaly of our educational system.
    Unlike other developed nations, we have no national educational system (same as the health care problem).
    Given the fragmentation of our educational system and the way local school boards are continually reinventing the wheel (and coming up with square ones), it’s not surprising that our system is inefficient.

    And since our social support system is much more primitive than that of most other developed countries, our schools are asked to take over noneducational tasks that would be handled by dedicated agencies in Northern Europe, leaving the schools systems to concentrate on education.

  5. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 07/22/2014 - 12:49 pm.

    Family fragmentation

    And how much of the family fragmentation is due to the stresses of living in poverty supported and reinforced by our version of capitalism, a version that seems to come around about every 100 years in this country? How much of the family fragmentation is due to the fact that it now takes two full time workers to support the same lifestyle as one income did 50 years ago?

    Is family fragmentation a drain on a glorious system, or has the run away system caused the lamented fragmentation? Capitalism was working relatively well until they tore apart the social contract and idealism of shared sacrifice. In our Reaganesque world where greed is exalted and cooperation is spat unop, it is no wonder that this version of capitalism does not work.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/22/2014 - 07:58 pm.

    How much of the family fragmentation is due to

    1. The “no man in the house” rule for welfare recipients, enacted in the early 1960s at the behest of social conservatives who couldn’t stand the idea of an able-bodied man receiving assistance of any kind?

    2. The War on Drugs, which has sent disproportionate numbers of low-income men, especially low-income men of color, to prison?

    3. A popular culture (not generated by poor people but by affluent music and film and TV producers) that glorifies being mean and dumb and solving all problems with violence (and being rewarded with a “hot” girl)?

    4. The fact that “pink-collar: jobs (like hairdresser, daycare worker, and hotel maid) are export-proof, unlike many traditionally male jobs?

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