Friday, July 10, 2015

Competing Globally

On the list of empty rhetoric that's thrown into the ring for the reformster dog and pony show, we should include "compete globally."

It is frequently used as the bottom line for the reformster argument. We need standards so we can raise test scores so we can prove that students are career and college ready? Why? So that they can compete globally.

What does that even mean? Compete with which parts of the globe? Compete at what?

I mean, there are many areas in which we are not winning global competitions. While Americans go hungry and tons of tons of edible food end up in landfills, France has made it illegal for stores to throw food away. While Americans (and their government) try to get rich off of men and women trying to get a college education, many countries recognize the benefits of making it easy to home-grow educated adults with no-cost colleges. And while we commit so many acts of policy and profit "for the children," we remain one of the absolute worst countries in the world for child-care leave. Anything for the children-- except letting them have their mothers handy during the first months of life.

And Estonia? That country we're worried about catching up to? I learned this week that they are the leaders in free wifi for everybody (instead of preserving it as private source of corporate profit).

Nevertheless, aren't we still a major world power? Is China not still trying to imitate us economically? Are we not among the world's leaders, economically and politically? Also, our women just won the world cup, so in your face, global competition.

So what do our students need to be doing about competing globally?

No, when reformsters talk about competing globally, they're generally talking about jobs and economics. Like this sentence that leads off a White House essay about competing globally:

To create true middle class security, we must out-innovate, out-educate  and out-build the rest of the world, positioning American companies to thrive in a 21st century economy. 

There are two problems here.

The first is the use of the term "American companies." I'm not sure that anybody even knows what that means anymore. GE is a quintessential American company; we can all remember various GE products being advertised no matter how old or young we are. But of GE's roughly 300,000 employees, fewer than half (about 134,000) are in the US. "American" automaker Chrysler barely employs more Americans than "Japanese" Toyota.

Five years ago, when McKinsey was beating the drum at the front of the reformy parade, they weren't even bothering to talk about "American companies" so much as "multinational companies headquartered in the US."

Multinationals owe no allegiance to a particular country, nor even to a particular way of life. Robert Reich included this quote in a 2012 look at the issue:

An Apple executive says “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” 

Nor, for that matter, is Apple obliged to solve China's problems either, and so Apple, like many companies, benefits from a culture where sacrificing one's life for a meager paycheck. China's working conditions suck, but that's not the multinational's problem. It is, in fact, to their benefit. 

And that brings us to the second problem with the White House statement. 

Reformsters repeatedly talk about this global competition as if it's just a matter of education instead of a matter of controlling costs. This "paper" by the Center for American Progress gives exactly one sentence to the issue

We are quite familiar with what economists call “global labor arbitrage,” the substitution of high-wage workers in advanced economy countries with low-wage workers in developing economies.

Having noted their familiarity, the writers spend the rest of the paper speaking as if competitiveness is strictly a matter of education and training, and not a willingness to provide labor at the lowest possible costs.

The examples are endless. GE is sitting on a mountain of money, and yet they even as they have moved jobs to cheaper overseas locations, they have slashed benefits and created two-tier pay systems for their American workers. Does the recent kerfluffle about Microsoft laying off workers with one hand while pressing Congress for more guest worker visas with the other-- does that all seem familiar? That's because we went through exactly the same kerfluffle a year ago. Google "do we need more STEM workers" and watch the arguments line up.

We aren't losing jobs because we can't "out-innovate, out-educate or out-build" the rest of the world, but because we don't have enough people willing to work for far less money in far crappier conditions. (Even if we were, you don't raise people who can out-innovate anyone by forcing students through a one-size-fits-all, test-driven straightjacket of an education program-- even China understands that.)

Competing how?

It is true that American students are poorly equipped to compete in a marketplace when what they've been told is, "I've got ten Chinese workers willing to live in a dorm away from home and work 80-hour weeks for peanuts. Can you beat that?" But it's not entirely clear how college and career ready standards, backed up by high stakes testing fueling a big stick threat-heavy approach to public schools will help.

I can find plenty of writing about the issues in big broad terms, but try as I might, I can't find somebody who lays out the direct connection. I'm eighteen and I've proven I can pass a test about literature taught the David Coleman way-- exactly what will that allow to say in a job interview that will make a potential employer say, "Yes, I definitely want to hire you, and not that guy in China."

Exactly what is the connection between passing PARCC and scoring a good middle class job?

Reformsters keep trying to frame the issue as an issue or worker worthiness. Surely our American workers would be better paid at better jobs if they deserved to be. The fact that they aren't is proof that they don't deserve to be. I have no doubt that when Jeb Bush says American workers should work more hours, he's displaying the reformster disconnect, not even noticing that 1) vast number of employers won't hire people for more than part-time jobs and 2) employers just fought hard for their right to screw workers out of overtime pay.

In other words, we have somehow taken a broad economic problems-- the human costs of corporations that want to pay absolute bottom dollar for labor-- and turned it into the workers' fault. Don't whine to me, Mr. Smith-- if you had gotten a better education, working part time at the widget store would pay better.

The global competition is to scour the globe to find the cheapest good-enough labor to be found so that corporate coffers can be crammed full. Multinationals are on their way to reducing national governments to the role of human resources department-- get us a good applicant pool for jobs, take care of health care costs and any other maintenance costs for keeping the human capital in working order. And so nations are in a global competition to see which can bring the most good-enough human capital under budget. Who's going to compete for the job of looking out for the interests of the human capital. Turns out that there is no global competition to be best at that job.


  1. Great article! The reformers would have us believe that "improving" education through their extremely dubious means will somehow benefit the middle class, even though this would mean disempowering the country's largest unionized profession in the process. Paul Krugman disagrees, and below is an article that I wrote in criticism of the reformers' silly notion:

  2. Let me point out that the reason labor is cheaper in some places than others is because some places have higher absolute poverty than others. To limit investment by firms like Apple in the places with the highest level of bone crushing poverty is to condemn those people to live in bone crushing poverty for many future generations.

    In 1981, 85% of the population in China consumed less than $1.25 worth of goods and services a day. In 2009, less than 12% consume less that $1.25 worth of goods and services a day. That unprecedented reduction in absolute poverty was caused in large part by firms investing in China.

    If you want to read about the "good old days" before China's economy opened up to the world, you might take a look at the book Mao's Famine by Frank Dik├Âtter. The descriptions of the events are a difficult read, but it is important to understanding how much and how fast China is changing.

    1. So you're saying that it's okay for Apple and other companies to put their manufacturing plants in China and other very poor countries where they can pay very little, instead of paying workers here more to do it here, even if they could afford to and even though so many people here are unemployed or underemployed, because it's doing the people in other countries a favor?

      Though I'm not sure what it has to do with Peter's main point that the reformers say our workers would be employed if only they had a better education, when jobs are not going to magically appear just because students passed the PAARC.

  3. Rebecca,

    I am saying that there is a good argument that Apple and other companies are morally required to hire the people who most need employment. If you had to choose between hiring person A, whose family is on the edge of starvation and is willing to work for a very low wage because she has not alternative job possibilities, and person B, whose family will not starve if you don't hire her and is not willing to work for the same low wages as person A because she has alternative opportunities, I think you have to go with hiring person A. What is your argument that they should hire person B?

    My post is in response to Peter's misunderstanding of the primary impact of globalization. It has resulted in hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty.

    As to what "reformers" say, I don't know which "reformer" it is without a name and a quote about what that specific person said. I have found that the "reformer" discussed on teaching blogs is often a pair of pants and a shirt stuffed with straw.

    1. TE, I'm not going to go through all Peter's blogs to pick out the names of all the charter school proponents who are the "reformsters." Peter mentions two just in this post: McKensey and the Center for American Progress.

      Globalization, as in "free trade agreements," have not lifted anyone out of poverty in this country; they have helped to drag more people down into it. Free trade agreements, starting with NAFTA in 1994, were sold to us using the idea that they would bring up the standard of living in other countries so that they could buy our products. Instead, our manufacturing sectors have been decimated. Is it supposed to take another 50 years to level the field to get the promised results? How's that going to happen? What happens to our country and our people in the meantime?

      Companies aren't outsourcing from an altruistic intent to help people anywhere, they're only interested in their short-term bottom line. The .01% seem to want to change our economic system to one of feudalism, with them as lords of the manor and everyone else their serfs. This is where we're heading. And the blind belief that privatizing public schools is the only way to improve education is making it impossible to make real improvements.

    2. Another example is the New Jersey City School Administration targeting 5 schools for transformation to charter chains because of supposedly being the schools struggling the most, getting the worst scores, when, as reported by JerseyJazzman and mentioned in Peter's post "TWB", they are NOT the schools doing the worst. Lies. Why?

    3. Whoops, I meant to post my last comment to the post about the "Test Scoring Monkeys" as another example of ulterior agendas, lies, and ignoring facts.

    4. Rebecca,

      Poverty in the US was greatly reduced by the first wave of globalization, generally dated from 1860-1914. European investment in US production was one of the keys to industrialization here just as US investment in China was one of the keys to industrialization there.

      In any case, I don't see how you can ignore the unprecedented reduction in poverty around the world that has resulted from better integration of the world's economy.

      I think very few people are hired because of the altruistic intentions of the organization they work for, yet everyone who is hired ends up with an income. One of the strengths of markets is that they have useful emergent properties and we see that strength in the rapid reduction of poverty around the world.

    5. I repeat, what's going to happen to our country and our people?

    6. Rebecca,

      Not much of anything except a steady increase in the standard of living. The world is not zero sum, it is positive sum.

      Do you give a higher moral weight to some people over others based on where they were born?

    7. TE, we've had a steady decrease in the standard of living in the last 30 years. I see no indicators that that's going to change any time soon.No unicorns on the horizon. Right now in our country, it's zero sum. All the economic gains from the recession have gone to the top 1%, the middle class has declined, and poverty rates have risen. This is not a win-win situation.

      Of course I don't give higher moral weight to anyone over anyone else. Countries like China who are raising their standard of living are doing it by a judicious mix of capitalism with social safety nets. Good for them. Our problem is that our policy leaders are trying to do away with safety nets and are letting greed run rampant.

    8. *All economic gains SINCE the recession, I meant.

    9. Rebecca,

      I don't think there has been a steady decrease in the standard of living in the US for the last 30 years. If you look at simple things like life expectancy at birth, it rose by about 6 years for men and 4 years for women between 1980 and 2012. In 1985 real median household income was $48,761 and in 2013 it was $51,939 (measured in 2013 dollars). The increase in income understates the gains over this time period because of the much higher quality of goods and services we have today compared to 1985. We have seen a steady drop in crime since a peak around 1980, we have seen the education levels of the population steadily increase, and we have seen a huge decrease in intolerance by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

      I am curious about our perception that living standards have steadily decreased. What leads you to think that living standards have dropped over the last 30 years?

    10. Your economic statistics contradict every other economic statistic I've seen. I don't know what "measured in 2013 dollars" means when I thought you had to control for inflation. I haven't seen an increase in quality of goods or services since 1985 except in fuel efficiency of cars. Very recently there have been gains in rights for LGBT people and intolerance has decreased at least among young people in at least some of the country, but minimally among other demographics. The worst problem is the decline of the middle class, more people in poverty, and lack of middle class jobs. Talk is cheap.

    11. Rebecca,

      Measured in 2013 dollars means that the figures I quoted controlled for inflation.

      Think about the world around you. How was your cell phone service in 1985? Do you miss tube televisions? This blog, of course, would be impossible in 1985, but perhaps you had a home computer in 1985. How does it compare to the one you use to post now? Do you still get your shoes repaired? How much safer are you in a car with airbags? How much longer does a car last today compared to 1985? Do you still go to the bank during banking hours? Any guesses about the advances in medicine since 1985?

      Take a look at some periodicals to remind yourself about 1985. Any thoughts of electing an Africa American president in 1985? A women as president?

      The poverty rate today is about the same as 1985 (both much lower than poverty in the early 1960s), but that is a little misleading because of the way we measure poverty. In particular, the standard poverty measure only looks at before tax income. This means that the Earned Income Tax Credit (projected to be a 70 billion dollar expenditure this year) has no impact on measured poverty, though it certainly has an impact on actual poverty.

      I would be interested in knowing which economic statistics you have seen the contradict mine?

    12. Everything I've read says that income has flatlined for the last 30 years except for the 1%, that the jobs that have come back since the recession pay less, and that more children are living in poverty.

      It's true that having cell phones when my kids were in high school made me worry less than I would have without them. I have no use for smart phones. If I didn't have a computer I'd probably go back to reading more books, which I should do. I never got my shoes repaired and it doesn't seem like they last any longer than they ever did. I've never had my airbags deploy. I think seat belts and turn signals were maybe at least as important. I still have to go to the bank sometimes but online banking is convenient. I'm not sure if convenience is exactly the same as quality of life. My hip replacements are like a miracle, but I wish that everybody who needed them could get them. I don't see that cancer treatments have improved much. We've got President Obama, but we also have Ferguson. I'm a person who could live without technology. I'm happiest when I'm taking a walk in the park.

      It's a mixed bag. There are some things that encourage me we're starting to head in a good direction, but there's so much more that could be done to make things better for more people.

    13. Rebecca,

      Good to see that you can find more than improved gas millage in the last 30 years.

      It would be helpful if you could cite some of the income statistics that have lead you to believe that household incomes have not increased in the last 30 years. My figures are from the US Census, Current Population Survey, Table H-8. Median Household Income by State: 1984 to 2013.

      You are, of course, free to read more books. If you want, you can download many classics at no cost and read them as PDF files. Project Gutenberg is a good place to start.

      I brought up shoes for a couple of reasons. When I first moved to my current town, there was a cobbler downtown. They closed because people did not bother to repair shoes anymore because people simply buy new. The second reason is that I often begin my large macroeconomics class with a selection of pictures of rural poverty in the United States in the 1950s. I ask if anyone notices a common theme, and occasionally a student notices what I notice: none of the children are wearing shoes.

      You should try a smart phone. My music library now consists of 37 million songs. I don't get lost driving anywhere. I enjoy the revival of the spoken word on podcasts.

      In 1985, there were a little over 18 deaths due to car accidents per 100,000 people in the United States. In 2013, that figure had dropped to a little over 10 deaths due to car accidents per 100,000 people in the United States. You may never have had your airbags deploy, but many others have.

      Do you have any doubt at all that the number of hip replacements today far exceed the number that were done in 1985? You may be able to live without some technology, but you have some very sophisticated technology imbedded in your body.

      I also think your are also pessimistic about cancer treatments. Let me quote The Guardian newspaper for this: "Colon cancer survival has improved more than 17-fold, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 10-fold and rectal cancer seven-fold. It has doubled for breast cancer." (from the early 1970s to 2011)

      Do you really think there were no Fergusons in 1985? The difference is that now it is a national humiliation, while in 1985 it passed without notice.

      There is always more that can be done, but not acknowledging the progress that has been made is a huge disservice to those that worked to bring these changes about.

    14. Every day there's good news and bad. For example, the good news today is that we've reached a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program; the bad news is Scott Walker doesn't want workers to earn a living wage.

      I probably do get too pessimistic sometimes, so thank you for reminding me that there are good things. Hopefully we're reaching a turning point in alleviating some social ills.

      Regarding economic statistics, it's everything I read, but Robert Reich comes particularly to mind, as in this article:

    15. Rebecca,

      I think that Robert Reich is being too pessimistic about the future.

      Think about what he would have written in 1916, when 32.5 million people, about 32% of the US population at the time, lived on a farm. Would he have forecast that in 70 years the farm population would have declined to less than 5 million and make up less than 2% of the population? What would he say about wages declining as the non-farm economy had to absorb all these farmers who had left the land.