Saturday, June 14, 2014

I Dream of Gini

The May 23 issue of Science had several articles about social and economic inequality of people around the world. One way of measuring inequality is the Gini coefficient, in which 0 means that all the people are completely equal and 1 means that they are completely unequal. All of the authors recognized the problems with inequality, whether within or between countries, and whether of income or access to basic necessities or education; they all believed we should have lower the Gini coefficients in all of these measures.

Everyone realizes that we will never have Gini coefficients close to zero, nor should we desire to. I have explained some of the reasons for this in my reviews here and here of Sir (Saint) Thomas More’s sixteenth-century book Utopia. Inequality will always happen in any population or ecological community in the natural world, and among humans some people will always be luckier, or more talented, or both, than others. One article (summary here, full text here in Science even made the claim that inequality is the inevitable outcome of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: there are more ways for people to lose than to win, and entropy produces inequality. And it gets worse. Another article (summary here, full text here) explained how poverty creates a psychological mindset that nearly condemns children in poor families to perpetuate poverty into a new generation.

We are left with the conclusion that Jesus was left with, that there will always be poor people. (Decades ago, in The Fates of Nations, ecologist Paul Colinvaux quoted this Biblical passage as corroboration of the same idea now expressed in Science.) However, this should not leave us powerless. We can address specific problems, such as access to basic health care and education. That is, we can work to keep inequality from becoming dangerous to the people at the bottom. Unfortunately, even this is often an elusive goal.

In all states in the United States, free education is available through grade 12, and most of it is compulsory. It is undeniable that this reduces inequality, though we cannot prove it since there is no control group without basic educational opportunities. But at least in Oklahoma we are undermining public education. The governor has just signed a bill that prevents Oklahoma from adopting the newest set of education standards (CC, or common core, standards) that many other states have adopted and that nearly all are expected to adopt. This puts Oklahoma out of line with other states in terms of the quality of public education.

This might be acceptable if Oklahoma had a process superior to that of the rest of the country in determining the standards of public education—that is, if we could say that the other states are less advanced than we are in knowing what a good education is. But this is not so. The bill signed by the governor specifically allows the state legislature to modify any of the educational standards. The bill states:

"The Legislature may review any rules pertaining to the subject matter standards contained in this act and by concurrent resolution may either amend such rules or return those rules to the rule making authority with  instructions. Nothing in this section shall abrogate any right of the Legislature contained in the Administrative Procedures Act. Should said rules not be approved by the Legislature, the subject matter standards shall remain as before promulgation."

What this means is that state legislators, perhaps in return for campaign contributions from fossil fuel corporations, can determine that global warming is not occurring. In other words, here in Oklahoma, corporate money determines truth. The law opens up a direct pathway for this to happen. You can read all about this at the website of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. Public education that simply reinforces what corporations want people to know will not help eliminate inequality.

It is not just liberal activists who are upset with the new Oklahoma law. As noted by Vic Hutchison, the founder of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education,

“HB3399 was probably the most divisive bill of the legislative session and engendered massive opposition from many groups, including Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), Oklahoma Science Teachers Association (OSTA), Oklahoma Business & Education Coalition (OBEC), Oklahoma PTA, Oklahoma Council of Teachers of Math (OCTM), Stand for Children Oklahoma, United Suburban Schools Association,, State Chamber of Oklahoma, Tulsa Regional Chamber, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, Collaborative for Student Success, and others.  Two retired Air Force Generals, former commanders at Tinker Air Force Base held a press conference urging Governor Fallin to veto HB3399. Two former Georgia Governors, who supported the development of CC, published a ‘Point of View’ column in The Oklahoman on 4 June (‘Oklahoma should keep education reform effort’).  Numerous messages were sent to the Governor’s office by individuals.”

This bill, therefore, is not just bad for science education but, according to people whose business it is to know, bad for economic growth. My point in this essay is that it will also fail to address inequality. It may lead to Oklahoma high school graduates being less prepared than graduates from other states in the nationwide and worldwide job market.

Higher education (my line of work) also helps to reduce inequality. An article in the same issue of Science indicates that a household led by college grads can expect to earn $40,000 a year more than a household led by high school grads. During recent decades in America, economic inequality has increased; so also has the income gap between high school and college graduates.

Those of us in a line of work—whatever that might be—that helps to reduce inequality can feel good about our efforts, but we should not expect a great amount of support from government or society. A very low Gini coefficient is impossible, dream as much as we want; it appears that even reducing the Gini coefficient a little is also impossible.

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