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Education the Key to a 21st Century American Economy


This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on October 26, 2012.

For decades, the U.S. economy has been firmly rooted in manufacturing. In fact, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, 1.7 million U.S. jobs are in manufacturing, generating $1.7 trillion of value each year. There is a lot of pride in American-made goods, as products manufactured domestically are often emblazoned with a “Made in the USA” logo.

But while the quality of American goods is generally high, that hasn’t stopped the rest of the world from challenging our manufacturing dominance. Many corporations have begun moving production to overseas plants, where the cheaper cost of labor helps pad the bottom line. With the country still suffering from high unemployment, Americans are hungry for jobs.

Thus it should come as no surprise that a common theme in all three Presidential debates has been a focus on the economy. America is still working hard to pull itself out of the Great Recession, and both candidates think they have the plan that will accelerate the process. Each wants to bring manufacturing jobs back to America and disincentivize outsourcing to countries like China and India. These visions sound nice and score political points among voters who are struggling to make ends meet, but if we keep our eyes on the future, it’s clear these measures would be little more than band-aids.

The landscape of the global economy is changing (and if you don’t think the issue is a global one, you’re fooling yourself), and America is lagging behind.

…if history is to be taken as a lesson, the complacent are time and again overtaken by those hungrier for success.

This certainly wasn’t always the case. At the start of the second industrial revolution (mid to late 1800s), the United States was one of the countries leading the charge. Steel, chemicals, petroleum, electricity, and later automotive manufacturing were the big industries to come up in this period. Even today, when you think of manufacturing in the U.S., it’s likely you’re thinking of one of these. The economic boom associated with the second industrial revolution in America propelled it to its world superpower status, a perch at the top that it enjoyed for many decades.

But now, it seems we have become complacent. “America is a superpower and will be always and forever” seems to be the mentality. And yet, if history is to be taken as a lesson, the complacent are time and again overtaken by those hungrier for success. And so it has come that Asia is poised to generate the next crop of world superpowers.

According to the Global Innovation Index, the United States is becoming less innovative, sliding from 7th in the world in 2011 to 10th this year. Furthermore, while the U.S. is among the top 5 in 25-64 year-olds achieving higher education, we are only 14th (out of 37 ranked countries) in 25-34 year-olds attaining higher education, a backward slide that bodes ill for our future.

It’s time to get back ahead of the curve.

When we talking about creating jobs for Americans or bringing jobs back from overseas, it’s important to consider what types of jobs will move us forward. While I understand in short term people need jobs because they need a source of income, a push for the future means not just creating menial jobs with which to occupy people.

In the second presidential debate, President Obama spoke directly about creating high-wage, high-skill jobs—a point that I think was right on the mark. So where should we focus our efforts?

  1. Energy: Energy independence is a big deal for the American economy to not be dependent on foreign oil reserves, but “drill, baby, drill” isn’t the best answer. With climate change a very real and very serious issue for the future, the time is now to invest in alternative and sustainable energy. While natural gas may be a step in the right direction from an environmental standpoint, we need truly renewable energy in the form of wind, solar, hydroelectric, and especially nuclear power. If the United States can get out in front of the rest of the world on the pressing issue of energy and the related climate effects, we can be in control of the energy market again.
  2. Technology: There is no doubt that the Internet has been one of the most influential inventions of the past two decades, and getting a pulse on where it is headed next could give America another economic advantage for years to come. Recently, cloud storage and computing has become a hot topic. This could be a significant boost to efficiency if properly implemented, as tasks could be broken into small constituent components to be worked on by an individual (or a machine, as needed). An example of this already in use would be Stanford’s Folding@Home program, which allows individuals to use their computers to help Stanford scientists study how proteins fold.
  3. Innovation: You’ll recall that I pointed out America’s recent decline in innovation. It is very important that we turn this around because the best way to be ahead of the curve is to have fresh ideas that no one has thought of yet. Furthermore, we need an overhaul of our current patent system so that creativity is rewarded, not stifled. The very fact that Apple and Samsung can have a drawn-out legal battle over “rounded edges” is not only a colossal waste of resources but also a case-in-point of how patent law has become antiquated and ripe for abuse.

America still has the potential to attract the greatest minds from around the world, and it has the potential to cultivate even more through higher education, but it takes an investment in our future for this potential to be realized. The cost of an education is going up while more families struggle just to make ends meet. Government grants attempt to bridge the gap, but too often students fall through the cracks when they come from families that make too much to qualify yet too little to cover the expense on their own.

EdX is one attempt at trying to make education available to everyone. A joint endeavor by MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Texas, edX offers free classes for anyone with an internet connection and even offers a certificate of completion to indicate mastery of the subject matter (though this may require a modest fee in the future). I would like to see other universities in the country join this effort (or start ones of their own). Education should not be limited to the privileged few, but rather made available to anyone who wants it. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, knowledge is like the flame from a candle, using it to light another doubles the illumination instead of diminishing it.

If America is to remain competitive on a global scale, we will need all of the brightness we can get.

  • This is a great article assuming that the people currently controlling the US wanted to do things the honest way, and be a superpower through good old fashioned hard work, but sometimes less education, and the subsequent unemployment currently being created, can be useful in recruiting people into the military which can then be used for less than fair economic gains.

    Of course though in such a system, only the people at the top of the food chain would benefit from the incredible sacrifice and hard work of those at the bottom.

    • Indeed, it harkens back to the days when education was only for the elite and the working class was kept illiterate. Grammar and syntax were made intentionally difficult so the common folk couldn’t engage in the same intellectual discussions as the wealthy. I don’t think we’re headed quite to that extreme, but I would hope it’s clear (at least to honest people) that we’re better off in a world where everyone has the opportunity to get an education.

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