Education and Equality in the 21st Century

by Danielle Allen on December 14, 2015

Early in Capital, Thomas Piketty writes:

[H]istorical experience suggests that the principal mechanism for convergence [of incomes and wealth] at the international as well as the domestic level is the diffusion of knowledge. In other words, the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill, and education. (p. 71).

Yet when he turns to policy prescription in part IV of the book, his treatment of education is relatively brief and mainly forms a part of his discussion of the “modernization of the social state.” By this he means that ‘the tax and transfer systems that are the heart of the modern social state are in constant need of reform and modernization, because they have achieved a level of complexity that makes them difficult to understand and threatens to undermine their social and economic efficacy.’ Given the emphasis Piketty places on education as a force for equality in the opening section of the book, the brevity of the final discussion disappoints. He might have said much more. In what follows, I will summarize Piketty’s educational policy prescriptions, comment on the theoretical framework underlying them, and then point to what I take to be an even more important source of education’s egalitarian effects.

Piketty’s recommendations for educational policy are quite spare; they are also familiar: egalitarian minded reformers ought to work toward the broadest possible accessibility of educational institutions to the population; elite institutions, which currently serve mainly privileged youth from the highest income brackets, need to broaden the backgrounds from which they draw their students; states should increase investment in ‘high-quality professional training and advanced educational opportunities and allow broader segments of the population to have access to them’ (p. 307); and schools should be run efficiently.

In conditions of growth, the increasing accessibility of education serves to reduce income inequality, and eventually wealth, only if it shifts the distribution across the population of types of degrees. That is, the spread of education has little impact on inequality if everyone who once had a high school degree now earns a college degree, and all those who previously secured only an eighth grade level of education now attain the high school credential. Instead, one needs to shift those in lower educational bands into higher bands, without concomitant upward positional moves of those in the higher bands.

These policy proposals closely track those of Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz in The Race between Education and Technology. In their argument, rising income inequality in the U.S. can be explained to a significant degree by the wage premium on skill. As technological innovations emerge and generate a demand for new skills that are under-supplied, those in possession of the skills-in-demand will reap rewards in the form of higher income. In order for a society to see egalitarian income distributions, on their argument, education must race to maintain democratized skill provision that keeps up with the changing demands of an economy fueled by technological development.

As Piketty points out, the wage premium on skill can explain only a part of the growth in income inequality in the U.S. The growth at the highest end, in the incomes accruing to ‘supermanagers,’ in his vocabulary, reflects social norms that have coalesced around the acceptability of sky-high executive pay. In his argument, these social norms have coalesced as part of the growth of political ideology that endorses untrammeled meritocracy. Supercharged salaries are held up, rhetorically, as evidence of a supposedly fair and equally supercharged operation of talent.

The question, then, of how to temper income inequality on Piketty’s argument has fundamentally to do with social norms, and the question of how those can be changed. Here is where he misses one of education’s most egalitarian impacts. In an important 2006 paper, ‘Why Does Democracy Need Education?’ economists Edward L. Glaeser, Giacomo Ponzetto, and Andrei Shleifer identify a correlation between education and democracy that they argue has causal force, with education causing democracy. They point to a more fundamental relationship or, in their words, ‘primitive connection,’ between education and participation and test three hypotheses for why education might cause participation. Perhaps it does so through the provision of indoctrination; perhaps through the provision of interpersonal skills (through reading and writing and the provision of ‘soft skills’ as well); or perhaps through a general increase in the personal material benefits of participation? They rule out the first and third hypotheses and make the case that education causes participation because it makes people ready to participate. (Another brilliant moment where economists validate the obvious!)

And what flows from participation? Not always, but very often, democratic contestation. (The purpose of the qualification is to acknowledge, as Glaeser, Ponzetto, and Shleifer point out that the rise of European fascism also drew on the energies of students.) As scholars of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, like Charles Payne, and studies of activism by Cathy Cohen and Deva Woodley, have shown, political contestation can drive change in social norms. (For a superbly insightful essay on social norms, their bases, and the potential for changing them, see Deborah A. Prentice, ‘The Psychology of Social Norms and the Promotion of Human Rights.’). This is where education’s true egalitarian potential comes into play. It supplies the basis for forms of participatory democracy that might contest the labor market rules that deliver insupportable forms of income inequality.

Piketty’s failure to make this point is surprising. In a 2014 paper, “The Rise and Fall of General Laws of Capitalism,” the economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist Jim Robinson have pointed out that arguments like those of Katz and Goldin presume a stable framework of technology and political institutions. They put this point as a critique of Piketty, arguing that his account of a future where rates of return on capital will consistently outstrip growth fails because, in their view, it ignores politics. Thus they write:

The quest for general laws of capitalism, or any economic system, is misguided because it is a-institutional. It ignores that it is the institutions and the political equilibrium of a society that determine how technology evolves, how markets function, and how the gains from various different economic arrangements are distributed. (The Rise and Fall of General Laws of Capitalism, p. 1).

As examples of the impact on popular participation on the economy, Acemoglu and Robinson highlight late 19th and early 20th century Populist and then Progressive mobilizations in the U.S. that led to reductions of corporate power, a turn of events that refuted one of Marx’s general laws, they argue.

But their argument is not fair to Piketty who does repeatedly underscore that policy frameworks, institutional choices, and social norms affect how income and wealth will be distributed. Thus, he writes (p.308): ‘In order to understand the dynamics of wage inequality, we must introduce other factors, such as the institutions and rules that govern the operation of the labor market in each society.’ In other words, Piketty fully understands the importance of politics to his picture of the economy. The only trick he misses is to underscore the relationship between education and equality that rests on the link between education and preparation for participation.

The preparation of citizens, through education, for civic and political engagement supports the pursuit of political equality, but political equality, in turn, may well engender more egalitarian approaches to the economy. An education that prepares students for civic and political engagement brings into play the prospect of political contestation around issues of economic fairness. In other words, education can affect income inequality not merely by spreading technical skills and compressing the income distribution. It can even have an effect on income inequality by increasing a society’s political competitiveness and thereby impacting “how technology evolves, how markets function, and how the gains from various different economic arrangements are distributed.”



Quite Likely 12.14.15 at 2:57 pm

It’s not that I don’t think education policy matters, but I do think it’s hugely over-focused-on. The idea that education is the way for the poor to get ahead fits great with the neoliberal meritocratic ideology, and gives a great excuse for when people don’t succeed: well what do you expect, they didn’t even go to college!


T 12.14.15 at 3:28 pm

I will leave the other commentators to address the effect of education on inequality through increases in civic engagement. However, I think the technological explanation for within-country income inequality has been overplayed and taken a hit by recent research. The works of Autor show the negative effects of globalization on US workers and communities as does much other new research, The decline in medium incomes of the college education in recent years is yet more evidence. Rodrik has shown the technology in many manufacturing sectors quickly equalize between developed and developing country economies through FDI. (The steel steel mills and semiconductor fabs in China are world class.) Goldin and Katz have consistently underplayed the effects of globalization and other neoliberal developments on inequality. So education? Sure. But don’t expect it to solve the problem unless the greater neo-liberal agenda is addressed. Unless, as the OP suggests, the effects of education through civic engagement is the channel for change. Do we have another 30 years?


Rakesh Bhandari 12.14.15 at 3:40 pm

From Allen’s OP:
“perhaps through the provision of interpersonal skills (through reading and writing and the provision of ‘soft skills’ as well)”
Yes, and this is how James Heckman defends the importance of pre-school education, not that it necessarily provides a huge jump in testable cognitive skills but that it provides lasting advantage in the development of social-emotional skills which underpin life success in many ways.
No society serious about equality of opportunity can allow for wide inequality in the quality of early childhood education and experience. American inequalities in these crucial developmental years are astonishing and very, very troubling. See Heckman’s Giving Kids a Fair Chance and his on-going work (there is recent controversy over a study in Tennessee). See also David Kirp.
I don’t remember Piketty discussing the work of Heckman (with whom he’ll doubtless share the Nobel Prize one day!); I can’t believe that Piketty would be unsympathetic, however.


reason 12.14.15 at 3:40 pm

In agreeing with T @2, I just want to ask whether people seriously think, to take the point to its logical extreme, that a whole society could be educated to PhD level? I’m with Chris Dillow (although in this both he says in point 3 and 4 two somewhat contradictory things – that equality of opportunity is not meritocratic and meritocracy is anyway not a good idea).

I really think we need to stop hoping that the market will find an adequate niche for everyone, and start thinking that as a society we need to separate the search for a basic minimum living standard, the need for incentives for effort and the need for the opportunity to have meaningful lives. All three are important, but looking for one system to satisfy all is perhaps just too much wishful thinking.


Layman 12.14.15 at 3:45 pm

Coincidentally, I chanced on this over the weekend:

…wherein Matt Bruenig shows that, as we’ve increased education levels in the US over the past 25 years, we’ve not diminished poverty. In fact, poverty has just moved up the education ladder. The reasons he suggests seem obvious, in hindsight: Education doesn’t necessarily create better-paying jobs; education doesn’t necessarily produce more productive people; and poverty in the US is largely about non-working people.

The notion that education is the cure for unemployment, or underemployment, or low wages, (and, to relate back to Picetty and the OP, inequality) has always seemed a bit daft to me. It’s easy to imagine it happening for one individual, and ridiculous to think it will happen for all who try it. Someone must mop floors, and no one needs a Ph.D. to do that work, and no one will pay Ph.D. wages to have it done. People who mop floors need to be paid more to mop floors; whether or not they also go to night school is irrelevant to that fact.


Rakesh Bhandari 12.14.15 at 4:05 pm

Professor Allen,
Don’t forget this cheap shot: “…the average income of parents at Sciences Po, roughly corresponds to the top 10 pc of the French income hierarchy. Recruitment is thus five times broader than at Harvard but still relatively limited.” p. 486
Even more interesting is the quote from Boutmy on the next page. Here is a remarkable comment on the origins of the idea of meritocracy in education as a political and ideological response to the Paris Commune. Ideals have to be invented to justify inequality ( I am wondering what Piketty makes of Boltanski and Thevenot’s ideas about justification) and facts misrepresented in the service of showing that those ideals are being upheld, more or less.
What my previous comment was meant to suggest that where Piketty suggests that US social mobility has been undermined by extremely high tuition fees in post-secondary institutions and unequal access to higher education, Heckman insists that the problem starts much earlier, in the growing inequality in the experience of pre-school children that becomes difficult to compensate for in later years.


MPAVictoria 12.14.15 at 4:08 pm

Glad I read the comments Layman because I was about to post that same (fantastic) Matt Bruenig article. Everyone should read it.

/And indeed almost everything Matt writes
// And while you at it almost everything his wife Elizabeth writes as well.


TM 12.14.15 at 4:09 pm

“identify a correlation between education and democracy that they argue has causal force, with education causing democracy.”

OMG that old hat.


Bruce Wilder 12.14.15 at 4:09 pm

Piety around education is just an apology for a rentier society.

“No child left behind” was a neoliberal slogan. Supermanager salaries are attributable not to the corrupt exercise of political power, but “human capital”. Credentialism runs rampant.

My favorite expression of this hypocrisy was in the previous post by Anne Cudd: Especially elite universities in the US compete very hard to find and attract low income and minority students, but the competition is stiff for qualified students who will not need remediation in order to succeed. Apparently, meritocracy is running short of packing peanuts.


Rakesh Bhandari 12.14.15 at 4:20 pm

I thought that if we exclude GED’s high school graduation rates have stopped rising. That was the data I saw in Heckman’s short book. He traces the problem back to worsening pre-school experience for poor children, with their entering kindergarten with relatively disadvantaged social-emotional and cognitive skills that persist through schooling.


LFC 12.14.15 at 4:35 pm

B. Wilder @9
I also noticed that sentence in A. Cudd’s post, and it does have a ring of protesting too much: are elite univs. really doing all they could be doing to recruit (qualified) low-income students? I very much doubt it. How much effort are they putting into that compared to the other things they do?

OTOH, I don’t think the Piketty sentence quoted by Rakesh B. at the top @6 is right re Sciences Po vs Harvard on average income of parents:


Rakesh Bhandari 12.14.15 at 4:40 pm

It could be that those in the top 14% make so much more than even $500K that the mean is raised to the top 2%? But if that is the case, yes, Piketty’s data are misleading. Piketty says the data are in his on-line technical appendix. Will consult later.


Brett 12.14.15 at 5:21 pm

I’ll third Bruenig’s post. It’s very important to remember that poverty in the US is mostly a case of people who aren’t able to work full-time – i.e. they’re children, elderly, disabled, students, full-time care-givers, etc.

The thing that gets me about education is that if you actually are a “free” market liberal, then why are you supporting any particular education policy beyond a general “maybe we should kick some money towards education” stance? Shouldn’t that fall afoul of the whole “governments shouldn’t pick winners and losers” thing? Better just to aim for a strong economy, maybe just fund education in general while leaving the actual programmatic focuses up to the universities themselves, and let it all sort itself out. It worked in the 1990s – we have a whole ton of people trained in computer-related fields.


Lawrence Stuart 12.14.15 at 5:31 pm

So you mean to suggest that a STEM education is not a cure all fix for social ills? Such heresy!

There is a little poem by Blake that sums up the education conundrum in a deceptively simple nutshell:

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Empathy, compassion, caring, respect — for someone of my generation virtues associated most closely with the feminine — constitute the necessary and sufficient causes of human happiness. The meritocratic triumphalist ego of the pebble that takes its pleasure in hierarchy of a very male sort must be grounded in something other than itself if it is not to lead to despair.

These songs scale up nicely from an individual to a social level: community, based on a compassionate and respectful communion, is a necessary foundation for any concept of a good life based on hierarchy. We have been proceeding in a topsy turvy direction for some time, with the self agrandising ego mining community for its own benefit, then belatedly rebuilding (often in its own image) a Potemkin village through philanthropy.

It’s not that an education in STEM is simply the song of the pebble. It’s that without learning the song of the clod, no happiness is possible, even under the most fortunate circumstances.


T 12.14.15 at 6:04 pm

Just to get you up to date, there was a Nov. 6, 2015 “debate” at Booth where Piketty, Kevin Murphy, and Stephen Durlauf discussed, in part, rentier society v. skill-based explanations for inequality. Heckman was the moderator. Here’s a commentary by Marshall Steinbaum who attended the event. He’s very critical of Murphy. Here’s the video of the event:

The hostility of the CD commentators to the skills-based explanation of inequality, esp. at the top, seems warranted. At this point, Murphy’s career is starting to look like the detritus of a clever-boy lapdog to the plutocrats. On the other hand, I hear it pays well.


Tabasco 12.14.15 at 10:39 pm

He might have said much more.

If Piketty had said everything about education, power relations, institutions, theories of justice and all the rest that everyone wanted him to say, his book would have been 10,000 pages long.


Layman 12.14.15 at 10:43 pm

There were so many novels he could have talked about!


TM 12.15.15 at 8:08 am

“It’s very important to remember that poverty in the US is mostly a case of people who aren’t able to work full-time “

Read Barbara Ehrenreich, or at least google “food stamps”:
“working-age people now make up the majority in U.S. households that rely on food stamps… Food stamp participation since 1980 has grown the fastest among workers with some college training” (Jan 2014,


otpup 12.15.15 at 7:58 pm

@18, nice point
There is another issue surrounding education (OT warning) but fairly relevant, which is how universal education has historically been part of a left ideology/practice and one that has bubbled up from the grassroots rather than the other direction. The history of workers movements and adult education (typically education for citizenship and enrichment rather than voc ed) have been tangled together especially early in the 20C.


engels 12.17.15 at 5:31 pm

are elite univs. really doing all they could be doing to recruit (qualified) low-income students?

Is the pentagon really doing all it can to avoid killing people? Is the media really doing all it can not to mislead the public? Something about bug and features springs to mind


LFC 12.17.15 at 6:05 pm

You see one of the purposes of (U.S. and presumably other elite) univs as being to exclude low-income students. But even from your own, presumably Marxist, perspective, this does not make a whole lot of sense. Much better for the ruling class to defang and co-opt opposition by recruiting a lot of low-income students, indoctrinating them in the virtues of capitalism, and thereby also injecting new blood into the ruling class, no?

Of course, merely having spent 4 years (in the U.S. context) at an elite university and possessing a degree from such an institution does not ensure that one will enter the ‘ruling class’; it does not even ensure that one will have a ‘successful’ career. That’s prob. one of the reasons that sociologist whose name is escaping me (I believe she was interviewed by Henry Farrell at The Monkey Cage a while back) has written a book (apparently) advising students from low-income and minority backgrounds
at elite univs to study less and ‘network’ more. Prob. good advice if you want a good job after graduation; perhaps not so good advice if you want to get an education.


engels 12.17.15 at 6:54 pm

Purpose of elite universities is to transmission of cultural capital from one generation of the dominant class to another. ‘[D]oing all they could be doing to recruit (qualified) low-income students’ (#11) is inconsistent with that imo. Letting a large number in (#21) isn’t, and indeed they do this, perhaps partly to ‘degang and co-opt’ as you say and I think partly to maintain prestige. (If Harvard only let in GWB types, it would have become a laughing stock long ago…)

Of course, merely having spent 4 years (in the U.S. context) at an elite university and possessing a degree from such an institution does not ensure that one will enter the ‘ruling class’

Thanks for reminding me!


engels 12.17.15 at 7:05 pm

PS. I think I may have mentioned this before:

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomer”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

– Comrade Steven Pinker


LFC 12.17.15 at 7:35 pm

Of course, what Comrade Steven Pinker neglects to mention in that passage is that virtually every university in the U.S. selects most of its students “holistically” rather than solely on the basis of academic merit.

As for the ‘purpose’ of elite univs., there’s prob. not a singular purpose but multiple ones.


LFC 12.17.15 at 7:45 pm

p.s. What Pinker prob. knows perfectly well is that there are a small number of *really* academically gifted applicants, and a lot of that small group (not 100 percent, but a lot) will be admitted. Then there’s a very large group of applicants, all of whom can do the work but they aren’t going to be nobelists or whatever, and it’s with that group esp. that the range of other considerations comes into play.

There’s something called ‘undergraduate life’ at a place like the one where Pinker teaches — you can call it part of transmission of whatever, if you want — and there have to be kids who can, at some reasonable level, play in the orchestra, sing in the choir, act in the plays, be on the debate team, and, yes, play sports, otherwise there isn’t going be any undergraduate life outside of academics. And if Pinker either doesn’t understand that or doesn’t value it at all, he is an idiot.


LFC 12.17.15 at 7:46 pm

going to be


engels 12.19.15 at 2:39 am

“there have to be kids who can, at some reasonable level, play in the orchestra, sing in the choir, act in the plays, be on the debate team, and, yes, play sports, otherwise there isn’t going be any undergraduate life outside of academics”

I’d imagine they can still snort coke and get jiggy with piggies

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