Income disparity? It's about time

Nov. 22, 2002
Mean spirited. Selfish. Greedy. Elitist. Envious. These are some of the names you might call me after reading this column. So I'll warn you: Please don't continue if you are a champion of the downtrodden.
View other Ron
Khol editorials

That much said, I'll continue by pointing out that I was raised in a family that ran a small home-building business. We all pitched in, and I was dragged out to job sites during summer vacations and put to work doing arduous manual labor by age 14. I hated it, but nobody gave me a vote in the matter.

During these summers, I became very much aware of the wages paid to carpenters, bricklayers, hod-carriers, and other construction workers. The money they earned was good, exceedingly good. Each year I would see the same guys on the job. The only thing different was their cars. They were always brand new and mostly top of the line. The work crews also tended to live in nice neighborhoods. Indeed, people swinging the hammers and handling the trowels had very high standards of living. On top of it all, they didn't kill themselves with effort. They had easy high-paying jobs, yet most of them seemed to be types that never did their homework in school.

This didn't seem right to me. I was constantly being urged to do well academically, but I couldn't see that delayed gratification was going to pay off with financial rewards when I became an adult. This made me think about going into an apprenticeship and joining the AFL-CIO right after high school. Why hit the books when I could watch television every evening and still end up living the good life?

My parents, however, expected me to go to college, so I did. When I finally earned an engineering degree, I did a financial payback analysis, and the result was discouraging. Sure it was nice being an engineer, but factoring in my college costs, wages forgone while a student, and what I could be earning as a tradesman, breaking even was probably going to take at least 15 years. And if the figures tilted just a bit in the wrong direction, I was never going to break even. What's more, if I had gone to work in an automobile plant or the steel industry, the results would have been similar. As events turned out, 20 years after graduation, I still earned less than millwrights at the local steel mill.

Despite the high starting salaries of engineering graduates today, I am not sure the payback period is much different, especially in view of the high cost of education and the salary plateau many engineers reach quickly. That brings us to the hand-wringing we have today over what is called income disparity. According to this concept, large segments of our population are not adequately sharing in the nation's prosperity. They are being "left behind" as the upper and middle classes become too rich, with the primary differentiating factor being differences in education and training.

To be sure, I despise the pirate captains of industry who shamelessly plunder their companies for many millions of dollars. There is far too much avarice at the top of America's corporations. But neither can I muster much sympathy for those "being left behind." What we are seeing is the inevitable consequence of our economy becoming more of a meritocracy. I lived through a time when our country wasn't much of a meritocracy, and to me that was just as discouraging as being left behind.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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