Of Financial Capital and Human Capital: Why We’re Bailing Out Wall Street While Allowing Our Schools to Get Clobbered

by Robert Reich –

Our preoccupation with the immediate crisis of financial capital is causing us to overlook the bigger crisis in America’s human capital. While we commit hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street, we’re slashing our outlays for public education.

Education is largely funded by state and local governments whose revenues are plummeting. As consumers cut back, state sales and income taxes are shrinking; three quarters of the states are already facing budget crises. On average, state revenues account for half of public school budgets, and most of the funding of public colleges and universities. On top of this, home values are dropping, which means local property taxes are also taking a hit. Local property taxes account for 40 percent of local school budgets.

The result: Schools are being closed, teachers laid off, after-school programs cut, so-called “noncritical” subjects like history eliminated, and tuitions hiked at state colleges.

It’s absurd. We’re bailing out every major bank to get financial capital flowing again. But we’re squeezing the main sources of our nation’s human capital. Yet America’s future competitiveness and the standard of living of our people depend largely our peoples’ skills, and our capacities to communicate and solve problems and innovate – not on our ability to borrow money.

What’s more, our human capital is rooted here, while financial capital moves around the globe at the speed of an electronic blip. Right now global capital markets are frozen, but the big money — mostly in Asia and the Middle East — and will come here, bailout or no bailout. At this point it’s coming back as purchases of dollars or in the form of T-bills that are financing the Wall Street bailout. Eventually American assets will become so cheap that the money will come rushing here to buy up the bargains.

It’s our human capital that’s in short supply. And without adequatepublic funding, the supply will shrink further. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying funding is everything when it comes to education. Obviously, accountability is important. But without adequate funding we can’t attract talented people into teaching, or keep class sizes small enough to give kids a real chance to learn, or provide them with a well-rounded curriculum, and ensure that every qualified young person can go to college.

robert_reich.jpgSo why are we bailing out Wall Street and not our nation’s public schools and colleges? Partly because the crisis in financial capital is immediate while our human capital crisis is unfolding gradually. But maybe it’s also because we don’t have a central banker for America’s human capital – someone who warns us as loudly as Ben Bernanke did a few months ago when he was talking about Wall Street’s meltdown, of the dire consequences that will follow if we don’t come up with the dough.

by Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission

Articles by Robert Reich:

Published by the LA Progressive on December 5, 2008
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About Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine.

Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.