Apple, America and the ‘China Problem’

The secret is out: Apple has a worm inching its way through its corporate flesh. January was a tough month on the Cupertino, California company venerated for its innovation and vision.

The controversy emerged when an Apple contractor in China, a manufacturing facility known as Foxconn where many brand-name electronics are assembled largely by hand, made headlines when dozens of workers threatened to jump to their deaths over a labor dispute. Foxconn’s solution? Erect netting beneath roofs and windows.

It doesn’t end there. For 12-hour shifts, six-days-per week and a live-in lifestyle workers allegedly earn just $17, the New York Times reports. Forbes and PC Magazine added their own angle to the news. One such detail described a high-level manager who, at a Chinese zoo, asked a zookeeper to provide advice on how to deal with his workers, drawing a direct comparison between factory workers and undomesticated animals. It gets worse. A NYT piece, “In China, Human Costs are Built into iPad“, refers to two dozen accidental worker deaths that have occurred as a result of unsafe working conditions. Finally, in “This American Life” the narrator of “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” recounts a first-hand meetup with underage Chinese workers, among scores of others who suffer permanent neurological tremors and ticks as a consequence of over-exposure to a chemical toxin.

For all the outrage, many argue such are the inescapable growing pains of a Third World labor force “coming up”. At one time, the United States, too, was known for worker exploitation, a chief reason child labor laws gained traction and unions became a bulwark against corrupt and abusive management practices. And yet, even at the height of the union movement in the US such organizations represented only a fraction of the workforce. Nonetheless, what began as labor negotiating with management to build a viable American middle class has transformed in recent decades to its polar opposite: a perception that unions destroy American prosperity.

Let’s turn these assumptions on their head for a moment. It may very well be in our best interest to support unionization movements in the Third World because only then will we stem the tide of human rights abuses and, at the same time, diminish the massive inequalities that allow US companies to do the math and abandon American soil —- our workforce — in favor of nations that are institutionally in conflict to American democracy, liberty and justice. Rather than live down to a Third World “race to the bottom” standard, we who have already been down the road to civil rights in the First World ought to raise the international bar: mentor up-and-coming industrial nations in “best practices”.

Our choice is clear: In the absence of such a push Third World manufacturing will remain attractive in much the same way the American South benefited from plantation slave labor. In the US we fought a bloody Civil War to become a civil society. For all the doom-and-gloom of the incensed Southern plantation owner, certain the loss of low-cost labor represented a death-knell, the United States thrived in the post-Civil War era, particularly so after World War II.

Why tolerate and excuse “separate and unequal” practices overseas?

Blind-eyed consumerism turns us into self-serving hypocrites. And yet the shame we bring upon ourselves is far from the only reason to care about what goes on on the other side of the globe. We, too, suffer at our own hand in a less overt but equally-destructive manner: wage stagnation, loss of social mobility and growing deficits that, in the years to come, will increasingly link to tax revenue losses associated with declining (taxable) American affluence. What began some 25 years ago as an offshoring, outsourcing rush sparked the rise of the “too good to pass up” Chinese-made bargain at Walmart and has culminated in a high price indeed. Today, unlike then, economic necessity drives many Americans to purchase Third World goods because our buying power has slipped in direct proportion to the wholesale acceptance of patently unfair “free trade agreements”.

Ross Perot was right when he warned of the “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving North American soil.

There’s nothing wrong with free trade in the true sense of free-market intent. There is, however, something very wrong with the negative notion that the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” represents a valid manifestation of such a market. Globalization isn’t the problem per se: bad policy is. At the international trade table our “partners” aren’t playing the same free-market game — and therein lies the problem. The United States is increasingly bested by communists, socialists and managed market capitalists! Will we ever come out of economic decline if we don’t perceive the need for a course correction? Take a long, hard look at our 2012 presidential candidates: How many of them propose a viable industrial policy, speak of a solution to the trade deficits or call-out the perverse tax incentives that are shooting America’s economic interests in the foot?

Is it any wonder that our anti-liberty competitors — nations, like China, where government puts to death anyone who attempts to unionize — successfully defend their competitive advantage through currency manipulation, taxes on US-made goods and government-backed “private enterprise”? How nonsensical is it that we Americans glibly say it is “protectionist” to fight fire with fire!? Let’s call it what it is: a leveling of the playing field. It’s a necessary evil lest we become impoverished to a Third World degree!

This much is true: We can’t keep sitting complacently on the wrong end of the see-saw with the flat-earth expectation that we will maintain a fighting chance to compete through pure creativity or educational prowess. Now that our productive capacity exists primarily overseas, engineers, skilled machinists, prototype builders, and venture capitalists will increasingly take up residence there, too. That doesn’t leave much room for even the most highly-educated American student to succeed short of relocating to greener pastures. And therein lies the second problem: what we take for granted here — freedom of speech, religion and association — are criminal offenses in much of the world.

For all our romanticizing, the mobile, global “citizen of the world” is not one who can take the pursuit of life, liberty and justice for granted.

Change may be inevitable but it need not be an all-or-nothing proposition fraught with quasi-religious political dogmas. A large part of the solution lies in bringing Third World manufacturers into the 21st Century so that working conditions are not so dissimilar from our own. To do anything less than revisit and renegotiate the world’s FTAs is akin to running a hockey or football game with one set of rules for the home team and another set of rules for the visiting team. Nonsense! It’s time we got over our apparent death wish, stopped parroting the usual partisan talking points and rallied the courage to institute pragmatic trade reforms. In the long term, that reform needs to include incentives — if not sanctions — for “world citizens” (multinational corporations) that exploit vulnerable populations. Another crucial aspect to such reform is the diversification and development of affordable energy resources that will trim the cost of doing business: here, there and everywhere.

For any real improvement in the quality of workers’ lives we can’t simply point to economic opportunity in isolation. The individuals who live and work in China and elsewhere in the Third World must have some basic assurances in addition to their material needs: namely, that they are innocent until proven guilty and endowed with certain rights. Without the backbone we in the United States take for granted, the potential for such individuals to enjoy social equality, and therefore social mobility, are limited at best.

All too often, the Western view is that China and much of the Third World will go through a wayward period of industrialization and human rights abuses, to emerge one day with the same protections and freedoms enjoyed by Americans. And yet, in an increasingly connected world, making change within one’s borders is becoming more difficult as globalization exerts greater external pressures. When the United States made its greatest strides we were separated by entire oceans — a buffer that was instrumental to our independence but increasingly nonexistent today. In the US, moreover, we had a values system in place to sustain and uplift what would ultimately promote civil rights: namely, the concept that “all men are created equally” with the right to freedom of assembly and association. These precepts allowed early-American workers to unionize in order to further represent their interests. Gradually we have come to see unions as an overreaching force, but at the time they were a much-needed countervailing influence in a period of our history when worker abuses were far too common.

Without an existing framework of liberty, the social gains Americans achieved would scarcely have been realized as early or as completely. If we think that a repressive regime with whom we freely trade on the global market can be altered through the sheer force of modernization and economic progress — which apparently was the hope when Nixon opened up relations with China — we may have another thing coming. If and when that evolution or revolution comes to the Third World, it may come through such a degree of unrest, if not civil war, that it will come to look painfully short-sighted to stow so many of our manufacturing “eggs” in a single regional basket. In fact, the over-specialization and concentration of manufacturing capacity, in general, may come back to haunt us in a manner never before seen in human history. (A war or natural disaster concentrated in or near where the developed world manufacturers most of its critical products from prescription medications to electric grid components could have the same effect.)

If and when the Chinese people revolt against working 12-hour shifts, six days a week and living and eating in the factory barracks, change may come in the form of such disruptions to the supply chain that the world economy will feel pressured to aid the Chinese government in a return to the status quo for the sake of minimizing mass economic disruption and lost profits. Perhaps it is too late but it still needs to be said: Unless we successfully export democratic liberties and fair-trade principles to our trading partners and their labor forces before we come to rely on said nation for our own economic cohesiveness, we will be beholden to a ticking human-labor time bomb. Should the Chinese say “Enough!”, only for the government to react in a heavy-handed Tiananmen Square manner, it is entirely possible that China’s globalized trade partners will be so overly concerned for their respective strategic interests and losses that support for a human rights uprising, past overdue though it may be, will be found lacking. Cries for better compensation and treatment will go largely ignored, and any instability in those regions of the world will be minimized in the American media so that we can go on telling ourselves that globalization has lifted more people out of misery and poverty than not.

Fair trade is in our best strategic and economic interest. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when”. Therefore, the sooner we get to the “when”, the sooner we minimize the harm — to all concerned.

If you are inclined to feel pessimistic, don’t. Consider the growing market for fair-trade coffee, non-GMO and organic foods. A growing number of consumers are willing to pay a premium for health and the satisfaction of being on the right side of the fence when it comes to labor practices. Scores of Americans, too, are more than willing to fork over a premium for a Chinese-made Coach handbag at no real cost savings for its origin simply because the brand carries a perception of value even though it is no longer domestically produced. I am arguing that the same market potential exists here. The assumption that Americans won’t pay for peace of mind or premium-branded US-made products remains largely untested in today’s climate of “conscious consumerism”. Anyone who prefers name-brand over store-brand pays a markup willingly, regardless of country of origin. It stands to reason there is a broader market for products created under fair trade conditions that remains largely untapped. It’s time to invest in symbiotic international relationships that actually work — not the dysfunctional thinking that crudely passes for globalized free trade.

In the spirit of thinking differently it is time to challenge the myth that US-made merchandise corresponds to massive price hikes. A modest 20-35 percent increase for the satisfaction of owning a few more US-made goods is likely to receive greater acceptance as the “jobless recovery” lingers, consumers become more quality conscious, and news of foreign-worker abuses in our hyper-connected small world begin to hit closer to home. There’s reason to believe that the competitive advantage of Third World manufacturing is itself unsustainable.

Why might the affordability gap between foreign-made goods and US-made alternatives narrow despite cut-rate overseas labor costs? Because gasoline and transport prices are on the rise. As energy prices increase, it becomes less cost effective to manufacture products thousands of miles away from their intended market. A push to “go local” and “manufacture Green” will mean that more First World consumers will value products that help their own communities in the perception that this is also the environmentally-responsible way to rebuild the social contract.

To manufacture products closer to one’s target market is not infeasible: one need only look to foreign auto manufacturers that have set up US plants to see that such arrangements are workable. Volkswagen, Honda and Toyota, among others, provide the proof that taking one’s manufacturing plants to your market — in this case to manufacture foreign automobiles with US labor — does not harm the bottom line. In fact, the decentralization of production may very well be a security investment against assembly-line disruptions that might otherwise occur when productive capacity is concentrated in a single geographical region where war or natural disaster can prove disastrous. Make no mistake: This is not an argument to move all production to the US. Rather, I argue equally that products destined for the Asian or European markets should be assembled closer to their respective consumers. In so doing, consumer electronics and appliances that are destined for the US consumer can and should be made here for reasons of economy, environment and quality control. After all, when more Americans are gainfully employed, upwardly mobile and fully equipped to participate in the global economy the more likely it is to benefit the profitability of manufacturers.

This argument comes down to a simple truth that the policymakers, CEOs and MBAs apparently overlooked in their haste to go global: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Corporations have a responsibility: to understand that an investment in their market is an investment in their bottom line. If this isn’t the quintessential definition of “rational self-interest” I don’t know what is.

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RESOURCES

Making It In America | The Atlantic

Globalization’s Achilles’ Heel | The Daily Beast

Reporter’s Roundtable: Apple’s China Problem | CNET

Apple Wrestles with its China Problem | MarketWatch

Are Walmart’s Chinese Factories As Bad As Apple’s | Mother Jones

Globalization, Inequality and the State | Thomas Pogge

Is China a Threat to the US Economy? | Congressional Research Service PDF

America’s Got Product

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