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Value-adds and American Ingenuity

September 18th, 2008 | 5 min read

By Tex

“Everyone has to focus on what exactly is their value-add…We are in the middle of a big technological change, and when you live in a society that is at the cutting edge of that change [like America], it is hard to predict. It’s easy to predict for someone living in India. In ten years we are going to be doing a lot of the stuff that is being done in America today. We can predict our future. But we are behind you. You are defining the future. America is always on the edge of the next creative wave…” (Jaithirth Rao, quoted in The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman)

Whenever a discussion of globalization and world power begins, it is usual for no more than five sentences to be uttered before somebody inevitably mentions the successes of India and China. Given the popularity of polarization in American culture, once these rising stars are mentioned people tend to either bemoan the failure of Americans to keep up in the sciences, math, and tech industries or else smugly gloat while moralizing on the virtues of sharing toys and power.

Alarmists and quasi-isolationists abound, usually on the political right and will grow long-winded soliloquizing on the value of buying American products (usually Ford or GM), of building walls along our southern border, and enforcing strict discipline standards in our schools so that all those children getting lost in sex and drugs will, presumably, suddenly find themselves passionately in love with computer programming, geology, and higher math.

Counter-balancing the fearful stand the peacenik elite, waxing eloquent about the ideal world in which nobody, or at least no American, is better than anyone else, and there are harmony, peace, and European handbags for all. The way forward is, so they say, by submitting to the will of foreign powers, allowing our hands to be tied, and joining in the collective search for global prosperity—a search that probably involves denouncing capitalism, embracing anything that can be spelled beginning with “co-op”, and laying down arms.

An interesting alternative to the polarized viewpoints is hinted at in the first 15 pages of Friedman’s The World is Flat, where a successful Indian businessman and entrepreneur insightfully points out that in the 21st century world of out-sourcing and off-shoring to developing nations—a practice that is creating large amounts of wealth in historically destitute communities—Americans still lead the way in creative value-adds. While other countries are growing in wealth and power, they are doing so mostly by being able to do more efficiently the sort of work that no one in America really wants to do anyways.

Few individuals aspire to living out the best years of their lives in “cubedom”, inputting data into spreadsheets and monitoring computer processes. Such work may be necessary or even convenient at times for bringing home a paycheck, but I have yet to meet an individual who relished the thought of spending the next thirty years of running tax forms through computers.

The alarmists shouldn’t be asking for Americans to take those jobs back; they shouldn’t even be too concerned about the declining interest in science and engineering among American undergraduates. The concern should be towards those things that will stifle the creativity of Americans and limit the initiative of Americans looking for a better way of doing more with less.

What are those things?

Recreation that sedates rather than invigorates, iPod culture, passive entertainment, and anything that lends itself to a pale and pasty-faced complexion should make the list. On top of that, we should add those things that glorifies immature adolescence as the pinnacle of the human experience; we need many more Wendy Darlings and far fewer Peter Pans.

However, the thing that makes the absolute top of my list is capitalism and a free-market economy. Few things stimulate creativity more than a system that dignifies the individual and rewards him for his success and failure. Americans have, for years, led the way in technological and scientific advancement, as well as in creature comfort and quality of life, because they function within a society that rewards those individuals and groups who succeed at creating products and services with positive social value.

While India and China may be more efficient than America when it comes to systems management, Americans are still creating the products and services that make such systems necessary. However, there is nothing innate to the American person that guarantees his continued success as creative value-maker. Each human being is a potential creator and his ability to produce at a high and worthwhile level is determined by a number of factors, including his way of understanding himself and the world, the incentives to create found in his society, and the stimulation of his creative capacities by any number of factors.

As the world becomes increasingly flat, there is a great opportunity to stimulate far-larger numbers of people to create and achieve more than has been done in previous generations. With the expansion of the global market countless individuals can be drawn into world capitalism, with markets expanding to include peoples from around the world and providing incentives for human beings to create value-laden goods and services that can be offered to a wide range of consumers. The increase of players in the system also drives an increasingly high level of competition that has the potential to drive men and women to display increasingly high levels of ingenuity.

Rather than begrudge India and China their growing wealth and influence or flatteringly acquiesce to foreign power and control, Americans should strengthen their own culture practices, institutions, and moral values so that they can compete in the flat world of the 21st century.