Today I went on a bike ride. Since I have a birthday coming up, I called this ride the "40 before 40." Yes, I'm turning 65, I just like to pretend I'm 40. Those miles gave me time to think about a topic I've seen pop up over and over lately.
not actually me
Let's start with this article by former Intel CEO Andy Grove. In it, he argues that the trend of manufacturing jobs headed overseas is not OK. In fact, we as a country should take proactive steps to stop it.
Your classical economist would disagree. Specialization leads to greater efficiency for all. If the manufacturing can be done cheaper elsewhere, that's where it should be done. The proliferation of cheap imported goods at WalMart helps make that argument look good.
Anyway, how would we reverse that trend now? What company would want to start manufacturing, say, TVs in Kentucky when they are already being made much less cheaply in Asia? What's the incentive when you'd just end up with more expensive TVs to sell. WalMart wouldn't even take them. To reverse it would require tremendous amounts of government intervention. Which very well might lead to retaliatory action by other countries. Sure seems to me like that ship has sailed. Is Mr. Grove is barking up the wrong tree?
Let's try another article. In this one, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin notes that scientists are more lauded in other countries than here. It's common in many countries for government officials to be former engineers rather than former lawyers. The downfall in public and governmental appreciation of science is leading to a decline in American innovation compared to other countries. This, he says, will conclude in America eventually becoming a second-rate power in the world. He calls for changes to education policy and government incentives for R&D.
This one, I have to say, seems even more far-fetched than the first. He neglects to mention the impact of science fiction. Sci fi was certainly influential to driving me towards a math-centric career. You think there are no younger kids who became interested in computers after The Matrix? Or interested in biotech after Avatar? Then he jumps in with this non sequitur, "U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the U.S. government devotes to energy R&D." Sigh.
Look, I love math and science. I want more people to love it. I'd like to see critical thinking more emphasized all over society. I'm all for government support of R&D. I agree with most of his goals. But it's short on specifics and has a few too many tangents. So let's move on...
This article from The Economist talks about the premium on cognitive skills. I want to point out this gem:
"the number of people who get rich by singing or kicking a ball is tiny compared with the number who become wealthy or influential through brainpower. The most lucrative careers, such as law, medicine, technology and finance, all require above-average mental skills."
I wish that truth were more well known. I know a couple of people floundering along in life, hoping to "make it big." Time is a wastin' for those folks. Snooki may have me beat in 2011 but odds are I will make much more money than her over the course of our lives.
I want to take an moment to mention my book club's last book, Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. I basically agree with Pink's premise in this book. The way he presents it and what he emphasizes were not great and it muddied his message IMO. But I agree with the major point that people need both soft skills and critical skills to get ahead in the world. It's not good enough to be a super-sharp computer programmer if you can't communicate your ideas - both in writing and in speech. So when the author of the Economist article mentions "above-average mental skills" I read it as "above-average critical and people skils."
But wait, I see a problem here Not everyone is going to achieve those law, technology, et al careers. As the Economist article says:
"Cognitive skills are at a premium, and they are unevenly distributed."
again not me. Seriously, it's hard to bring a camera while cycling
Now we are getting to the real danger facing the United States IMO. Much more important than the collective esteem of scientists. For those who don't get a college degree (something that's becoming costlier and costlier), what do they do? There are still some blue collar careers but not enough.
So I think back to the departure of manufacturing jobs mentioned by Andy Grove. And I realize he's right. I don't know if it really can be done but we need the factory jobs back. I think the best shot would be to focus on up-and-coming industries such as green technology. Incent those business to manufacture here and hope they grow enough.
Or as I thought it while on my bike... since I'm only 25 years old, I need this country to stay viable for a few years yet.