How Far Will Street Smarts Get You?

Not quite as far as "The Apprentice" would lead you to believe.

One ritual I'll surely miss is sitting next to my twin sister, Sara Jo, squawking at the screen, as we heckle some hapless schmuck getting the ax on NBC's "The Apprentice." Tonight we'll be among the tens of millions watching Tana Goertz (a high-school graduate) face off against Kendra Todd (a college-educated yuppie) on the season finale.

Though Donald Trump has favored Goertz, a feisty West Des Moines resident, throughout the season, he's not likely to hire her as his next apprentice. In snagging the job, Tana is handicapped by her age and family situation (37-year-old married mother of two) and by her dim performance in the final competition. (How dare she lose New York Gov. George Pataki's American flag post-9/11?)

The third season of "The Apprentice" cleverly plucked raw nerves in the present economic and social environment. The show not only lured contestants and viewers by dangling the hope of instant fame and fortune, but also exploited our widespread anxiety over the attainability and real-world value of a college degree.

Palpable economic worry still haunts America's middle-class kitchen tables. While 274,000 new jobs were reportedly added to the economy last month, other matters portend trouble, like whopping trade and budget deficits, record household debt, high gas prices and looming stagflation.

Against this economic backdrop, "The Apprentice" fueled infectious bouts of luxury fever, exposed class envy and revived some stubborn myths about upward mobility in America.

Sara Jo and I loved every tawdry bit of it.

This season brought fans a new gimmick. Producers pitted college-educated competitors ("book smarts") against high-school graduates ("street smarts"). In their off-screen lives, the "street smart" competitors earn three times as much as their "book smart" counterparts. On the season debut, Trump delighted in pointing out the street smarts' higher earnings.

Unfortunately, enthralled viewers might confuse this twist with reality. The reverse is true: Education significantly boosts most Americans' earning potential. In 2002, adults age 18 and over with advanced degrees earned $72,824; bachelor's degrees, $51,194; high school graduates, $27,280; and high school dropouts, $18,826.

Earning a college education is increasingly vital, but access to higher education is declining for poor and working-class Americans. Since 1980, the cost of attaining a four-year degree has outpaced the average growth of middle-class wages, increasing more than 40 percent beyond the rate of inflation.

Though the show's high-school-graduate competitors do not earn working-class incomes, they are surrogates for the nation's working class. They embody its ambitions. That explains why most strivers will be rooting for Tana. In this regard, the show sports a Republican sheen. Democrats talk to working-class folks in stern, righteous lectures, while Republicans pillow-talk 'em as if they're about to become the millionaire next door.

"The Apprentice," with its "trickle-up" sentiment, mocks the truth surrounding educational opportunity and upward mobility in America. Recent studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Bureau of Labor Statistics find that class mobility in America has declined since the 1970s and now stagnates. America does not have more class mobility than Canada, France, Germany or the Scandinavian nations.

As this "Apprentice" season ends, I'm left with gut satisfaction and cerebral disgust.

Producer Mark Burnett delivered the goods, 16 weeks of melodrama and camp.

Yet the show reflects and feeds the current Darwinian hyper-capitalist ethos that threatens a viable middle class and a robust democracy. C'mon. Can we really digest the show's persistent endorsement of "leadership" and merit while being fed an extended infomercial for Trump and vast economic disparity?

No wonder values like real merit, opportunity for all and shared public interest are as distant and quaint as MTV's first installment of "The Real World."

 

Earning a college education is increasingly vital, but access to higher education is declining for poor and working-class Americans. Since 1980, the cost of attaining a four-year degree has outpaced the average growth of middle-class wages, increasing more than 40 percent beyond the rate of inflation.