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robertogreco : unpaidlabor   1

Malcolm Harris: College Admissions Scandal and Capitalism
"The idea that a high-achieving student is doing $100,000 worth of labor a year won’t be surprising to anyone who knows one. Without huge amounts of time and effort beginning at a young age, it’s incredibly hard to pull together the kind of résumé that’s needed in order to stand out to elite and competitive schools. These teens end up putting in so much labor that they are developing their specialized skills to professional levels before they finish high school. In some ways, the unmediated job market has lower standards than the most exclusive colleges do. The best child musicians and scientists and athletes are working very hard, and what they’re doing has value, too. We know it does, because their efforts are worth counterfeiting.

Student labor has a curious character. It’s unpaid, but the idea is that it will be compensated indirectly later. There are tests that are meant to validate kids along the way, including college admissions and ultimately the job market. A higher grade (in the broader but also in the specific, academic sense) is supposed to lead to a higher wage down the line, something everyone understands implicitly. The value from all that childhood work has to go somewhere; we can think of that place as a sort of internal battery that stores human capital, the skills and abilities that we put to work when we go to work. Counterfeit human capital is what William H. Macy and Mossimo Giannulli were allegedly buying for their kids: the appearance of skills and abilities that didn’t actually exist.

Human capital is an odd commodity because it’s inalienable. You can’t sell your ability to do 100 push-ups or your starting position on the soccer team or your Yale diploma. That means that workers can’t really be said to own their human capital, since it’s not transferable. It’s an abstract substance that can be weighed and compared, but also a relationship between workers and owners — that’s why companies can use it in place of “human resources.” Human capital belongs to workers, but only to be managed and exploited by employers. To monetize their abilities, workers need someone to hire or invest in them. (The number of workers who are able to save up their wages in order to start their own businesses is much smaller than we’re led to believe, and shrinking.) There is no fixed correlation between the accumulation of human capital and pay. You get paid to work, not to be smart.

Because no one is on the hook for compensating any particular young person for their hard work, there’s no reason to set a limit on how much of it they should do. The random distribution of talents and passions and the very predictable distribution of resources have left students with any number of ways to differentiate themselves from each other in the eyes of graders. An arms race arises as students are encouraged to try their hardest, to reach their full potentials, to use every advantage they have. We can see the scale of it in the forged applications: The aforementioned Yale admit claimed to be a nationally ranked soccer player in China, a nation of 1.4 billion people. The admissions committee had no reason not to believe it; I’m sure they see genuine applications like that all the time. There’s always someone who can try a little harder and stay up a bit later or whose parents can pay more. The level of competition gets higher and higher, and theoretically that’s great — as long as everyone eventually finds a job that will repay the investments they’ve made in their own capacities. You can see the problem.

The best thing you can do for your own future employment prospects is to invest in your human capital: learn to code or speak Mandarin or captain your sports team or whatever else the Aspen crowd wants from us this week. Training according to guesses about the notoriously unreliable future demands of rich people is not particularly fun, and it’s obvious why their own kids can’t be bothered. But most of us have to try, and there arises a supply-and-demand problem: If everyone teaches themselves to code and the supply of human capital goes up, it’s suddenly very easy for employers to find coders, and the demand (read: pay) goes down. What’s advantageous for the individual is self-defeating for the class.

The result is workers who have not only taken on an average of tens of thousands of dollars in educational debt, but have also put in what we can now understand as hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars’ worth of unpaid labor. Taking no responsibility for this situation, employers have used the flood of overqualified workers to lower job quality, sometimes so far as to stumble onto the wrong side of America’s meager labor laws. That leaves young people who had planned on higher-quality jobs (as they were told to) underwater on their own human capital. Having invested more in effort and money than their work can command on the market, they’re not in possession of distressed assets; they are the distressed assets. And they’re stuck with themselves.

I can’t speak to why people who will never have to work in their lives care about getting fancy degrees, but I know why everyone else does. As the distance between the rich and the rest increases, the stakes of childhood go up too. Failure at one of the crucial steps (like college admissions) means taking a loss on your investment in yourself, which is extremely depressing. Everyone is compelled to work harder to try to avoid that fate, except the business owners and landlords, who just have to pay higher bribes — which they can afford to do because all those people who are working harder are, in one way or another, working for them. Depending on whether or not you own the means of production, it’s all a virtuous or vicious cycle. For most of us, it’s the latter."
malcolmharris  2019  labor  education  schools  schooling  colleges  universities  admissions  collegeadmissions  children  work  capitalism  exploitation  competition  highereducation  highered  debt  unpaidlabor  humancapital 
march 2019 by robertogreco

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