It's Just That Easy!

If I ever write about From Beirut to Jerusalem, I will probably have some very nice things to say about Thomas L. Friedman. But nuggets like this are why I always regret reading his column.

The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things, is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things. Without inventing more new products and services that make people more productive, healthier or entertained — that we can sell around the world — we’ll never be able to afford the health care our people need, let alone pay off our debts.

Obama should bring together the country’s leading innovators and ask them: “What legislation, what tax incentives, do we need right now to replicate you all a million times over” — and make that his No. 1 priority. Inspiring, reviving and empowering Start-up America is his moon shot.

Friedman’s ultimate point is that the second year of the Obama administration must focus on this effort. In another inimitable Friedman-ism, “You want more good jobs, spawn more Steve Jobs.” What he is proposing is that the United States essentially find an economic Northwest Passage that will do an end run around all the nasty, contentious problems that have bogged down the country this year. If we just invent enough new iPods and microprocessors, other problems will be solved as a matter of course.

He has it exactly backwards. Innovation isn’t the silver bullet that can kill the problems afflicting the country right now, but those problems can definitely help choke innovation. If we want to promote the kind of risk-taking and creativity that will revitalize the economy and produce the kind of good jobs that we’ve been shedding with de-industrialization, I think we must address healthcare and a lot of other difficult issues that don’t fire the imagination like an “Innovation Movement”.

I once worked at a company that offered decent health coverage and a lousy wage in exchange for some truly awful work. More than half my fellow employees hated working there and did as little as they could get away with, but everyone stayed because they were terrified of leaving the company and losing their coverage. The company had a demoralized, indifferent workforce that was staying for the benefits that imposed a major burden on the company and made them as cautious about hiring as a man picking his away through a minefield. A lot of us were smart, capable people, and the company wasn’t really that terrible. But we were stuck in a bad marriage, and health care was the shotgun that got us to the altar.

When I didn’t have insurance, I suffered a minor injury and had to pay $1000 for a one-hour emergency room visit. My partner and I had to cut out all our luxuries and shave our expenses down to the bone in order to cover the unforeseen expense. Mind you, if I’d had insurance I’d have had to pay almost nothing but the insurance company would have had to pay almost twice as much. I believe the economists call this an inefficiency.

Graduating with tens of thousands of dollars of college debt (and far more if you go to a professional grad school) is probably not going to make anyone a bold innovator either. When I graduated from college, my summa cum laude Classics and Government degree and I took a job at a liquor store because I needed to keep a roof over my head and start paying off my student loans. That was probably not the best use of my skills, and someone else probably could have used the job, but I didn’t have a choice but to take it. I still spend several hundred a month on undergraduate debt. Not exactly an obligation that makes you free to follow your Muse.

And I had it easy. I had it good.

Friedman also suggests some science and entrepreneurship initiative in low-income school districts, which is the kind of idea that can only sound good to someone who knows nothing about the reality of a low-income school district. Since No Child Left Behind, the average teacher in a poor school district has about as much independence as a private in the North Korean army. Classroom creativity and innovative education initiatives are difficult to slip into a busy schedule of teaching and grading 150 students every day and attending cover-your-ass meetings ginned up by administrators to ensure that any blame for low-performance falls on teachers.

I might also point out that having incomprehensible amounts of wealth destroyed by poorly-regulated financial markets, and resultant credit shortages, is not going to make a thousand flowers bloom. But I’ll stick to the things I know about, which would be excellent advice for Friedman.

    • Mithras
    • January 26th, 2010 11:05am

    Hear hear!
    That quote at the begining rather worried me. It takes more than three years to even lay the ground works for an innovative generation. It’s one of my pet peeves about education systems, those in charge don’t seem to realise that it takes a few years to iron out kinks, so whenever something goes wrong they go right to rok ‘fixing’ it and start the proccess over again.

    I agree about the thrust of the argumant as well, technology wont solve social problems. And even if it did it probably wont be profitable enough to warrant development.

    So yeah, um. I broadly agree with you. Very nice piece.

  1. Amen to the point you made about teaching. NCLB is a bureaucratic nightmare of strictures and blame. It diminishes the scope of authority and creativity from teachers in the classroom — right where those attributes are in most dire need. NCLB needs to go. It’s misnamed, misguided, and misanthropic.

    A fellow named Kozel wrote a book called “Shame of the Nation” that starkly illustrates the imprisoning effect that federal authority has on kids who are guilty of the crime of going to public schools in low income areas. I studied it as part of my coursework for my education degree. I nearly abandoned my goal of being a public school teacher after reading it: that career requires endorsing a system that kills children’s minds.

    Friedman is a champion of feel-good rhetoric and blithe observation. I doubt he’s spent any meaningful time in the trenches of the problem areas over which he claims expertise.

    • @Mithras – I think one of the tragedies of politics is that people are generally more interested in seeming to be fixing a problem than in actually fixing it. It makes long-term planning and reform pretty much impossible, because there’s no patience and lots of inflated expectations.

      The thing about modern technology is that it just doesn’t produce the kind of mass employment that innovations in the 19th and early 20th century did. No matter how much the world loves the latest Apple gadget, it’s not going to produce the kind of employment and wealth that Bethlehem Steel and General Motors did. And that’s really the key problem nobody seems to be interested in solving. Working-class jobs pay less, and offer a hell of a lot less dignity, than those available to my father’s and grandfather’s generations.

      @Cameron – Totally agree with your penultimate sentence. That’s Friedman, exactly.

      Being a public school teacher does seem to demand complicity with an unethical system, and that’s probably my biggest problem with the profession. My view is that teachers have allowed themselves to become a band-aid covering up for rotten administrations and policies. Think about the heartwarming, Stand and Deliver archetypal “good teacher” that our society pays lip service to: someone who goes well beyond the normal requirements of the job, at tremendous personal and financial sacrifice, to help their young charges. Hell, there are even office supply stores giving “teacher discounts” because it’s pretty much understood at this point that teachers use a portion of their own money to buy supplies for their students.

      But then, if a teacher isn’t willing to be a martyr, or if somehow one person fails to single-handedly overcome the blighting effects of poverty, social promotion, and an overstressed school system, then that teacher is just one of those “lazy teachers” that the unions protect to the detriment of children. It’s lose-lose. Either you sacrifice your life “for the kids” and a shitty salary, or you’re a terrible teacher. So why participate?

    • Mithras
    • January 27th, 2010 12:54pm

    I’ll have to disagree with your comment about technology. I think historical improvements have either lowered the input of the lobourer, reducing wages and any sense personal acomplishment the person could have gleaned from their job. Or changed the skillset entirely and brought in a new, smaller class of more white collar workers.

    Ford and the industrial revolution over here would be good examples of the former. While I think General Motors would be an example of the latter.

    I’m not saying better technology is a bad thing, it’s just usually bad news for the labourer, in some way shape or form.

    I’ve had a few teachers who’ve actually tried to make the class think. Though usually at the expense of getting through the exam at the end of the course. Personally I think that’s all ok. But you really have to ask if creating free thinking individuals worth denying them the peice of paper which garuntees them some sort of future.

    The last comment on teachers is interesting. As I can’t for the life of me understand why people want to be teachers even in when the education system’s good.Yet people keep going into the proffesion. So there’s some motivation in there.

    I’ve probably betrayed my deep ignorance of NCLB here. If I am tell me to bugger off to do some research,or else just explain.

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