December 14, 2004

The Socio-Economics of Speech and Writing

OLIVER WILLIS has kicked off an interesting discussion about the prevalence of "ebonics" usage in society today. Mr Willis makes the sound argument that "ebonics" is not a dialect per se, but rather flawed English, and his comments have struck quite a chord with people. His first entry on the matter drew some 58 comments and several track-backs, while his second entry has thus far produced more than 100 comments.

Many of the comments have apparently driven Mr Willis to despair. He writes:

We've got some folks making the crazy argument that ebonics isn't just bad grammar and horrible English, but an honest-to-goodness "dialect" that has to be translated for people.

Is it any wonder why so many black kids think the way they do? These kids aren't speaking properly, and people are encouraging it. Wait until reality smacks them in the face.

We must say we agree with Mr Willis' argument. That said, though, we think the problem he discusses exists on a societal basis -- among people of all races, all colors, and all backgrounds. "Ebonics" is merely one facet of it. The overall concern we have is that a seemingly ever-growing number of Americans, no matter their race, do not have fundamental command of the English language -- either in speech or in writing. This is horribly problematic for myriad reasons.

On an individual level, of course, the problem manifests itself through lost opportunities at both school and work. One who lacks mastery in English will not only not succeed in a university-level academic environment, they will find doors slammed in their face both when looking for work, and when seeking promotion in an organization. Nor do we think we are exaggerating this problem: a recent New York Times article found that many otherwise intelligent people could not construct a simple sentence in business correspondence. As such, many corporate offices were sending their staff to receive remedial writing instruction as a result.

That in itself is astonishing, quite frankly.

After all, the standard move in such a case would be to cashier the unlearned staff, because they appeared hopelessly incompetent. But because firms are spending money on writing courses, it suggests in part that their employees' potential replacements would be similarly unskilled. And that's not good on a societal level, either in the present or the far future.

In the present, of course, it means our workers are less competitive and less qualified to do their jobs compared with their better-educated foreign counterparts. It is unfortunate many jobs in manufacturing and the services are being shipped overseas; but, it does not help things when the foreigners can write better English than the natives. Therefore, a lack of English mastery among American workers eats away at the nation's competitive advantage.

But the future problems this state of affairs may cause are even more frightening.

Look, we already know that income inequality is increasing: the Gini coefficient doesn't lie. (The coefficient measures inequality on a scale of 0 to 1 -- at 0, everyone makes the same amount, at 1, you have one winner and infinite losers). The U.S. Census Bureau has found that between the years 1980 to 2001, the Gini coefficient in America rose from 0.365 to 0.435.

Now, there are plenty of reasons for why that number jumped so high in the past two decades (the historical low was in 1968, at 0.348). Here are a few of them.

First, America's tax structure fundamentally changed in the early Eighties. However, this is not to say the wealth wasn't being handed out prior to that switch. You see, because the prior regime was punitive (with top rates ranging from 91 percent in the Fifties to 70 percent in the Seventies), the switch to our present system made it better for people to accept cash renumeration as opposed to perks (the company car and such). Therefore, this shows up in the results, and is why we made 1980 our initial comparison point.

Second, our economy moved away from an industrial focus to a service-oriented focus. Manufacturing was once a middle-class occupation, and more people worked in the field; now, fewer such jobs can be truly described as middle-class, and only 14 percent of our workforce holds jobs in the field. Conversely, 16 percent of the workforce engages in selling things to others on a resale or wholesale level, and even more workers provide services to others. As these jobs often require less skill and there is more demand for them among workers, they do not pay nearly as well. (Demand here is in the economic sense, i.e., "I need a job," not "Gee, I'd love to work at a call center").

Third, a "winner take all" compensation culture took root in American life. One often hears of chief executives making ridiculous amounts of compensation; but it was not always this way. Consider one example we once heard about, which we paraphrase here:

Back in the late Seventies, there was a chief executive who did a masterful job at turning around his company. It was a truly amazing feat, and made oodles of money for shareholders. So upon the CEO's retirement, the Board of Directors gave him a special bonus for carrying out his mission so well over the years.

The chief executive was awarded -- wait for it -- ONE MILLION DOLLARS.

Conversely, successful chief executives these days do very well in comparison. One outrageous example we would note is that of Dick Grasso, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange, who had a salary package in the NINE FIGURES over several years. And even if CEOs are unsuccessful, they'll still reap several millions or tens of millions of dollars for their bumbling.

And yes, these things have a way of filtering down -- but only so far.

After all, the Executive Team must also be compensated well as a result of the CEO's bloated salary, or else they'll get angry and go somewhere else. The same applies to their subordinates too. But while even a low-level vice-president will likely do quite well for himself, the middle managers will get fewer crumbs, and the rank-and-file will only get whipsawed from a vicious labor market.

Now, we do not intend to condemn such compensation schemes here. The Rant of the Angry Shareholder will have to wait. But the reason we bring this up is simple.

The guys at the top make more money because they're at the top. They got to the top through hard work and effort and sweat and tears. But they also got there because they were quite good at what they did. In business, being very good requires certain core skills -- such as being able to communicate effectively in speech and in writing. Without those skills, one cannot advance; and without advancement, one is finished.

To all this, we must add that many of these core competencies are first developed at home and in school. It stands to reason that a better-educated and richer worker, who does everything he can to ensure his children learn the same skills he has, will give his children a better chance at succeeding in life. Conversely, if a less-educated and poorer worker does little to encourage education among his children, then his children will have a lesser chance at succeeding in life.

Now, obviously these things have a way of reversing themselves: there are plenty of children from poor families, in which education was highly valued, who have done very well. There are also plenty of children from rich families, in which the parents could care less, who end up accomplishing nothing.

But still, the trends worry us. Unless people do something -- and individual effort is where things will be won or lost -- they face a horrible vicious cycle in which they are trapped in relative poverty and despair, wanting to get out of it but having no way to do so.

And we can assure you this vicious cycle will entrap people of all races and colors and creeds. Indeed, it does not discriminate. The Gini coefficient numbers show that inequality between rich and poor blacks and Hispanics is even worse than it is between whites.

One big broad conclusion we can draw from those numbers is this: that the educated, regardless of race, are leaving their less-educated peers far behind in the great race. And if their peers do not realize quickly the need for catching up, they will have a devil of a time all the way to the finish line.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at December 14, 2004 08:56 PM | TrackBack