The Real Economic Issue

As Obama turns to address economic issues this week, David Brooks has an interesting column that suggests that the most important factor in improving our economic future is education, which research shows has steadily declined since 1970:

In Schools, Skills and Synapses, Heckman probes the sources of that decline. Its not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years.Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who wont.I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.I point to these two research projects because the skills slowdown is the biggest issue facing the country. Rising gas prices are bound to dominate the election because voters are slapped in the face with them every time they visit the pump. But this slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the destiny of the nation.

Most of the economic discussion seems to focus on holding onto jobs in a globalizing economy and creating new jobs by developing new technologies, but no one seems to be willing to consider the possibility that Americans don't have jobs because they don't have any marketable skills. Why is education still so far down on the '08 issues list?

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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