Thursday, November 3, 2011

True American Exceptionalism

I usually watch the Squawk Box in the morning to catch the market trends and I always read the Economist to fill my head with useless things about global politics and economic news. I can’t help but notice Occupy Wall Street is on everyone’s lips these days.

Sam Zell was on CNBC SB this morning and was asked what he thought of the wealth inequality and OCW since he, along with the hosts of the Squawk Box, are of the 1%. He did not deny the outstanding wealth gap and inequality, but he shifted the question to education. His blame rested on our failing state of public education and the lack of hard science/engineer graduates. According to Zell, one of the reasons we have an increasingly out of control income gap, a failing economy, and higher and higher jobless rates, is a misdirection or misapplication of opportunities for vocational training. He gave a personal example of trying to set up a manufacturing plant in the U.S. but can’t seem to find enough skilled laborers to fill demand. He never mentioned which country he took his investments and manufacturing venture, but that is besides the question for now.

But Mr. Zell, a bad public education and a focus on liberal arts education are two completely different things.

It seems, according to Zell, the readings of Shakespeare and learning the liberal arts is what led to the discontent and the dissipation of our American Exceptionalism; higher jobless rates is but one by product of too many music and dance majors. OCW, according to Mr. Zell, then is a product of its own undoing – the protesters have no one but themselves to blame, less the politicians they elected who have provided funding for these liberal arts education and subsidies.

According to the Economist and a George Mason economist, Alex Tabarrok, the liberal arts phenomenon is real:

[T]hough many more young Americans, about 50% more, now go to college than did 25 years ago, the number of students studying science, engineering, technology, or mathematics has not increased . . . . In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

The Economist correspondent/blogger, however, came to the rescue of our Liberal Arts focus. W.W. writes:

I wonder why Mr Tabarrok is so fixed on the role of education as an input to production but so uninterested in it as a form of consumption, whence all welfare flows . . . . What is economic growth for, anyway? It's for expanding our choices and making life better. Is it really so surprising that, as we grow wealthier as a society, more and more of our young people, when the amazing resources of the modern university are put at their disposal, choose to use them learning something satisfying and enriching and not for anything except cherishing the rest of their lives? Is it really so surprising that taxpayers are not in revolt over the existence of poetry professors?

Personally, I have to agree with the Economist blogger. Not because I think someone ought to be writing poetry and music that we enjoy and so enriches our lives. I think those things are inherently valuable and the need for them in this over-stimulated Social Internet age speaks for itself. I have another argument to make, however, an economic one:

If you walk into any engineering schools across America these days, you will notice a disproportionally large number of students from India, China, Egypt, etc. This is the area they can compete comfortably and this is where we as Americans have failed our children. But that’s not the end of the story. When I visit China, I often hear there is a lacking in the innovative spirit and skill gap in the creative force. A few days ago I questioned this lack of Chinese innovation is due to a retardation of their existentialism – a product of lacking in liberal arts education and a hindered open and free creative environment.

I hope you can see that having our liberal arts majors puts our nation a step ahead of the market place in terms of our ability to innovate. China today lacks intellectual capital, and it’s either stealing or buying up new creative portfolios. This means we still have an advantage in the economy, not because we are Americans, or our simply exceptionalism, but because we still value things like creativity outside of pure math discipline and engineering abilities. We are able to create and invent is precisely because our inventors have read a diverse base of literature, listened to a range of different music, and is exposed to different views as the result of our focus on liberal arts.

To me, our liberal arts education is the sole advantage we have against the likes of China and India. Let’s not criticize its purpose and usefulness just yet. Let’s figure out ways we can leverage this uniquely American, and yes privileged, expertise. It’s perhaps the only way we can compete with China in the long run. But competition will not give us the full advantage of our abilities developed from our liberal arts education – only cooperation will. What China is lacking, we have; what China needs we can provide. We see this in many sectors of the global economy – especially the green economy. So instead of criticizing our education and calling for more protectionism, I ask that we focus on innovation and creativity and how we can cooperate with China to leverage our advantages.

Let’s focus on the strength of our past dealings. Sure we need to improve our education and train more skilled labor forces for the future growth of our manufacturing industry. (I have a feeling we will go through a rather revolutionary manufacturing renaissances in the years to come and I leave the topic for another day), but let’s not forego or ignore the advantage we have built in the last few decades in our free and unhindered ability to create, invent, and lead.

To me, that is the true American Exceptionalism.

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