by Ralph Brauer | 7/07/2008 01:08:00 PM
For the past week I have been out of the loop attending a conference in Boston of people involved in systems thinking and education. There were some interesting discussions, but I left there feeling a bit disconnected. Most of all it reinforced for me again just how serious and pervasive is America's inequality.
In case you don't know about it, systems thinking and the modeling process known as system dynamics are used by a who's who of major corporations across the world: Intel, Boeing, BMW, various big oil companies, a goodly percentage of the Fortune 500. Probably the most accessible work on systems thinking and system dynamics is being done by Peter Senge, who wrote the best-seller The Fifth Discipline. The corporate world uses system dynamics to model what-if scenarios and facilitate decision-making. The models used by these big companies are complex--many contain thousands of equations--and expensive. It is not unusual to pay a million dollars for one.
Yet the companies are more than willing to shell out the cash because the models work. Why? System dynamics is the only modeling technology that allows for the modeling of feedbacks. It is to the type of modeling used by your average weather forecaster or economist what a snapshot is to a video.
I am not writing about system dynamics to go into a long dissertation about its value, but for another reason. System dynamics has been available to corporations for almost half a century. It has been applied to policy problems most notably in the work of the late Donnella Meadows and the famous Limits to Growth Study, but by and large the use of this extraordinary process has been denied to those in the public sector.
What is good for IBM or Microsoft also ought to be good for your community nonprofit that is trying to keep their food shelf going or for government agencies trying to deal with $4 gas and the mortgage crisis. But the high cost of modeling has denied this process to those who need it most. To coin an analogy: it is a bit like one person being able to avail themselves of MRI's and other sophisticated medical technology while the rest of us have to get by on what passed for health care in the nineteenth century.
You don't have to know anything about system dynamics or even think it has any value to see the moral of this story. The public sector is essentially competing against the private one with one hand tied behind its back. Analogy two: it's a bit like a small town high school basketball team playing the Boston Celtics.
Like many tales this one has several levels of meaning, of which inequality is only one and like many tales it has about it the equivalent of a stone dropped into a pond, its ripples spreading across our society. One of those ripples is a serious one that the media have said little about--the brain drain.
You probably have read about the brain drain in an international context--how talented people from the Third World come to the United States because of what we have to offer. Despite the anti-immigration tone of some Americans, we should take this as a complement to our system, for many of these creative people come to this country not merely for the money but also for the freedoms we offer. At the same time, their immigration deprives their home countries of needed intellectual capital.
What has received considerably less attention is that there is a brain drain going on in this country from the public to the private sector. We are losing talented and creative people to big corporations. Some people who once considered public service a calling have become cynical about it after decades of anti-government rhetoric.
While I was learning system dynamics at MIT, I most enjoyed hanging out with the younger students and over many a beer we talked about the brain drain problem. I remember one night as a group of us walked along the Charles River at dusk several of them said they wished they could go into the public sector. I even tried to convince a few of them to write public policy PhD theses, but one young man had a ready answer, saying he already had a six figure job offer.
Right now my son faces the same problem. He will start on a dual degree program in law and public policy this fall after spending the last year with Americorps. He would like to bring his law and policy skills to the many community organizations he has learned about in DC while participating in anti-poverty discussions lead by former mayor Marion Berry.
In fact he has enjoyed his Americorps experience so much that right now he and the place he is working are exploring how he could continue there part time while attending law school. There is just one catch to his public service plans: money. Even with a generous financial aid package, he will probably graduate with close to a six-figure debt.
Several years ago I attended a party where a small group of young lawyers hung out in a back yard, sitting in lawn chairs. When I asked them about public service after law school they literally laughed at me, pointing to loans averaging $100,000 per student that all but forced them to work for big corporate law firms.
So the brain drain is only a symptom of a larger drain in intellectual capital that threatens to tilt the playing field for a generation. Some of you may remember an essay I wrote on the Supreme Court's decision and oral argument in the Indiana voter ID case. I reserved my biggest criticism for the attorney challenging the Indiana law. That's a classic example of the brain drain and its consequences for democracy. He was outmatched to the point that even sympathetic justices asking leading questions could not help him out.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain have received much attention for their calls for public service, but while programs such as Americorps have proven their value, they are a band aid on the gaping wound of the brain drain. Both men represent examples of lives dedicated to public service, yet they don't seem even aware of or concerned about the growing inequity in intellectual capital that plagues America.
Most ominously this has even come to characterize communities of color, where once service in the name of leveling the playing field and helping those in the community you came from was taken for granted. It was among the most noble of callings. The title of the Negro National Anthem expresses that feeling, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.
In one of her usual insightful comments, Hathor advised me to evoke the Founding Fathers and the Constitution more and also to reclaim words such as patriotism. As many have noted, there may never have been a gathering of intellectual capital to equal those who wrote the Constitution. As for patriotism, for them the highest definition of patriotism was public service.
For those who have spent the last few decades running down government it is wise to recall what George Washington said in his Farewell Address:
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.
I could fill this blog with quotes about the virtue of public service from this year's crop of political candidates from now until Election Day, but is there any solid evidence to support the anecdotes? A 2006 study by the State PIRG's Higher Education Project produced ample evidence about the truth of the anecdotes from my son and the law students about the impact of debt on public service employment.
"Paying Back, Not Giving Back," notes an alarming trend:
Two-thirds of all four-year college graduates in 2004 left school with student debt, compared with less than one-third in 1993.
The debt crunch obviously proved particularly difficult for low-income students.
Recent graduates, especially those with low and moderate incomes, must spend the vast majority of their salaries on necessities such as rent, health care, and food. For borrowers struggling to cover basic costs, student loan repayment can create a significant and measurable impact on their lives.
The study then went on to examine the impact of this debt on two public sector employment fields--teaching and social work. It found:
Factoring in high debt levels, the congressional fixed 6.8% interest rate for federal student loans, and low starting salaries, we found that 23% of public four-year college students graduate with too much debt to manageably repay their loans as a starting teacher. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of public four-year college graduates have too much debt to manage as a starting social worker.
Private college grads, who have average higher tuition costs face and even greater challenge:
Graduates of private four-year colleges face even more significant debt burdens. Thirty-eight percent (38%) of private four-year college students would face an unmanageable debt burden as a starting teacher. Fifty-five percent (55%) of private college graduates would face serious repayment challenges as a starting social worker.
Now if you are a recent college grad, current college student or the parent of one you will notice one phrase that should jump out at you: "the congressional fixed 6.8% interest rate." Due to the Republican Counterrevolution, that is no longer true. According to a Department of Education website on repaying student loans, examples of possible loan percentages range from 7.59% to 8.99%--a considerable increase over the rate in the study.
Factoring in these higher repayment rates whose increases reach 30% or more would increase the study's figures considerably. My systems colleagues always say nothing is linear, so the increase in students unable to become teachers or social workers would probably be more than 30%.
Now add in our recent economic woes like $4 gas and high food prices and you can increase those totals yet again. The study includes a daunting table that shows that states where loan debt exceeds manageable levels that would allow them to become a teacher. New Hampshire leads the list with 67.4%; rounding out the top ten is Minnesota with 53.5%. Given the new higher loan rates and the economic recession, essentially anywhere from 1/4 to 3/4 of current college graduates carry too high a loan debt to enter either teaching or social work.
So where do they go? They go for higher paying jobs, corporate jobs that will allow them to repay those loans more quickly, especially if they are talented. Some also go back to school to enter more financially rewarding careers.Remember the old put-down about "what do you do with an English major?" Well, that has now changed to "What do you do with a public service degree?"
The study's conclusions should give us all pause about the kind of society America is becoming:
Equality of opportunity requires not only offering all qualified students access to college, but also access to a range of careers upon graduation. A commitment to equality requires that we do not so heavily burden some college students that they are unable to pursue socially valuable and reasonable career paths. Education and social work are critical careers, but also representative of dozens of other professions that are equally valuable and likely to be increasingly out of reach for many college graduates.
The PIRG study is reinforced by a similar study of law school graduates. An American bar Association study, "Lifting the Burden: Law Student Debt as a Barrier to Public Service" found a similar dynamic operating among law students. Like a lawyer presenting a case, the report wastes little time in laying out the facts:
Most graduates of law school today have a cumulative debt from undergraduate and law school that exceeds $80,000. Assuming a standard ten-year repayment schedule, this means payments of more than $1,000 per month.
It then details the consequences for students entering public service careers much as the young lawyers did at that backyard party.
Most graduates interested in pursuing public service careers with government or legalservices organizations can expect to make a median entry-level public interest salary of $36,000 (for 2002 graduates) and do not have the resources both to repay educationalloans and support basic living expenses. A recent study found that law school debt prevented 66% of student respondents from considering a public interest or government job.
So two-thirds of our law students and about half the percentage of potential education and social workers essentially carry too much debt to reasonably consider those careers. In The Strange Death of Liberal America I proposed that keeping the playing field level depended on four cornerstones: social and economic justice, educational equity, media fairness and voting rights. The ABA report gives us some idea of how the brain drain is weakening the several of these:
The legal profession cannot honor its commitment to the principle of access to justice if significant numbers of law
graduates are precluded from pursuing or remaining in public service jobs.
Add education and social work to that and you pretty much have a formula for weakening all four of democracy's four cornerstones. They are crumbling before our eyes and no one seems inclined to do anything about it. In a society where inequality is slowly sliding back to where it was a century ago, this does not promise well for the future of our country and our children.
The systems thinkers I met with this past week would call this a negative reinforcing loop, but you don't need a fancy name to tell you it means this country is in deep trouble. The frightening thought is that not merely is the playing field tilting, it is that it is disappearing.
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