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The political economy of skills and inequality

By Marius R. Busemeyer and Torben Iversen


Inequality has been on the rise in all the advanced democracies in the past three or four decades; in some cases dramatically. Economists already know a great deal about the proximate causes. In the influential work by Goldin and Katz on “The Race between Education and Technology”, for example, the authors demonstrate that the rate of “skill-biased technological change” — which is economist speak for changes that disproportionately increase the demand for skilled labor — has far outpaced the supply of skilled workers in the US since the 1980s. This rising gap, however, is not due to an acceleration of technological change, but rather to a slowdown in the supply of skilled workers. Most importantly, a cross-national comparison reveals that other countries have continued to expand the supply of skills, i.e. the trend towards rising inequality is less pronounced in these cases.

The narrow focus of economists on the proximate causes is not sufficient, however, to fully understand the dynamic of rising inequality and its political and institutional foundations. In particular, skill formation regimes and cross-country differences in collective wage bargaining influence the quantity and quality of skills and hence also differences in inequality. Generally speaking, countries with coordinated wage-setting and highly developed vocational education and training (VET) systems respond more effectively to technology-induced changes in demand than systems without such training systems.

Yet, there is a great deal of variance in the extent to which this is true, and one needs to be attentive to the broader organization of political institutions and social relations to explain this variance. One of the recurrent themes is the growing socioeconomic differentiation of educational opportunity. Countries with a significant private financing of education, for example, induce high-income groups to opt out of the public system and into high-quality but exclusive private education. As they do, some public institutions try to compete by raising tuition and fees, and with middle- and upper-middle classes footing more of the bill for their own children’s education, support for tax-financed public education declines.

Laptop in classic library

This does not happen everywhere. In countries that inherited an overwhelmingly publicly-financed system only the very rich can opt out, and the return on private education is lower because of a flatter wage structure. In this setting the middle and upper-middle classes, deeply concerned with the quality of education, tend to throw their support behind improving the public system. Yet, they will do so in ways that may reproduce class-based differentiation within the public system. Based on an analysis of the British system, one striking finding is that a great deal of differentiation happens because high-educated, high-income parents, who are most concerned with the quality of the education of their children, move into good school districts and bid up housing prices in the process. As property prices increase, those from lower socio-economic strata are increasingly shut out from the best schools.

Even in countries with less spatial inequality, in part because of a more centralized provision of public goods, socioeconomic inequality may be reproduced through early tracking of students into vocational and academic lines. This is because the choice of track is known to be heavily dependent on the social class of parents. This is reinforced by the decisions of firms to offer additional training to their best workers, which disadvantages those who start at the bottom. There is also evidence that such training decisions discriminate against women because firm-based training require long tenures and women are less likely to have uninterrupted careers. So strong VET systems, although they tend to produce less wage inequality, can undermine intergenerational class mobility and gender equality.

The rise of economic inequality also has consequence for politics. While democratic politics is usually seen as compensating for market inequality, economic and political inequality in fact tend to reinforce each other.  Economic and educational inequality destroy social networks and undermines political participation in the lower half of the distribution of incomes and skills, and this undercuts the incentives of politicians to be attentive to their needs. Highly segmented labor markets with low mobility also undermine support for redistribution because pivotal “insiders” are not at risk. Labor market “dualism” therefore delimits welfare state responsiveness to unemployment and rising inequality. In a related finding, the winners of globalization often oppose redistribution, in part because they are more concerned with competitiveness and how bloated welfare states may undermine it.

Economic, educational, and political inequalities thus also tend to reinforce each other. But the extent and form of such inequality vary a great deal across countries. This special issue helps explain why and suggests the need for an interdisciplinary approach that is attentive to national institutional and political context oppose redistribution.

Marius R. Busemeyer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Torben Iversen is Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University. They are Guest Editors of the Socio-Economic Review April 2014 special issue on The Political Economy of Skills and Inequality which is freely available online until the end of May 2014.

Socio-Economic Review aims to encourage work on the relationship between society, economy, institutions and markets, moral commitments and the rational pursuit of self-interest. The journal seeks articles that focus on economic action in its social and historical context. In broad disciplinary terms, papers are drawn from sociology, political science, economics and management, and policy sciences.

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