I am about to wind up my long and rambling essay on "Modernism and its Enemies." Stay tuned in a few days for a major summing up.
Soon thereafter (with frequent asides about politics & the news, this award-winning blog will move on to a new topic... "Twelve Modern Questions About Humanity’s Relationship With its Creator, In the Context of an Age of Science."
Should be interesting.
But first, I want to cite some words of wisdom (and my answers/addenda/arguments) from one of the smartest guys commenting on economic trends today. Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, began a recent essay in one of the world's top online newsletters with this anecdote about Albert Einstein:
There was one great story that I thought really encapsulated - and
still does - the environment in which we live. Einstein was going to give a
test in his advanced course in quantum physics. He was talking to his
research assistant and said, "You know, this year I'm going to give
exactly the same test with exactly the same questions that I gave last
The assistant said, "Well, Professor Einstein, do you think that's a
good idea? Because the students this year will go to the people who
took the test last year. They'll find out who did well, they'll get the
answers, and they'll just give you those answers on the test this year."
Einstein said, "Yes, you missed one point. The questions will all be
the same, but this year the answers are all different."
Hormats comments: "I think this really summarizes a philosophy of trying to look for new answers to older questions."
Obviously, this relates to our ongoing theme of modernism and the core lesson of the enlightenment. The lesson that underlies the miraculous success of science, consisting of a willingness to re-evaluate with an eye toward the dangers and opportunities presented by change.
In contrast, consider the aphorism that "insanity consists of doing the same thing, over and over, while expecting different results. " This can be likened, certainly to the feudal, socialist or hierarchical orders that have always opposed modernist impulses, even before the Enlightenment. (e.g. those who fought against Pericles, Spinoza, Montaigne, lone voices in their times.)
So let us follow Hormats into an aside into economic policy.
First, Robert Hormats is no pinko lefty. He is one of the world experts of commerce, currencies and trade. He served as assistant secretary of state for Economic and Business Affairs from 1981 to 1982, as ambassador and U.S. trade representative from 1979 to 1981, and as senior deputy assistant secretary for Economic and Business Affairs at the Department of State from 1977 to 1979. He served as a senior staff member for International Economic Affairs on the National Security Council from 1969 to 1977, during which time he was senior economic advisor to Dr. Henry Kissinger, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski.
I am going to quote pretty liberally here from a recent newsletter in which Hormats says some very wise things... though here and there I either amend or bring up complicating factors.
"A strange thing happened in the course of the debate after 9/11. In every single war the United States has fought since the Revolution, when the United States went to war a number of things were done to make room in the budget to pay for the war. This time we did no such thing. This time, we in effect cut taxes. We've cut taxes four times over the last four years, and the Congress has been on a spending spree - not just for defense purposes, but for lots of pork-barrel nonessential programs.
"And then we have, in addition to that, the contingent liabilities of the federal government for Medicare or Medicaid and Social Security, which are going to grow dramatically toward the end of this decade and into the next decade, as Baby Boomers retire. So we have a fiscal deficit which is big now, but it's going to be a lot bigger several years from now. This is going to be one of the problems that we as a country are going to have to face: how do we fund this very, very big imbalance? "
All right, first the obvious. Americans aren't saving enough. And the other savings plan... Clinton era budget surpluses that aimed to buy down the Debt - (biblically speaking: using fat year riches to prepare for lean times ahead) - was instantly abandoned by the Bush administration in favor of a $trillion gift to the top 1% aristocracy. (Seen any of it invested in "stimulus" lately?)
So how are we paying for the budget and trade deficits? Hormats points out that :
"You have India and China and South Korea and Taiwan and Hong Kong and Malaysia - each should have enormous opportunities for using capital at home, for productive investment. In many cases, they have unemployment problems, but in most cases, you'd think they'd have awfully good investment opportunities. What do they do? They ship billions and billions of dollars - 850 billion on a gross basis last year; 850 billion dollars - to the United States, to buy Treasuries or corporate bonds or stocks or Fannie Mae securities. This is an enormous distortion of global resources."
His explanation for why the Asians are financing our spendthrift ways?
"It happens because since the financial crisis of 1997-1998, the Asians have been very conservative about the way they've used their money. They want to build up precautionary reserves in case there's another problem."
Of course there is another (bigger) reason? "Job creation in China is the essential element of growth in China, and even more important, the essential element of stability in China. They do not want to do anything that compromises their growth rate."
Hence, they HAVE to buy our debts in order to subsidize our spending spree. A spree that is lifting them bodily into the 21st Century. (I have spoken of this elsewhere as the "weirdly fantastic but unknown $5 Trillion Marshall Plan" - George Marshall's brilliant move to create ANTI-mercantalist trade flow patterns after WWII, something that no other pax imperium in history ever did. I believe this one move - by arguably the greatest man of the 20th Century - is the biggest reason why the world has a chance today. It may be remembered as America's greatest accomplishment... though we will almost certainly pay for it when our economy finally collapses.)
Hormats goes on to say: "The last of the imbalances may turn out to be, from an American point of view, the most significant, and that is the skills, or the innovation, imbalance... And if you look at the number of people in this country going into science and engineering, it's diminishing dramatically. So our pool of skilled, innovative workers is growing at a far slower rate than it was 10, 15 years ago."
Now of course, this is at one level about the deteriorating repute of science that I have been talking about here, in discussing the decline of modernism. And while I agree with everything that Hormats says, I must go farther.
While EVERYBODY blames the school system, I am forced by natural contrariness to look around for other explanations that have gone uncommented. For example, I think the schools may far be less to blame than is publicly stated.
Mind you, I DO have plenty of complaints against modern education, (complaints learned the hard way, with three kids in public school!) But given the "culture war" against the Enlightenment and all of its fruits, and the hatred of science expressed by radicals of both left and right, is it any wonder that young people are drifting away from such fields, even more quickly than servicemen and women are departing the armed forces?
This is a serious issue, very complex. There are many eclectic ways that I consider the schools as awful as everybody else does... poor priority and investment (a complaint of the left) and poor standards (a complaint of the right). Interference by both creationists and political correctness police. Lack of competition and lack of parental involvement.
Let me elaborate on the downside of the extremely popular recent "standards trend". First, I readily concur that it has helped ensure minimal basics for the bottom half. Indeed, we are doing better at ensuring "no child will be left (completely) behind", getting a diploma while unable to read or cipher at all. On the other hand standards obsession has simultaneously eviscerated laboratory science and gifted programs almost completely out of the schools. Teachers are virtual slaves to the yearly standardized exams. Indeed, most have desultorily given up their own attempts at innovation and stimulation, hewing close to the prescribed and tested curriculum without exception. Teacher morale is in dire shape.
What had been the unsung glory of the American school system - something never measured in those international tests (on which Americans score so badly) - is the way open class discussion has fostered free thinking and rambunctious argumentativeness. And yes, confident creativity, to some degree. And here's a startling irony. While we run thoughtlessly to copy the rote memorization techniques that enable kids in Japan to score so well on standardized tests, the education ministries in Japan, China and India are exhorting teachers to "teach in a more American fashion," in order to stop squelching the creativity and imagination that we encourage (or used to encourage) so well.
Because science relies upon processes like imaginative hypotheses and laboratory experience that are hard to measure on tests, there has been a creeping de-emphasis on science across the board. My own kids see their science classes become the catch-all dumping ground, within which all the sex education, abstinence training, drug education, self-esteem, anti-bullying, and other remedial socialization topics are thrown. Even PE is spared this stuff, thus illustrating the way that sports have a vastly higher priority in American life than science.
Oh, it's complex, all right. One can go back and forth endlessly. Yin against the schools and yang defending them. Great for contrarians but frustrating for those who want a single ideological explanation for all things.
Another example. One thing that I have noticed as a parent... and I have seen it commented on NOWHERE ELSE... is that *mathematics* appears to be an exception to the recent trend of downgrading science.
I don't know how it is elsewhere, but here in San Diego, the bright kids are doing vastly MORE math than I did at the same age. Tougher topics, introduced earlier. I suppose because math CAN be measured on those $%#*! tests.
But back to Bob Hormats's worry about a decline in our rate of creating new scientists and technologists. While I find his comments wise, I really do not think we can keep using the schools as the whipping boy. Not when the real answer is all around us, in the media, in politics. In the rising tide of fanaticism.
I don't think there can be any question that the chief driver of the de-emphasis of science is cultural. It is part of the Great Big War Against Modernism that is discussed here at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com
Left and right are in this together. Extremists on both sides have made it clear that science is the real enemy, along with the concomitant general attitudes of even-tempered criticism and acceptance of contingent truth that underlay the entire Enlightenment.
That is why you see the world's smartest businessmen parting company with the frat boys who are running things right now. They may be conservatives, but - above all - they want a civilization that works.