Misusing History (or: Mayor Bloomberg ♥ Henry Ford!)

Innovating Then...and Now? (from eriecanal.org)

It’s official:  “Innovation” is going viral among  American politicians.  “Yankee ingenuity” is back, with a vengeance.  Our famous inventive spirit will beat back all comers in the quickening global race for economic dominance. Brainpower is the new horsepower.

I’m now completely convinced that the anxiety/enthusiasm recipe I wrote about below (wherein we are reminded by our civic leaders that high-tech innovation will preserve our global economic  leadership as China “threatens” our superpower standing) will not be displaced any time soon by “Trickle-Down Economics”, “Family Values”, “Homeland Security” or any other off-the-shelf schemes for regaining our global groove. “Science” it is.

It was reading Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech  (reprised in his comments last Sunday on “Meet the Press”)   that solidified this impression for me:

Throughout American history, innovations combined with government investment have created fundamental and lasting structural changes to the economy that spurred new private sector investment, new jobs, and new prosperity for the country. For instance, after the financial panic of 1819, it was New York Governor DeWitt Clinton who built the Erie Canal – ushering in a new era of westward development and growth. In the 1860s, with the Civil War tearing the country in two, Lincoln’s transcontinental railroad set the stage for America to fulfill its manifest destiny, by opening new markets and allowing private sector innovations – in industries like steel and oil – to drive a new era of national growth. When the country was seemingly near collapse in 1907, it wasn’t long before people like Henry Ford pioneered mass production techniques that ushered in a new age of industrial growth, with government building new roads, bridges, and tunnels to support it. –Mayor Bloomberg, Dec. 8, 2010

Put aside for a minute the rather confusing mash-up of Big Government/Small Government ideologies here.  What bothers me is Mr. Bloomberg’s selective use of history… Partly because  uncritical references to  Henry Ford’s management practices make me shudder, but also because Bloomberg  blithely assures us that there is nothing wrong with this nation that a good transcontinental railroad or Model T Ford can’t fix.

Problem is….the Erie Canal, coast-to-coast rail systems, Detroit’s auto industry, and even the electronics boom of the 1960s arose in political conditions very different from those in which we live today. Those were eras in which not all, but the majority of productive enterprises stayed on our shores.  It wasn’t only roads, canals and mines that (of necessity) used local workforces, but most industrial operations.

Whether it was the strength of labor unions or of the Soviet Union, or the pull of some other cultural commitments (like Ford’s notorious xenophobia, perhaps?), that impelled  U.S. manufacturers to employ primarily U.S. residents, the country’s producers did not chase low wages around the planet with the same vigor or impunity we see today.  Motorola and Xerox had not yet shifted so completely to seeing other nations as sources for (lower-priced) engineering and assembly personnel, a labor-demand-and-supply trend that has solidified in recent decades. And, my sociologist colleague Mary Ebeling reminds us,  satellite communications and the Internet had not yet fortified  that trend with massively expanded abilities to instantaneously transfer commercial information between continents.

By contrast, in the last twenty years,  the manufacturing spin-offs of Silicon Valley and the emerging biotech sector have grown in a culture of legitimized global outsourcing; there’s not a lot of evidence that any scale-up to come in nano arenas will reverse this pattern.  Jobs for Americans simply can’t be said to be the number one priority of high-tech U.S. manufacturers today.

As Ian Fletcher said of our current trade policies, in an interview with Michael Hughes on the same day as Bloomberg’s speech:

What works on the level of the individual company is a net loss for the economy as a whole.

Let’s be clear:  historical continuities also plays a role in this pattern. Despite a growing body of labor law and expanded workers’ rights since Bloomberg’s economic blast-off date of 1819,  especially over the first half of the 20th century, the concentration of wealth continues to skew towards the nation’s richest citizens year after year, as Gus Lubin nicely summarizes. Real redistributions of economic opportunity don’t drive American industrial expansion today any more than they did in Henry Ford’s era.

For example: Last week at a meeting of folks interested in nanotech innovation,  I heard a corporate R&D director, from a hugely successful high-tech firm,  actually acknowledge that lowered wage structures in non-US countries make it hard for cutting-edge American companies to move discoveries from lab bench to scaled-up commercialization;  US companies, he warned,  can’t compete with high-tech research operations in Chinese and Indian firms, let alone with production operations in those countries. Yet, his answer to this problem? Not a new look at the American free trade policies that have incentivized outsourcing, but lower corporate taxes for American firms.

In Mr. Bloomberg’s cyclorama of American invention, a new national drive for scientific and technical innovation is, I think, sincerely intended to inspire energetic and creative activity and useful new products, welcome medical and energy innovations among them.  But his happy vision of a bustling populace, some boiling over with new ideas while others, presumably,  use their brawn to make those inventions, tactically ignores alot of history.  His epic 200-year timeline leaves out today’s institutionalized disconnect between industrial innovation and employment in the United States, and reinforces the economic privileges that have long accrued to successful American business owners and investors.

Only in such artful  narratives as Mayor Bloomberg’s, selective and reductive as they are, would the Erie Canal and transcontinental railroad offer lessons for technical innovation today.  I’m no historian… hey, wait, actually, I AM a historian, and Mr. Bloomberg, these strategic, misleading invocations of past events serve us all poorly.

Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.