You’ve probably heard about the remark presidential candidate Rick Santorum said recently about Barack Obama:
“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”
Let’s assume Mr. Santorum is quoting Mr. Obama correctly. Mr. Santorum himself has a bachelor’s, law degree, and MBA, for what it’s worth, so it’s safe to say that he doesn’t think a college education is snobbery. This quote tells us a lot about Santorum’s vision of the future.
With all the brouhaha of late over the factories in China building our electronic gadgets (almost all of our electronic gadgets, not just the one brand name that we hear over and over again), what seems to get lost a lot of the time is that while these factory jobs are mind-numbingly boring with long hours and living on in corporate dormitories, they are a huge step-up from second-rate factories (which aren’t getting the big inspections and Nightline specials), which are themselves a huge step-up from the backbreaking rural agricultural work that would be most of these workers fate without these factories. This isn’t to say I want to work in this factories or I want you to work in them; just that they are, in fact, relatively better than the alternative.
Thirty to forty years ago China was fighting for its right to live in the Middle Ages (no, thank you, Mao and the Gang of Four), and now it’s pushing forward as fast as possible to live in the future. China doesn’t want to be the land of manufacturing, it wants to be the land of innovation.
The Chinese government’s latest five-year plan emphasizes the need for long-term investment in research and development, to shift China from being “factory to the world” to being an innovation-driven, knowledge and service economy. The Chinese understand that being an innovative brand-owner like Apple or Nike is much more profitable than being an original equipment manufacturer. They have Japanese and South Korean examples such as Sony and Samsung to follow. The five-year plan also calls for doubling the percentage of gross domestic product from creative industries. Young people born after the “opening” in 1989 are leading vibrant arts and fashion scenes in the major cities.
Their vision of the future is quite different than Santorum’s.
Here in the US, we have lots of types of jobs: we have agriculture (by and large this is all BigAg stuff now; family farmers are a convenient myth), unskilled labor (mostly going overseas), skilled labor, and what Richard Florida calls “the creative class.” The creative class are the people who companies fight over to hire and retain. They’re the innovators, the people who are not just cogs in the machine and who can’t just be replaced by a warm body.
In Flight of the Creative Class, Florida analyzes why certain places have attracted more than their fair share of the creative class — and what other places have to do to get them (and keep them). He argues quite strenuously that the US, particularly post-9/11, is going out of its way to discourage innovators and creators from coming here.
You may have heard about two British travelers recently denied entry to the US after they tweeted about coming here to “destroy America.” If you have a choice of two relatively equal destinations, and one of them denies entry to people who have made jokes on Twitter, you might just decide to go to the other one.
If that happens too often, people who have a choice of places to go to stop coming to ours. In which case, we’re massively screwed, because a huge reason the US has continued to be so successful is because it has welcomed immigrants and innovation. It’s welcomed the strange and offbeat. These days, when other countries ratify gay marriage and our government refuses to recognize those marriages as legal, where do you think those married couples are going to go?
(The creative class, by and large, has learned to think around corners, because they put a and b together and get wxyz. If you belong to a minority outside the mainstream, like gays or Jews or ethnic minorities, you learn to think around corners a hell of a lot faster than people who live happily in the middle of the stream and think that’s the only way to be. Which is why it’s important for the creative class to know how we treat our minorities.)
I like all of the stuff by Florida I’ve read, by the way, like Who’s Your City, which comes up with a reasonable explanation for why, in the age of the Internet, you still live in Silicon Valley if you want to do computers and you live in Milan if you want to do fashion and you live in New York City if you want to do finance.
InThe Great Reset, Florida compares the current depression to immense economic upheavals of the past — the Great Depression and the Long Depression of the 1800s — and asks if we can’t learn something from those difficult, society-changing experiences and apply it to what we’re going through right now. Each of these economic disasters led to a fundamental shift in how we worked and lived, and he is fairly certain we’re in for this now as well. If we can prepare, we’ll be that far ahead of the game.
When Kansas or Texas or (insert name of state here) seriously starts arguing about teaching creationism in schools, I joke that “there’s another state of kids who won’t be competing against my kids for spots in college!” Only it’s not a joke. We can either teach our kids to face the future with an ability to handle complex scientific thoughts, or we can stick our fingers in our ears and chant “La la la” a lot. Everyone who thinks the second one is a great vision of the future, please identify yourselves so we can make sure not to involve you in any of the grownup discussions.
When politicians talk, they are telling you about the future they think about. What kind of society they think we should aim for. What kind of people are going to meet the challenges of the post-2008 depression. The general theory behind getting a college education is that the person has learned enough about a variety of subjects — history, math, literature, science — that they can understand what’s going on around them. The object isn’t to burden students with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, even though that’s definitely one of the side effects. I agree wholeheartedly there isn’t anything you can learn in college that you can’t learn elsewhere. But one of the things college is supposed to do is expose you to people and ideas you might not otherwise run into in your own insular little world. So that you can learn to put two or three crazy, unrelated ideas together…and create a new innovation.
The future is hard and scary and unknown and nothing is a given. You can dig in and work, or you can give up and pretend it’s all going to work out if we just hunker down over here and don’t let scary foreigners in with their scary ideas.
When Rick Santorum refers to a dream of a well-educated populace as snobbery, it tells you something about what he sees.