As China and India develop even faster, I see no way American skilled workers can truly compete without CEOs hurting their own shareholders. The prospect of a continued corporate profit boom, higher and higher economic and social inequality and persistently high unemployment is real and probably inevitable, absent brutal protectionism.
Andrew Sullivan offers a sobering look at where the US economy is headed based on two icons of gizmodatry: The iPhone and The Kindle. Both were invented here in the USA, but are manufactured in China. Sullivan notes that the iPhone could not be made in the USA without Apple losing 15 percent of its profit. And the technology to make the Kindle? It doesn’t even exist in the US. There’s literally now where else to make it.
However, I think Sullivan’s point above — that faster development in India and China will increase the skilled jobs drain to those countries needs to be fleshed out a bit more. As the US has developed we’ve shipped these jobs overseas so that technology is invented here and made somewhere else. As China and India develop, the same will happen there. Eventually, Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs will build the next must-have product, or disruptive social network. As they do, the jobs will continue to flow downhill to other developing economies — probably in Asia Pacific and Africa.
Perhaps, eventually the unemployment situation here will get so exacerbated that American workers will be forced to accept decreased wages and standards of living in order to have jobs. We bristle at the conditions at Chinese manufacturing giants like Foxconn, but is that where we need to go if we want manufacturing jobs? Probably yes, eventually.
The bald truth is that the world is experiencing a major economic shift that will likely be more disruptive to our economy, culture and environment than the industrial revolution.
Unfortunately, no one in power, or seeking power, has been honest with the American public about this fact. Nobody is leveling with the American people that we are fucked for “jobs” and there’s no going back. When politicians talk about “jobs” they’re generally talking about manufacturing and other blue collar jobs that pay enough to afford workers a middle class lifestyle and a chance to provide their children with a better shot at the future through education. This is the fundamental narrative the US economy and “the American Dream” are built on. Unfortunately, those days are over and they’re never coming back.
So let’s be honest with ourselves: The days of the noble blue collar worker are over, ok? They’re legend — captured in the time capsule of Bruce Springsteen songs. They are FUCKING OVER and they are never coming back.
No amount of stimulus or green jobs, or infrastructure revitalization, or whatever the hell else you want to trot out is going to change that. You’re talking bandaids on a shotgun wound. It’s over. The days when you could get a high school education and some job training, join the union and earn enough to be middle class and send your kids to college? FUCKING OVER. They’re not coming back.
Today, if you want to be middle class, you need a college degree, at the very least, and you probably need some kind of graduate degree. Which in turn means you need to go into hock to make a decent salary. It’s a trap that is going to mean our generation grows old with a lower standard of living then our parents. But, when we’re old and gray we can tell everyone how we were the first generation of the Technology Revolution and we built the new world order. We can be bigger and just as cloying as The Greatest Generation.
The question is what kind of world are we going to build? Are we going to build a world based on new technology, where American workers are knowledge workers and the “new middle class” are people who can run sysadmin on a bunch of servers, run a content management system, write advertising copy, run an efficient retail operation, or install a home energy production system? Are we going to create a world where homes and businesses are energy self-sufficient and provide abundant energy to our cars, appliances and gadgets without the need for a crappy grid or burning quickly-depleting, earth-killing fossil fuels? Are we going to build a future where not having a college degree (or some future equivalent) makes you a pariah in the same way that not having a high school degree does now? And, importantly, are we going to create a system that ensures everyone has a chance to earn that college degree (or future equivalent)? Are we going to create a future where our dwindling manufacturing plants seem as quaint and old-world as the old New England textile mills do today? Are we going to create a future where broadband access is considered a utility as ubiquitous and necessary as electricity and anyone can start a company from their kitchen table?
Or, are we going to try to hold onto our old way of life and limp along, polluting our planet and dealing with increasingly long power outages due to increasingly strong natural disasters? Are we going to simply accept an ever-increasing divide between the haves and have nots? Are we going to build Foxconn-style plants here in order to provide jobs — under any circumstances — to an increasingly irrelevant work force? Are we going to continue to let our education system slide into disarray and pretend everything is just fine because a teacher can get kids to memorize answers on a standardized test? Are we going to say it’s acceptable that some areas of the country will never get access to the Internet revolution?
To get the former, we need to be honest about the massive changes we are experiencing right now and be honest about the sacrifices we need to make now in order to prepare for a better future. To get the former, we need to invest in infrastructure, education and new energy production — not because it’s going to “create jobs” now, but because it’s going to mean avoiding a dystopian future.
To get the latter, we have to simply keep the blinders on, keep fooling ourselves into believing that we can turn this around with a little old-fashioned American elbow grease and stimulus. To get the latter, we should just keep telling ourselves nothing has changed when in reality, everything has changed.
(Photo: Abandoned marble factory (10) by Flickr user Joelk75. Used under a Creative Commons License.)