Letters at 3AM

Ho ho, hee hee

Letters at 3AM
Illustration By Jason Stout

More or less half a century ago a comic named Red Buttons would begin his act by hopping on his right foot while holding his right hand to his right ear, singing, "Ho ho!" Then he'd hop on his left foot with left hand to left ear, singing, "Hee hee!" Then he'd sing, "Straaaaange things are happening!"

It was easy to hop around that way after reading page one of The New York Times' Arts section (Aug. 4): "Pentagon's New Goal – Put Science Into Scripts." The military is paying "an elite group of scientists" to attend Los Angeles' American Film Institute, where they are learning "to write and sell screenplays." Ho ho, hee hee. My father used to say that "military intelligence" was a contradiction in terms, and it's hard to argue with him as you read on: "Officials at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research" reason it this way:

"Fewer and fewer students are pursuing science and engineering ... a crisis is looming, unless careers in science and engineering suddenly become hugely popular, said Robert J. Barker, an Air Force program manager. ... And what better way to get a lot of young people interested in science than by producing movies that depict scientists in flattering ways?" $150,000 is to be spent on such efforts – evidence that some people in high places think the situation is desperate. And well they should, when one in three American kids who starts high school doesn't graduate and our nation has fallen to 16th out of 20 developed countries in graduation rates. (U.S. News & World Report, quoted in The Week, April 8, p.20)

The consequences for the U.S. were elaborated on in an extraordinary article titled "Is America the World's 97-lb. Weakling?" – extraordinary not for what it said (the information is everywhere if you care to find it), but because that title headlined the July 25 edition of a conservative corporate bastion: Fortune magazine. They're scared too. Page 72: "Low-cost countries – not just China and India but also Mexico, Malaysia, Brazil, and others – are turning out large numbers of well-educated young people, fully qualified to work in an information-based economy. China will produce about 3.3 million college graduates this year, India 3.1 million (all of them English-speaking), the U.S. just 1.3 million. In engineering, China's graduates number over 600,000, India's 350,000, America's only 70,000." What they don't note is that 50% of our engineering graduates are foreign (The Week, July 15, p.18), and many of them are opting to work not here, as has been the case in the past, but in their homelands. Which means that India is producing nearly 10 times more engineers than we are per year, and China nearly 20. This is unheard of in the American experience.

Back to Fortune, same page: "The result is that many Americans who thought outsourcing only threatened factory workers and call-center operators are about to learn otherwise. This is a giant development [my italics]. ... The value of outsourced jobs is steadily rising." Fortune's argument, in part, is that a college degree will mean less and less in this country because there are now many more people in the world with as good or better an education, willing to work for a lot less, and there are many more American companies willing to outsource high-level, college-degree-type jobs. (Which may be one reason that 55% of our men and 47% of our women ages 18 to 24 "have returned to the nest to live with their parents," as noted in The Week, July 1, p.38). Fortune makes the point that even if we graduate a lot more engineers it may not do us any good; the jobs will be outsourced anyway to cheaper labor markets.

For more than a century the economic and military dominance of the United States was based on several interlocking factors: immense natural resources that made us agriculturally and industrially independent; the American invention of public education (first scoffed at in Europe), which until about 1980 made us the most literate and informed citizenry in the world; generations of immigrants that both filled the lower levels of labor (enabling previous generations to ascend the social ladder) and fed the public school system to produce new ascenders; and an aptitude for engineering that was both pragmatic and inventive, leaving the entire world to scramble after us technologically in everything from factories to motion pictures, steamships to airplanes, telephones to televisions, light bulbs to A-bombs, spaceships to the Internet. None of those elements hold anymore. Our resources are depleted. We import much of our agriculture, as well as oil and other resources. Our education is pathetic; our immigrants remain as ignorant here as in their home countries, while our native-born, through stupid movements like "intelligent design," destroy the teaching of science in our public schools – and, more damaging, destroy the prestige of science. Finally: What may be the cream of our inventions, computers combined with the Internet, has enabled the whole world to catch up far quicker than anyone dreamed possible even a decade ago.

And not only catch up. We're being surpassed in crucial, cutting-edge areas. Fortune, p.82: "We rank only 12th globally in the number of broadband connections per 100 inhabitants. Look closer and the situation is even worse. South Korea is not only more wired (No. 1 globally) but its connections are far faster than ours and are available not just through wires but also through virtually every cell phone. And speaking of our cellphone infrastructure – please don't. Anyone who travels globally knows it's awful by world standards."

But no politician or leader has the guts, the smarts, and the style, to confront the American people with their true situation.

Inundated with broadcast media projecting an America that no longer exists, many Americans live in a kind of twofold trance. On the one hand, they believe in an America that now exists only in the media and their imaginations; on the other hand, they are increasingly angry at, and confused about, the America they actually see – because it does not correspond to the America they believe is real. In an individual, this would be a dangerous prepsychotic state. But history teaches that countries go crazy too, en masse. What can one say of a country in which the Pentagon is teaching scientists to write scripts to entice young people into science, while businessmen cry out for more American engineers as Congress, the White House, and many state governments and religious movements undermine science at every turn? A madness is taking root. Most Americans (and not only the ill-educated) aren't aware of our most serious problems, and choose to remain that way, ignoring the evidence if they can or denying it even when it's presented cogently and clearly. Lay out the facts, and the usual response is anger – at you, not at the facts. It's as though as a culture we've lost the capacity to learn.

If you cannot learn, you cannot act. If you cannot act, you cannot save yourself.

But even Fortune admits, in a sort of parenthetical way, that while this is bad for us it may be good for the world. Page 77: "For the U.S. the loss of technology leadership could be historic. Without that advantage, there would be little to prevent living standards in the world's interconnected economies from equilibrating. The rest of the world's living standards would rise, and – at least in the near term – America's would decline."

Read that twice. The sapping of America's dominance is a boon for the world. The decline of America is enabling living standards of long-impoverished places to rise. Even our liberals have been unwilling to surrender their affluence for the benefit of the world's poor, no matter how well-intentioned their rhetoric; but now that affluence is being drained, and the world's poor are benefiting – and the "good guys," from the world's point of view, are the very transnational corporations that are betraying us. Which is a disgusting paradox, but interesting nevertheless. As a passionate anti-capitalist, I don't like to think that the corporations are doing what the revolutionaries could not. Yet, however it comes about, can anyone of conscience regret that the many will gain from the decline of a few? We are only 5% of the world's population, after all, and for a long time we've gorged roughly 50% of its resources. No more.

Ho ho, hee hee.

Strange things are happening, and they're happening to us. end story

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