OP-ED COLUMNIST


‘What, Me Worry?’



By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN


Published: April 29, 2005



One
of America’s most important entrepreneurs recently gave a remarkable
speech at a summit meeting of our nation’s governors. Bill Gates minced
no words. “American high schools are obsolete,” he told the governors.
“By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken,
flawed and underfunded. … By obsolete, I mean that our high schools –
even when they are working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids
what they need to know today.

“Training the work force of
tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids
about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. … Our high
schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age.
Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will
keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every
year.”

Let me translate Mr. Gates’s words: “If we don’t fix
American education, I will not be able to hire your kids.” I consider
that, well, kind of important. Alas, the media squeezed a few mentions
of it between breaks in the Michael Jackson trial. But neither Tom
DeLay nor Bill Frist called a late-night session of Congress – or even
a daytime one – to discuss what Mr. Gates was saying. They were too
busy pandering to those Americans who don’t even believe in evolution.

And
the president stayed fixated on privatizing Social Security. It’s no
wonder that the second Bush term is shaping up as “The Great Waste of
Time.”

On foreign policy, President Bush has offered a big idea:
the expansion of freedom, particularly in the Arab-Muslim world, where
its absence was one of the forces propelling 9/11. That is a big, bold
and compelling idea – worthy of a presidency and America’s long-term
interests.

But on the home front, this team has no big idea –
certainly none that relates to the biggest challenge and opportunity
facing us today: the flattening of the global economic playing field in
a way that is allowing more people from more places to compete and
collaborate with your kids and mine than ever before.

“For the
first time in our history, we are going to face competition from
low-wage, high-human-capital communities, embedded within India, China
and Asia,” President Lawrence Summers of Harvard told me. In order to
thrive, “it will not be enough for us to just leave no child behind. We
also have to make sure that many more young Americans can get as far
ahead as their potential will take them. How we meet this challenge is
what will define our nation’s political economy for the next several
decades.”

Indeed, we can’t rely on importing the talent we need
anymore – not in a flat world where people can now innovate without
having to emigrate. In Silicon Valley today, “B to B” and “B to C”
stand for “back to Bangalore” and “back to China,” which is where a lot
of our foreign talent is moving.

Meeting this challenge
requires a set of big ideas. If you want to grasp some of what is
required, check out a smart new book by the strategists John Hagel III
and John Seely Brown entitled “The Only Sustainable Edge.” They argue
that comparative advantage today is moving faster than ever from
structural factors, like natural resources, to how quickly a country
builds its distinctive talents for innovation and entrepreneurship –
the only sustainable edge.

Economics is not like war. It can
always be win-win. “But some win more than others,” Mr. Hagel said, and
today it will be those countries that are best and fastest at building,
attracting and holding talent.

There is a real sense of urgency
in India and China about “catching up” in talent-building. America, by
contrast, has become rather complacent. “People go to Shanghai or
Bangalore and they look around and say, ‘They’re still way behind us,’
” Mr. Hagel said. “But it’s not just about current capabilities. It’s
about the relative pace and trajectories of capability-building.

“You
have to look at where Shanghai was just three years ago, see where it
is today and then extrapolate forward. Compare the pace and trajectory
of talent-building within their population and businesses and the pace
and trajectory here.”

India and China know they can’t just
depend on low wages, so they are racing us to the top, not the bottom.
Producing a comprehensive U.S. response – encompassing immigration,
intellectual property law and educational policy – to focus on
developing our talent in a flat world is a big idea worthy of a
presidency. But it would also require Mr. Bush to do something he has
never done: ask Americans to do something hard.

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