Monday, March 20, 2006

Finish Your Homework!

The popularity of the "flat world" idea and the notion that China and India will be eating our lunches in the not-too-distant future rank among the reigning themes discussed over the past few years. During this time, Thomas Friedman's book, Bill Gates' analysis of the American brain drain, and worries about outsourcing have permeated the popular consciousness. On the flip-side, counter-arguments have emerged in recent months which claim that America's preeminent status is not in jeopardy. See, for example, David Brooks ["The Nation of the Future" ($), 2/2/06] and Robert Samuelson ["A Phony Science Gap?", 2/22/06].

While I'm not one to turn alarmist from a few anecdotes about Beijing or Bangalore entrepreneurs, I do think that there is something to be concerned about here. The most important lesson on this subject that I have taken away comes from a story that Friedman relates:
"When I was growing up, my parents would tell me 'Finish your food, people in China and India are starving.'

I tell my kids 'Finish your homework, people in China and India are starving for your job.'"

Innumerable factors currently stand in the way of either China or India outstripping us, but one thing is clear: there are a lot of people in both of those countries that are out-hustling us Americans. While for now they may only represent a minority of their population, more of them are springing up daily to take advantage of increased opportunities.

For a taste of the radically different work culture in those countries, check out this recent Fortune article on Infosys, the Indian software services company. The talent pool is staggering--1.3 million applicants for full-time positions last year, and only 1% of those were hired. The new hires receive rigorous training in state-of-the-art educational centers which house rooms like the "Gordon Moore Room" or "Jeff Bezos Room". Captains of industry, it appears, are to the outsourcing industry what Kelly Clarkson is to the American public--the real Idols.

For now, the lure of higher salaries and brand-name jobs in the U.S. may draw a lot of the immigrant talent pool, as it did with my parents 25 years ago. But with increased prosperity and the prospects of "boundless growth" back in their native countries, how much longer will those smart foreigners keep coming here?

I'm willing to believe that the American optimists are correct when they assure us that we still do produce enough engineers and scientists, that because our country is second to none at fostering an innovative and entrepreneurial environment, and because we are a service-oriented economy anyway, that we can remain successful in the New Economy. But does that mean we should nevertheless continue with business as usual, not worrying about the fact that the rest of the world is working night and day to whittle away at our lead? I don't think so.

Better finish that homework.

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