Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Race to the Top

During the Democratic primaries, when Howard Dean asserted that the United States might not always be the dominant military power in the world, his opponents roundly criticized him. Apparently, the notion that we should prepare for a day when America might not have the strongest military in the world was so outrageous that any politician who dared even mention it was clearly unfit to be the commander-in-chief. I was not a supporter of Dean’s candidacy, but his candor was refreshing, and the fact that his practical suggestion was used to ridicule him was sad indeed.

I wonder what the political consequences would be, on the other hand, for a politician who dared to fathom aloud that America will someday no longer have the strongest economy and most advanced technologies in the world, as other nations surpass us with better educated workforces and more competitive firms? This scenario is much more likely than the one floated by Dean, and other than Newt Gingrich , politicians do not seem to sense the urgency of the “race to the top”, where nations like India and China, and an increasingly confident European Union may eventually threaten American economic and technological supremacy.

Thomas Friedman is not a politician, but he has been concerned about these issues for quite some time. In his New York Times magazine piece, Friedman describes his recent trip to India, where he discovered, much to his surprise, that the world is actually “flat”. Friedman, in his typical hyperbolic style, outlines 10 pivotal events that have flattened the world, which is basically his rough way of saying that technology has enabled global interdependence of unprecedented scale, and that America’s dominant role in the world is no longer assured.

Friedman is talking about a much larger phenomenon than simple outsourcing. He writes that:

“It is this convergence -- of new players, on a new playing field, developing new processes for horizontal collaboration -- that I believe is the most important force shaping global economics and politics in the early 21st century. Sure, not all three billion can collaborate and compete. In fact, for most people the world is not yet flat at all. But even if we're talking about only 10 percent, that's 300 million people -- about twice the size of the American work force. And be advised: the Indians and Chinese are not racing us to the bottom. They are racing us to the top. What China's leaders really want is that the next generation of underwear and airplane wings not just be ''made in China'' but also be ''designed in China.'' And that is where things are heading. So in 30 years we will have gone from ''sold in China'' to ''made in China'' to ''designed in China'' to ''dreamed up in China'' -- or from China as collaborator with the worldwide manufacturers on nothing to China as a low-cost, high-quality, hyperefficient collaborator with worldwide manufacturers on everything.”

Clearly, in the short term, Friedman’s thesis is preposterous. China’s economy is growing at a rapid clip, but its internal regions are still largely underdeveloped and Chinese firms are not yet truly innovative. India has developed further in terms of political institutions, but is growing slower than China and still has oppressive government regulation in many sectors. Both nations have a long way to go before they could even join the ranks of what we would call a “developed nation” in terms of economic and social indicators.

But Friedman persists, asserting that:
“That is why there is nothing that guarantees that Americans or Western Europeans will continue leading the way. These new players are stepping onto the playing field legacy free, meaning that many of them were so far behind that they can leap right into the new technologies without having to worry about all the sunken costs of old systems. It means that they can move very fast to adopt new, state-of-the-art technologies, which is why there are already more cellphones in use in China today than there are people in America. “

While Friedman again oversells his case with some loose reasoning, even Microsoft’s Bill Gates agrees with him, saying that:
''When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow. In math and science, our fourth graders are among the top students in the world. By eighth grade, they're in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations. . . . The percentage of a population with a college degree is important, but so are sheer numbers. In 2001, India graduated almost a million more students from college than the United States did. China graduates twice as many students with bachelor's degrees as the U.S., and they have six times as many graduates majoring in engineering. In the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind.''

I do not think the situation is as dire as Gates and Friedman suggest, but for advocates of increased education spending and more favorable immigration laws, this perspective provides a compelling narrative for a political platform. In my own limited experience, I have observed that Americans, perhaps shaped by a market driven culture, are competitive and hate losing. Why not appeal to this tendency, by pointing out the shame of our low 12th grade test scores as a reason to ramp up spending on science and technology education and put a networked computer in every classroom?

Immigration reform could also be recast as an appeal to American greatness, by framing post 9/11 restrictions as senseless obstacles to “recruiting” the best talent in the world. Wouldn’t we feel bad if a Saudi Arabian programmer invented the next killer application…in Germany?

These arguments are nearly as difficult to make as Dean’s folly, but could eventually pay off. Liberals especially can relate to these arguments, because they never quite buy into American exceptionalism the way conservatives do, and are more likely to view their own nation as complacent and arrogant. Conservatives on the other hand, will love the competitive aspect of it, but be loathe to spend the money on it, which liberals should in turn rightfully castigate them for.

While Friedman’s concerns are still largely fantasy, young Americans should know that America’s dominant position in the world order is never a given. Bad policies and bad politicians weaken our nation to the benefit of other countries. (Yes, I believe that some aspects of global competition are a zero sum game) The “race to the top” then is an important concept, if only to illustrate to Americans that the race has now officially begun and to inspire us to start running.



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