Busy this morning, lighter bloggging, but wanted to toss out a few things cribbed from Sullivan’s place.
As Mitt Romney’s tax returns show, wealthy Americans have the rules rigged in their favor from day one. And that’s assuming they obey the rules. Unlike the poor, they can mostly cheat with impunity. In these circumstances, it’s unsurprising that US inequality is so deeply entrenched. The only surprise is the suddenness with which the facts have become common knowledge.
Due almost entirely to #OWS forcing this issue into the national discourse.
It remains to be seen how this will play out electorally, but there are at least some promising signs. Eight months ago, the situation in the US, seemed if anything even worse than in Europe. Obama seemed determined to capitulate to the Repubs, with the support of the entire centrist establishment, still committed to the idea of bipartisanship. Political discussion was dominated by the claims of the Tea Party, essentially identical to those of the European Austerians. The debt-ceiling debacle, the success of Occupy Wall Street and the recent Romney revelations have changed that. First, the fact that the Repubs are extreme reactionaries, uninterested in any kind of bipartisan compromise, has finally sunk in to all but the most obtuse centrists. Second, the point that the rich play by different rules from the rest of us has been made glaringly obvious.
The wages in Shenzhen are lower, yes, and the factories are brutally efficient. There is also deep intelligence built into Chinese sweatshops. The iPhone manufacturer Foxconn, Duhigg and Bradsher report, “employs nearly 300 guards to direct foot traffic so workers are not crushed in doorway bottlenecks.” Everyone knows that Asia pumps out our gadgets; the story makes plain why it will do so for a long, long time.
Still, there’s a reason for optimism about America’s workforce, and a good lesson to be learned from Apple’s surge. What really makes the iPhone work isn’t the hardware. Sure, the glass—designed by Corning in upstate New York and manufactured in China—is beautiful. But the transformative part of the phone is the software. The code behind the touch-screen was written here; the iOS operating system was written here; most of the apps that we use are written here. Thousands of companies, in fact, have been started here to write apps for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Software remains a great American expertise, and it’s only becoming more important as processors shrink into ever more powerful forms. As Marc Andreessen argued in the Wall Street Journal this summer, “software is eating the world.” Computer code is transforming industry after industry, and writing code is something that Americans are very good at. It’s also something that requires creativity, which isn’t fostered in giant factories with guards guiding people through crowded doorways and a central kitchen that roasts three tons of pork and thirteen tons of rice a day.
So perhaps there’s a different insight from Apple for Obama. Yes, there are industries where manufacturing jobs can be brought back to America through proper tax incentives and training programs. But maybe he should have talked more about the things that he could do to keep software jobs here.
This is the most tone-deaf argument possible.
What about the people who aren’t capable of designing software and never will be?
In every society in every country in every era, there has been a low-skilled workforce. Consider now that arguments like the one above are predicated on the notion that our low-skilled workforce can become a high-skilled workforce.
Everyone can go to school (but how will they afford it); everyone can get a degree or advanced training; everyone can design software, or fill some similar position.
We won’t need factory jobs when those former factory workers are all capable of designing software!
This is unbelievably myopic, and a recipe for social unrest and eventual revolution.
Because no, we’re not all going to become software engineers. It is simply not going to happen; people will not and must not lard themselves down with student debt; others will have too many hurdles to overcome get the right education even if they had the money for it.
Really, read Adam Davidson’s piece in this month’s Atlantic for a sobering look at those hurdles.
And so this view – hey, manufacturing ain’t coming back, but we can all be software engineers! – essentially consigns a huge number of Americans to the economic scrap heap. Well, maybe they can go wait tables or get a job at Wal-Mart.
Let me tell you what those folks will get: Pissed off. And eventually they will find a political candidate to channel that anger, and this country is going to be worse off for it.
I hate to use this term because I’ve hated when it’s been used in the past, but I have to say: The elite consensus on how we can just become a “knowledge economy” is wrong, immoral and dangerous. Rather than saying, “manufacturing just isn’t coming back,” we ought to be thinking about ways to lure manufacturing back, and those ways ought to include more than tax breaks and lower wages for workers; I do indeed favor protectionism, as the Founders did, because so long as this market remains lucrative for overseas manufacturers, they’ll do what they can to be here. And this nation has an obligation to nurture domestic industries that make jobs available to all classes of Americans, not just the educated classes.
Because it is actually, physically impossible to turn the entirety of American into one single educated class. NaGaHaPen (not going to happen). Is that pessimistic? No – it’s realistic. And it’s inclusive. Unlike the utopian dream of a nation where prosperity is based not on making things, but on writing the code so others can make things.