The “education crisis” myth

Ignore the media spin. Wages and working conditions -- not skills -- are the real reasons jobs get outsourced

Topics: Media Criticism, The New York Times, Editor's Picks, ,

The "education crisis" mythA production line in Suzhou Etron Electronics Co. Ltd's factory in Suzhou, China on June 8, 2010 (Credit: Reuters)

Has the term “education” become a code word? And if so, a code word for what?

These are the major unasked — but resoundingly answered — questions to emerge from two much-discussed articles about the future of American manufacturing. One is a cover story in the Atlantic Monthly about why jobs are being shipped overseas. It concludes that “to solve all the problems that keep people from acquiring skills would require tackling the toughest issues our country faces” — the first of those being “a broken educational system.” The second and even more talked about article comes from the New York Times. It looked at why Apple Computer has moved its production facilities overseas, concluding in sensationalistic fashion that “it isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad” but that America “has stopped training enough people in the mid-level skills that factories need.”

These pieces were clearly written with a very specific objective in mind: to draw media attention to the supposed “education crisis” in America — a favorite topic of these publications’ elite readers, who have a vested interest in blaming the recession on the poor rather than on the economic policies that enrich the already rich. No doubt, both the Times and the Atlantic achieved their goal, with various NPR shows, cable gabfests and elite magazines spending the last week frothing over the articles’ central thesis.

The tragedy in all of this is that in both the articles and in most of the discussions that followed, few bothered to question the fundamental assumptions about education in America — and fewer still bothered to ask if “education” in the modern parlance has now become a synonym for “acquiescence.”



To see how this linguistic shift is occurring, reread the Times article with a critical eye. Specifically, notice that after the reporters structure their piece around Apple executives’ (unchallenged) claim that “the U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need,” there’s not a single shred of proof — empirical or otherwise — offered in support of that assertion. On the contrary, after a sweeping declaration at the top of the piece that wage and human rights differences between Chinese and American workers have little to do with offshoring, the article inadvertently goes on to prove those differentials — not skill levels and education — are the driving force behind the domestic job losses in America.

In one section of the piece, for example, the Times notes that Apple’s big Chinese factory, Foxconn, attracts American investment because “over a quarter of (the) work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day” — and “many work six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant.” In another section of the piece, the Times notes that the cost of “building a $1,500 computer in (California) was $22 a machine … In Singapore, it was $6 … In Taiwan, $4.85.” While the Times unquestioningly forwards Apple’s impossible-to-believe explanation for these figures (“wages weren’t the major reason for the disparities”), the statistics are yet more proof that wage differences, not education, are the real offshoring motive.

The Times also quotes an Apple executive saying the company must outsource because “the entire supply chain is in China now” — and though the article doesn’t bother to mention it, that is true precisely because other factories in that supply chain have moved to China for the cheap wages and lax human rights/labor regulations. The Times later talks to Eric Saragoza, an American worker laid off by Apple, who says that Apple told him to keep his job he didn’t need to acquire more skills, but instead “to do 12-hour days, and come in on Saturdays.” And in another part of the piece, the Times quotes a former Apple executive who insists Apple was forced to move to China because there’s no “U.S. plant (that) can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms” — an admission, again, that Apple’s move to offshore isn’t about skills, but about a desire to employ a “flexible” (read: exploitable) workforce.*

In light of all this, the absurdity of the Times’ “education crisis” conclusion is obvious. Somehow, Dickensian realities are meticulously recounted, but Apple is permitted to plead helplessness without so much as a contradictory fact being mentioned — as if the company isn’t making calculated choices that are generating record profits off sweatshop conditions. China’s super-low wages and nonexistent labor, environmental and human rights protections are shown over and over again to be the driving force behind American corporate offshoring, and yet the conclusion is nonetheless that the problem for America is our education system. And somehow, that conclusion is made without the Times, the Atlantic Monthly or any part of the media echoing their stories measuring it against actual data from the American education system.

And what, pray tell, does that data say? It says that far from a drought of skilled high-tech workers forcing supposedly helpless victims like Apple to move to China, America is actually producing more of such workers than Apple and other high-tech companies are willing to employ. As I noted in a previous newspaper column (looking at yet another New York Times piece making the same education argument):

No doubt, you’ve heard (the) fairy tale from prominent politicians and business leaders who incessantly insist that our economic troubles do not emanate from neoliberals’ corporate-coddling trade, tax and deregulatory policies, but instead from an education system that is supposedly no longer graduating enough science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experts. Indeed, this was the message of this week’s New York Times story about corporate leaders saying America isn’t producing “enough workers with the cutting-edge skills coveted by tech firms.”

As usual, it sounds vaguely logical. Except, the lore relies on the assumptions that American schools aren’t generating enough STEM supply to meet employer demand…
To know (that) supposition is preposterous is to consider a recent study by Rutgers and Georgetown University that found colleges “in the United States actually graduate many more STEM students than are hired each year.”

These facts were most recently corroborated in mind-boggling detail by the Senate testimony of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Ron Hira. But, of course, they are nowhere to be found in the Times. That’s not altogether shocking (even if it is offensive) — the Times is a newspaper whose ombudsman recently challenged the very idea that the paper’s journalists should actually fact-check statements made by its sources. It is also a newspaper that has helped construct a larger political and media consensus around what I’ve called both “The Great Education Myth” and the “Neoliberal Bait-and-Switch.”

These sleights of hand simply stipulate as unchallenged, unquestioned fact that all of our economic problems can be solved with better STEM education and more STEM graduates. The idea is that this educational improvement would fix the alleged problem of high-tech companies like Apple not being able to find enough STEM workers. This myth endures even though the data indisputably proves that there is no such dearth of STEM worker supply — indeed, we are already producing more STEM graduates than the domestic economy can employ, meaning the only worker shortage that exists in America is a shortage of workers willing to toil at slave wages with no labor or human rights. But, alas, those facts don’t matter because the Great Education Myth isn’t about economic reality — it is an instrument of propaganda designed to distract attention from the tax and trade policies that allow companies like Apple to make so much money off the current system of exploitation.

So that gets us back to the key question of whether the term “education” is effectively being redefined? In all of the elite media’s stories about offshoring and the STEM “education crisis,” does the term “education” no longer mean “learning a set of skills”? Does it in practice now mean American workers learning not new technological crafts, but learning to quietly accept the wage, labor and human rights standards of China — the standards we thankfully improved after our own crushing Industrial Age a century ago? In short, does “education” now mean “teaching American workers to be subservient”?

The answer, almost certainly, is yes, because that’s the only way that the media and political establishment’s entire “education crisis” meme makes any logical sense.

The fact is, while our cash-starved schools would obviously benefit from more resources, and while better schools clearly couldn’t hurt our society, there’s no empirical, data-based reason to believe that improving our schools would reverse the trend of America losing high-tech jobs to slave-labor nations like China. Without a change in tax and tariff-free trade policies that economically incentivize companies like Apple to keep moving production to cheap labor havens overseas, the only “education” that will bring those jobs back is the kind that indoctrinates high-tech American workers to compete with Chinese workers by accepting the horrific labor conditions those Chinese workers experience. Based on the New York Times’ own reporting on Apple, that means an education system in America that teaches our workers to simply accept being paid $17 a day, to work six days a week in 12-hour shifts and to live in crowded dormitories so that they can be stampeded into the factory at any hour of the day. It means, in short, an education system that tells Eric Saragoza to shut up and accept the employer’s draconian demands.

Not surprisingly, the curriculum for this new education system is already being championed by the very political and media realms that originally constructed the Great Education Myth. In Congress, a group of senators is proposing to eliminate overtime protections for vast swaths of the America’s high-tech workforce in the name of competing with China. In state legislatures, lawmakers are looking to weaken child labor statutes, also in the name of competition. And on the New York Times Op-Ed page, Thomas Friedman implies that Americans are lazy and declares that “average is over” and that “everyone needs to find their extra” — elite-speak for the notion that Americans, who already log some of the longest workdays in the world and who are already among the planet’s most productive laborers, must work even harder than they already do.

In beginning to construct this kind of pedagogy, our mandarins are not coincidentally promoting a key part of the educational ideology of their Chinese counterparts. No, not the part of that ideology that is focused on training high-tech workers — the part that prioritizes obedience. Indeed, as my friend Michael Levy recounts in his terrific book “Kosher Chinese,” that educational method teaches Chinese workers never to question their station, demand basic rights or ask for better conditions.

That same ethos is now being proudly promoted here at home. Should we accept it — and the redefinition of “education” that comes with it — we may end up bringing a few jobs back, but we will have reversed the very labor, wage and environmental progress that once defined our basic concept of human rights — and America itself.

*It’s important to note that the Times did eventually publish this follow-up piece to its original article about Apple and offshoring. The follow-up piece looks more closely at how Apple mistreats its workers in China, and that kind of scrutiny is certainly necessary and laudable. However, the fact that the Times made the decision to separate the later piece on labor rights from the earlier article on Apple’s employment decisions implies that the two issues — worker exploitation and offshoring — are separate, when in fact they are inextricably intertwined. That kind of distinction is a real problem. Indeed, pretending that these two issues are wholly different topics (as Apple and other high-tech executives so often do) perpetuates the deceptive notion that exploitation is just a “liberal” feel-goody concern while business practices are more serious, dispassionate, non-ideological decisions. But only when these issues are looked at in aggregate will we be able to start having an honest debate about how globalization really works.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a staff writer at PandoDaily and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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