Inauguration Panel—"The Liberal Arts: Privilege and Responsibility"

William Julius Wilson
October 26, 2003

I am very pleased and honored to be a part of the Inauguration ceremonies for my friend, Anthony W. Marx and to address the topic "The Liberal Arts: Privilege and Responsibility." When I think of the liberal arts I think of academic disciplines that are devoted to the pursuit of general intellectual knowledge and cultural concerns as opposed to the more narrow practical training associated with professional schools. Tony Marks asked each of us to speak on the current state and future of the liberal arts from our own perspective. In my brief remarks, I would like to address the issues he raised from the perspective of a social scientist.

The 1996 Gulbenkian Commission Report on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences stated that the traditional boundaries in the social sciences have been weakened by pressures for change.1 These pressures include those stemming from the rapid expansion of the university system that increased specialization, which in turn "encouraged reciprocal incursions by social scientists into neighboring disciplinary domains;" and those from feminist and other groups that have challenged the parochialism of the social sciences.2

In the process there has been, according to the Report, a growing recognition "that the major issues facing a complex society cannot be solved by decomposing them into small parts that seem easy to manage analytically, but rather by attempting to treat these problems, human and nature, in their complexity and interrelations."3

However, the report does not discuss another major pressure felt by the social sciences that I believe will ultimately have an impact as great or even greater than those pressures that have emerged during the past several decades. I refer to the impetus to address policy-relevant issues that are associated not only with the country's emotional and economic adjustments to the events of September 11, but, more fundamentally, those that emerge from the struggles of nation-states to adapt to the impact of rapid technological and economic changes on individuals, families, communities, institutions, and the society at large.

Technological innovations are occurring exceedingly rapidly and the lagging societal adjustment to these changes in many areas of life place strain on our basic institutions and challenge traditional practices in preparing individuals to fulfill adult roles and responsibilities.Take, for example, the impact of the decline of the mass production system. The skill requirements of this mode of production were reflected in the system of learning. For example, in the United States public schools were principally designed to provide low-income native and immigrant students the basic literacy and numeracy skills required for routine work in mass production factories, service industries, or farms. Today's close interaction between technology and international competition has eroded the basic institutions of the mass production system. In the last several decades almost all of the improvements in productivity have been associated with technology and human capital, thereby drastically reducing the importance of physical capital and natural resources.

Moreover, under the traditional mass production paradigm only a few highly educated professional, technical, and managerial workers were needed since most of the work "was routine and could be performed by workers who needed only basic literacy and numeracy."4 Accordingly, workers in the United States with limited education were able to carry home wages that were comparatively high by international and historical standards. Not so today.

At the same time that changes in technology are producing new jobs, however, they are making many others obsolete. "The workplace has been revolutionized by technological changes that range from streamlined IT (information technology) to nanotechnology, robotics, and biomedical engineering."5 Since education and training are now more important than ever, the gap between the skilled and unskilled workers is widening. While educated workers benefit from the pace of technological change, lesser skilled workers face the growing threat of income stagnation and job displacement.

The impact of technological change has been intensified by international competition. In order to adjust to changing markets and technology, competitive systems are forced to become more flexible. Companies can compete more effectively in the international market either by improving efficiency, productivity, and quality or by reducing workers' income. To the detriment of the labor force, American companies tend to follow the latter course. Many new jobs were created in the 1990s, however, except for the last half of the 1990s, incomes of lower paid workers remained stagnant, despite tremendous job growth.6

These changes puzzled many policymakers and when they turned to economists for some of the answers, the limitations of relying solely on a paradigm embedded in a single discipline could not be more apparent. The traditional economic models failed to explain the strange recent phenomenon of a tight labor market coexisting with low inflation in the United States. In the latter half of the 1990s into 2000, the United States experienced one of the tightest job markets in memory yet this low unemployment did not fuel inflation, and, especially prior to 1997, did not lead to significant increases in wages.

What now seems clear to an increasing number of social scientists, including economists, is that a strictly economic explanation is no longer sufficient to explain the relationship between employment and inflation. Sociological and psychological explanations about workers' responses to the growing internationalization of economic activity, including the threat of job displacement, are now being integrated with the economic explanations.Allow me to briefly elaborate.

Between 1993 and 1997 the U.S. economy added more than 14 million jobs. And in 1997 the unemployment rate declined to 4.3 percent, the lowest in thirty years. Yet, prices did not increase very much during that period, in part because wages, the main element of costs, did not increase much either.7 Despite high levels of employment and labor shortages in some areas, workers were surprisingly hesitant to demand higher wages. Few would have predicted that kind of behavior in such a favorable job market. As the Princeton University economist Paul Krugman pointed out in November 1997 "apparently the recession and initially jobless recovery left a deep mark on the national psyche."8 He stated that workers' confidence had been shaken by downsizing and the specter--real or imagined--that many of their jobs could be done for a fraction of their salaries by workers in Third World countries.9 Indirect evidence of workers' anxiety could be seen in the rate of voluntary resignations. Usually, when unemployment drops voluntary resignations increase because the favorable job market enables those who resign to find new jobs, presumably at higher pay. However, the "quit" rate actually declined in 1997, a period of low unemployment.10

In a 1997 survey of a random sample of the American public, 68 percent of the respondents overall and 72 percent of the non-college graduates surveyed, expressed concern about the exporting of jobs overseas by American companies.11 Reflecting on the situation in 1997, the economist Krugman argued that workers in the United States feel that they cannot rely on weak unions to bargain effectively for higher wages, and if they lose their jobs they feel compelled to take other employment soon on whatever terms they can get. "With such a nervous and timid workforce," states Krugman, "the economy can gallop along for a while without setting in motion a wage/price spiral. And so we are left with a paradox: we have more or less full employment only because individual workers do not feel secure in their jobs...The secret of our success is not productivity, but anxiety."12

In retrospect, this argument may have been overstated, especially given the rapid increase in productivity growth in the late 90s and its dampening effect on inflation, but Krugman's line of reasoning does provide a clear example of how pressures to confront policy-relevant matters are forcing social scientists to address complex issues with explanations that integrate perspectives from different disciplines. This type of pressure contributes to the erosion of rigid disciplinary boundaries.

But I believe that the pressure to confront policy-relevant issues will not only contribute to the integration of the social sciences, it will also increase policy-relevant research within the various disciplines. Moreover, I predict that the disciplines that most rapidly and widely respond to these pressures will attract the largest share of public and private foundation resources for research and institutional expansion.

  1. Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1996.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ray Marshall, "School-to-Work Processes in the United States." Paper presented at the Carnegie/Johann Jacobs Founadation, November 3-5, 1994, Marbach Castle, Germany, p.4.
  5. Bill Joy, "Why the future doesn't need us," Wired April 2000, pp. 238-262.
  6. Ibid.
  7. In addition to the stability of wages, other factors have kept prices from rising significantly. As Louis Uchitelle points out, a rise in the productivity rate since 1997 has also kept prices in check. Workers are producing more goods and services per hour on the job and the extra revenue from the sales of these "additional goods and services has helped maintain profits without price increases." He also notes that the economic crisis in Asia is helping to hold prices down "in two ways. Asian currencies are falling in relation to the dollar, making American products more expensive in those currencies. To compete, United States exporters are cutting their prices in dollars. Imports from Asia, on the other hand, are less expensive in dollars, also dampening inflation." Louis Uchitelle, "As Asia Stumbles, U. S. Stays in Economic Stride." New York Times, December 7, 1997, p. 4.
  8. Krugman, Paul. "Superiority Complex." New Republic, November 3, 1997, p. 21.
  9. Krugman, op. cit.
  10. Uchitelle, op. cit.
  11. Alan B. Krueger, "What's Up With Wages?" Mimeo., Industrial Relations Section, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997.
  12. Krugman, op. cit., p. 22.