Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Are underlings too underling-y?"

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Normally I have a very high regard for the writing of Thomas Friedman, which is why I am especially appalled to have read something so extraordinarily idiotic drip from his usually erudite pen.

In his new editorial brainchild, Friedman claims that the problem with Americans, and the reason why we're experiencing such high unemployment, is that too many of us are used to having work handed to us rather than taking initiative and being creative. This, he then says, is why foreign workers are snapping up all of the positions currently being created, and is a problem that can only be remedied by improving our nation's education system. Let me identify the various obvious flaws in his argument:

1) Rising unemployment is a global problem, not merely an American one. Friedman's argument would make sense if employment rates were rising in other countries but falling here; since they are falling everywhere, the most basic proof he would need to validate his assertion is lacking.

2) The reason people are losing their work is that consumers have less money to spend, which caused a decrease in supply-and-demand and a consequent tightening of the fiscal belt by all major employers. The way to solve this problem is to increase the incomes of American consumers by creating new jobs that directly stimulate the various industries where people need and/or want to spend their money. Some of those jobs require initiative and creativity; others do not. The presence or absence of those attributes, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the jobs themselves. What matters is the industries they are in, not the nature of the work they involve.

3) He says that other countries are surpassing us in producing "initiative takers" and creative thinkers, but fails to provide any evidence that the reason jobs are being exported there is for this reason and not, say, because NAFTA and other free trade programs allow companies to hire people in other countries at one-tenth the rate that they can employ Americans. He just assumes it's because the workers there are more assertive than Americans, and doesn't explore the real reason why that happens, which is that it's cheaper for American companies to hire them regardless of their personal characteristics. Once again, most of those countries are hemorrhaging jobs just as badly or worse than the United States, but to the extent that they are being preferred over us, it has absolutely nothing to do with education or the quality of our workforce.

4) He says our education system is inferior to those of the countries who receive our jobs. While I certainly have my problems with American education (as discussed in one of my earlier blog posts), is he really going to argue that our system is worse than that of India and Mexico? Even China, much as it is fashionable these days to fear it, has a very poor schooling system compared to that in the United States. After all, you don't see American exchange students going to Chinese, Indian, and Mexican schools.

5) Even if his diagnosis of the problem WAS correct (and incidentally, it isn't), he doesn't offer any solutions to the problem apart from a vague need to "fix education". Not only does this make his article more of a glorified gripe than a potentially constructive contribution to our national dialogue, but it also allows him to conveniently avoid identifying what exactly is wrong with our education system that requires improvement. Is it our math and science classes? Do we need to create more classes in which students engage in independent projects? Should we be teaching philosophy, or assigning more homework, or extending school hours? By not offering a solution, he creates a chimerical bogeyman in "education problems" that he never needs to define, and thus is absolved from having to prove actually exists.

However, the single most flagrant error in his thinking - the one that would cause me to etch a giant 'F' onto his paper were I a seventh-grade English instructor and he the stereotypical smart student who believes he can turn in lazy work and still be rewarded - is this:

6) The type of "creative" jobs that he is talking about are all upper management, whereas the "work handed to you" jobs he says are being lost (correctly) are all lower management. In essence, he is looking at the fact that the Americans who lose their jobs are the ones who receive orders rather than the ones who call shots and deduces that unemployment is rising in this country because too many Americans are order-receivers and not shot-callers. What this ignores is the obvious fact that, in the real world, everybody would LOVE to be a shot-caller, but the only ones who get to call shots ARE EMPLOYERS while the ones who take orders ARE EMPLOYEES. In short, he's saying that the reason high-ranking employers are firing low-ranking employees (as opposed to the other way around) isn't because the employers have more money, political power, and overall socioeconomic status, but rather because the underlings are just too darn underlingy.

I would expect something this mind-bogglingly stupid from the elitist pen of Ann Coulter or the rationally-challenged Glenn Beck. I am disgusted to read it in a column by Thomas Friedman, a man whose incisive thinking I generally respect. Let us hope that this is just a temporary slip-up on his part and not the beginning of a phase that afflicts far too many intellectuals - the more ensconced they become in a cocoon of respectability and applause, the less rigorous they become in actually thinking through what they argue.


rachina85 said...

Good stuff, as always, Matt. Another thing I'd add: the skills acquired as an underling are precisely those that will ensure we will always be underlings. I'm a secretary. They call me an administrative assistant, but I a damn secretary, and nothing I am doing as a secretary will ever allow me to be anything except a secretary. People NEED secretaries; someone has to do that work. But I have to go back to school, I have to spend more money, if I want to be anything but an underling. I'm punished for doing my job. And that sucks.

glowing face man said...
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Brian said...

Excellent critique, Matt.