Business, Common Knowledge

Turns out, it is rocket science


It was inevitable that American politics would spoil that most pristine, beloved and genuine part of American culture: the annual blitz of Super Bowl commercials. Instead of being able to enjoy debating whether Volkswagen could outdo its Darth Vader commercial from last year (it didn’t), we were left with the news outlets arguing for many days about whether Chrysler’s “It’s halftime in America” commercial was intended to help President Obama’s reelection prospects.

Such pointless debates always miss the bigger controversy. No it’s not why Clint Eastwood’s voice in the Chrysler ad sounds like Christian Bale’s Batman. The big controversy was around a commercial for U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra. The Michigan Republican’s commercial featured an Asian woman speaking in broken English, thanking Hoekstra’s opponent for overspending so much that her country – presumably China – was getting rich lending money to the United States. The woman also was quite pleased that her country is stealing American jobs.

Subtle it wasn’t.

The ad faced a barrage of criticism including from some Republicans that it was racist. But worse for Hoekstra is it simply wasn’t a good ad. If he truly wanted to highlight the loss of American competitiveness to China and other Asian countries, he would have to focus on additional things besides overspending. For example, he could have focused on how the United States is dramatically underperforming in science and math, which unfortunately happen to be the foundations of our economy today and tomorrow.

Look at the economies that are outperforming us. Germany’s economic backbone is its famed mittelstand of family-owned midsized businesses, many of them makers and exporters of world-class technical components and machines. Its schools, apprenticeship system and work ethic all support this successful strategy. When it was found to be too rigid to compete against other countries, which was the case by the late 1990s, Germany reformed its system to make it competitive. Less enjoyable but possibly better performing are the famously high-pressure school systems of South Korea and Japan, and both of those countries are also leading exporters of high technology.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted a student recalling his mother’s reaction if he came home with poor grades: “She would scold me and then tell me to sit down and work.” The student grew up in Singapore, where parental attitudes toward education apparently differ from those found in many American families. “I read that American parents, when their kids get bad test scores, tend to be more sympathetic and worry about the kids’ self-esteem,” the student noted.

It might not be as bad as little Ralph Wiggum on The Simpsons exclaiming, “Me, fail English? That’s ‘unpossible’!” But we do face some huge challenges –educational, vocational, political – turning around a system that currently is focused more on turning out Ralph Wiggumes and Jackass stars than scientists, mathematicians and thinkers.

NBC newsman Tom Brokaw says much the same thing, albeit in a nicer way. “Modern manufacturers say that they can’t get a good workforce out of the American system, because young people coming out of school are challenged, frankly, in terms of math and reading skills,” Brokaw told The Commonwealth Club in November. “Twenty percent of our high school graduates going to college now have to have remedial courses in literacy and in math.”

Brokaw was optimistic, but he said the country needed to start paying attention to the fact our education system is failing the country itself. “Education is the currency of the 21st century,” he said. “We’ve got China; it’s come from nowhere to be the number-two economy in the world. We’ve got India, Brazil, Russia, and Korea; we’ve got a rising economic base in South America. Same thing is happening in all the old Soviet satellite states. [The solution is to] have a better-educated populous, encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation and an ability to work anywhere in the world, but especially here at home.”

It’s not just education that needs to be dealt with though. Immigration laws, business creation incentives and regulation, and much more all are being tested and found wanting in the new new economy.

Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy was intrigued by PayPal co-founder (and San Francisco resident) Peter Thiel’s Blueseed proposal to base a luxury ship just inside international waters off California’s shore. The ship would house many international knowledge workers who can’t get past America’s restrictive immigration and worker visa rules. Duffy thinks the proposal is something of a “so crazy it might work” wildcard idea intended to force serious discussion of the problem.

The Bay Area would be a lot poorer if it didn’t have its biotech industry, computer firms, software creators, and physics laboratories. But our schools are not producing enough people to fill those jobs. So we complain when foreigners fill up our otherwise empty science and technology classrooms. We complain when they stay here and create or fill jobs in these cutting-edge industries. We complain when they go back home and start up businesses there because they’re unable to stay in the United States.

That’s why I think Blueseed is more than a tech version of A Modest Proposal. Jonathan Swift didn’t design ocean-going vessels and raise capital. Blueseed has. And if America continues to make a mess of its competitiveness, they can always steer the ship to some other more accommodating country in the future.

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