Friday, January 14, 2005

Fly Me to the Moon

Another great column from Mr. Friedman.

Of all the irresponsible aspects of the 2005 budget bill that the Republican-led Congress just passed, nothing could be more irresponsible than the fact that funding for the National Science Foundation was cut by nearly 2 percent, or $105 million.

But because of the steady erosion of science, math and engineering education in U.S. high schools, our cold war generation of American scientists is not being fully replenished. We traditionally filled the gap with Indian, Chinese and other immigrant brainpower. But post-9/11, many of these foreign engineers are not coming here anymore, and, because the world is now flat and wired, many others can stay home and innovate without having to emigrate.
If we don't do something soon and dramatic to reverse this "erosion," we are not going to have the scientific foundation to sustain our high standard of living in 15 or 20 years.
I agree with all of this, except the implication that if an Indian or Chinese engineering student stays home and gets an equally good education that somehow Americans or the world is worse off. Do I care that my Prius hybrid was designed by a Japanese engineer? That my cell phone was created by a Korean engineer? That the life saving drug I consume was created by a French scientist? As a consumer I can take advantage of Toyota's hybrids. As an investor I can invest in Toyota. So my standard of living is not affected by the fact they are Japanese. Maybe I can't get a job at Toyota, but if I have good technical skills there is always a local company that can use them or a new company to be founded to use them.

I wish I knew the number of scientists and engineers there were not in the US but in the entire world. The more engineers and scientists the better the standard of living will be for everyone. I am not concerned that Indians and Chinese are staying home, I am concerned that too many smart American students become lawyers and not enough become scientists and engineers. A society can get to a point where extra lawyers don't add a lot of value, but that is not possible with scientists and engineers. There is always more to discover, more to invent.
When did the Soviet Union collapse? When did reform take off in Iran? When did the Oslo peace process begin? When did economic reform become a hot topic in the Arab world? In the late 1980's and early 1990's. And what was also happening then? Oil prices were collapsing.

In November 1985, oil was $30 a barrel, recalled the noted oil economist Philip Verleger. By July of 1986, oil had fallen to $10 a barrel, and it did not climb back to $20 until April 1989. "Everyone thinks Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviets," said Mr. Verleger. "That is wrong. It was the collapse of their oil rents." It's no accident that the 1990's was the decade of falling oil prices and falling walls.
I am not a fan of oil and this is exactly why. Too many bad governments are allowed to survive because of it. Friedman could have also mentioned that while Poland is becoming a strong democracy, Russia appears to be going the other direction. Why? In Russia for Putin to get more power he just has to grab the oil. In Poland there is no easy money to get at so they must invest in their people in order to become a stronger economy.

What about Iraq? I think the odds of a successful democracy are greatly undermined by their huge oil wealth. Sure you can have a nice election and have somebody elected. But then someone without power will figure out how much easier it is to get a bunch of armed men and take over the oil fields.

via New York Times

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