February 25th, 2008
Today NPR, that bastion of reasoned, intelligent and thoughtful reporting (as opposed to the crass celebrity-and-sensation commercial outlets) ran a typically panicky story about the documentary “Two Million Minutes”.
According to NPR, the film illustrates the looming downfall of American society as children in developing countries study and learn vastly more in school than their US counterparts. As a result, the next generation of Americans will be illiterate, innumerate, and utterly ignorant of science, history and geography. The sky will fall and Americans will be reduced to foot-washers and burger-cookers to Asian technocrats.
First, economics is not a zero sum game. Other countries becoming more productive – even more productive than Americans are – does not hurt the US standard of living.
While it’s certainly true that American primary and secondary schools are pitiful (because they lack competition – compare America’s excellent, and highly competitive, colleges and universities), still, panic is not called for. Productivity determines living standards – nothing else. Americans are becoming more productive, not less, even if other countries are catching up.
Economics is not war. There are no “winners” and “losers” – everyone gets what they produce, be it great or small, and regardless of what others get.
It’s natural that countries like China and India, which still experience poverty that makes even the poorest Americans appear middle-class, are struggling very hard to improve their standard of living; much harder than Americans do or need to. This is admirable, but eventually when these countries catch up to first-world living standards undoubtedly they, too, will start taking some time to smell the flowers.
Second – education only goes so far. The brightest people will always be able to learn what they need to know without much effort, and the dumbest, sadly, will not be able to learn much no matter what effort is put into education. All nations have their share of genius and idiocy.