Rev. Malthus, Call Your Office

by John Derbyshire


I agree with you that the panic over declining fertility is misplaced. Looking around any modern society it’s clear that there isn’t enough productive work for the people we have. In Britain, one household in eight contains nobody who is working. In Liverpool it’s one in three. No doubt parts of the U.S.A. are just as bad.

And even when we’re working, what are we doing? Here’s a clue from America’s Newspaper of Record yesterday.

As [New York] Gov. Cuomo calls on schools to cut the bloat, the ranks of education administrators have swollen a breathtaking 34 percent over the last 15 years — and they’re overseeing fewer students …

The number of supervisory staff in public schools increased to 42,000 this year from 31,332 in 1997, even as student enrollment statewide fell and performance rankings sat stagnant, according to a [New York Post] analysis of state Education Department data.

The state’s student population dropped to 2.7 million from 2.8 million — or 4.6 percent — during that period.

Productivity of every kind has improved so much, there is nothing like enough work for the populations we have. Our solution has been to swell the categories of public-sector make-work. Raising two kids, I’ve interacted with a lot of those education administrators the Post is writing about. Nice people, good people, honest and patriotic citizens — I wouldn’t say a word against them as persons. But if you were to round them all up and ship them to retirement communities in the Aleutian Islands, nobody in New York state would notice their absence.

In my mind’s eye I can walk down the street I grew up in half a century ago, checking off the occupations of the residents: butcher, truck driver, movie projectionist, chauffeur, carpenter, brewery foreman, railroad worker, floor-walker (look it up), … My uncles were coal miners and factory hands. There are way fewer of those jobs now. I haven’t seen a butcher’s shop for years. The factories, the breweries, the coal mines are all automated.

This is why the public-sector workers in Wisconsin and London are so angry. If they can’t do public-sector make-work, what can they do? There isn’t anything. All that pointless bureaucratic paper-shuffling may be bankrupting the country, but it’s feeding these people’s families.

The usual response from the high panjandrums of our society is to make everyone smart so we can all be lawyers and doctors. Fix the schools!

Setting aside some obvious issues related to demand, nobody has any clue how to make people smart, though of course we are not short of snake-oil salesmen pretending the contrary, to great public acclaim — wishful thinking is a mighty force in public affairs.

The Post describes student achievement in our schools as “stagnant,” but really it’s just maxed out. Our schools are as effective as they can be, as the recent PISA test scores (properly analyzed) show. There isn’t any room for improvement. Half the population is below the median in cognitive ability. There aren’t enough slots for them in the productive economy. Liverpool is our future.

At least, it’s our near future. Longer-term, the religious will inherit the earth.

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