Tuesday, February 07, 2006

amtrak and the joys of social norms

I was reminded today of a minor bout of happiness to be back in the US feeling at Penn Station in New York. I love travel, and there are lots of place in the world I'd be happy to live, but I had just returned from a ski trip in France where we were constantly aware that lines were always mere formality, that without careful vigillance, whoever was behind us at any given point in line, would inevitably wind up in front, to the point that I got into childish name calling with some Aussie. The utter disrespect for lines is mirrored almost everywhere you go (with perhaps Japan and the UK being exceptions).

It really is a silly thing, but standing in Penn Station in January, in a crowd of well over a hundred people waiting to board the train to Boston to a stressful set of 20 interviews that may well determine the course of my life, I was amazed when the track number was announced to board the train, the massive crowd of people instantly coalesced into an orderly single file line. Simple things.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Age of Science is Over

During the State of the Union the other night, President Bush echoing pundits everywhere, said that the US is falling behind in science and technology, and mercifully resisting the urge for protectionism, called for better math and science education. Every issue of American Scientist says the same thing. Asian countries value math and science, our kids should too. So too say the pundits on Charlie Rose today, as well as the globalization scare mongers like Thomas Friedman.

Yet few economists seem to be too worried. My thought, since when should the US be following other people’s leads, aren’t they following us? Where is the market failure? (ok there are lots, but stay with me here) Maybe the market for education knows something our experts and pundits do not.

Sure, other countries are graduating more scientists and engineers than we are, but they are also graduating more farmers too, and have populations with far higher farming aptitude. The US left the agricultural economy behind long ago—we manage to lead the world in food production with only 1-2% of our work force—maybe it is time to start expecting the end of the science economy. Sure there will still be scientists and engineers, just like there are still farmers, but the rest of us will be doing something else. People seem less concerned with the speed of their gadgets nowadays than with their design.

If not science then what else? I don’t know. Marx was smart enough to not try to predict what we would do with all the free time technology would bring: perhaps artists and musicians, athletes and life coaches, writers and therapists, professors and diplomats, chefs and architects, doctors and vets, inventors and entrepreneurs. Students aren’t clamoring to study math and science in school, maybe not because they are too stupid and lazy, but they (with the help of the market) are smart enough to realize those aren’t the skills they need for the 21st century.