Idle Thoughts While Studying Political Economy


LYS57 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading Dani Rodrik‘s 1997 essay “Has Globalization Gone too Far”, he asserts (during a discussion of common critiques of globalization) that

“A common view is that the complaints of nongovernmental organizations or labor advocates represent nothing but old protectionist wine in new bottles. Recent research on trade and wages gives strength to this view: the available empirical evidence suggests that trade has played a somewhat minor role in generating the labor-market ills of the advanced industrial countries – that is, in increasing income inequality in the United States and unemployment in Europe.”

Which raised in my mind the question of

“Well, what has truly been causing the labor-market ills of the advanced industrial countries?”

The first thought that came to mind was technological progress. While domestic jobs have been transferred overseas, surely, many domestic jobs have been lost due to mechanization. This is no great insight, especially in the realm of manufacturing and industrial production.  (See Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger & Me” for a treatment of the social effects of new technology in automobile factories). I don’t think it would be contentious to claim that the progress of technology has facilitated the concentration of wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer, as less human capital is necessary now than ever before to conduct the affairs of a business.

The translation of technological change to unemployment, though, is something I take serious issue with. I take issue with this because the tacit assumption is that unless jobs are furnished to us by others, we will be jobless. I take issue with the idea that we need to look to others to create work for us.  I find that idea wholly bizarre and generally unquestioned, outside of the halls of business schools and entrepreneurship seminars.

I’m thinking now of an RSA Animate video I saw recently, discussing the shortcomings of the contemporary education system. Called “Changing Education Paradigms,” it surveyed the modern education system, calling into question the “industrial” assumptions that form the basis of the education. I encourage you to watch the video (it’s a real treat), but to summarize what is meant by “industrial,” it’s the treatment of students as raw materials to be placed on an assembly line and processed over a period of several years into a ready-made industrial worker, better suited to taking direction than to unconventional thinking. This is a concern we can trace back even farther, to Mario Savio‘s famous speech during Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, where he analogized the University of California to a factory, with the UC Regents as the owners, the UC President as the manager, the professors as workers, and the students as raw materials, all in the service of producing the human capital to meet the needs of various business and corporate interests.

I guess the thought I had while reading was: if we accept that our current educational system was designed to supply a regular stream of workers for existing businesses, and we accept that technological change has rapidly altered the need for human capital, then is the solution not to reform our education system, such that students are no longer brought up being told to look to others for employment, but rather taught that, in a Hegelian sense, the world is theirs to create?

I recognize that my analysis is coming from a fairly critical perspective, especially concerning the origins of our modern education system. But I would encourage you to at least consider the possibility that our current malaise can be understood as emerging from the recent disconnect between the education system and the rest of the economy, given my earlier assertion that the education system was not designed with human flourishing in mind as much as it was designed as a complement to the historical economic system. I would also encourage you to consider what education could look like, then, if it were to be re-designed with children in mind.

I think this may be a magnificent historical moment. The disappearance of jobs is not a crisis that needs to be met with a regression back to a previous age, but rather a sign that it’s time for us as a society to advance past the age in which we processed and packaged our youth for a small role in a big machine. By looking forward, rather than looking back, and designing a “new school” (the Free School movement in particular comes to mind) whose primary purpose is to catalyze in a child their greatest creative potential, we could create a truly beautiful and more conscious society.


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