Tag Archives: innovation

Robotics and Immigration

One of our most cherished myths is that America is a land of immigrants. In point of fact, we are—many millions of people migrated from the “Old World” to the “New” in the centuries following the first voyage of Columbus; what is now the United States became a favored destination of people from the British Isles, from Northern Europe (especially Germany), and later from Eastern and Southern Europe. These are the facts, the statistics. The mythic element, however, tells a story of people seeking freedom of various kinds—religious freedom, freedom from ethnic oppression, freedom from monarchs and oppressive class systems. No doubt these constituted the personal motives of many of the immigrants themselves.

Liberal and progressive arguments favoring continued unimpeded immigration are often couched in moral and mythic terms: that we have always been a nation of immigrants and should therefore continue to be (but: one definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again despite not getting the hoped-for results); that we should forever continue to welcome “the huddled masses yearning to be free.”

What is not often considered are the motives of those already here (and of some who never stepped foot on American soil) in encouraging and enabling these mass migrations. From the very beginning, those motives have been all about profit: more specifically, about cheap labor as a means of exploiting the resources of this so-called “virgin land,” resources such as lumber, furs, gold and silver, and most especially agricultural commodities: tobacco, sugar (mostly on the Caribbean Islands), cotton, and wheat. With a few exceptions, early British colonies were chartered by London investors and were stocked with men and women from the desperate and criminal classes (people whom the British authorities were glad to be rid of), many of whom died shortly after arrival. As the colonies took hold, increasing numbers of the poor, the indebted, the jobless without prospects, the desperate, came here as indentured servants. Indenturement was little better than slavery, as many died before their term of service was up, others were cheated of their promised rewards. Then there was slavery itself, which brought millions of Africans here (and elsewhere in the New World) as chattel labor, valuable not only for free labor but as commodities in themselves.

Later, as the industrial revolution took hold, millions of Europe’s impoverished were allowed in to supply the labor for the factories as well as for the piecework that still occurred in crowded tenements and hazardous sweatshops (as exemplified by Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911). Cheap labor was also obtained from China, particularly in the building of the transcontinental railroads; migrant (usually Mexican) labor is still crucial for harvesting fruits and vegetables.

This thumbnail sketch illustrates that cheap labor is the primary reason that business and political leaders have favored mass immigration, and why, for the most part, most business leaders still do. Economists today argue that we need to continue mass immigration (despite the fact that we already have a population of over 320 million people) because an aging population needs an influx of young workers to support (through taxes) the retired elderly—though how immigrants who live below the poverty line and, if legal, receive more in government benefits than they will ever pay in taxes, could perform that function is never explained. And this despite the fact that behind the sunny employment figures of recent weeks are the huge numbers of potential workers who have given up looking for a job and who are therefore no longer counted as “unemployed.”

Now comes another reason why mass immigration may no longer be a good thing: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rendering many jobs, especially those traditionally occupied by the less skilled worker, obsolete. Factories now use more robotics than human beings and will do so even more as time goes on; many lower-skilled white-collar jobs are being replaced by digital substitutes; retailing jobs are disappearing as more and more consumers purchase goods online (as is illustrated by the emptying out of shopping malls and the closure of brick-and-mortar department stores). In other words, in the near future (if not already), our economy will require far fewer human workers per unit of output than they once did, and therefore demand for human labor (with certain exceptions) will drop considerably. Starkly put, we will not need the labor of our current population, let alone the labor of new immigrants.

What we will need instead is a new way of distributing the wealth that AI will generate. While it is too early in this transformation to specify how the new wealth should be distributed, it is time to begin considering the problem. The profits from AI are now accruing to the corporations in the form of profits and to the corporate managing classes who run the companies and make the big decisions as to how AI will be used. Yet again, the people with no voice in the process are the working classes (including the middle class). In fact, the political system is set up in such a way as to divide and conquer working people (e.g., the breaking up of unions and collective bargaining, the federal trade agreements that ignore the consequences to working people, etc.). The election of Donald Trump, who defeated all the establishment contenders of the Republican party before going on to (barely) defeat Hillary Clinton, is symptomatic of the anger of many citizens—that anger is likely to grow as the very rich get richer and the rest get much poorer and more desperate.

See this article.

Can Humans Really Cause Climate Change?

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show today, on the topic of President Obama’s new proposals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, when a man from Texas called in and stated, obviously in deep umbrage, that climate change is junk science. As proof, he pointed out that the last ice age ended with climate warming not caused by humans, so therefore climate change is natural—and only natural. He is not alone in asserting that climate change is junk science, and he is only one among many who point to the numerous instances of natural climate change, both cooling and warming, over the course of geological time.

It is true that the last ice age ended because of natural causes and was not caused by human activity. There weren’t enough humans back then to have much of an effect on climate, if any. But times have changed. Back then world population was less than one million. Today there are more than seven billion, and most of the geometric increase in population has occurred in the last 200 years (there were just barely one billion of us in 1800), and we have technologies that far exceed those that ice age man enjoyed, and almost all of our technologies are powered by fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Because of our ability to re-shape the world in our own image, many scientists call the current era the anthropogenic age. Whereas in the past our impact on the climate was barely measurable, today it is enormous. That in the past, climate change was caused by volcanic eruptions or solar storms does not exclude other causes, including human activities. For that reason, comparisons to climate changes of the remote past are irrelevant to the situation we are facing today. Such comparisons are nothing more than red herrings, meant to distract us from the real evidence for global warming, and apparently for some people, such as that man from Texas, the fallacy is working.

Not that pre-industrial humans are completely off the hook. As documented by George Perkins Marsh in 1864 and by Jared Diamond more recently, human societies have degraded their environments through overuse since the beginnings of civilization. It is believed by archaeologists that human intrusion into the American continents by the ancestors of Native Americans led to the overhunting and extinction of many large mammals, including mammoths and several camel species. On New Zealand, Maoris slaughtered giant flightless birds, and it is believed that the original inhabitants of Australia killed off many species of large (and often dangerous) vertebrates.

Once Europeans clambered ashore in the Americas, we quickly reshaped the landscape and ecology of what became today’s United States—we felled forests, especially in the east, plowed under vast sweeps of grasslands for farmlands, dammed rivers and ruined estuaries, nearly extinguished the bison, and succeeded in wiping out the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird species in the world. (And note that, pointing out that extinctions in the remote past, such as the dinosaurs, were “natural” does not mean that the extinction of the passenger pigeon was not caused by humans.) The list of animal and plant species that have gone extinct because of human actions is pages long, and gets longer as more reach that sad fate every year (will the monarch butterfly be on that list soon?). Now that we are virtually in a global rather than many regional civilizations, our activities have global impacts.

The stance taken by the man from Texas, as well as those who agree with him, has behind it a disingenuous premise: That human activities are not great enough to have an effect on the global climate, and that therefore we can continue doing whatever we want without consequence. This premise is joined by another, that climate change is natural and therefore that human activity, which by (unstated) definition is not natural, has no effects. We can conquer nature because we are not-nature. But if human beings aren’t natural, what is? We are like all other vertebrate animals: We are bodies with many organs, we eat similar things to what other animals eat, we breathe, we reproduce, and we die. We are as natural, as biological, as any other organism. Therefore, we are included rather than excluded from the natural cycles of life and of the planet. We are not set apart. Even those of us who live in great cities and make our livings while seated in front of a computer screen have to eat animals and plants to survive, just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors and just like all other animals on this planet.

One of the most important atmospheric changes that ever occurred in the history of the planet was oxygenation. Nearly three billion years ago, certain bacteria, the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), began producing oxygen, which was released into the atmosphere and made life, as we oxygen-breathing humans know it, possible. Cyanobacteria are living things (like us), and they remade the planet (like we are doing)—in a perfectly natural process. Everything that humans do is “natural”—we are incapable of doing anything unnatural. Even the burning of fossil fuels is “natural.” We didn’t invent fire, we simply found a way to use it for our own purposes. The byproducts of burning fossil fuels are also perfectly “natural”—and harmful. “Natural” does not mean benign; nor does it mean beyond human control, since “Nature” has given us the intellects and opposable thumbs to exercise control.

But there are “natural” limits to our control, limits built into our very bodies. We cannot survive and prosper without the natural environment that spawned us and sustains us. At some point the ecosystem on which we depend will snap under our pressure. Scientists warn that other species cannot evolve quickly enough to adapt to the rapid changes we have wrought. Neither can we.

The Myth of Cheap Oil

Those of us who drive certainly have noticed that we are paying less for a gallon of gasoline, and if we watch the news, we know that the drop in gas prices is the result of increased crude oil production, particularly in the U.S. Since supply is high, the cost of a barrel of oil has dropped by 40% since June of this year (2014). This is widely touted as good for consumers, who supposedly now have more pocket money to spend on other things, and therefore good for the economy, which is largely driven by consumer spending. So, lower gasoline prices are good, right?

Maybe. There are hidden costs to low oil prices. If the price is less than the cost of extracting the oil from the ground, producers shut down pumps, which in turn means the oil field workers get laid off, which means that they can no longer be consumers. If the economy were otherwise strong, they could get other jobs, but given that the so-called recovery has been weak and has created new replacement jobs that pay less and are less secure, they may have a tough time finding new employment. Low oil prices are also bad news for oil producing countries that depend on oil exports for much or most of their revenues. They may not be able to meet their citizens’ needs or continue to pay back their debts.

Another hidden cost is the temptation for people to drive more, thus increasing the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere; it may even cause people to buy bigger, less fuel-efficient cars (on the mistaken theory that today’s low prices will last).
Many of these negative effects (and potentially others as well) are not likely to be visible to most people, including politicians, pundits, and economists. Because we have a consumption-driven economy, we tend to believe that lower consumer prices are always good, and that belief prevents us from seeing the longer term negative consequences of prices that are too low. In fact, apologists for consumer capitalism tend to see a silver lining in lower prices in the form of pressure on producers to become more efficient. And where does this efficiency come from? Fortune Magazine recently put it succinctly: “As oil prices drop, producers will undoubtedly renegotiate their ludicrously expensive oil service contracts, slash wages for their workforce and cut perks to bring their costs in line with the depressed price for crude.” Notice that two of the three steps producers will take are cutting wages and cutting perks (e.g., such things as health insurance, which is, in current consumer capitalist terms, a “perk,” not a necessity). In other words, screw the worker.

Lest we think that this is no big deal, simply the cost of doing business in a competitive environment, let’s remember that we have gone through this before.
Remember when most of the goods on retail shelves were made in the United States? Well, some of you may well be too young to remember, but in fact, there was a time when America was a manufacturing nation, when we exported more finished goods than we imported, and when our foreign trade was balanced in our favor (our last trade surplus occurred in 1975, almost 40 years ago). This shift was initially touted as good for American consumers, but since the consumer is also a worker, eventually it hurt consumers—but not to worry, we simply imported more and cheaper (in all senses) stuff, so that poorer American worker-consumers could keep buying. We even changed our ethic from one of savings to one of borrowing.

Consumers unable to keep up with the spending needed to keep the economy “growing” turned to their credit cards and their home equity: the result, most recently, was the implosion of the financial sector in 2008. While it is commonplace and correct to blame the big banks and financial institutions for the 2008 debacle, blame also rests on everyday consumers, who willingly ramped up their borrowing to finance their over-budget spending (not just on food, but expensive electronic gadgets). Irrational exuberance was not limited to Wall Street—it walked on Main Street as well.
But what were worker-consumers to do? From all sides they were pounded with the message to get out and shop—interest rates were low, credit was easy, and housing prices would rise forever. It was our patriotic duty to go out and shop, as President George W. Bush reminded us after 9/11. So we shopped, and shopped, and shopped. Until we dropped.

And in the ruins of the economy, we can see the long-term cost of lower prices. We traded away our industrial birthright for a mess of consumer pottage, only to realize too late how lacking in nutrients such gruel really is.

Actually, I’m not sure we realize that yet.

Silent Spring: The Reckoning

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a prophetic warning of the deleterious effects of pesticides such as DDT on the environment, was published in 1962. The book warned that the widespread use of pesticides was devastating bird populations, and that if such use was not eliminated or reduced, many species would become extinct. Carson detailed how DDT caused birds to lay eggs with shells so thin and fragile they broke before the embryos could develop into live chicks; birds of prey were especially affected because in their role as top predators, DDT became more concentrated in their bodies. At the time of publication, bald eagles had declined to near extinction because of the thin-shelled egg problem. Fortunately, despite heavy criticism by vested interests, Carson’s message was heard, DDT was banned, and the bald eagle has recovered, as have other raptors.

One would hope that the lesson had been learned and that similar mistakes would no longer be made. But nothing of the kind has in fact happened, despite all the earth days, demonstrations, supposed regulations, and lip service. A particularly striking and pertinent example of our failure to practice what we preach is the impending fate of the Monarch butterfly, that wonder of the insect world. This remarkable creature spends the summer months spread out in the northern United States (primarily in the upper Midwest) and southern Canada and winters concentrated in its millions in a small area of central Mexico. Even more amazing, this yearly migration covers multiple generations of the species, so that the butterflies that leave Mexico in the spring are not the same individuals who arrive in the north weeks later (they reproduce on the way), and a new generation leaves the north to return to Mexico in the fall. Yet they return to the same groves that their great-great-grandparents left months earlier!

Alas, the Monarch has one trait that has long served it well but which is now its Achilles’ heel: they lay their eggs on, and their caterpillars eat, only milkweed. They absorb the nasty taste of the milkweed, rendering them unpalatable to insect eating birds, which protects them from predation on their long, multigenerational migrations. Should the milkweed decline or disappear, so too will the Monarch.

Which is exactly what appears to be happening. Scientists and amateurs alike have noted a steady decline in the numbers of Monarchs gathering each year in Mexico (the best place to get a handle on their numbers), and this year (2013) the population has declined precipitously. According to a recent article in the New York Times, in 2012 the numbers of butterflies at the Mexico wintering site was approximately 60 million, itself a decline from previous years; but this year, only 2 million have showed up, and they showed up a week later (more on the implications of this fact later). Imagine if the human population had dropped from its current 7 billion to less than 300 million in just one year.

The most likely cause of this decline is the rapid disappearance of milkweed along the routes followed by the butterflies as they move north and south in their annual journeys. The American Midwest, that famous breadbasket to the world, is increasingly covered with corn and soybean fields, a large percentage of which are planted with so-called “Roundup ready” varieties, i.e., varieties that have been genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup brand herbicide. Milkweed and other native species are not genetically engineered to resist that poison, so they die while the corn and soybeans prosper. With insufficient milkweed available on which to lay their eggs, Monarchs cannot renew their numbers, so they also die.

Likely compounding the problem is global warming. Canadian scientists have observed that many Monarchs are migrating further north than in the past, well past the natural range of the milkweed. While adults can feed on the flowers of other species, they can lay their eggs, and the caterpillars can dine, only on milkweed. Thus those Monarchs who went too far north (probably because of temperature) could not successfully reproduce. Warming may also explain why Monarchs arrived a week late in Mexico.

The phenomenon of crops genetically engineered to resist manmade herbicides is an example of System run amuck. System operates on the erroneous belief that a “problem” is singular and that its solution is also singular. So, if “weeds” are “invading” your crops, getting rid of them will take care of that problem. (Note: How can native species be invading on non-native, and artificial, varieties? Aren’t corn and soybeans invading on the native species? Aren’t corn and soybeans therefore the true weeds?) How very ironic that our capitalist system seems to be imitating a communist dictator: Chairman Mao once ordered that all sparrows be killed because they stole grain; consequently, crop-eating insects increased in numbers so sharply that he ordered widespread spraying of insecticides. Result: The elimination of pollinating species, particularly honeybees. If the Monarch is in such dire straits, are not other, likely beneficial species along its route also threatened? At the same time, some not so beneficial “weed” species are developing resistance to glyphosate, and it is likely that in the not so distant future, glyphosate herbicides will be rendered useless while some other pestilence will discover the vulnerabilities of genetically engineered crops. Thus the solution will turn out to be yet another of mankind’s many self-made problems.

See also this more recent article.

A Permanent Depression?

Recommended reading: Today’s column by the Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman, he which he ponders the question of whether or not the ongoing recession is permanent, the new normal of our economy.

Krugman notes two factors that indicate we are in this new depressed normal: the rate of population increase is declining, which translates into lower demand (we don’t need as many new houses as we did in the past), and persistent trade deficits (Krugman doesn’t explain their effects, but perhaps one is that the deficits reveal that we are not making things ourselves as we used to).

I would add another possibility: the systematic attack on the income of the working and middle classes, including the breaking of the unions, the “off-shoring” of many manufacturing and customer service jobs, and the reduction in wages (when adjusted for inflation). When people have less money, and when a larger and larger proportion of their incomes go to housing and health care costs, they naturally either buy less (reducing demand) or go deeper into debt (also eventually reducing demand as people try to dig themselves out of debt and the burden of interest payments). Low demand means low sales which means a depressed economy. Making it cheaper for businesses to borrow money, for example, won’t solve the problem, because why would a business invest in growth when it cannot anticipate that there will adequate demand for its increased production? A kleptocracy always eventually runs into this problem.

Is Neophilia Just Another Neologism?

The New York Times recently published an article on the apparently hot new topic of neophilia (and its supposed opposite, neophobia), based apparently on a new book by the journalist Winifred Gallagher titled “New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change.”  It fact, the NYT article can be characterized as a gushing review of that book.  Apparently, neophiliacs lead better lives than neophobes, particularly if the neophiles can combine their novelty-seeking with persistence.  Aside from the question of whether or not these categories are real or merely trendy, there is the further issue of the supposed science of neopilia.  According to both the article and the book, neophilia is a genetic trait developed in humans some 50,000 years ago, at the same time as humans began migrating from Africa to explore the world beyond.  Novelty seeking was a necessary spur to our conquest of the world, it seems.  It “has always been the quintessential human survival skill, whether adapting to climate change on the African savannah or coping with the latest digital toy from Silicon Valley.”  The rhetoric of this sentence is worth looking at: its argument depends upon a comparison, or worse an equivalence, between adapting to climate change and coping with a new digital toy, disregarding the fact that the two things are not comparable.  Climate change takes generations to occur (it is quick only in geological time, not in human time), particularly to a sufficient extent to cause major changes in human behavior; on the other hand, new digital toys come out in increments of months or weeks, not years or generations.  The kinds of “adaptation” required by each are also quite different.  Climate change requires changes in food gathering or production, social organization, and location–if the climate gets sufficiently negative to human survival, people need to pack up and move elsewhere; but adapting to a new digital toy involves one’s susceptibility to advertising and hype, social pressure, and entertainment.  One can choose not to purchase the latest toy or, once purchased, to discard it when it gets boring, turns out to be of little real utility, or is replaced by a newer version (think iPhone as an example of rapid obsolescence).  Thus, the one says nothing about the other.

Embedded in this (yet another) just-so story about the prehistoric African savannah is a trite trope of the popular narrative of the out-of-Africa story:  the image of the intrepid human explorers, silhoutted against a red African sky, spears over their shoulders, tattered packs on their backs, heading out of their settled and easy existence in Africa into the unknown.  The journey of human beings out of Africa did not, of course, occur in that fashion.  Bands of humans, seeking sustenance, moved incrementally out of Africa, so that it took generations for them to get, for example, to Asia and Europe.  Those individuals who left Africa were not the same individuals who entered Europe.  But it is also worth noting that “Africa” and “Europe,” etc. did not exist in those ancient times.  These are  modern historical concepts, as associated with culture, language families, and history as with geography.  The prehistoric migrants were not aware of having crossed any borders because such borders did not exist.  Moving on to the next valley or floodplain would not have struck them as particularly “novel.”  The sense of having “migrated” would not have been very strong, perhaps not even present at all, and therefore there would not have been a very strong sense of novelty.

The faulty reasoning behind the evolutionary/genetic explanation for neophiloia and neophobia is demonstrated by this quotation from Gallagher’s book (in reference to the work of one Robert Moyzis from UC Irvine):  “China’s mandarin system would have favored the individuals likeliest to get ahead in its bureaucracy, so that unlike his friskier brother, a dutiful son who rose up in the ranks might have acquired multiple wives and produced many offspring,” thus increasing the gene for neophobia in the Chinese population.  This explains the tendency of the Chinese to stick with tradition and avoid innovations.  Merely analyzing the sentence is enough to show the just-so quality of its argument:  “friskier brother”?  How does one know how frisky the mandarin’s brother was?  Is it frisky to remain in the rice paddy rather than to migrate to the city and become an educated bureaucrat?  And this bureaucrat “might have acquired multiple wives”?  So there’s no evidence to that effect?  And no evidence that the frisky brother had fewer wives and fewer children?  Take out the provisionals, and this sentence has no argument at all.  But further:  Are we to believe that the mandarins produced sufficient progeny sufficiently dispersed among the general population so that the “gene” for neophobia prevailed over the gene for neophilia throughout the entire Chinese population?  Prepotent sires, indeed!

If the genetic argument for neophilia made any sense, one would have to posit a similar gene in a number of other animals as well, including the horse, which originated in the Americas and migrated into Asia and Europe (eventually dying out in the Americas before being brought back by the Spaniards millenia later).  That certainly is as epic a journey as that made by early humans, and much earlier.  But of course the evolutionary/genetic argument doesn’t make sense.  It is an evolutionary just-so story, cooked up not scientifically but culturally, an unconscious rationale for the preferred behavior of 21st century consumers, who are supposed to rush out and line up for the latest “toy” from Silicon Valley and elsewhere.  We are neophiliacs because every instrument of our culture instructs us to be novelty seekers and, further, denigrates those who reject the new toys and those who even suggest that we could do with a bit of slowing down.  I suspect also that it may be a rationale, however inadvertent, for complacency in the face of climate change.  After all, if our remote ancestors could adjust to climate change on the savannah, we can adjust too, not through migration (too many refugees and illegal immigrants) but through technological innovation.   That, too, may be a just-so story.

Can Innovation Save Us? Part Deux

In my first blog on capital-I “Innovation,” I noted that Apple employs some 40,000 workers but that it was not easy to determine how many were actually American workers employed here in the U.S.A..  On Sunday January 22, 2012, the New York Times published an article that provides better and more up to date figures:  Apple currently employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 abroad, for a total of 63,000 direct jobs.  However, like many companies, Apple does not itself manufacture every component and part of its products; most of that process is contracted out to other companies, mostly located in a variety of Asian countries (the glass covers of the iPhones, interestingly, are made by Corning, but for the most part in factories it has located overseas, primarily to save shipping costs).  The end product is assembled in modern Chinese factories (not owned by Apple) by approximately 200,000 workers.  These workers, the article notes, work 12 hour days 6 days a week and earn per day about what unskilled workers in the U.S. make per hour.[1]  Try to compete against that, regardless of how innovative you are.

Tellingly, the article pointed out a point similar to one I made in my earlier post, that “ ‘If you scale up from selling one million phones to 30 million phones, you don’t really need more programmers.’ ”  Thus it would appear that computer programming careers will never be sufficient to soak up the unemployed and the new-to-work graduates here in America, despite the optimistic rhetoric to the contrary.

The New York Times’ article’s excellent and clear description of globalization focuses on digital products, particularly smart phones (using the iPhone as the primary example) but the description fits most products and commodities today.  Clothing, furniture, automobiles, wines and spirits, processed and specialty foods, are examples of finished products that circulate globally and which more often than not consist of materials and parts made in multiple locations and countries.  On its website, General Motors brags that it sells over 7.5 million vehicles in over 120 countries, much of that product in China.  It also manufactures in many countries—meaning that most of those cars being sold in China are not being shipped from the United States (though some of their parts are).  General Motors is an American company in one sense but an international one in another.  Ford and Chrysler are also now international as much as domestic companies; so are Toyota, Honda, BMW, and Mercedes, which manufacture in the United States and in other “foreign” countries.

Basic commodities and raw materials are also internationalized. Oil and gas, lumber and metals, agricultural commodities, minerals and rare earths come from everywhere and are shipped everywhere.  Alaska ships oil to Japan while Saudi Arabia ships oil to the continental United States.  Given all the shipping back and forth of commodities, it seems particularly out of date and even futile to hope that any country can be truly energy (or any other commodity) independent.  To revert to genuine energy or economic independence would probably set all economies back to the middle ages.  Modern life would be impossible in a world of truly self-sufficient nations.

Will education and training save us?  Will graduating more engineers keep us on top?  Population says probably not.  It is difficult to pin down accurate, comparable figures, so consider these hypotheticals (based on the best 2008 data I could locate):  China appears to be graduating, or close to graduating, only enough engineers to equal .01724% of its population, while the United States is graduating enough engineers to equal .045% of its population.  By percentage of population we look pretty good.  But then note that .045% of the U.S. population is roughly 140,000, whereas .01724% of the Chinese population is 520,000!  Some sources suggest that in 2011, China may have graduated as many as 1 million engineers; if true, that is still a smaller percentage of the total population of China than the U.S. produces, but nonetheless a distinct advantage to China in sheer numbers.  No wonder the New York Times article explained that Apple manufactures abroad in part because “The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find [the needed number of] qualified engineers in the United States” but that “In China, it took 15 days.”  Our population disadvantage vis-a-vis much of the rest of world will increase as other more populous countries continue to develop.  Perhaps, then, we should start looking to other relatively small developed countries for insights into how to prosper among the whales.

All this to point out that we are moving to a time when to talk of the or an American economy will no longer be meaningful, at least not in the way we have thought of it in the past; we will be talking of a world economy as if it were our economy, because that is what it will be and is already becoming.  Consequently, we will have to shed our old ways of thinking about ourselves and the rest of the world and re-imagine who we are and what role we can play in a world that will continue, despite our right-wingers’ protests, to integrate and other countries to develop.  Individual Americans are going to have to rethink education and career and lifestyle choices and determine what is truly worthwhile and what they really want and how to achieve that in this new global terrain.  Politicians will have to be more truly knowledgeable and genuinely pragmatic and future rather than past oriented (as opposed to ideological and dogmatic).  And because the putatively American corporations and CEO’s are now truly global rather than local or national in their vision (“ ‘We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems.  Our only obligation is to make the best product possible.’ ”), the federal government is going to have to learn how to manage and coordinate the economy on behalf of American citizens, who after all do not, individually or collectively on their own, have the power to balance the weight of the global corporations, based here or not.  For the federal (as well as state) government to do that requires that the American citizen also must be a whole lot smarter, more astute, and more global than he or she currently is.

Will that happen?  Not if the Chinese continue building universities and colleges faster than we have been building stadiums and prisons.

[1] “How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” New York Times, Sunday January 22, 2012, p.1 ff.

Why This Recession Part 2 Education

          Conventional wisdom holds that a key (in some people’s minds, the key) to maintaining and improving the American economy is education.  Recognizing that many American manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas and that many service operations can be outsourced as a consequence of the Internet, pundits and politicians have argued that the kinds of jobs remaining for the American worker are those which require a higher level of education and the intellectual skills that higher education is believed to instill in students.  Data showing the higher incomes of college-educated individuals is often trotted out to underscore the importance of post-secondary education to middle-class status and prosperity.

Go to the Why This Recession page to read the full essay.