Thomas Friedman is recycling one of his stock columns today, putting new shoes on old socks with another Gee Whiz Technology Flat Earth Everything Must Change breathless column. It makes an interesting counterpoint to Laura Clawson's post on how the Republican Party has left working people behind.
According to Friedman, ordinary people should no longer expect to succeed just by working hard and playing by the rules. Follow me past the Orange Omnilepticon while I recycle a comment to Clawson's diary that gets at why that is so wrong-headed and completely misses the problems with the economy today as far as most people are concerned.
I JUST arrived in Shanghai, but I’m thinking about Estonia and wondering about something Presidents Clinton and Obama have been saying.snip
All of this made me think Obama should stop using the phrase — first minted by Bill Clinton in 1992 — that if you just “work hard and play by the rules” you should expect that the American system will deliver you a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one. That mantra really resonates with me and, I am sure, with many voters. There is just one problem: It’s out of date.emphasis added
He flails around for a bit before finally getting to the 'insight' of the moment, one that reads like so many previous Friedman columns:
That world is gone. It is now a more open system. Technology and globalization are wiping out lower-skilled jobs faster, while steadily raising the skill level required for new jobs. More than ever now, lifelong learning is the key to getting into, and staying in, the middle class.emphasis added
There is a quote attributed to the futurist Alvin Toffler that captures this new reality: In the future “illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” Any form of standing still is deadly.
I've got news for you Mr. Friedman - what you're raving about today is a concept that has been around for some time. Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll put a name to it: the Red Queen's Race. Or as the book has it,
"Now! Now!" cried the Queen. "Faster! Faster!" And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy. The Queen propped her against a tree, and said kindly, "You may rest a little now."What Mr. Friedman fails to note when he dismisses the part about succeeding by playing by the rules is that - as Elizabeth Warren knows - the rules are rigged so that the Romneys of the world extract all the 'shareholder value' from the race, and tell the runners to get back on the track for another go-round while they pocket the gains. And this is something that more education is not going to fix.
Alice looked round her in great surprise. "Why, I do believe we've been under this tree all the time! Everything's just as it was!"
"Of course it is," said the Queen: "what would you have it?"
"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."
"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
Friedman does give passing acknowledgment to the idea that efforts to fund continuing education is a good idea, but fails to ask who is going to pay for it. How are people with full time jobs supposed to find the time? How are people who can't find work supposed to feed themselves, buy text books, and keep a roof over their heads while they study? And how is this supposed to happen in a country where the idea of spending by the government on anything except killing people is a bad thing that must be reined in? Somehow Friedman always glosses over little details like that....
Warren gets right to the heart of problem.
But for many years now, our middle class has been chipped, squeezed, and hammered. Talk to the construction worker I met from Malden, Massachusetts, who went nine months without finding work. Talk to the head of a manufacturing company in Franklin trying to protect jobs but worried about rising costs. Talk to the student in Worcester who worked hard to finish his college degree, and now he's drowning in debt. Their fight is my fight, and it's Barack Obama's fight too.Friedman's delusion that life long learning is the key to staying in the middle class ignores all of the ways the economy is rigged against that class - and who is profiting from that rigging. For the last 30 years, the rewards for doing more with less, for increasing productivity, for adopting new technology, for upgrading skills - they have been reaped by a handful at the expense of the majority. Continuing education, new technology is important - but it's NOT a panacea. (I expect the day Friedman learns about the Raspberry Pi, he'll have an orgasm all over the Times about it.)
People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here's the painful part: they're right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.
Once upon a time the idea was that technology and the increased productivity that would result from it would be used to reduce the amount of time and effort people would need to spend providing for their basic needs, giving them more leisure and the chance to pursue knowledge, the arts, whatever they desired. Instead, we're heading for a world where most people will have to compete ever more fiercely for fewer jobs, work harder, study harder, - and put off their retirement longer as the age of Social Security goes up and benefits go down. All that plus more homework.
And the Romneys of the world will go around talking about how important it is to celebrate 'success' while they skim all the profits off this Red Queen's Race (aka Rat Race).
O Brave New World that has such Friedmans in it!