It's a Flat World

UPDATE (19 April, 05):  I completely forgot to link this entry to my previous post, Geographical Distribution of Biological Technologies, in which I comment on William Hoffman's World Stem Cell Policy Map.  Biological technologies are spread all over the planet already, and our current economic and technological lead (if we are still in the lead) cannot be maintained without siginificantly more investment and hard work.


I don't always agree with Thomas Friedman.  Current affairs a la Friedman often seem to me oversimplified.  But in the last week or so he has a couple of very nice pieces about the economic status of the United States.

In "Bush Disarms, Unilaterally" (15 April, 05) he argues that the Bush administration is heading in the wrong direction with its policies on investment in science, education, and economic development.  To wit;

One of the things that I can't figure out about the Bush team is why an administration that is so focused on projecting U.S. military strength abroad has taken such little interest in America's economic competitiveness at home - the underlying engine of our strength.

...We have a Treasury secretary from the railroad industry. We have an administration that won't lift a finger to prevent the expensing of stock options, which is going to inhibit the ability of U.S. high-tech firms to attract talent - at a time when China encourages its start-ups to grant stock options to young innovators. And we have movie theaters in certain U.S. towns afraid to show science films because they are based on evolution and not creationism.

The Bush team is proposing cutting the Pentagon's budget for basic science and technology research by 20 percent next year - after President Bush and the Republican Congress already slashed the 2005 budget of the National Science Foundation by $100 million.

When the National Innovation Initiative, a bipartisan study by the country's leading technologists and industrialists about how to re-energize U.S. competitiveness, was unveiled last December, it was virtually ignored by the White House. Did you hear about it? Probably not, because the president preferred to focus all attention on privatizing Social Security.

... Economics is not like war. It can be win-win. But you need to be at a certain level to be able to claim your share of a global pie that is both expanding and becoming more complex. Tax cuts can't solve every problem. This administration - which often seems more interested in indulging creationism than spurring creativity - is doing a very poor job of preparing the country for that next level.

In the Times Magazine a week ago Sunday, he made a broader argument about the state of global economic and technological competition in, "It's a Flat World, After All".  He writes;

In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail for India, going west. He had the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He never did find India, but he called the people he met ''Indians'' and came home and reported to his king and queen: ''The world is round.'' I set off for India 512 years later. I knew just which direction I was going. I went east. I had Lufthansa business class, and I came home and reported only to my wife and only in a whisper: ''The world is flat.''

And therein lies a tale of technology and geoeconomics that is fundamentally reshaping our lives -- much, much more quickly than many people realize. It all happened while we were sleeping, or rather while we were focused on 9/11, the dot-com bust and Enron -- which even prompted some to wonder whether globalization was over. Actually, just the opposite was true, which is why it's time to wake up and prepare ourselves for this flat world, because others already are, and there is no time to waste.

...Here I was in Bangalore -- more than 500 years after Columbus sailed over the horizon, looking for a shorter route to India using the rudimentary navigational technologies of his day, and returned safely to prove definitively that the world was round -- and one of India's smartest engineers, trained at his country's top technical institute and backed by the most modern technologies of his day, was telling me that the world was flat, as flat as that screen on which he can host a meeting of his whole global supply chain. Even more interesting, he was citing this development as a new milestone in human progress and a great opportunity for India and the world -- the fact that we had made our world flat!

...When the world is flat, you can innovate without having to emigrate. This is going to get interesting. We are about to see creative destruction on steroids.

...We need to get going immediately. It takes 15 years to train a good engineer, because, ladies and gentlemen, this really is rocket science. So parents, throw away the Game Boy, turn off the television and get your kids to work. There is no sugar-coating this: in a flat world, every individual is going to have to run a little faster if he or she wants to advance his or her standard of living. When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me, ''Tom, finish your dinner -- people in China are starving.'' But after sailing to the edges of the flat world for a year, I am now telling my own daughters, ''Girls, finish your homework -- people in China and India are starving for your jobs.'' I repeat, this is not a test. This is the beginning of a crisis that won't remain quiet for long. And as the Stanford economist Paul Romer so rightly says, ''A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.'' 

Indeed.  China and India aren't waiting around for people in the US to lay the groundwork for the next generation of technologies, whether new materials, new software, or biological technologies.  They have economic power, huge and highly educated populations, and a motivation to innovate themselves into the first world.  From my experience in both industry and academia, it looks to me like we are already at least a decade behind in our investments in education and R&D.