Fighting inequality: A losing battle?

It’s the overarching issue of our time, so income inequality was certainly deserving of the package of pieces devoted to the topic in yesterday’s Globe Ideas section. There was only one problem with the four stories on the subject: Once you were done reading them all, rather than having a better understanding of how the inequality curse could be reserved, the more rational response was to get back in bed and crawl under the covers.

Walter Scheidel, a historian at Stanford University, writes that our best hope for ending the growing income gap would be some type of cataclysm. He says the Black Death in the Late Middle Ages was a winner — for shrinking inequality, that is, mostly because it shrunk the size of the labor force, thereby driving up wages. If you’re not particularly interested in the silver lining of a plague, then war, Scheidel says, has been recent history’s best antidote to inequality.

The period after World War II featured lots of government spending, high taxation, and strong unions. But don’t hitch your wagon to some resurgence of the union movement to fight inequality, writes Jeff Jacoby. He says there will be no big union revival not because rapacious company owners are plotting against them or because laws have tilted against labor, but because, in the eyes of most workers, unions have simply grown “obsolete and irrelevant.”

The internet, globalization, and the gig economy have all rendered unions meaningless to lots of today’s work, he says. Jacoby is certainly right when he ticks of the numbers on the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, which have long been the anchor of private-sector unionism. But he seems to dismiss the role of labor a bit too glibly, never touching on growing efforts to organize workers in the service sector, especially health care, that accounts for a growing share of jobs.

It’s not only the growing inequality but the income volatility — big swings in income from month to month or year to year — experienced by many Americans that is so destabilizing, write Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider. Their research draws on the work of Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, who has been sounding this alarm for many years.

If all else fails, though, there is one surefire path to a more economically stable future — education. Or so we’ve been told.

This should have been the good news part of the tale. Our knowledge-based economy is increasingly rewarding those with the skills that come from higher education, making college seem like a no-brainer for efforts to close the income gap. But the education cure, perversely, sometimes only adds to the inequality disease.

That point was hammered home in a story not part of yesterday’s Ideas package, but instead on the front-page of the Globe. Its focus was on the mountain of college debt — $1.3 trillion — that is crushing many who have sought to move up the income ladder. It turns out two-third of that debt is being carried by women, though they represent only 57 percent of today’s college student

All of that makes it’s easy to get excited about programs like Boston Bridge, a city-state initiative announced last month that will make up the difference in tuition and fees not covered in other grants for low-income Boston high school graduates going on to public college. The program sounds like a local response to the national call for free higher education being pushed by officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Except there a lot less to Boston Bridge than meets the eye, writes James Murphy in one of the Ideas section pieces. The new program leaves out a huge part of the cost of college — room and board and textbooks, which, Murphy says, add up to more than $13,000 a year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The plan is also so narrowly drawn that it will make it hard for lots of students to qualify — or make it through to completion.

It only covers those from the poorest homes — households making less than $50,000 a year — which leaves out thousands of young people from families with little ability to pay for college. For those students who do qualify, the program sets up requirements that seem destined to leave many behind. All students must begin by pursuing a two-year associate’s degree at Roxbury Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, or MassBay Community College and they must obtain a degree within 2½ years. From there they can transfer to a four-year state school to complete their undergraduate degree, but must maintain a 3.0 grade point average there and graduate within two years.

Few students who enroll full-time at those community colleges, however, are able to complete degrees in even three years, a problem attributed to all sorts of factors, including inadequate academic preparation in high school and financial pressure forcing many students to work part-time or full-time jobs. At Roxbury Community College and Bunker Hill Community College, only 9 percent of full-time students earn an associate’s degree within three years. MassBay does slightly better but still graduates only 14 percent of full-time entering students within three years.

“Boston’s new ‘free college’ plan, Boston Bridge, will likely do much more for the reputation of Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker than for the class of 2018,” writes Murphy.

The problem with plans like this is that higher education is really costly, and so for an initiative to meaningfully crack the problem for a big swath of those in need would mean devoting a big chunk of public dollars to the effort, something neither the city nor state is prepared to actually do. “As a result, they’re coming up with solutions so pared down that they make college free often in name only, for a relatively small number of students,” writes Murphy.

The big takeaway from the series of articles seems to be that to really address growing inequality — without resorting to war — would probably take a huge shift in who controls the levers power in the economy. It’s hard to feel hopeful about the prospects of rebuilding the country’s tattered middle class. Everyone wants to make America great again. But it will take a lot more than a cheap slogan to do it.

–MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

Josh McCabe, a professor at Wellesley College, says the millionaire’s tax would make the federal tax system more regressive. (CommonWealth) Steve Koczela and Richard Parr dissect Gov. Charlie Baker’s somewhat inconsistent opposition to the millionaire’s tax. (CommonWealth)

Standard & Poor’s dropped the state’s bond rating by one notch on Friday. (State House News)

Not all Massachusetts Democrats are shying away from criticizing Gov. Charlie Baker: State party chairman Gus Bickford says Baker needs to do more to stand up to President Trump, whose policies he says are hammering the Bay State. (Keller@Large)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

A Brockton city councilor says the audio program the city pays a quarter-million dollars a year for to detect gun shots has never resulted in an arrest and wonders if the money could be better used hiring three more police officers. (The Enterprise)

Provincetown, whose population swells to 100,000 in the summer, is the last town on the Cape to operate a volunteer fire department. (Cape Cod Times)

New data indicate the suburbs are growing fast again around the country, often much faster than nearby urban areas. (Governing)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Preet Bharara, the former US attorney for the Southern District of New York, thinks there is enough evidence to begin an obstruction of justice investigation of President Trump. At the same time, congressional Democrats, including Katherine Clark and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, are warning against using the threat of impeachment as the lead card in the 2018 mid-term elections. (Boston Globe)

Bank of America and Delta Airlines withdraw their sponsorship of a Shakespeare in the Park presentation of Julius Caesar that featured a Donald Trump lookalike as Caesar. And you know what happens to him. (Associated Press)

ELECTIONS

With polls showing Democrat Jon Ossoff pulling slightly ahead of GOP candidate Karen Handel in the special election for a Georgia congressional seat, national Republicans are worrying they could lose the reliable district and start a wave of uncertainty around the country. (National Review)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt is stepping down and being replaced by John Flannery, the president and CEO of the conglomerate’s health care unit. (Associated Press)

EDUCATION

Lowell is badly split over the location of a new high school, with the debate highlighting issues of race, class, and the imbalance of political power in the city. (CommonWealth)

In a one-two punch, a Saturday Herald editorial urges the Boston Teachers Union to stop holding up contract talks by looking to protect the small number of “excessed” teachers who are not getting hired in classrooms, and the Globe follows with a similar editorial today. The Globe’s Adrian Walker is impressed with incoming BTU president Jessica Tang, who is now the one in charge of negotiating this and other sticky issues.

Umass Dartmouth’s doctoral program in educational leadership is in turmoil amid longstanding complaints that a professor in the program is unqualified for his subject matter and he allegedly pressured students to give him positive evaluations. (Standard-Times)

Cheshire Elementary School makes a last-ditch pitch to stay open, but it’s a long shot. (Berkshire Eagle) John Hockridge, a member of the North Adams School Committee, previously reported on how many schools in the Berkshires are struggling with low enrollment.(CommonWealth)

Somerset Berkley Regional High School is the latest to institute pay for play fees, charging up to $250 per child and $500 for families who have students who play sports. (Herald News)

New Haven has made a huge investment in new public schools, a move Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wants to embark here. (Boston Globe)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

The Globe finds that little has changed for the better at Arbour Health System, the for-profit chain of mental health hospitals that the state relies on to care for some of the neediest patients in Massachusetts.

A Cambridge nonprofit is seeking a zoning variance in Brockton to open a medical marijuana dispensary at the site of a church, across the street from a behavioral health facility that houses a number of programs including an early childhood education program. (The Enterprise)

Delta Dental and Massachusetts dentists are in a standoff, with the insurer looking to cut reimbursement rates and dentists calling on it to trim six-figure salaries for its executives. (Boston Globe)

TRANSPORTATION

The full-on arrival of Uber and Lyft at Logan International Airport is changing traffic patterns there, sharply expanding the market for chauffeur-driven rides. (CommonWealth)

Uber’s Board of Directors is discussing a leave of absence for founder and CEO Travis Kalanick as well as sweeping chances in the corporate culture in advance of a report from former attorney general Eric Holder in the wake of a series of sexual harassment charges. (New York Times)

With Wynn’s Everett casino coming, Boston officials are looking to remake nearby traffic-clogged Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue. (Boston Globe)

The revival of a set of long dormant railroad tracks in Boston’s Seaport to test new MBTA Red Line cars has some hoping for a future transit line along the tracks. (Boston Globe)

East Boston residents are livid over airplane noise following an adjustment of flight paths at Logan Airport due to construction on a runway. (Boston Herald)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Edward Krapels of Anbaric Development says the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate accord will not deter the growth of wind and solar power. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Mayor Marty Walsh expressed disappointment in a racially insensitive video that appears to include a Boston police officer but said he’s reserving any final judgment until a department review is complete. (Boston Herald)

MEDIA

WBUR launches a new story-telling podcast for kids. (WBUR)

The Globe has restructured reporters’ beats and is moving forward with its “digital first” strategy. (Media Nation)