Krugman's Prophecy Coming True?

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Today's front-page New York Times story of employment among high-technology scientists and engineers splashes in the first column what professional magazines and discussion sites have been noting for years, job insecurity of many scientists, engineers, and programmers, while others (especially new graduates of elite programs like Stanford's) are in greater demand than ever: "[A]s the nation struggles to put people back to work, even high-tech companies have been slow to hire, a sign of just how difficult it will be to address persistently high joblessness. While the labor report released last week showing August figures provided mildly positive news on private-sector hiring, the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent." This seems to be part of a broader hyper-stratification evident in the law as well. Adam Liptak, in the same issue, cites Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's isolated plea against the "faux nobility" of a handful of law schools:

"They referred to my clerks last year as TTT -- third-tier trash," he told students at the University of Florida in February. "That's the attitude that you're up against."

Justice Thomas's hiring was certainly out of step with that of his colleagues. About half of the law clerks who have served the justices since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court in 2005 attended two law schools -- Harvard and Yale. Another quarter attended just four others -- Virginia, Stanford, Chicago and Columbia.

But nobody can blame the Times for not telling us so. Near the height of the dot-com boom in 1998, when Paul Krugman included in his imagined 2098 NYT Magazine retrospective, "White Collars Turn Blue," the following trend:

The devaluation of higher education. In the 1990s everyone believed that education was the key to economic success, for both individuals and nations. A college degree, maybe even a postgraduate degree, was essential for anyone who wanted a good job as one of those "symbolic analysts".

But computers are very good at analyzing symbols; it's the messiness of the real world they have trouble with. Furthermore, symbols can be quite easily transmitted to Asmara or La Paz and analyzed there for a fraction of the cost of doing it in Boston. So over the course of this century many of the jobs that used to require a college degree have been eliminated, while many of the rest can, it turns out, be done quite well by an intelligent person whether or not she has studied world literature.

This trend should have been obvious even in 1996. After all, even then America's richest man was Bill Gates, a college dropout who didn't seem to need a lot of formal education to build the world's most powerful information technology company.

Or consider the panic over "downsizing" that gripped America in 1996. As economists quickly pointed out, the rate at which Americans were losing jobs in the 90s was not especially high by historical standards. Why, then, did downsizing suddenly become news? Because for the first time white-collar, college-educated workers were being fired in large numbers, even while skilled machinists and other blue-collar workers were in high demand. This should have been a clear signal that the days of ever-rising wage premia for people with higher education were over, but somehow nobody noticed.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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