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Thomas Friedman’s Rosy Neo-Liberalism About Schooling is Maddening!

January 25, 2017

As readers of this blog realize, I am often frustrated with the rosy neo-liberalism of NYTimes columnist Thomas Friedman, and his column in today’s paper raised my temperature. The column, titled “Smart Approaches, Not Strong Arm Tactics, to Jobs” decried the approach President Trump has used to “persuade” employers to keep jobs in the US. Friedman offers this critique on the “strong arm” approach Mr. Trump is taking to retaining jobs:

If Trump’s bullying can actually save good jobs, God bless him. But what Trump doesn’t see is that while this may get him some short-term jobs headlines, in the long-run C.E.O.s may prefer not to build their next factory in America, precisely because it will be hostage to Trump’s Twitter lashings. They also may quietly replace more workers with robots faster, because Trump can’t see or complain about that.

Trump wants to protect jobs,” explained Gidi Grinstein, who heads the Israeli policy institute Reut. “What we really need is to protect workers.”

I think deep down Mr. Trump knows that robots will displace workers. I daresay his children have some staff members exploring ways to automate chambermaid assignments and have already eliminated scores of jobs in reservation desks by having automated answering machines. I also think that Mr. Trump is a shrewd politician and he knows that he cannot demonize technological advancement— nor can he stop it. He CAN, however, jawbone and capitalize on the innumeracy of many voters to continually cite the scores of jobs he is saving daily while neglecting to report on the thousands of jobs that are displaced during the same time period due to automation.

And I also believe that deep down Mr. Friedman knows that the only way to protect workers is to protect their ability to unionize. But instead of talking about collective action by employees, Mr. Friedman focusses on the responsibility of workers to improve themselves:

You need to protect workers, not jobs, because every worker today will most likely have to transition multiple times to multiple jobs as the pace of change accelerates. So the best way you help workers is by ensuring that they are flexible — that they have the skills, safety nets, health care and lifelong learning opportunities to make those leaps and that they live in cities open to innovation, entrepreneurship and high-I.Q. risk-takers. 

It is possible that unions missed a golden opportunity to provide their employees with opportunities to gain the skills they need to succeed in the changing marketplace, but it is unarguable that unions worked to ensure that employees had good wages, a strong safety net, and decent health care even if their employer wanted to pay them less, offer them fewer benefits, and threatened to close down their factory if they DIDN’T accept less.

But Mr. Friedman’s biggest gaffe was implying that EVERY city in America could be like NYC and every town could be like the one I live in…. and that oversight compelled me to leave this comment:

I’m fortunate to live in a college town in New England that possesses all of the attributes of “community” that you describe. We have several thriving tech start-ups, an excellent hospital, good public schools, a responsive town government, a vibrant arts community, and we are “open to innovation, entrepreneurship and high-I.Q. risk-takers”. I have lived in other parts of this country and it is unclear to me how the qualities of my current hometown can be transferred readily to other communities— particularly some of the nearby mill towns who have not recovered from the loss of factories that abandoned them decades ago. When the mills vanished, the communities were left with a degraded property tax base, the loss of union jobs that protected workers, and the towns’ openness to “innovation, entrepreneurship and high-I.Q. risk-takers”. Maybe a future column will explain how to transfer these qualities to communities left in the lurch. In the meantime, I think states need to stop promoting “right to work” laws, to raise taxes that transfer money from the .1% to projects that rebuild communities with compromised tax bases, and put REAL money into education so we can have schools that “serve as adult learning and social service centers”. 

I wish every child could attend schools as good as those in this town and wish that every citizen had a town government as highly functional as the one in my town, and wish that every citizen had the same opportunities to experience art and music the way folks in my town do… But as I noted at the end of my comment, until we invest more in education we won’t get there in my lifetime or my grandchildren’s lifetime. And here’s the shame of it: we could make it happen if we changed our thinking!

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