Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sputnik Out of Decline?

President Obama asserted in his State of Union speech that "the state of our nation is strong" and calling the collective difficulties Americans face today "our generation's Sputnik moment" and envisioning a reprise of the "wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs" in the 1960s after the USSR beat the U.S. into space with their Sputnik I satellite.

He painted a vivid picture and the speech was very inspiring, if one doesn't probe further.

There is no denying that we do need a wave of innovation to help to keep our nation's growth.  However, we cannot Sputnik out of our decline without some other fundamental changes.

One of these fundamental changes needed is reversing the rampant anti-intellectualism in the U.S.  Instead of pursuing true life fulfillment, Americans have been conditioned to believe that owing more stuff is the essence of happiness and American dream, and the cheap imported goods made us live in an oblivious bliss and drive our nation into deep decline.  Big business and cynical politicians tried hard to make us forget about the vast economic inequality which is exacting a huge toll on our society and meanwhile most American people still unrealistically believe their upward social mobility as if they could be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.  People therefore have lost the grasp of reality and living in a phony promised land.

Without a new enlightenment, without the firm grasp of reality, we cannot fix our problems.  Without correcting that attitude, without ensuring people to pursue intellectual and spiritual growth, we will remain complacent and we will not be able to Sputnik us out of the decline and decay.

Innovation is useful but not panacea. Sometime, an innovation is not even actually one.

Take the story regarding automation of toll collection at Golden Gate Bridge.  San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that Golden Gate Bridge toll booths shutting down and all tolls will be collected electronically in 2012.

Even thirty to forty years ago, Chicago had toll collection system required no human collected yet the Golden Gate Bridge calling this switching from human to electronic collection an innovation.  I hope when President Obama touted innovation, he had better kinds in mind.

The second aspect of this toll story had something to do with our social and economical structure.  Currently, 34 human toll collectors are employed at the Golden Gate Bridge, breathing the foul air day-in and day-out.  When the recommendation to switch to electronic system was made, there were concerns over the fate of the 34 toll-takers whose jobs will be eliminated.  Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, criticized the loss of not only individual jobs, but of a type and level of work that allowed people without college degrees to make decent livings. Toll collectors at the bridge make an average of $27 an hour, according to the district.  Mr. Paulson said that "it's very disturbing to see the elimination of an entire job class for the sake of efficiency.  We're really disappointed to see the elimination of an entire class of workers."

Interesting fact.

I absolutely believe that a hard-working person should made a decent living and $27 an hour is not very extravagant, particularly when we look at the other end of the economic scale and realize that in this country, someone can make up to $84,000,000 a year.  However, $27/hour salary does exceeds many people's income level who have college degrees and work in a more complex working environment and dealing with more intricate issues.  I think there is some structural imbalance here as well.

I can understand Mr. Paulson's frustration regarding the job loss.  However, despite the decent income level, can anyone in his sincerity call toll-taking a good job?   Why don't we devote some time and energy to help people to move into some better kind jobs?  "Protecting" certain menial jobs sometimes really meaning to hold people down.

Mr. Paulson's concern is real and urgent, however.  With more innovation to come, and the global village becomes more intertwined, jobs in some sectors will lose however we fight against it.  Our society as a whole must recognize this and reckon that the economic growth will not pull all the people along and someone will be left behind, and find a way to deal with this issue with humane compassion.

What matters in reality is the quality of life not the materials we churn out and consume.  Last weekend, I saw a play (a monologue really) The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  The creator/performer Mike Daisey examined how the CEO of Apple and his obsessions profoundly shape our everyday lives—and traveled to China to investigate the factories where millions toil to make iPhones and iPods. This journey shone a brilliant light on our love affair with our devices and the human cost of creating them.  The Chinese labors' life he depicted was horrible to hear and digest.  They do things with hands with efficiency of ants and bees.  Despite the fact that they made somewhat more money than other Chinese labors, their life was miserable.  It doesn't matter if they make monthly salaries of $200, $2,000 or $4,000, their jobs are still awful jobs.  We want to improve their conditions, but what about here?

Demons - Fyodor Dostoevsky, Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I'm reading Dostoevsky's Demons which is a testimonial of life in Imperial Russia in the late 19th century. 
As the revolutionary democrats begin to rise in Russia, different ideologies begin to collide. Dostoevsky casts a critical eye on both the left-wing idealists, portraying their ideas and ideological foundation as demonic, and the conservative establishment's ineptitude in dealing with those ideas and their social consequences.  It is a scary time and some of those nihilism ideas are just as destructive as the doctrine of Communism and the current brand of Republican's.

On page 404 - Part II, With Our Party (Random House paperback, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), conspirators were debating how to make progress in Russia.  One mentioned a doctrine he read somewhere: "The measures proposed by the author for removing the will from nine tenths of mankind and remaking them into a herd, by means of a re-educating of entire generations - are quite remarkable, based on natural facts, and extremely logical."

A moment later, another character shouted: "Instead of paradise, I'd take these nine tenths of mankind, since there's really nothing to do about them, and blow them sky-high, and leave just a bunch of learned people who would then start living happily in an educated way."

We can dismiss those as empty talks and nonsenses but those were the idea of the revolutions swept us in the last century and has been continuously practiced in places like China.  In the U.S., since so many people are uninformed, they are simply herds with iPods, iPhones and iPads.

Technology and innovation are all crucial.  But to make our society right, it alone is not enough.

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