06.28.11

Delusional thinking about world history, community college and other things

Posted in Decline and Fall, Made in China at 7:32 am by George Smith

In today’s New York Times, Roger Cohen has a piece that compares Europe and the US. It begins by focusing on the old meme of ‘can-do’ American exceptionalism and history, trying to point out how Europe was exhausted after the bloodlettings of the World Wars while we were poised to leap ahead.

This is tired news but a popular thing to reminisce about now because of national decline. It’s the equivalent of any standard pep talk given by any high school coach — “boys, we can do anything we set our minds to, it’s not the size of the dogs in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dogs, etc (!)” — before taking the field and receiving a good beating, anyway.

Bits Cohen uses as illustrative moments are the battles of Verdun and the Somme, two things which have no comparisons in US history.

Cohen writes:

One of the things you awaken to is that it’s now almost a century since Europe ripped itself to shreds at Verdun. Geoffrey Wheatcroft recently calculated in The New York Review of Books that British losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, given respective populations, were the equivalent of “280,000 GI’s killed between dawn and dusk.”

The Great War had its midcentury European sequel. And so power passed to America. It was of a United States ascendant that Berlin wrote, a confident nation assuming responsibility for the world.

Cohen later gets around to writing that Europe has obviously recovered and even has some stuff to teach us.

However, he might have added, for the sake of a cautionary tale, the American experience that introduced the nation into its decade of decline.

9/11.

This country lost a mere fraction of the people the French lost at one battle and the Brits saw killed at the Somme.

But we completely lost our heads, essentially declaring permanent war on about half the world. The military and national security infrastructure ballooned and we threw away millions of middle class jobs so giant multi-national corporations and the wealthiest could thrive even more during this period.

At one point Cohen wonders about what can be done, suggesting wanly that Bill Clinton recently had a good essay on the matter in Newsweek.

So I went and read the Clinton thing and came away with only this:

11. TEACH SKILLS WE NEED

I’m trying to figure out why job seekers don’t have the skills companies need; why the community colleges and vocational programs, which have done such a great job for America, are not providing more people with the skills to fill these vacancies. Do people just not enroll in the right programs or do they drop out because of the economy? I hope we can find out.

Again, it’s an annoyingly stupid idea that’s taken hold in people who really don’t have any more ideas than the rest of us. It’s the obsession with community college as a magic wand or Philosopher’s Stone, the suggestion that if we could just get everyone into retraining camps them, everything would be fixed and a great leap forward would occur.

It’s a self-reinforcing delusion caught, like a disease, from just reading all the cant delivered by your social peers and cronies in the business and opinion pages of the nation’s newspapers.

People don’t lack skills in the US. When Fender and Gibson fired most of their domestic workforce involved in making electric guitars and shipped those jobs to China it wasn’t because the Chinese had set up community colleges which taught people how to make rock and roll instruments and Americans had grown stupid and unskilled.

If you look at pictures from the old Fender plants in a semi-official history of the company, The Soul of Tone, there were plenty of people in evidence making things. And they were obviously not all initially trained in community college. And they didn’t pick it all up in high-school industrial arts classes. Jobs were offered and they were trained, for example — to assemble guitar amplifiers, at the plants. Period.

It’s not that hard to train people. But “lack of training” is an excuse for the real reason corporate America isn’t hiring. It just isn’t interested in American labor. Bad for the bottom line when you can do it elsewhere.

The world didn’t stop wanting electric guitars because they are old and were invented back in the Fifties. And this country’s middle class can’t survive by complete conversion to making a few pricey big ticket items for the corrupt militaries of the world. Or whatever passes for made things that the world’s wealthiest can buy in the next few years. Becoming the equivalent of chocolate truffle and symbols of ostentatious living makers to the world isn’t going to cut it.

Cohen finally nibbles at this unpleasantness a little near the end of his Times piece:

It’s absurd that “climate change” has become an unpronounceable phrase under Obama and that green technology initiatives have been stymied by sterile ideological dispute. Intelligent use of resources makes strategic sense for America whatever your hang-up on global warming. It’s equally absurd that private U.S. corporations, having made $1.68 trillion in profits in the last quarter of 2010 and sitting on piles of cash, are doing fine while job numbers languish and more Americans struggle.

None of this makes moral or any other sense. America needs an energy policy and an industrial policy. It has to lead in green technology and — purist capitalist reflexes notwithstanding — it must find ways to get corporate America involved in a national revival.

Unfortunately he knows, and so does everyone else, that’s just not going to happen.

1 Comment

  1. Chuck said,

    June 28, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    There was a time when corporations would train their own workers–imagine that!

    It could run into serious dollars, but as an example, Tektronix hosted degree-level programs free of charge for employees on its Beaverton (OR) campus, known as “Tektronix U”. The instructors came from Oregon State and the quality was top-notch. OSU also benefited heavily from this arrangement.

    But then, that was when an employee could envision retiring (with a pension plan) from a firm he worked for right out of college.

    HP had something similar, as did many other firms. But HP pre-Carly Fiorina was a very different company.