February 19, 2004

The politics of stupidity

This post is drawn from two texts, neither of which appears on the surface to have much to do with the other. The first is very much about French politics, and I considered posting it on AFOE, but it gets radical and awfully long, and I don't want to test the collective's tolerance for the verbose radical left too much, especially now that I seem to have such a reputation for agreeing with Edward. Besides, it is something of a continuation of the last post.

The first text appears in this week's Les Inrockuptibles - a French cultural magazine that, at its best, is sort of what Rolling Stone might be if it aimed a bit more up-market - a journal for smart people who read books, but who also listen to pop music and watch TV. It is promoting a petition, signed by, among others former prime minister Michel Rocard, former culture minister Jack (not Jacques) Lang, Jacques Derrida, Bertrand Tavernier, Claude Lanzmann and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Danny the Red for those who remember May '68).

I've prepared a translation. It's not a simple text to translate and I'm a bit out of practice doing this for a living. Translating rien de plus proche is, in particular, problematic. But anyway, here goes:

Nothing is nearer to a bankrupt university than a broken-down scientific laboratory, nor nearer to the sporadic theatre-goer than a precarious PhD, to a paramedic than an overworked judge, to a psychologist who can't work than an archaeologist with nowhere to dig; nothing is nearer to an architect than a lawyer or a doctor whose freedom of practice is ever more restricted, nor nearer to a laid-off worker at the end of his unemployment insurance than an artist making minimum wage; nothing is nearer, in a dilapidated lecture hall packed to the brim, than a prof and his students.

All these things - knowledge work, research, schools of thought, social connections, producers of information and public debate - are today the objects of a massive attack which demonstrates that the French government is in the grasp of a new anti-intellectualism. What we are seeing is the development of an extremely coherent policy - a policy of impoverishment and insecurity aimed at everything that is considered useless, dissident or unproductive in the short-term, and threatening all the invisible work of intelligence and every place where society thinks, dreams, invents, cares, judges and repairs itself. It is a policy of simplifying public debates and reducing complexity: For or against the headscarf? Psychiatrists or charlatans? A policeman in every school or lazy teachers? Left-wing judges or overzealous cops? The common man versus brainy elites? Artists: loafers or profiteers? For the last two years we've seen a long list of talents and skills come under suspicion along with ever more abbreviated, shallow debates with their fertile contradictions amputated.

The Raffarin government has taken a very simple and terrifying lesson from the 21st of April [the date of Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in the first round of the last French presidential election]: In the midst of the crisis of the welfare state, in sectors as sensitive as health and hospitals, schools and universities, courts and social work, and public culture and media; in a time of unprecedented divisions between rich, peaceful cities and their abandoned suburbs; when our culture is fracturing faster than ever without any safety net; in an age when cultural industries are profoundly changing our intellectual landscape; what is the government doing? It is handing architecture, city planning and the construction of new public spaces over to giant construction and public works companies. It trims the fat from the education community by getting rid of youth employment, teacher's assistants, nurses and supervisors. It is weakening the performing arts in the name of reforms required by the temporary employment system. It is destroying the morale of healthcare workers and is speeding up the "brain drain" to foreign universities. It is taking advantage of the retirement of the baby-boom generation to eliminate research, medical specialisations and education studies.

It is now proceeding to thin out the budgets for research and knowledge work. And, it takes charge of the "elderly" by making families pay, by restoring a paternalistic order to the lives of the young, and by getting rid of legal holiday.

This war on intelligence is unprecedented in the recent history of our nation. It is the end of part of the exception fran?aise. We need only glance at post-Thatcher England or Berlusconi's Italy to see what is in store for our schools, hospitals, universities, theatres and publishing houses from these policies which, undertaken in the name of good sense and budgetary responsibility, have an exorbitant human, social and cultural price as well as irreversible consequences.

Far from being a just a change in administrative fashion, this about-face for intellectual work touches the whole of society. This is not just because the production and diffusion of knowledge is as essential to us as the air we breathe, but also because they're attacking more than just our trades, our knowledge and our practices. It is our social ties themselves that are under attack - relegating the unemployed, the insecure and the poor even more to the margins of society.

And now? Empowered by our awareness of these facts, we must share our struggles and mobilise together, joining our fears, discussing our alarming experiences and presenting this government with a united front, a sign of solidarity among all the sectors of society under attack from this state anti-intellectualism that no political party, neither right nor left, has yet denounced. Each of us must still make their own demands and raise their own defences, but we must also collectively appeal to our fellow Frenchmen to end this dismantling of intellectual life.

There are things to criticise here. I am probably bringing my Anglo-American prejudices to it by thinking that there is no alternative programme being advanced here. Movements are built by being against things more often than by being for them, and actually having a programme is the easiest way to fracture a united front. Furthermore, pressing such a programme in the States wouldn't accomplish much but make you the butt of Rush Limbaugh's jokes about how liberal the media is. I do note, however, that journalists don't seem to figure on their list of sectors under attack.

I stand four-square against the dumbing down of any society, and I can't help but identify with those who work to make society as whole smarter and more capable and who are scared of what happens when their work is devalued. The French state has had moments of glory when it has stood resolutely for its best values against overwhelming opposition. But, it also has a long history of tragic, heads-up-their-asses stupidity.

I want to suggest is that the anti-intellectualism of the Chirac-Raffarin government is not a uniquely French problem.

The second article I want to talk about comes from Aidan Kehoe in the comments to my last post. It is an article by Richard Florida. Florida is best known for his recent book The Rise of the Creative Class, in which, among other things, the value of a virbrant gay community in urban economic development.

Creative Class War: How the GOP's anti-elitism could ruin America's economy

Last March, I had the opportunity to meet Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, at his film complex in lush, green, otherworldly-looking Wellington, New Zealand. Jackson has done something unlikely in Wellington, an exciting, cosmopolitan city of 900,000, but not one previously considered a world cultural capital. He has built a permanent facility there, perhaps the world's most sophisticated filmmaking complex. He did it in New Zealand concertedly and by design. Jackson, a Wellington native, realized what many American cities discovered during the '90s: Paradigm-busting creative industries could single-handedly change the ways cities flourish and drive dynamic, widespread economic change. [...]

When I visited [Jackson's studios], I met dozens of Americans from places like Berkeley and MIT working alongside talented filmmakers from Europe and Asia, the Americans asserting that they were ready to relinquish their citizenship. Many had begun the process of establishing residency in New Zealand.

Peter Jackson's power play hasn't been mentioned by any of the current candidates running for president. Yet the loss of U.S. jobs to overseas competitors is shaping up to be one of the defining issues of the 2004 campaign. And for good reason. Voters are seeing not just a decline in manufacturing jobs, but also the outsourcing of hundreds of thousands of white-collar brain jobs--everything from software coders to financial analysts for investment banks. These were supposed to be the "safe" jobs, for which high school guidance counselors steered the children of blue-collar workers into college to avoid their parents' fate.

But the loss of some of these jobs is only the most obvious--and not even the most worrying--aspect of a much bigger problem. Other countries are now encroaching more directly and successfully on what has been, for almost two decades, the heartland of our economic success -- the creative economy. Better than any other country in recent years, America has developed new technologies and ideas that spawn new industries and modernize old ones, from the Internet to big-box stores to innovative product designs. And these have proved the principal force behind the U.S. economy's creation of more than 20 million jobs in the creative sector during the 1990s, even as it continued to shed manufacturing, agricultural, and other jobs.

We came up with these new technologies and ideas largely because we were able to energize and attract the best and the brightest, not just from our country but also from around the world. Talented, educated immigrants and smart, ambitious young Americans congregated, during the 1980s and 1990s, in and around a dozen U.S. city-regions. [...]

But now the rest of the world has taken notice of our success and is trying to copy it. The present surge of outsourcing is the first step--or if you will, the first pincer of the claw. The more routinizable aspects of what we consider brainwork--writing computer code, analyzing X-rays--are being lured away by countries like India and Romania, which have lower labor costs and educated workforces large enough to do the job. Though alarming and disruptive, such outsourcing might be manageable if we could substitute a new tier of jobs derived from the new technologies and ideas coming out of our creative centers. But so far in this economic recovery, that hasn't happened.

What should really alarm us is that our capacity to so adapt is being eroded by a different kind of competition--the other pincer of the claw--as cities in other developed countries transform themselves into magnets for higher value-added industries. Cities from Sydney to Brussels to Dublin to Vancouver are fast becoming creative-class centers to rival Boston, Seattle, and Austin. They're doing it through a variety of means--from government-subsidized labs to partnerships between top local universities and industry. Most of all, they're luring foreign creative talent, including our own. The result is that the sort of high-end, high-margin creative industries that used to be the United States' province and a crucial source of our prosperity have begun to move overseas. The most advanced cell phones are being made in Salo, Finland, not Chicago. The world's leading airplanes are being designed and built in Toulouse and Hamburg, not Seattle.

As other nations become more attractive to mobile immigrant talent, America is becoming less so. A recent study by the National Science Board found that the U.S. government issued 74,000 visas for immigrants to work in science and technology in 2002, down from 166,000 in 2001--an astonishing drop of 55 percent. This is matched by similar, though smaller-scale, declines in other categories of talented immigrants, from finance experts to entertainers. Part of this contraction is derived from what we hope are short-term security concerns--as federal agencies have restricted visas from certain countries after September 11. More disturbingly, we find indications that fewer educated foreigners are choosing to come to the United States. For instance, most of the decline in science and technology immigrants in the National Science Board study was due to a drop in applications.

Why would talented foreigners avoid us? In part, because other countries are simply doing a better, more aggressive job of recruiting them. The technology bust also plays a role. There are fewer jobs for computer engineers, and even top foreign scientists who might still have their pick of great cutting-edge research positions are less likely than they were a few years ago to make millions through tech-industry partnerships.

But having talked to hundreds of talented professionals in a half dozen countries over the past year, I'm convinced that the biggest reason has to do with the changed political and policy landscape in Washington. In the 1990s, the federal government focused on expanding America's human capital and interconnectedness to the world--crafting international trade agreements, investing in cutting edge R&D, subsidizing higher education and public access to the Internet, and encouraging immigration. But in the last three years, the government's attention and resources have shifted to older sectors of the economy, with tariff protection and subsidies to extractive industries. Meanwhile, Washington has stunned scientists across the world with its disregard for consensus scientific views when those views conflict with the interests of favored sectors (as has been the case with the issue of global climate change). Most of all, in the wake of 9/11, Washington has inspired the fury of the world, especially of its educated classes, with its my-way-or-the-highway foreign policy. In effect, for the first time in our history, we're saying to highly mobile and very finicky global talent, "You don't belong here." [...]

Nor is this phenomenon limited to science; other sectors are beginning to suffer. The pop-music magazine Tracks, for instance, recently reported that a growing number of leading world musicians, from South African singer and guitarist Vusi Mahlasela to the Bogota-based electronica collective Sidestepper, have had to cancel their American tours because they were refused visas, while Youssou N'Dour, perhaps the globe's most famous music artist, cancelled his largest-ever U.S. tour last spring to protest the invasion of Iraq.

These may seem small signs, but they're not. America's music industry has been, for decades, the world's standard setter. The songs of American artists are heard on radio stations from Caracas to Istanbul; their soundtracks are an integral part of the worldwide appeal of American movies. The profits earned from American music exports help keep America's balance-of-payments deficits from getting too far into the red zone. Yet part of what makes American music so vital is its ability to absorb and incorporate the sounds of other countries--from American hip-hop picking up Caribbean Reggae and Indian Bhangra beats, to hard rock musicians using industrial instrumentation from Germany. For American artists and fans, not being able to see touring foreign bands is the equivalent of the computer industry not getting access to the latest chips: It dulls the competitive edge. [...]

Eventually, supply met demand [for human and intellectual capital] thanks to two great migrations: first, a wave of foreign immigrants, following a loosening of immigration laws in the late 1960s. By the 1980s, more than six million immigrants settled in the United States, the greatest number in half a century. In the 1990s, 12 million more arrived. Most were unskilled and found work in factories, restaurants, and construction. But many came with good schooling and went into our universities and leading industries. Today, 11 percent of foreign-born adults in the United States have a graduate or professional degree, compared to only 9 percent of natives. Most of these educated immigrants originally congregated in a handful of big vibrant cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but many have since moved to smaller hotspots like Tucson, Chapel Hill, and Colorado Springs.

Without these immigrants, our high-tech economy would be unthinkable. Intel, Sun Microsystems, Google: All were founded or co-founded by immigrants from places like Russia, India, and Hungary. Nearly a third of all businesses founded in Silicon Valley during the 1990s were started by Chinese- or Indian-born entrepreneurs, according to the detailed statistical research of Annalee Saxenian of the University of California at Berkeley. And thousands upon thousands more constitute the technical core of our high-tech economy. [...]

All the current Democratic aspirants to the White House have whacked Bush for undermining our alliances and diplomatic capabilities through his unilateralism. A few, including Sen. John Kerry, have criticized the president as "anti-science." But none seems to have understood--or at least articulated--the disastrous economic consequences of these Know-Nothing views. In the post-1990s global economy, America must aggressively compete with other developed countries for the international talent that can spur new industries and new jobs. By thumbing our nose at the world and dismissing the consensus views of the scientific community, we are scaring off that talent and sending it to our competitors. [...]

America must not only stop making dumb mistakes, like starting trade wars with Europe and China; it must also put in place new policies that enhance our creative economy. Here, too, neither party quite gets it. Most of the Democratic candidates for president have rightly sounded the alarm about rising college-tuition costs and offered ideas to expand college access. That's well and good, but we need to think far, far bigger. Our research universities are immigrant magnets, the Ellis Islands of the 21st century. And, with the demand among our own citizens for elite education far outstripping the supply, we should embark on a massive university building spree, for which we will be paid back many-fold in future economic growth. Building some of these top-flight universities in struggling red-state regions might give their economies a shot at a better future and help bridge the growing political divide.

Democrats have understandably seized on the corporate outsourcing of jobs as a campaign issue. But let's get real: Demanding higher labor and environmental standards in trade agreements--the Democrats' favorite fix--is not going to keep software jobs from migrating to Eastern Europe. Our only hope is to strengthen our creative economy so that it produces more jobs to replace the ones we're losing. That will require taking on the Washington lobbyists who put the fix in for established industries at the expense of emerging ones. Millions of new jobs in the wireless networking field, for instance, could be created if unused broadcast spectrum, currently controlled by TV networks and the military, could be freed up. When's the last time you heard a presidential candidate talk about that?

I like a lot of what Florida has to say, and for that reason I'm a bit suspicious of his claims. When he points out that diverse immigrant communities and a decent gay scene lead to good restaurants, efficiently run small businesses and a vibrant nightlife, and that all that in turn leads to intelligent, creative college grads moving in and setting up high-value-added businesses - well, it's all just a little too pat. As soon as I see someone who is actually doing a good job of describing me, my flattery alarm goes off. A look at the reviews of his latest study (which I can't read for some reason) suggests that people have a way of reading into him what they want to read.

But, since he says so many things I like, I'm going to just take him at his word until I get around to actually reading his book. His emphasis on the importance of immigration and tolerance certainly fits my ideological predispositions, as do his claims about the importance of state spending on education and scientific research. He is also famous for explaining a contradiction that tax reduction advocates have long had some difficulty explaining: Why are the most expensive US cities to operate a business in the ones that have had the fastest growth in high-wage jobs in recent years?

What I find interesting is that Professor Florida is attacking the same kind of anti-intellectualism that Les Inrockuptibles finds so horrifying. The underlying logic isn't even terribly different. I find Florida's approach somewhat more appealing, in part because it explains rather than evokes, but also because there are hints of a plan within his article, the plan that is missing in the French petition.

Florida, you see, thinks that it isn't outsourcing to India that Americans need to worry about. He believes - contrary to the whole of the American and European business press - that the real competition is in Europe, especially in its high tax, big government social democracies. The trends that he sees as leading to growth - immigration and especially foreign grad students, accessible universities, tolerance, vibrant arts and open gay communities - are increasingly descriptive of continental Europe, Canada and Australia and less and less true of America and to some degree of the UK.

France really could adopt Florida's model. Many elements are already in place. French citizenship only takes two years to get if you've graduated from a French university. Universities are accessible and cheap by global standards. French is still a widely taught language, consistently number two behind English in almost every nation in the world. The restaurants are good and quite diverse. (In fact, I remember eating once in Paris at the only kosher pizzeria I've ever seen.) The mayor of Paris is gay, so I presume that sort of tolerance is de rigeur in most of France. The R&D budget could be higher but at least it's rising - in fact the only defence the Raffarin government has offered against the charges in Les Inrockuptibles is that the R&D budget is going up. (But check the fine print. I'll bet most of the increase is going into commercial research and into businesses rather than public labs and schools.)

Economic policy in the west - across the board from Australia to Italy including the US - has been discussed only in relation to a single paradigm: low taxes and low wages lead to employment and growth, and all alternatives do not. Florida and Les Inrockuptibles are the first people I've seen to link this programme to anti-intellectualism. A lot of people have noted how the "blue states" in the 2000 election are net subsidisers of the "red states", and I'll bet that a look at the last French election might not prove too different.

So how do you campaign against know-nothingism? One of the things the US and France have in common, and that comes through in both the French petition and Florida's article is that while the dumbing down comes more from the right than the left, the opposition hasn't been very productive either on this issue. Furthermore, what causes this trend to materialise in such different places at the same time? The French right has little or nothing to do with the American right. Their only common tie is to tax cuts and labour insecurity. Is stupidity the fundamental programme of deprogressivised taxation?

This is something that really deserves some better exploration.

Alas, I am not in a position to run around doing the relevant research. But, I have a post in mind to try to set out an ideological framework for thinking about it, and maybe expand on Florida's hints of a pro-intellectual programme to compete with it.

Posted 2004/02/19 16:15 (Thu) | TrackBack

I would have thought you'd be more critical of Florida than this, Scott. True, he's a cosmopolitan. But his cosmopolitanism is a wholly post-political, middle and upper-class phenomenon; the creativity he wants government action to spark depends upon maintaining a level of economic growth and investment capital which can only be met through regular transformations in the labor pool--meaning, don't get hung up on "labor standards" (like, say, higher minimum wages, environmental protections, welfare guarantees, etc.), because that'll slow down the outsourcing that enables (and inspires) those with an education to get on ahead. It's just another iteration of the Teixeira-Judis neoliberal "New Democrat" thesis: demographic success lies in luring the votes of those who are creative enough to make the leap into the future, not in satisfying the needs of the poor or culturally backward who are still plodding along. Making this into an argument against "stupidity" in my views tends to elide the fact that it's elites who don't need to worry about job security that mostly get to define who's smart and who's not. I think I'll stick with John Edwards.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at February 19, 2004 23:25

Russell, I may well be more critical of him. I'm suspicious of people who seem too easy to agree with. I simply haven't read much of his work. However, he makes something of a defense of himself on his website to some of those charges. I haven't read him, I don't have an opinion per se, but...

It's terribly easy to turn the whole labour flexibility thesis on its head. If looser labour standards really do mean higher productivity - which seems not to be completely implausible - you either end up asking people to put themselves out of work for very little in return - or you have to provide economic security through redistribution, either through taxation or some other mechanism. "Creative economy" type analyses lend themselves easily to demanding more egalitarian schools and greater social opportunities at the bottom, because all those people at the bottom are also a reservoir of creativity that is being lost.

It also lends itself to hereditarian, and usually racist, conceptions of talent and potential that say you should ignore the people who aren't at the top because there is nothing to be done for them. So, there are risks to it.

I find myself more or less between you and Edward on AFOE. I hate being a moderate.

As for making it a war on stupidity, there is a point that I'm coming to.

Posted by: Scott Martens at February 19, 2004 23:54

While France can compete with the US on tolerance and easy immigration (which I'm not sure is actually true for non-EU citizens), it is still going to struggle on other fronts. Two factors that I'm personally to well aware of are quality of education and income.

The quality of university education in the US is perceived as being higher than in Europe, and so the US is more likely to attract the most mobile of people - university students. The cost of living in Europe, coupled with high taxes and lower wages makes it less attractive for mobile workers like myself.

I would like to move to the continent and learn a language. However I've got a partner who is looking for a university teaching post (non-existent or low paid in Europe), and I know that I would take home considerably more in the US. It is proving difficult to convince myself that going back to Europe is a good move.

Posted by: Colin Stewart at February 20, 2004 1:19

Well, I probably overreact to Florida. Ultimately, he's just one more thinker trying to put his own spin on globalization, which I strongly doubt is going to go away (and I'm not sure I would want it to either, when push comes to shove). I don't like arguments which turn economic transformations into claims of cultural superiority (which, as you point out, often turn out to be hereditary), but one way or another, we have to confront that economic-cultural dynamic. George F. Will's column today is essentially all about the same thing (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A56316-2004Feb19.html). If you hold onto jobs for the sake of protecting identity, because you know for a fact that the cultural empowerment which follows loosening up markets will very likely pass by the slice of population you're concerned entirely, what have you done? You've ended up making a fetish of an occupation, in some cases a (comparatively) crummy one. (Will has a great quote from an early mining union leader, about how no one who has actually done so would ever want to work underground.) How can you justify that, whatever the costs otherwise?

It's a toughie. Like you, I probably just react badly to people like Florida who think they've got a straightforward solution.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at February 20, 2004 16:13

Someone at Volokh wrote a devastating critique of Florida, saying that those creative citites actually had lower growth than others. Sounded convincing. Will look for a link...

Posted by: David Weman at February 23, 2004 5:35

"I would like to move to the continent and learn a language. However I've got a partner who is looking for a university teaching post (non-existent or low paid in Europe), and I know that I would take home considerably more in the US. It is proving difficult to convince myself that going back to Europe is a good move."

Posted by: Colin Stewart at February 20, 2004 1:19

Colin, university teaching posts are scarce *and* low-paying the US.

Posted by: Barry at March 12, 2004 22:19
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