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An interesting conversation from work ..

I have a neighbor at work who's been doing an unusually good job of challenging my brain lately, and one of the subjects we keep coming back to is the economics of why the US economy fundamentally isn't working, and why the "economic stimulus" measures that were supposed to fix that don't seem to have done much other than make the bankers richer.

And what the discussion boiled down to was the basic fact that the economy is the middle class -- the whole middle class, as the entire middle three quintiles of the population -- and the problem with it is that while the middle class is working, after a fashion, the quality of that income is far poorer than it was a few decades ago, and the security of that income is questionable at best. The economy is that middle section of the population who are the customers that make it profitable for businesses to create jobs.

We are the job creators. The money we spend on goods and services is what makes creating jobs possible -- it's literally the heart and soul of the entire economy.

And the trouble with that, in turn, is that the way things stand now, we don't make anything in this country. Increasingly, we don't even design much in this country, with a few rare exceptions, companies that have managed to keep a core of knowledge and expertise in a few niche markets and succeeded in keeping it from being exported. The rest has been shipped overseas to places that aren't interested in implementing our relatively progressive labor laws where people will tolerate far worse working environments and far less pay.

And to a large extent, we, collectively at least, let that happen. A number of automotive, consumer goods, appliance, and other major manufacturing firms learned too late that outsourcing the raw labor aspects of their operations put those operations into the hands of people well equipped to analyze what that raw labor was doing, learned how the design process worked, and bootstrapped their own industries into higher and higher levels of proficiency until they were manufacturing the products from beginning to end and only the most superficial cosmetic aspects of those products were being designed here. Even the ones who managed to avoid exporting their entire intellectual capital to the outsource firms wage a constant fight against many of their suppliers and those vendors' competitors, who will happily counterfeit not just the products but many aspects of the entire marketing apparatus of the parent companies, and the sophistication of the competition steadily improves. And we let it happen because many of those manufacturers couldn't see past the next quarter's bottom line and the reduced cost of labor that quarter and maybe the one after that, when they were dealing with vendors who were thinking in much longer-term strategies.

This is a pattern of systematic neglect of the fundamentals that make a society work, that has progressively broken down over a generation or more. Part of that is a stagnation of our education process, aided and abetted by our almost universal cultural value of anti-intellectualism to the extent of genuine prideful ignorance -- encouraged in turn by a religious extremist faction that is simultaneously trying to wreck the public school system and subvert the remaining functional parts of it into mere tools of mass indoctrination to turn out whole generations of loyal followers, to be certain, but the cold fact of the matter is that such an absurdly, catastrophically irresponsible program of sabotage would not gain traction in a society that did not to a certain extent welcome the saboteurs into the machinery with open arms. The extremist campaign against public schools, public libraries, and taxpayer funded education in general should by all rights have been stillborn at its very inception, shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near our schools, but because this culture has its perverse fixation on the supposed virtues of a life lived unsullied by dangerous knowledge, the extremist con artists who know just which buttons to push are practically welcomed in to set up shop tearing the system down. We let this happen. It couldn't have happened here if on some level this society hadn't wanted it.

And the generation of kids fed on the useless drivel we let pass for primary education went on to high school where they slept through government class and skipped algebra class and goofed off in chemistry class and spent most of English class plotting how best to humiliate the few outliers who were, God forbid, actually interested in learning something into what they consider a proper sense of deference to the minimally-achieving "cool" kids who put their value in clothes and cars and dating. We let that image be sold to them on TV and in movies until it was practically a sacrament -- and even today the nerd/cool kid dichotomy permeates so many aspects of our society we practically breathe it.

And that generation of kids went to college where they were only minimally prepared for serious study, on student loans they were certain they'd pay off when they got the 6-7 figure job on graduation, and struggled through basic undergraduate math and science and business administration, and some of them did make it into the upper echelons of corporate management, but more by chicanery and knowing people who knew people than by any real merit, and got by doing just enough to look like they were doing something worthwhile, and wound up in the corner offices making the strategic decisions, and somewhere along the line someone decided that the factory full of union workers making their products cost too much and they should ship the operation overseas to 140-hour-week $2-a-day laborers and save a buck or two, and soon they found themselves dealing with vendors taking over more and more of the higher level operations, and even then didn't see the trap coming until the day the overseas vendors were driving them out of business.

This is a story of decades of systematic neglect of the things that make society function, driven by a combination of good-enough-to-get-by educational values and an absurdly myopic focus on short-term strategies of corner-cutting and cost-shaving that have, bit by bit, given away the principal of our savings, intellectually and financially both, in a mad chase after a few extra percentage points of interest.

And this will take a long time to fix.

We have to start by dispensing with that suicidal fascination we have with the supposed nobility of ignorance and the mythical dangers of somehow corrupting one's morals by being "too smart". That needs to go. Now. We simply cannot afford to go on congratulating ourselves for having escaped contaminating our hearts and souls with knowledge .. it's cost us far too much for far too long. We need to elevate curiosity, and creativity, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, into our new ideals. We need to stir an insatiable hunger for new understanding in our kids and get them excited about every opportunity to learn.

Because the only way we win this game, in the long run, is to become the society that does what no one else can, and do that by becoming the society that has the vision no one else has. And we do that by rebooting our whole cultural knowledge-framework with regard to how we educate ourselves and our kids.

And we don't do it by emulating China, or India, or even Japan. We won't win anything by trying to out-discipline and out-regiment our kids and whip them into obedient little productive interchangeable parts. That approach created the forces that learned how to do all the tedious parts of making our stuff to the point of burying us in what we thought we wanted.

We do it by going the direction no one has gone before, by starting with the very next generation of kids and nurturing their curiosity and their innate desire to learn everything they can get their hands on. Kids are born with that, it's part of who we are, it's how our brains wire themselves up for language and cognition, but it doesn't stop there unless we kill it .. and we need to stop killing it with our socially-destructive memes about what makes a "cool kid" and keep nurturing it, and never stop. Imagine a whole generation of kids who have only known the fascinating, thrilling quest for understanding of everything around them, a whole generation of autodidacts with an insatiable drive to innovate and improve the world. Imagine that generation growing up and turning the whole society into the one that mines industrial raw materials from asteroids and colonizes the moon and Mars and does all the other things no one else even thought of doing.

Yes, it's subversive. We've been out-ordinaried, out-mediocred, and out-competed, and our only way forward now is to break the molds and reframe the whole economy game into something only we know how to do. Sputnik is beeping in our sky, and this is the wake-up call, and this time, we don't just run to catch up to the ones who reverse-engineered our former success, we jump in a completely new direction because that's what our new ideal and our new cultural value is, and our vision can't help but be subversive. We do nothing less than jumpstart the new paradigm, trigger the phase change, and embrace what we feared for so long.

That's the only way forward that I see. And that, folks, is what creates the future economy.