Bottlenecks, What Bottlenecks?


Note: Part of a two-week series devoted to exploring what we can learn about social mobility from Joseph Fishkin’s new book, Bottlenecks.

I’m struggling to pin down the precise problem that Joseph Fishkin is trying to solve.

The United States is not a “Big Test” Society

Granted, a society that distributes valued jobs and roles on the basis of a single test administered at age eighteen acts unwisely as well as unfairly. Some societies—South Korea, China, and France, for example—do so, at least for admission to the most prestigious universities. This is a mistake for many reasons. Among them: because individuals mature at different rates, and because not all individuals fully demonstrate their promise through test-taking, societies that rely excessively on “once and for all” tests deprive individuals of the opportunity to develop their gifts and society of the opportunity to benefit from the exercise of those gifts.

But it is a stretch to say that the United States is such a society. Not only does it feature an unmatched array of educational institutions—including an expanding network of community colleges—to meet varying interests and skills, but also it permits entrance at nearly all ages as well as mobility among institutions during courses of study. Like many other societies, moreover, the United States offers many occupations that do not require a high level of formal education, and many of these occupations—plumbers, welders, and machine-tool operators, for example—earn more than do college graduates with degrees in English or communications.

Illegitimate Bottlenecks Are Disappearing

Another point: much depends on whether a “bottleneck” represents an appropriate qualification for a particular career. We have decided—rightly—that race is not such as qualification, which is why the law prevents employers from using it as such. But for other jobs, mastery of English—or a range of languages—may reasonably be regarded as necessary. In those cases, a fair society has no choice but to offer everyone an opportunity to acquire the needed linguistic skills. The failure to do so is always culpable; all the more so if all occupations were to require these skills.

But again, this is hardly the case in the United States. Since the United States reopened the gates of immigration in the mid-1960s, tens of millions of individuals have entered the country and—as was the case during the previous great wave of immigration from the 1880s through 1924—many have clustered in communities whose workplaces do not require knowledge of English. This is an example of “opportunity pluralism” generated not through government policy but rather through less directive social and economic processes.

Tomorrow, I’ll take up two further questions: whether government intervention is justified to promote opportunity pluralism and how far hierarchies can – or indeed should – be flattened.