American Competitiveness: The New Untouchables or The New Half Truth?

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Henry David Thoreau

In “The New Untouchables “, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that in this downwardly mobile economy there is no room for average. Extraordinary is what it takes to survive and thrive in the modern workplace.

I get that.

Yet for all my appreciation for education — I hold two degrees so I do, in fact, lean in favor of Friedman’s premise that education is key to American competitiveness — his education-as-a-panacea argument oversteps its reach.

Most strikingly, Friedman’s description of a successful “untouchable” American worker isn’t a portrait of educational endowment at all. Friedman’s favorite descriptors, instead, refer to personality attributes: entrepreneur (risk taker), creative (visionary), analytical (critical thinker), and persuasive (charismatic). The obvious problem with Friedman’s pin-the-tail-on-the-wrong-donkey premise is that temperament is inborn — teachers, let alone parents, cannot instill personality characteristics that are not there to begin with.

Friedman’s eagerness to finger the usual suspects — schools — also ignores six reasons why Americans are at a competitive disadvantage in the global era. Here we examine those realities, and the future these changing times have in store.

First, there are more of us occupying this country — and this planet at large — than ever before. At some point, the mathematics of population growth have to matter. The sheer number of people in today’s workforce suggests more and more people are competing for the same jobs even as we adopt more and more technology to displace human hands. That’s not a sign of a lack of education; it’s a sign that business owners comprehend that productivity gadgets and gizmos don’t require breaks, a salary or workers’ compensation.

It comes down to the numbers.

Second, I would argue the inverse in response to Friedman’s suggestion that there just isn’t enough talent to be had here in the States. Over the past 50-some years there are more colleges turning out more graduates on an annual basis than employers of the past had access to. Many foreign nationals, in fact, come to the US for higher education opportunities. On the flip side, there are only so many engineers, M.B.A.s, lawyers, scientists and the like universities can churn out before higher-end fields become saturated in much the same way low-end jobs are chalk full of contenders.

It’s no longer merely a question of whether there are clear winners and losers on the academic front.

Job scarcity is a threat, in part, because of the decades-long trend of mergers, acquisitions and a globalized labor pool. Consider: There are generally fewer than a dozen heavyweights in a given industry — everything from mainstream media to appliance manufacturing. This trend does not bode well for domestic job expansion. And if jobs aren’t available to begin with, it is tough to gain a competitive advantage even with above-average potential. So what we are seeing, in this author’s opinion, is an over-supply of talent.

But that doesn’t mean the proponents of Friedman’s dire self-fulfilling prophecy won’t get their wish.

With less competition in a given industry there is less demand for the eager young grads institutions of higher learning infuse into the job market each year. With shrinking demand and a greater supply of contenders, salaries may also take a nosedive. America at large may become competitively disadvantaged in the years ahead precisely because the “good jobs” of today are no longer perceived as a source of steady employment or adequate pay thereby diminishing American college students’ willingness to pursue them.

Already, the very cure that causes the “employment insecurity” disease is well underway: Calls for immigration reform permitting more foreign grads to take up permanent residence in the U.S. as a form of “insourced talent” are originating from Google, Microsoft and Susan Hockfield, MIT president and author of an October 19, 2009 Wall Street Journal opinion piece ironically titled “Immigrants Create Jobs and Win Nobels“.

Sure there are a lot of average people who aren’t cut out for the highest levels of business, government and academia. Just the same, there is also an ample supply of bright, talented American citizens who, for all their desirable qualifications and qualities, will nevertheless find themselves competing toe-to-toe against peers who are just as capable and “deserving” of a career break as they are.

Somebody has to lose.

Third, failure to thrive in this Brave New Economy isn’t always linked to failing schools, as Friedman argues. Good health is arguably the number one prerequisite to productivity. Healthcare is such a hot topic precisely because we cannot remain competitive if, as a country, businesses and individuals are increasingly diverting money out of the real economy just to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of healthcare.

Beyond that, few esoteric explanations matter when perfectly down-to-earth explanations suffice. When an individual charged with hiring decisions has too many promising applicants to choose from among, what assets wins out on the last round of interviews? That extra year or two of experience? Those additional GPA points? Or would it be more honest to conclude that it comes down to how well an applicant clicks with his or her interviewers? Hands-on experience, even a social or physical attribute — whatever it may be that fits a manager’s self-styled view of the proper candidate — is just as likely to make the deciding difference.

On the flip side of the coin, there is a perverse disincentive to hire the best qualified candidates. For one, they tend to be more experienced and/or highly educated, thereby commanding greater salaries. For another, few people in the position to do so hire individuals with the obvious capacity to perform so impressively that it will ultimately threaten their own job security. Friedman is right in the sense that education and talent ought to insulate Americans from the pitfalls of a failing global experiment.

Unfortunately, it does not.

Fourth, where one lives also figures largely into one’s ability to compete. Like the tough-luck stories that abound on the streets of Hollywood, those who flock to saturated markets — Los Angeles, New York, etc. — may, ironically, find fewer opportunities to leave a lasting, positive impression due to the sheer number of people in the area who are equally worthy of consideration. An over-supply of applicants for a given position, in turn, may make it more challenging for employers to select optimal talent vs. expedient talent. Translation? Being a big fish in a vast ocean still makes you a little fish. To argue, therefore, that education can somehow imbue success and that lack of it underlies a failure is a misnomer.

It’s impossible to underestimate the economics of supply and demand.

Fifth, it’s a mistake to assume that a Third World factory worker is more “competitive” as Todd Martin, former PepsiCo and Kraft Europe executive, suggests to Friedman. Third World workers come inexpensively, and that’s one competitive disadvantage that will only heighten the more educated the American workforce becomes. Why? Because talent doesn’t come cheaply — nor do the salaries of increasingly educated job seekers struggling to repay oppressive student loan debts as a direct result of their herculean efforts to rise head-and-shoulders above the crowd.

Getting noticed in an increasingly competitive job market only ups the ante — and the price tag of success.

Sixth, the assumption that Third World products are better made by virtue of their “efficiency” is also flawed. When frequent replacements and upgrades are factored into the cost of ownership, inexpensively manufactured Third World goods are, ironically, quite pricey. Case-in-point: In 2005 I replaced a 30-some-year-old GE refrigerator made in the US as well as an old but functioning washer and dryer. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t trade anything old and working for something new, sleek and modern. Why? Because the major appliances I purchased new in 2005 — all have had repeated major breakdowns requiring multiple service calls, dozens of hours on the phone, weeks waiting for parts.

Even when consumers spend top dollar, the manufacturing source and quality of today’s big-ticket items are often quite similar — with merely a change of window dressing to imply otherwise. That’s what happens when there are so many market consolidations that an appearance of choice is just that: little more than a dozen or so name badges owned, in truth, by the same handful of Big Players. It is almost laughable the degree to which consumers on complaint websites proclaim that they will never buy brand “X” again, only to unwittingly state that they intend to replace such-and-such item with brand “Y” — yet another brand or subsidiary of the very same company who manufactures brand X!

Market concentration doesn’t grow jobs any more reliably than it promotes healthy competition.

Sparing one another the hassle and headaches of poor quality goods isn’t the only reason to care, however. The build-it-to-last ethic of decades past was, perhaps, the ultimate expression of “Green“. Why? Because durable goods were seemingly less likely to break down, destined for a landfill in an absurdly short time frame. By contrast, “planned obsolescence” is the new norm, with a trend of shrinking manufacturer warranties to attest to the low vote of confidence manufacturers assign to their own products. Longevity isn’t a valued trait in a disposable society, but if we really want to go Green perhaps we should rethink the “dept-trap consumerism” cheaply designed and manufactured products facilitate. Sadly, modern rhetoric would have us believe that pride in one’s workmanship — a refusal to sell junk to unsuspecting consumers — is “noncompetitive”.

All talk of going Green aside, standardized manufacturing processes have made it difficult to make the case that company “A” is making a better product than “B” or “C”. Consequently, the maxim “You get what you pay for” has never been more suspect. True, you may get more for your money, but that does not necessarily translate into significantly better quality. What differs most dramatically is the amount of money corporations throw into slick ad campaigns, and the perception consumers have of branding and value.

It would be one thing if high-end boutiques were selling products made by First World craftspeople with higher price tags thanks to First World production costs. But when both low-end retailers and high-end retailers are selling inexpensively made foreign goods, who, exactly, are they fooling? Fairly or not, Third World origination suggests that income and human rights disparities favor corporate bottom lines. In the Third World, after all, it is not uncommon for workers to be denied bathroom breaks, sick days, maternity leave and most of the other benefits and protections Americans consider “civilized”. It is not surprising, then, that workers are more productive when they spend most of their lives in the confines of a factory, fearful that their only other option is a life of abject poverty and/or prostitution.

In short, the Third World is the modern-day economic equivalent of the pre-Civil War Old South: a place for slave-like child and adult labor, often conducted under sweatshop conditions. As if that weren’t questionable enough, outsourcing trends pose an unacceptable risk to national security as well.

So how does all of this tie in?

Unless Americans are willing to stoop to similar lows to compete with workers abroad, it’s not possible to rationally conclude that education, talent or entrepreneurship on the part of American workers will level the economic playing field anytime soon. America’s competitive disadvantage, rather, speaks to corporate opportunism — and to the politicians in recent decades who have crafted immigration, economic, trade and taxation policies that have enabled such heavily skewed commerce to become the norm.

Moreover, if being properly educated, creative or analytical adequately described, as Friedman suggests, the entirety of American competitiveness, I suspect we would see fewer reckless gambles on Wall Street and more evidence of long-range thinkers putting the brakes on short-term gain (scams) in the lead up to the Great Recession. In the real world, however, the “right reasons” are not always the cause for getting ahead — or, conversely, for falling behind.

THE WAKE UP CALL

So why care whether or not a newspaper columnists gets it so wrong? Because generalizations and simplifications aren’t a starting point for progress. Economists are projecting a ~10 percent national unemployment rate that’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. That can only mean more bankruptcies, more foreclosures and a greater amount of “dead weight” on America’s ability to compete. Only by taking a long, hard look at the unvarnished truth do we have any hope of fingering the right culprits, crafting the right solutions and ultimately reviving Main Street before the American Dream becomes a distant memory of a bygone era.

Doing nothing is not an option.

If Middle Class wages continue to decline as we move further into the 21st Century, who will consume the products and services entrepreneurs on both sides of the oceanic divide offer? Will young Americans, contemplating the grimness of their economic future and/or the need for ever-more costly and impressive academic résumés opt for traditional marriage and family life — the nation’s greatest driver of new purchases, everything from strollers and diapers to single family homes and minivans? Should Main Street’s economic House of Cards continue to crumble, will Third World workers have their own Friedmans urging them to blame themselves when factory orders dwindle and the newly affluent in Asia and India begin to see their own hopes and dreams falter? Or will they see it — we see it — for what it is: globalized economic forces beyond any single individual’s immediate control?

As kind-hearted as sweatshop proponents paint it — that throwing out more life preservers will rescue Third World residents from a life of “primitive agriculture” — building more life preservers than boats is a plausible scenario. Economic growth, after all, relies on expansion. For much of the world’s history markets were local, national, then regional. Globalization isn’t a sure-fire path to success: It’s an experiment that presupposes that natural resources will support endless growth. And it begs a simple but profound question: What happens when all markets are tapped out?

Working and Middle Class people — the majority of us — may not be the most educated, creative or adequately prepared lot, to hear Friedman and his corporate pal, Todd Martin, hash it out. But that doesn’t change the reality that the American Middle Class must earn a living wage in order for the economy — ours and theirs — to thrive. Yet it is telling that in Louisiana, a state with fewer college grads to begin with, Curt Eysink, director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, indicates that there is an oversupply of degreed residents “we cannot employ” because job growth projections favor vocational trades and the service sector — primarily low-wage occupations such as ticket-takers, cashiers and customer service representatives that are not so prone to the insourcing/outsourcing phenomena.

Is this a sign of things to come?

Without the discretionary income Middle Class Joes and Janes inject into the marketplace, globalized economies may become relegated to a small percentage of elite income earners pitching their products and services to other elite individuals. This may be a recipe for modern-day feudalism, but it’s no way to protect and preserve the merits of free-market capitalism, let alone a profitable market share.

As dire as it all sounds, this isn’t about being pessimistic. Opening our collective eyes is the first step in defending what matters most: family, community, culture — the United States itself. If that means rethinking our definition of progress in the 21st Century sans the usual set of partisan blinders, so be it.

This is no time for subterfuge.

If Friedman wishes to talk about education, he ought to contemplate the wisdom no book learning apparently can impart in America’s best and brightest CEOs and newspaper columnists: The foresight to realize one’s employees/coworkers are also one’s customers/consumers. That means that success at the top of the economic pyramid is only as long-lived as the Middle Class foundation upon which it rests. Excuse it, deny it, defend it, ignore it: the race to the bottom is a very real risk when good intentions go too far.

It’s foolhardy — and a threat to democracy itself — for a transnational conglomerate, an economy, a nation, to conduct business using the lowest common denominator as a competitive yardstick. And yet, globalization promises to outsource gain even as it insources pain. At best, this implies that if and when international economic and trade equilibrium is achieved Third World laborers will nevertheless be unable to sustain the lifestyle Americans have taken for granted — if only by virtue of how thin finite natural resources are stretched — whereas Americans should anticipate “economic insecurity” as a way of life. That’s why Friedman and friends argue so passionately that being wildly successful — untouchable thanks to one’s creativity, innovativeness and education — is the only position of safety (familiarity). The rest of us, apparently, are destined for a mediocre economic melting pot in a neocapitalist New World Order.

Cliché though it may sound, the proactive response to an uncertain future is civic engagement: voting wisely with one’s ballot and one’s pocketbook in support the kind of economy one wishes to see. For if there’s any silver lining to this Great Recession, it’s in bringing an abstract global issue close enough to home that we can reach out, touch it — and change it.

It’s not too late.

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Resources:

America Out of Work: Is Double-Digit Unemployment Here to Stay? |TIME

Obama Adviser Summers Rejects ‘New Normal’ of Slow U.S. Growth | Bloomberg

U.S. Job Seekers Exceed Openings by Record Ratio | NYT

Are You Prepared for a Jobs Depression? | ere.net

How Long will America Lead the World? | Newsweek

Cap and Trade Dementia | The American Spectator

Schools As Scapegoats | The American Prospect

Is it Time to Retrain Business Schools? | NYT

Go Global, Young Manager | Financial Post

Is a College Degree Worthless?/MSN Money

Don’t Get That College Degree! | NY Post

Cat Gets GED: Why GPAs, Degrees and Job Titles May Be Worthless | ITBusinessEdge

Too Many Doctorates Chase Too Few Jobs | San Francisco Chronical

The Three-Year Solution | Newsweek

Asking for Student Loan Forgiveness | Businessweek

Middle Class Facing Decline in Expectations, Economic Power | Retail Traffic

21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness (PDF)

Jay Mathews: Why I don’t Like 21st Century Reports | Washington Post

Friedman: U.S. Education System Endangering Global Competitiveness | Education Futures

A New Look at American Competitiveness | Entrepreneurship

The World’s New Superpower | Salon

The Almighty Renminbi? | NYT

The End of the Dollar Spells the Rise of a New Order |The Independent (UK)

China will Overtake America, the Only Question is When |The Independent (UK)

China’s Economy | Brookings Institution

Lax Oversight, Globalization Erode Product Safety | CNN

Technology Made to be Broken | CSMonitor

Appliance Anxiety — Replace It or Fix It? | NYT

To Own or be Owned: A Virtual Reality Check

Amazon’s electronic reading device known as Kindle is not exactly as “Green” as it is cracked up to be, but now we have another reason to reconsider the merits of paper-based reading: Censorship.

Kindle users may not have anticipated it, but Amazon can recall an e-book purchase at the push of a virtual button. Need those annotations for a book report? If your digital reading material is recalled, Amazon removes those too.

Tough luck.

Amazon claims they are working to amend a hasty retraction process that resulted when an allegedly unauthorized source made available a number of e-books to which the lawful copyright holder objected, reports the New York Times in “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle Devices“. Refunds for the illicitly encoded material are on the way, but the questions have only begun. And well they should.

In an ongoing series on the transformative impact of high tech, the Social Critic aims to explore the lesser known consequences of the virtual world. In this instance, we find a stark reminder that in the digital universe the price of “virtual” amounts to easy come, easy go. You can’t share an e-book. You can’t recycle an e-book reader — at least not in the Green manner one might have hoped [see “GreenSmart vs. GreenDumb”]. And you can’t take for granted that you “own” anything in the virtual realm in the same physical manner it is possible to own DVDs, books, magazines, newspapers and the like.

What this article doesn’t touch upon is disturbing in its own right: The questionable health effects, particularly on the eyes and brain, of exchanging the tangible for an imperceptibly flickering digital view screen. Over time, exposure may blunt brain development in children, promote sleep and attention disorders, lead to career-limiting repetitive strain injuries to the spine, elbowswrists or fingers — or more commonly still, eyestrain and headaches — all while aiming electromagnetic radiation at our craniums (of which cell phones and CRT monitors are among the worst EMF offenders). None of this, however, takes into account the fastest growing concern of all: the controversial notion of Internet addiction. Until recently, in fact, China took a very heavy-handed approach to digital addicts: electroshock therapy.

Library systems, in a sign of the times, are taxed, meanwhile, not by people who wish to check out books but by the number of people who wish to access the Internet. As discussed in the aforementioned post, the billions of computer users plugged into electric grids around the world, connected, in turn, by scores of Internet data centers, come at a profound environmental cost that most of us fail to appreciate. In the US, these electrical requirements translate into burning more coal, a process that for all the talk of “clean“, is anything but.

In the irony of all ironies, this Digital New Age appears to have brought us full circle: From transnational trains at the turn of the last Century belching out billowing clouds of coal-black ash to power plant smokestacks “sequestering“, at best, billions of short tons of the same in the opening decades of the 21st Century. Much of this progress arrives under the trendy guise of going Green — paying our bills online, killing time on Facebook and surfing for free media content on the web even as news and content providers go broke for their efforts. Talk about unsustainable — in more ways than one!

In exchange for the privilege of conducting increasing amounts of our business and personal lives virtually, we pursue nifty new interfaces — costly electronic devices, cell phones and seemingly essential hardware and software packages, which we have been conditioned to frequently upgrade as a result of wear, tear and obsolescence. All of this lends itself quietly but effectively to privacy-intruding remote processes most of us fail to comprehend. Ours is an inverse relationship with technology: As the devices of our supposed need or pleasure become exponentially complex, our appreciation for how little we control, own and regard as personal and private diminishes.

Are our ownership claims even worth the virtual paper they are printed on?

Probably not.

Have you read any virtual fine print, for that matter, lately?

Who does?

Arguably, it causes more eyestrain — a greater headache literally and figuratively — to read a large body of typewritten material on a bright, brazen, backlit surface largely devoid of eye-resting “white space”, much of it jam-packed instead with ad-based imagery begging for attention. So what’s a person without an entire day to spend sifting through this chaotic “information soup” to do? Answer: Go in search of the news, information, social contact and entertainment we want — not necessarily that which we need.

In spite of our collective fascination, electronic interfaces are simply too fatiguing for many users to devote a great deal of voluntary attention to any single task. Real-world books, newspapers, magazines, DVDs and music albums are carefully crafted, edited, designed and packaged, whereas in the virtual world we are often gatekeepers and content generators — empowering, to be sure, but demanding nonetheless. For instance, few of us went to the time and expense to crop, retouch and “develop” our own photos years ago, but nowadays the time, expense and effort of digital photography — the self-service we euphemistically refer to as “creative control” — is a common undertaking by many a digital camera owner. But what happens when time, attention spans and the digital format itself are limiting factors?

It stands to reason that as the novelty of this digital medium wears off, we will increasingly reserve our limited energies for learning a whole lot more about a whole lot less, particularly in comparison to our analog-based predecessors. The information at our fingertips may be limitless but our patience is not. More disturbing, the digital landscape may not be as boundless as we would like to believe. Not only does the virtual printing press make it a lot easier to remove unflattering stories from the electronic record, it’s also a lot easier to let the news we can use fade into a backdrop of dizzying digital distractions, the search result that never appears, the umpteenth page we never click.

For all his technological high hopes, would the late, great newsman, Walter Cronkite, be impressed?

When a resource is rare, even something so amorphous as “the news”, it is perceived as valuable and desirable. When it’s easy, cheap and pervasive, we take for granted that it will always be there, and that nothing will escape us even if we opt out entirely. If an asteroid were headed our way, many of us would learn of it from a coworker or a friend on MySpace — the proverbial grapevine now stronger than ever, the “herd immunity” theory, if you will, applied to social awareness.

Witness the phenomena of college-educated individuals passing along hoaxes, chain letters and urban legends via email without so much as a 30-second effort to verify the claim. Technology may make it easier to avoid making fools of ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we’re making the best use of it. The Digital Age, in this respect, presents a curious duality: People who are inclined to believe almost anything they see and read in an email or on YouTube, and those who become so wary of sloppy citizen journalism and anonymous email assertions that eventually mainstream media sources are lumped in the same suspect category. Such is life in the disposable e-universe: The democratization of information on the one hand, the responsibilities of liberty diminished on the other.

As much as technology connects us, a prevailing counterforce threatens our capacity for common experience, shared culture and community values. In the virtual world we lose, most notably, what art, literature and history buffs refer to as a “sense of place“. As our digital future progresses, we are certain to experience less and less of the hallowed, snapshot-in-time sensation of looking back on an old photo, magazine, newspaper, yearbook or, for that matter, the tactile experience of turning the pages of a letter or book sans mouse and keyboard.

There’s something we’re sacrificing in this brave new world, and it’s more than the paper it is written on.

Welcome to the here and now. It’s great for contract attorneys and high-tech moneymakers — a deceptive deal for the environment, news providers, and consumers alike. Still, we’re eating it up, one “IT” gadget off the production line at a time. Pay off that home or car loan early? Save money for the kids’ college tuition or your retirement fund? Embark on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip from coast to coast? Naw. We have more pressing pastimes to spend our digital dinero on. And they’re lovin’ it.

Psst! I hear Sony makes a pretty cool e-book reader, too. Circuit City, anyone? Their virtual doors are open for business!

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Resources:

Printed Copies of Orwell Books Pulled from Kindle | Yahoo News

Some E-Books Are More Equal Than Others | David Pogue/NYT

Internet Use Burns Coal, Report Says

Better Technology Needed if Carbon Sequestration is to be Viable | TSAugust

The Internet Begins with Coal

The Internet is Big and has a Carbon Footprint to Match

Data Center Overload | NYT Magazine

User Demand for the Internet Could Outpace Network Capacity by 2010

The Sustainability Challenge: Can the Internet Help?

The Illusion of Being Well Informed | The New Ledger

When Computers Attack: Protect Yourself from Computer-Related Health Problems

Ergonomists: Kids too are at Risk from Repetitive Strain Injuries | Science Daily

Nighttime Computer Users May Lose Sleep

Look What They’ve Done to My Brain, Ma

Brain & Behavior: Blame it on the Box

Mind Control by Cell Phone | Scientific American

Is Google Making Us Stupid? | The Atlantic

Is Google Making Us Smarter? | Seed Magazine

Men as Internet Victims

Do Social Networks Bring the End of Privacy?

Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Issues Warning on Cell Phone Risks

Teens Risk Health with Night Texting, Talking

Social Networks: Primates on Facebook | The Economist

Who Really Owns Your Phone?

Did You Hear About Censorship?

Internet Censorship in the US? Or Just Law Enforcement?

Top 25 Censored Stories for 2009 | Project Censored

Is Professional Blogging a Sustainable Business Model?

The Economy of Free is Stupid | Social Media Explorer

Free is Not a Business Model

Are the Days of Free Internet News Coming to an End?

Internet Companies: The End of the Free Lunch — Again

Advertising Is Not a Sustainable Business Model for the Web

Thoughts on the Costs of Digital vs. Paper

The Future of Reading — Digital vs. Print | Seattle Times