Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Lost Nation

"Today, General Motors is back on top as the world's number one automaker. . . What's happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh."

--President Barack Obama, 2012 State of the Union speech

"The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. . . But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age."

--Walter Russell Mead, The American Interest

“The future ain't what it used to be.”

--Yogi Berra

In truth, it’s unlikely manufacturing will yield substantial job growth in America.

Adam Davidson’s “Making It in America,” in the latest issue of The Atlantic, captured the New York Times editorial room Monday, on the eve of Obama’s State of the Union. Both Thomas Friedman and David Brooks based their columns on Davidson’s article. Quoting Davidson, Friedman wrote that advances in both globalization and the information technology revolution are replacing U.S. labor with machines or foreign workers, with employers finding above average yet cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Said Davidson:
In the 10 years ending in 2009, [U.S.] factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs — about 6 million in total — disappeared.
Friedman added that unemployment for Americans over 25 years old with a high school degree is 8.7%, dropping to 4.1% for those with bachelor’s degree or higher (but note: the unemployment rate for college graduates, historically around 2%, is now above 4% for the first time in record-keeping history).

Brooks’ treatment of the Davidson article went to the causes of a less competitive American workforce. Wrote Brooks:
millions of mothers can’t rise because they don’t have adequate support systems as they try to improve their skills. Tens of millions of children have poor life chances because they grow up in disorganized environments that make it hard to acquire the social, organizational and educational skills they will need to become productive workers.

Tens of millions of men have marred life chances because schools are bad at educating boys, because they are not enmeshed in the long-term relationships that instill good habits and because insecure men do stupid and self-destructive things. Over the past 40 years. . . median incomes of men have dropped 28% and male labor force participation rates are down 16%.
Brooks blames the male income decline on “the deterioration of the moral and social landscape” surrounding men. But while Brooks points to social causes for unemployment, like Friedman, Brooks remains as fixed as ever on the “government do something” mode of problem solving. Friedman’s big recommendation is a “G.I. Bill for the 21st century that ensures that every American has access to post-high school education.” That could be expensive.

Brooks suggests government simplify the tax code, cut corporate rates, streamline regulations, make immigration policy more flexible, balance the budget, support training programs like Job Corps, coordinate better between colleges and employers, pay superstar teachers more, and expand child care and early childhood education. Whew.

What about Walter Russell Mead, whose quote above calls for a post-big-government approach to our unemployment problem? What’s his “do something”? Mead wants “a project that can capture the best energies of our rising generations, those who will lead the United States and the world to new and richer ways of living.”

OK, but. . .

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