I’ve been reading Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, and rather enjoying it. He came a little late to the party, and his analysis isn’t anything significantly different from the mainstream, but the anectdotes and interviews make the book worth reading.
I do want to cite two things in particular, one in passing and the other with a long quote. I’m curious what a bunch of different folks out there think — Mom, LF, TI, sluggy?
The first thing I want to note is Friedman’s rather harsh treatment of both American education and American parenting. As he develops his position, he says (repeatedly, as is his style) that the United States should worry about one day losing its privileged position in the world economy. His reason for this concern is that we don’t educate our children well enough, particularly in science and technology; and that parents don’t drive their children to be successful. We have, he says, become too complacent with our offspring. The ideal of a “happy child” has replaced the ideal of a “prepared” child, one who is able, upon leaving the nest, to make their own way in the world.
It’s quite an indictment, but a perfectly justified one if my own experience (as a teacher, I mean) is anything like the norm. I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who pushed, constantly, for me to excel in everything that I did. A lot of my students didn’t have parents who saw academic (or intellectual) success as a goal worth pursuing. I’ll admit that a lot of factors may have been responsible; but I wonder whether some blame isn’t justified.
Second, I want to point out the most cogent argument I’ve yet heard for why outsourcing/offshoring/etc isn’t a cause for concern for an intelligent, flexible, and skilled American worker. As I don’t know that I could summarize it well, I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs, from pages 227-228:
The main argument of the anti-outsourcing school is that in a flat world, not only are goods tradable, but many services have become tradable as well. Because of this change, America and other developed countries could be headed for an absolute decline, not just a relative one, in their economic power and living standards unless they move to formally protect certain jobs from foreign competition. So many new players cannot enter the global economy — in service and knowledge fields now dominated by Americans, Europeans, and Japanese — without wages settling at a newer, lower equilibrium, this school argues.
The main counterargument from free-trade/outsourcing advocates is that while there may be a transition phase in certain fields, during which wages are dampened, there is no reason to believe that this dip will be permanent or across the board, as long as the global pie keeps growing. To suggest that it will be is to invoke the so-called lump of labor theory — the notion that there is a fixed lump of labor in the world and that once that lump is gobbled up, by either Americans or Indians or Japanese, there won’t be any more jobs to go around. If we have the biggest lump of labor now, and then Indians offer to do this same work for less, they will get a bigger piece of the lump, and we will have less, or so this argument goes.
The main reason the lump of labor theory is wrong is that it is based on the assumption that everything that is going to be invented has been invented, and that therefore economic competition is a zero-sum game, a fight over a fixed lump. [Emphasis mine] This assumption missed the fact that although jobs are often lost in bulk — to outsourcing or offshoring — by big individual companies, and this loss tends to make headlines, new jobs are also being created in fives, tens, and twenties by small companies that you can’t see. It often takes a leap of faith to believe that it is happening. But it is happening.
This is where I have to say that I find myself swinging back and forth between these two positions. I understand enough about economics to know that more people making more money is a good thing; it’s simple Pareto Efficiency (thank you, Econ 101) — demand goes up and thus supply will go up. It’s just that it is, bluntly, quite frightening. One of those times that I wish I had a crystal ball.