“Teach Your Children Well”
Israel’s “do-over” election in
September is taking place in the midst of a particularly bountiful season for
demagogues the world over. How could it
be that in the 21st century, such rampant intentional misdirection and outright
lies are having such a hold? The answer
is related, among other things, to the primary casualties from economic crises
and misperception regarding the difference between altruistic and self-serving
Increasing labor productivity (the
amount produced in one hour) is the main key to improving the living standards
of individuals and of entire countries.
The upshot of this is that a growing economy needs an increasingly
educated and skilled labor force – and a decreasing share of less-educated and
unskilled workers. The latter group is
largely composed of adults who received a poor education as children, and who
have since become adults. But when a
country provides a deficient education to a large share of its children, it
falls victim to an additional phenomenon.
As shown in the graph, there is a very
strong and clear link between the share of pupils lacking the basics necessary
for productive participation in modern market economies and the share of pupils
lacking the ability to plan ahead or to set subgoals.
In democratic countries, where the
vote of each person carries equal weight, the provision of shoddy education to
large population segments returns like a boomerang during recessionary periods.
The most poorly educated and least skilled workers tend to suffer the most
negative effects in an economic downturns. These people demand rapid solutions,
and understandably so. The strong link
between low levels of knowledge that substantially increase economic
vulnerability, and the difficulty in understanding the long term implications
of actions implemented today, provides fertile ground for demagogues.
It is no coincidence that in the
aftermath of last decade’s Great Recession – the worst encountered in the
developed world since the 1930s – leaders are elected on the basis of claims
that directly contradict facts, but are considered to hold intuitively
regardless. That’s how demagogues are
able to “sell” policies that exacerbate the difficulties faced by their
supporters – not to mention the rest of the nation – while deflecting blame for
the outcomes on to others.
The fundamental message that all
democracies intent on survival must learn can be found in the title of one of
the greatest hits of the 1970s: “Teach Your Children Well” by Crosby, Stills,
Nash and Young. Providing poor people
with the tools and the conditions that are necessary for success in a
competitive labor market and for life in a modern country is not a favor
performed on their behalf. In a
democracy, the country needs them no less than they need it.