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David Sirota Headshot

Billionaire Tom & More Education Mythmaking

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I really don't know why I ever even glance at Tom Friedman's stuff anymore - the guy is so far gone he's like a walking corporate PR brochure. I'm surprised his columns aren't signed off with something like "This message sponsored and approved of by [INSERT MULTINATIONAL COMPANY]." But, unfortunately, I came across Friedman's piece today once again peddling what I call the Great Education Myth. Yes, according to billionaire Tom Friedman, if only everyone can just learn to be as smart as Tom Friedman, all of our economic problems will magically disappear.

Friedman first tries to pull a fast one on us. "Why should any employer anywhere in the world pay Americans to do highly skilled work," he asks, "if other people, just as well educated, are available in less developed countries for half our wages?" He then says:

"There is only one right answer to that question: In a globally integrated economy, our workers will get paid a premium only if they or their firms offer a uniquely innovative product or service, which demands a skilled and creative labor force to conceive, design, market and manufacture -- and a labor force that is constantly able to keep learning."

The trick is in his slick euphemisms, in particular the one about the "globally integrated economy." This is a term used to distract us from asking questions about the policies that have actually globally integrated the economy. Billionaire Tom doesn't want us asking those questions (and as he told Tim Russert recently, he himself doesn't even bother to investigate those questions when he writes his columns). He doesn't want us wondering why the global economy has been integrated with complex intellectual, patent and copyright protections, but no similar protections for wages, human rights, or environmental concerns. Because, you see, if we asked those questions, his entire premise would collapse like a house of cards. If, say, we had wage protections in our international trade policy, there might not be so many workers simply "available" at a fraction of the modest wages most American workers command.

But Friedman's trick is merely garden-variety dishonesty - it is the rest of his piece that exposes just how totally out of touch with reality he really is. He says that the way to fix our economy is "refocusing [America's education system] on producing people who can imagine things that have never been available before, who can create ingenious marketing and sales campaigns, write books, build furniture, make movies and design software."

Now, I'm all for improving our education system so that we have more creative thinkers. But the idea that this is the primary way to deal with globalization - and not instead reforming the unfair rules governing globalization - is insane. I mean, Tom Friedman actually sits in his 12,000 square foot mansion in Bethesda and believes that we can have an economy of 100 million workers where most workers are all their own kind of entrepreneurs - from marketing campaign directors, to book authors, to furniture designers, to Hollywood directors to Silicon Valley CEOs. Yes, that's right - in the future American economy, everyone will be a Steve Jobs, a Tom Friedman and a Steven Spielberg, and if everyone doesn't miraculously become one of those icons, then our entire country is going down the drain, because there's nothing else we can do.

How can someone actually spew this nonsense? A lot of it has to do with the fact that the cloistered world where people like Tom Friedman frolick is a world where, in fact, most people ARE Hollywood movie directors, authors and Silicon Valley CEOs. As I wrote in an earlier piece, most of the purportedly "national" opinionmakers live in the New York-Washington corridor, and within that corridor, most of them are in the highest of high socioeconomic circles.

It makes all these people feel better about themselves if they come up with a storyline that says 1) all of their success is because they worked hard, got educated and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps 2) none of their success had anything to do with an economic structure that rewards a very few people who come from priviledge with a huge amount, and a very many people who are "average" with almost nothing and 3) if only everyone else worked just as hard, got just as smart, and pulled hard enough on their bootstraps, they too would be successful and America would be A.O.K. Dammit America, says the Beltway elite - just stop being so lazy and everything will be solved!

Let's be clear - many of America's most successful icons did work hard, get educated and pull themselves up by their boostraps - but most also found ways to exploit advantages in the system.

Sadly, these few advantages simply aren't open to most people in society, because we live in a world where economies of 100 million workers have to have worker bees. These are the people who do all those "regular" jobs in "regular" places like Akron, Butte, Pittsburgh, Dubuque and elsewhere - people that Tom Friedman is only too happy to see put out of work and places that Tom Friedman is only too happy to see turned into boarded up ghost towns.

The truth is that it doesn't matter whether it is Tom Friedman, or Barack Obama or anyone else soothing us with the Great Education Myth - until we get serious about protecting our own worker bees with basic trade laws that value their contribution to our economy, no amount of schooling or influx of Hollywood directors or furniture designers is going to solve our economic challenges. And, if you look hard enough, at least some honest people even in the business community are willing to admit as much. Take a gander at this piece from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"U.S.-made products are losing market share to imports across a wide range of core industries in the United States, according to a new study. Among 114 product categories, U.S.-based producers boosted their domestic market share in only three categories between 1997 and 2005: heavy trucks and chassis, computer storage devices, and computer chips. Imports gained market share in 111 categories...The study focused on industrial and engineered products, such as wireless equipment, plumbing fixtures, tire cord, navigation and guidance systems, power boilers, and heat exchangers...'The reality is that until there is a change in the trade situation, there won't be new manufacturing jobs,' said Daniel Meckstroth, chief economist with the Manufacturers Alliance, a nonprofit educational and business-research organization. The group is free-trade-oriented." (emphasis added)

Thankfully, a growing group of Democratic lawmakers understands this - and isn't rolling over. The industry newsletter Inside US-China Trade this week added to the reporting I did about a meeting between House Democrats and Citigroup chairman Bob Rubin - a fellow member of the Friedman school of international economics. Here's an excerpt:

"Both newly elected and returning House Democrats last week vehemently rejected the advice given by former Clinton Administration Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin that the new Congress should not try to pass significant legislation on issues related to U.S. manufacturing job losses, the trade deficit with China, or other broader trade-related issues in order to avoid appearing to be divided, according to informed sources...Sources said the widespread rejection of Rubin's message is an early sign that many House Democrats believe they were elected to aggressively protect U.S. manufacturing jobs from being eroded by imports from China and other countries...While Rubin also frequently returned to the idea that disagreeing with his position would be perceived as a split among Democrats, sources at the meeting said he did not appear to have any concrete answers to Democratic objections to his message."

Rubin, Friedman and the rest of Corporate America want to pretend there are no concrete answers other than the Great Education Myth, and they sure as hell don't want anyone to notice this Financial Times piece about how Europe is now demanding strong labor protections in all of its future trade agreements. If too many Americans realize that, in fact, one of the largest economic powers in the industrialized world - the EU - is rejecting the myth making and is instead taking a structural approach to the problem, then maybe there will be pressure on our own government to do the same. That would be dangerous to the Big Money interests that have performed a hostile takeover of our government - but that, folks, is the way we're going to have to deal with this problem if we are going to solve it.