The Jobs and Education Con Game
By A.D. Freudenheim  

26 December 2004

With all the discussion of various important subjects throughout the election – in both the Republican and Democratic campaigns – Americans might be forgiven for thinking that someone, at least one person in either party, was telling them the truth about job creation, outsourcing, education, and the future of the American economy. If only that was the case. Instead, we are being lied to about the nature of global trade, about manufacturing and other kinds of jobs, and the value that education has in creating and sustaining our economy and our lives.

What America needs is a fundamental change in direction, spurred by some unabashed truth-telling. The industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries is long gone, and so is the wealth-manufacturing America that blossomed from it. For these United States to continue to prosper, we must honestly assess the challenges we face for the future, and be unequivocal about how we meet them.

First, jobs.
Basic, low-tech manufacturing jobs are leaving the United States – and should be. For all of (former) Senator John Edwards’ emotionally-appealing talk about the (laid-off) textile workers in the Carolinas, or the (unemployed) automotive workers in Michigan, the simple fact is that these unskilled or low-skilled manufacturing jobs are difficult to sustain in the United States of the 21st century. Americans want to be paid more than their counterparts elsewhere, because we have higher living costs – and we have higher expectations for our basic quality of life. There is nothing wrong with this; but creating low-cost goods with high-cost labor simply is not efficient either for the corporations or the consumers of their products.

Improvement – self-improvement and familial improvement – is a cornerstone of the American mythology. Not for nothing did the factory worker of the 1920s slave away in order to provide a good education for his children; those children went on to become a generation of doctors, lawyers, academics, and government officials, as well as factory managers, mechanics, electricians and industrial engineers. Now their children’s children are done with their schooling, and the nation needs to find ways to employ them that do not rely, once again, on the same industrial jobs of that earlier generation. To replace these lost manufacturing jobs and provide a future for the next generation of Americans, we must embrace the nation we have become: a country of great wealth, with an appreciation of a better quality of life that is inherently at odds with the civic and environmental requirements of the heavy industry that helped us become what we are. There should be no shame in this admission.

We must embrace the idea of intelligence, of the true value of education, and of how to make it work for us, if America is to change; this includes the politicians that lead us (particularly those who lead workers living in communities most affected by changes in American manufacturing, in the south and across the “rust belt”), along with the union leaders, educators, and others. We must exchange the low-skilled jobs of the 20th century for the medium- and high-skilled jobs of the 21st, even within the realm of manufacturing. We must strive to produce products of exceptional quality – the way the Germans or French or Japanese do; those nations also have high labor costs and near-equal standards of living – instead of trying to compete against low-cost monoliths like China. We need to stay ahead of China, of India, and other, cheaper manufacturing nations by being competitive in quality, in technology and sophistication, with the best products of the world – and not, as is all too often the case, by trying to beat these nations with the lowest common denominator of industrial production.

Right now, American political and trade leaders are trying to con us into believing that we can compete with China and win. This is not only unlikely, but more fundamentally a wrong-headed strategy; an American victory over China in cheap product creation would most certainly be a Pyhrric one, leading to lower wages, less long-term wealth-creation, and with a by-product of even greater environmental challenges than we already now face from the last century of unbridled industry.

To achieve these changes, a reality check on education is also needed.
In believing that most educations are created equal, Americans have lost their way. Somehow, our faux-meritocracy has led to a faux-egalitarianism; we have sacrificed valuable, high-skill vocational training for the thrills of a Bachelor of Arts degree from a local community college. Instead of learning a trade – even a very specialized, sophisticated trade – all too many Americans learn no job-applicable skills at all. This is not to suggest that community colleges or other, similar institutions cannot, by definition, offer a good education; that is most certainly not the case. Nor is there anything wrong with learning for the sake of learning; education of most kinds is good for the body as well as the mind, and no one should be deprived of the richness of life that may come from striving for knowledge.

Still, America has not become an intellectual haven; certainly not those so-called “red” states in the middle of the country which to profess to believe in a series of “values” that are at a minimum illiberal, and in many cases outright anti-intellectual. In that environment, a “good” education from a small and undistinguished school may be quite achievable, but it is hardly likely. Nor are the odds good that students in such environments will be truly challenged, and it is challenge that stimulates the creative thinking and innovation on which America has, until now, thrived. Which makes the irony of our impoverished educational system all the more striking: we are poorly educating ever greater numbers of Americans, while doing little to ensure that this education will be of any true use to them in the future. All while the American “elite” goes to a small selection of colleges and universities and learn (to be blunt about it) how to demand more from the world, and how to become the masters of their less-skilled brethren.

Recently, there have been three news reports that suggest the degree to which the American focus on education is off-track. First was a report a few weeks ago that, once again, Americans lag behind our rivals in critical areas, such as learning math and science.[1] Such alarmist reports are a staple of U.S. journalism, but that does not mean we should dismiss this information out of hand. Second, our education-focused president, George W. Bush, is following through on his threatened promises to expand education funding for Americans: by increasing the number of students who receive Federal support for education, not by increasing the amount of money invested in helping each individual student.[2] Third, in an indication of how little true merit is prized, The Economist recently reported that incoming students at Benedict College, in South Carolina, will be graded with an emphasis on “effort” and not successful performance – a 60% weighting in favor of “effort,” in fact.[3]

Much as with the challenge of transitioning our economy to more skilled and better-paying jobs, the start to a solution here is a little bit of truth-telling about the nature and value of a B.A. from Some College, Anywhere, USA. America should start investing in serious and substantive vocational training, enabling its citizens to seek employment that uses those skills and which can lead not only to steady employment but to job satisfaction, perhaps business ownership, and maybe even innovation in their chosen field. Who among us has not encountered the embittered secretary or administrative assistant whose B.A. has enabled them ... to serve as an embittered secretary or admin? Tackling the value of vocational training might also, at the same time, help us come to terms with the expectations that come from America’s faux-meritocratic structure, and refocus the value of education on something more than the desire for financial, consumer-driven advancement. Education should be about more than the expectation that people will earn more and, thus, be able to spend more; it is crucial to our economic survival, but not simply as another avenue to greater purchasing power.

Lastly, outsourcing.
Publicly, almost everyone says outsourcing is bad, or at least won’t acknowledge that it might be good. President Bush, whose approach to free trade has been inconsistent at best, seems to slide back and forth between grudgingly-accepting it and outright hating it, depending on his audience. Senator Kerry acknowledged in the final presidential debate that outsourcing, as an element of our increasingly global economy, is simply unstoppable – but he did so while implying quite clearly that he thought it was not a good idea. Senator Edwards, as noted, railed solidly against such outrages The Democratic populists struck – and lost – again, while the cynical GOP trotted to victory with no more truthfulness than they have ever shown about the nature of their ties to corporate America. This is, after all, the same corporate America that seeks to outsource jobs and off-shore headquarters, all in an effort to minimize the amount of money spent in America (or paid to the Feds in taxes) while, at the same time, taking full advantage of all the country has to offer in comforts for the wealthy.

But in the context of a growing (global) economy, outsourcing may not be bad, if: it means that jobs are created in impoverished countries, helping to bring up standards of living, health care, and education, in those places; it means that new markets for American products are created; it means that Americans can afford to buy more of these products than they might otherwise, particularly those Americans with lower wages and purchasing power; and if it means that corporate profits increase, benefiting American shareholders and pensioners, and thus benefiting the American economy in different short- and long-term ways. It may seem unfair or somehow inequitable, but there is a certain beneficial logic to businesses moving certain kinds of jobs to countries with lower overhead.

No, outsourcing is not an automatic evil, never mind that most Americans do not want low-skill, low-paying jobs; they do not match our sense of self-worth. The problem comes when American jobs are lost overseas – and when nothing is done to replace those jobs at home, when no effort is made to train Americans for new jobs in new fields, and when nothing is done to address the underlying shifts in our economy (and the economy of the world) of which outsourcing is only one small by-product. This is not an either/or situation: we will continue to have low-skill, low-paying jobs, just as we will continue to have a vast network of colleges and universities across the country. We cannot function without both and both, in their way, are necessary. That said, we should not only seek to have as few of these jobs as are needed, but we should strive to offer educations that are as vocationally-beneficial as they are intellectually meaningful, so that we produce great thinkers and great tinkerers alike.

At bottom, one’s perspective on outsourcing, job creation, and education depends, at least in part, on one’s view of America’s future. Are we, as a nation, at much the same crossroads that earlier generations faced, if on different terms? The answer is clearly: yes. We must invest in sending our children to vocational schools as well as colleges, and in building for them an environment in which their education – in whatever fields they choose to pursue – leads them to happiness and success. We must stop our politicians on both sides, not to mention our labor leaders and our evangelical ministers, from manipulating us. We need to abandon this construct where we pretend to value education, but in truth have little respect for the intellectual. We must take care not to be a nation where the majority of our citizens face the future as unprepared to work in it as they are unable truly to philosophize about their plight.

[1] E.G., “U.S. Students Fare Badly in International Survey of Math Skills,” by Floyd Norris, The New York Times, 7 December 2004.
[2] E.G., “Students to Bear More of the Cost of College,” by Greg Winter, The New York Times, 23 December 2004.
[3] “Slightly separate, not that equal,” The Economist, 18 December 2004. This article is about changes and challenges at some of America’s “Historically Black” colleges – but Benedict College’s admission that, as the article says, “incoming students lack the study habits and other skills necessary to succeed” seems all too apt. If these students are not prepared for a scholarly college education, should they be there in the first place? And if Benedict College is not prepared to offer them an education based in scholarship – rather than “effort” - what business has it (or any other school with similar values) to pretend to educate at all?
  Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.