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Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age
By Rework America
SOMETHING about the new economy drives prognosticators to extremes. Optimists argue that the world is entering an age of abundance, with productivity surging, diseases like polio being wiped out, and tourists flying to Mars. Pessimists retort that abundance for the few will mean impoverishment for the many. Smart machines will destroy jobs and depress wages. Knowledge workers will be proletarianised. And rising insecurity will promote tribalism and protectionism.
One of the many virtues of 'America's Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age' is that it avoids such extremes. The authors part with the cyber-utopians in acknowledging that disruption has a dark side. But at the same time they part with the cyber-pessimists in embracing radical change. The new economy is not only generating new opportunities. It is providing people with the tools that they need to cope with disruption.
The authors make their case with surprising panache. It is surprising because the book is the product of a committee of the great and good called Rework America: corporate leaders such as Starbucks's Howard Schultz and Microsoft's Craig Mundie; political leaders such as Madeleine Albright and Cory Booker; academic stars such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This ought to have been a formula for producing long-winded platitudes and mealy-mouthed circumlocutions. But Philip Zelikow, an academic and one of the committee, should be praised for whipping the members into line and generating a readable and well-reasoned text.
The authors note that America is already making progress in harnessing the new economy. The Carolinas are once again making furniture thanks to investment from overseas companies such as China’s Keer. American teachers are becoming exporters thanks to ventures such as Khan Academy and private companies such as Berlitz.
But the authors argue that America needs to go much further in using the virtues of the connected age to address its vices. Policymakers need to familiarise themselves with Silicon Valley thinking about 'platforms': that is virtual forums that allow people to come together to solve collective problems. The private sector is already helping small companies become exporters. EBay ships things abroad and PayPal deals with payments. Export Now assists Americans in dealing with the 'soft'” barriers to doing business in Asia. The authors commend the Inter-American Development Bank for adopting a similar approach to helping exporters and for partnering with Google, Visa and DHL rather than trying to do everything itself.
The authors also urge America to pay more attention to middle-skilled workers. The global glamour of the Ivy League is perverting the rest of the education system: universities are so obsessed with rising up the academic rankings, and parents are so preoccupied with making sure that their children get a college education, that the country is devoting too few resources to vocational and technical education. America is crying out for plumbers and technicians while English-literature PhDs cannot get a job. The authors laud attempts to use new technology to improve the teaching of technical subjects: for example by using videos to make technical education more exciting or by making it easier for people to juggle training and jobs.
A century ago Walter Lippmann, a journalist who was then just 24 years old, wrote a surprise best-seller called 'Drift and Mastery'. He noted that 'our schools, churches, courts, governments were not built for the kind of civilisation they are expected to serve'. Americans needed to 'adjust their thinking to a new world situation', otherwise they would be condemned to 'drift along at the mercy of economic forces that we are unable to master'. These words ring just as true today as they did then. 'America's Moment' provides as useful a guide as any available to turning drift into mastery once again.
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