Columns » Outsider


Learning our lesson


Some not-so-random news items: At a furniture fair for foreign buyers in China, a New York Times reporter chatted with the owner of one of the factories whose products now dominate the American market. Stroking a carved oak table, he remarked that an American worker capable of similar work would have to be paid at least $2,000 per month. He pays his Chinese employees $100, no bennies.

An executive at a major hi-tech firm, reflecting upon the outsourcing of software jobs to India and China: "Listen, there are 3 billion people in these countries. If we just work with the top 10 percent, that's 300 million. Before too long, the only jobs that aren't outsourced will be things like journalism and home healthcare, where you have to be in a physical location."

At the annual meeting of the world's power people last month in Davos, Switzerland, a senior official in China's Finance Ministry, addressing a group of Americans: "You've exported your manufacturing sector. And now, you're exporting your service sector. In China, we're concerned. We want to know how you intend to finance your government, ten years from now." The Americans had no response.

None of this is, strictly speaking, news. It's Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign preachifying, 12 years later. Remember? Globalization? Institutionalized job insecurity? A world where people and companies compete for jobs and sales with everyone in the world? It was "the economy, stupid!" and it still is.

Clinton had a solution: education. We'd have to educate our kids and ourselves, continually acquire new skills, learn to think in new ways, and embrace the future.

Clinton's solution is still the only game in town. Absent education, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the young founders of the Internet search engine, Google, couldn't have created their company. Absent education, Bill Gates couldn't have found tens of thousands of super-smart geeks to help him achieve world dominance.

And absent education, our state will not thrive and will not prosper. Absent a confident, educated and flexible workforce, we'll become another Mississippi, another South Carolina, hemorrhaging jobs, wholly dependent upon government payrolls, casino jobs and tourism.

Our leaders know that. So why is Colorado 47th in the nation in per capita expenditure on higher education?

Why has state support for higher education been cut by 22 percent in the last two years? Why is CU-Boulder laying off staff and professors, even though enrollment has increased by thousands of students? Why, as class sizes increase and students find themselves sitting on the floor, does tuition continue to rise?

The simple answer has to do with the so-called TABOR amendment to the state constitution, whose pernicious revenue caps will, gradually and inexorably, dry up state funding for higher education. That's true; TABOR, as malicious and subtle as any computer virus, is our state's "MyDoom," a parasite embedded in the system architecture of government itself, a virus for which there is no software patch and no firewall.

But TABOR isn't the only reason that we don't support higher ed. Look around -- an awfully high percentage of us are immigrants. Just as we import our furniture from China, we've found that we can rely on other states to provide us with an educated workforce. Consequently, we've watched state support for higher ed dwindle from 20 percent in 1980 to this year's 10.3 percent.

We listen to the siren songs of those who tell us that we can cheap out on education. We don't consider the harsh realities -- less state support equals higher tuition. And as support for education declines nationally (27 states have cut higher ed appropriations in the last two years), poorer kids take it in the teeth.

Right now, 51 percent of kids from families with incomes of $90K-plus get college degrees before age 24, compared to the 4.5 percent whose families have incomes below $35K. It's a class-segregated system, and we, the taxpayers, are the segregationists.

Remember when the Internet first began to explode, and Netscape's founders scornfully predicted that Windows would wither away, to become "a slightly buggy set of device drivers." Didn't happen; with the future of Microsoft at stake, Gates & Co. threw time, money and people at the problem and prevailed.

Remember this: When Gates went after Netscape, it posed no immediate threat to Microsoft. But for Gates, the present is yesterday -- the future is now.

Yet for Colorado's politicians, the past is the future -- more tax cuts, more pandering to elderly voters, developers and low-wage businesses, more bloviating about prayer, porno and left-wing professors. Why worry, after all? We're 47th in the nation, not 50th. Meanwhile ... how 'bout Pink Floyd's '"The Wall" for state song?

We don't need no education ...


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