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January 18, 2008

The Unbearable Flatness of Being

Michael Feldman

As I stood in the checkout line of a Barnes and Noble book store last weekend, a scene that exemplified the state of American youth culture played out before me. A young woman, twenty-something and pregnant, perused a small magazine rack near the cash register. On the rack, three different publications were featured: People magazine, in the middle, flanked by Time and The New Yorker. Without even glancing at the latter two publications, the young woman picked up People (with the obligatory mug of Britney on the cover), thumbed through it for about 30 seconds, returned it to the rack and left.

Now for all I know this women was a Rhodes Scholar, who has Time and The New Yorker delivered to her home, and was just looking at People to remind herself of the banality of modern pop culture. But for the purpose of this article, I’ll assume she was a typical American youth. And not just a typical American youth, but a typical American, most of which don’t need to have Britney’s last name supplied to them to know exactly who I’m talking about.

As Norm Augustine pointed out in his recent essay “Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?“: “When a Harris poll asked Americans to name a living scientist, virtually no one was able to do so” — an example of why Dan Reed warned us that reading the Augustine piece would be depressing. As the sequel to the high-profile National Academy of Sciences’ report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” Falling Off the Flat Earth conveys the grim state of the U.S. educational system and the nation’s dwindling science and technology subculture.

Augustine contends that U.S. dominance in technology, and thus, our economic prosperity, are in serious danger. He lists a litany of problems that the country must confront to stem our declining competitive position in the global economy: our inability to produce enough home-grown scientists and engineers to meet local demands, the declining quality of students produced by the K-12 system, the dependence of our economy on both foreign talent and capital, and the low level of federal funding for science and technology research. Augustine paints a solemn picture of the American innovation machine grinding to a halt. Here are just a few sobering sound bites:

  • In Business Week’s ranking of the world’s information-technology companies, only one of the top 10 is based in the United States.

  • Foreigners finance about two-thirds of U.S. domestic investment, compared with about one-fifteenth a decade ago.

  • According to Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, by 2010, 90 percent of all scientists and engineers with PhDs will be living in Asia.

  • Federal annual investment in research in the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering combined is equal to the increase in U.S. health care costs experienced every 6 weeks.

  • The number of engineering doctorates awarded by U.S. universities to U.S. citizens dropped by 23 percent in the past decade. The U.S. ranks eighth in the fraction of its citizens obtaining college degrees (in all fields).

In a chapter titled “Welcome to the 21st Century Boardroom,” Augustine (a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation) says the modern Fortune 100 company is much less an American firm than a global enterprise. And according to him, this is a result of the modern globalization phenomenon, where free trade and global communication are making national borders irrelevant. This not only enables companies to operate internationally (to maximize profits and shareholder return), but allows consumers to choose products and services from a global marketplace (to maximize purchasing power). Augustine was not portraying this arrangement as either good or bad; it just simply is.

But that leads one to ask a somewhat embarrassing question: In an increasingly globalized world, what does “national competitiveness” even mean? Since governments aren’t competing with each other (except when they go to war), and companies aren’t limited by national borders, the only nation-based entities left to compete with each other are citizens. The emergence of the individual as a global competitor is part of what Thomas Friedman talks about in “The Earth is Flat,” the book that first popularized the flat Earth economic model. Friedman believes the first two waves of globalization (versions 1.0 and 2.0) that began the flattening process were about national competition and corporate competition, respectively.

Globalization 3.0, which Friedman says began in earnest in 2000, shifts the focus to the individual. For example, because of the ubiquity of computing and telecommunications, Indian software engineers can now compete directly with their American counterparts, but are able to do so in a country with a much lower cost of living. Since information technology drives almost every other industry, job competition extends beyond just high-tech workers. According to Friedman, to be successful in Globalization 3.0, citizens and governments have to think and act differently.

The solutions outlined by both Augustine and Friedman follow some common threads: improve education (especially math and science curriculums), provide incentives for young people to pursue science and engineering careers, increase government commitment to technology R&D, improve infrastructure (especially faster and more broadband service), and make it a cultural imperative to work harder and be engaged in lifelong learning.

While all these remedies have value, I’m wondering how we’re going to implement the kind of social tinkering that is implicit in these recommendations. Telling people they have to keep retraining themselves as their jobs are eliminated by technology or shipped overseas sounds practical enough, but it doesn’t exactly reflect an ascendent view of human progress. And trying to upgrade our science and math education is fine, but pushing lots of people into technology careers is more about making those jobs more economically and socially palatable than just churning out science students. Frankly, none of this seems like a way to entice the People magazine crowd into the 21st century.

Here’s a thought. If individuals really are at the center of the global competition, why not level the playing field in a more fundamental way? Give people the freedom to work globally. In the same way corporations insist on trade agreements that enable access to global markets, citizens should insist on international labor agreements that give them access to global labor markets.

In some cases, this could mean following your job to another country, for example, allowing the U.S. software engineer to work in India. If an industry became concentrated in specific regions, people with expertise in those domains would naturally aggregate there. But in a highly networked world, this new arrangement could also just mean removing labor barriers so that a person could work for a foreign-based company independently of where they physically resided. The social and political changes required to transition to such a system might seem daunting, but no less daunting than the economic reality of globalization.

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As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at editor@hpcwire.com.