Friday, January 27, 2012

Keeping Manufacturing in America Won't be Easy

In his State of the Union, President Obama stressed the importance of keeping manufacturing in America. The reasoning is that in order to continue to innovate and develop the next generation must-have products, the US needs manufacturing that uses leading edge technology. Nothing wrong with the reasoning, but it may be too late.

A lengthy analysis on why jobs are flowing to China based on the Apple iPhone experience appeared in the New York Times. One of the most important findings of the NYT piece was that America simply no longer has the skill sets to meet Apple’s demands for a high quality, technology product. America has lost the edge to make things.

Advanced manufacturing depends on staffing the factory floor from the production line to the line supervisors with people possessing technical skills. The training programs Obama talked about might serve as temporary Band-Aids that might keep certain production from leaving in the short term. But to maintain a world leadership position, the US will need far more technicians, engineers and scientists than the country is producing.

For many years long before the 2008 financial meltdown, the smartest and brightest of American graduates were pursuing careers on Wall Street rather than careers in science and engineering. Making financial products was easier and more lucrative than manufacturing hard goods. Value was created more rapidly and more profitably by financial manipulation than by selling hard goods.

During the height of Japan bashing in the 1980’s, the late legendary Akio Morita, CEO of Sony, said America was good at moving money from one pocket to the other but not in making anything.

For decades the majority of Americans, most of the so-called 99%, have been getting a basic education inferior to what their parents received. Although politicians readily acknowledge the importance of public education, budget allocations did not follow lip service. Classroom size got bigger and kids were taught fewer hours in a day and fewer school days in a year.

To meet the required budget cuts, schools are forced to cut out arts, music and other non-core courses and after school activities. Bare bones programs leave students uninspired as they sleep walked to graduation not much wiser than when they started. Teachers waved the students through rather than making sure that the lessons took hold.

Of course, there are pockets of exception. Perhaps 5% of the Americans can afford to subsidize their local school budget out of their pockets and help raise the quality of education for their children or send their kids to better quality private schools. But that leaves a lot of untrained minds that will not realize their full potential.

In some parts of America, pro science is regarded as anti-religion, or worse yet pro religion is ipso facto considered as antithetical to science. The local sentiment that religious concepts should be taught on same footing as science, such as creationism vs. evolutionism, would leave young minds poorly prepared for a productive adult life in a technology driven world.

Out of the forty 2012 finalists of Intel Science Talent Search, 14 have been identified as ethnic Chinese, 7 with South Asian surnames and 5 others with some other Asian surnames. For many years now, more than half of the finalists, high school students with outstanding aptitude in sciences, are first generation immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants from Asia.

Immigrants from China, India and Russia, in particular, come from cultures with deep respect for learning and science. They have not been in America long enough for the anti-science mentality to rub off.

So long as we are not able to turn out enough science and engineering graduates of our own, then President Obama is correct when he said we need to welcome foreign students to stay after they graduate and not push them away.

But even if immigrants lead in the development of innovations, as we see in Silicon Valley, America still needs a solid pyramid base of people with skills that would turn innovations into commercial successes. President Obama spoke of keeping and building leading edge manufacturing in the US. This is not going to happen unless there is a fundamental shift in the American attitude about the importance of math and science.
An edited version appeared in New America Media and Nation of Change.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lesson from Taiwan's Recent Election

Much to the relief of the US, China and of course the majority of Taiwanese who voted for him, Ma Ying-jeou was re-elected as president for another four years. His re-election means no disruption in the building of cross straits relations and corresponding reduced likelihood of flare-ups and incidents that would raise cross strait tensions. Stability across the straits was highly sought after by Washington, Beijing as well as Taipei.

Ma won by a 6% margin, less than the 17% landslide from his first election but nonetheless a surprisingly comfortable lead considering the widely anticipated wire photo finish with his opponent from the opposition party. There were no last minute shenanigan, such as an election eve assassination attempt, to interrupt the proceedings. Some observers have even gone to proclaim that Taiwan's orderly exercise in democracy should inspire their brethren on the mainland.

Actually, I think Taiwan could serve as a lesson for America. Essentially three out of four voters in Taiwan turned out to vote. In the US, one out of two would be doing good. Nearly 200,000 Taiwanese flew back from the mainland, where they were working to vote in the election. Uncounted thousands even flew from the San Francisco Bay Area to vote. Since Ma won by more than 800,000 votes, the oversea returnees can't be said to spell the difference.

But we can say, they went back to Taiwan to vote because they cared. We have not seen such voter concern and passion in the US for many elections. Just the opposite is happening. We are inundated with negative lies and deliberate distortions funded by the rich to the point that we no longer give a damn. For decades America has not been a democracy of the people but has become corrupted by highest bidders.