25 January 2011


COMPETITION. In sports, in business, in military preparedness, even in the search for a mate, staying competitive is accepted as an essential premise. Here are two very different takes on that assumption, set within the world of economics and trade. Each has its merits.

On a global scale, Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, issues a warning -- Danger: America Is Losing Its Competitive Edge In Innovation. His central premise is that "the path to success is paved with science and engineering. In fact, scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They're not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society's leaders and innovators. In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers. In the U.S., almost no scientists or engineers are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates .... Part of the problem is the lack of priority U.S. parents place on core education. But there are also problems inherent in our public education system. We simply don't have enough qualified math and science teachers .... Here we are in a flattening world, where innovation is the key to success, and we are failing to give our young people the tools they need to compete. Many countries are doing a much better job .... The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. #48 in quality of science and math education .... Global leadership is not a birthright. Despite what many Americans believe, our nation does not possess an innate knack for greatness. Greatness must be worked for and won by each new generation. Right now that is not happening."

On a national scale, economist Paul Krugman in The Competition Myth maintains that "talking about 'competitiveness' as a goal is fundamentally misleading. At best, it's a misdiagnosis of our problems. At worst, it could lead to policies based on the false idea that what's good for corporations is good for America .... Consider: A corporate leader who increases profits by slashing his work force is thought to be successful. Well, that's more or less what has happened in America recently -- employment is way down, but profits are hitting new records. Who, exactly, considers this economic success?"

I'm inclined to agree with both writers. A comprehensive liberal education, with training in the sciences, math, the arts, literature and language, is a fundamental necessity for all the world's children -- not merely to help them to become more competitive (or to help them make their respective nations more competitive), but more importantly to help them to become informed and intelligent world citizens. And a realignment of our priorities toward a more just and equitable distribution of wealth is critical. When 1 percent of a nation's population controls 95 percent of its wealth and resources, the situation is ripe for revolution.

VISUALS. Again, two contributions. First is a stunning video showing highlights from photographer Bruce Dale's 35 year career with National Geographic (the creme de la creme of all professional photography assignments). The video is narrated by Dale.

Second is a jaw-dropping video from a Russian motorcycle rider's viewpoint, as he navigates morning rush hour traffic on a high-performance bike. He seems to reach speeds of near-escape velocity as he whitelines his way between lanes of traffic, squeezing through spaces the viewer would swear were too tiny. The rider is either barking mad, or has been playing too many video games in which crashes result in no pain or death. I do not endorse his mania, but I have to admit his skill as he threads through one impossible needle eye after another. See what you think. (Lane splitting is much more common in Europe than it is in the U.S.)

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