Where's the bailout for human capital?

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Not only is higher education in this country getting more expensive, much like Detroit it's not keeping up with foreign competition either. A study out today from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says tuition's rising faster than family incomes. More kids are dropping out of high school. And the U.S. is falling behind because other countries are better at getting their young people into and through college.

Back home, meanwhile, bailouts continue as money pours in to fix our troubled financial markets. Commentator Robert Reich says that's great for now, but we need to keep our eye on the long-term ball.


ROBERT REICH: Our preoccupation with the immediate crisis of financial capital is causing us to overlook the bigger crisis in America's human capital. While we commit hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street, we're slashing our outlays for public education.

Education is largely funded by state and local governments whose revenues are plummeting. As consumers cut back, state sales taxes are shrinking, and as home values decline local property taxes are taking a hit. Three-quarters of our states are facing budget crises. As a result, schools are being closed, teachers laid off, after-school programs cut, so-called "noncritical" subjects like history eliminated, and tuition hiked at state colleges.

It's absurd. We're bailing out every major bank to get financial capital flowing again. But we're squeezing the main sources of our human capital.

Yet, the future competitiveness and standard of living of America depend on our peoples' skills, their capacities to communicate and solve problems, and innovate -- not their ability to borrow money.

What's more, human capital is rooted here, while financial capital moves around the globe at the speed of an electronic blip. Right now global capital markets are frozen, but the big money -- mostly in Asia and the Middle East -- will come back here eventually, bailout or no bailout.

It's our human capital that's in short supply. And without adequate public funding, the supply will shrink further. I'm not saying funding is everything, but without it we can't attract talented people into teaching, keep classrooms small and give our kids a well-rounded curriculum, and ensure that every qualified young person can go to college.

So why are we bailing out Wall Street and not our nation's public schools and colleges? Partly because the crisis in financial capital is immediate while our human capital crisis is unfolding gradually. But maybe it's also because we don't have a central banker for America's human capital -- someone who warns us as loudly as Ben Bernanke did a few months ago of dire consequences if we don't come up with the dough.

RYSSDAL: Robert Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California-Berkeley. His most recent book is called Supercapitalism.

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