Like It Matters

January 23, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Washington Monthly:

In 1939, when John Steinbeck completed The Grapes of Wrath—a heart-wrenching tale of a family of sharecroppers forced out of their home during the Depression— roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population still lived on farms. Today, family farms are increasingly rare, and less than 2 percent of employed Americans work in agriculture.

But rather than viewing the decline of farming jobs as a tragedy, economists almost invariably count agriculture as a shining American success—the triumph of productivity. And why not? A handful of farmers using GPS-equipped combines and sophisticated moisture sensors can grow far more food than the population of an entire rural county in 1939. Food has become so plentiful and cheap in the United States that it has been blamed for the increase in obesity. And agricultural products have become one of the country’s chief exports, totaling more than $115 billion in 2010.

As the story of the American economy is usually told, the shrinkage of agricultural employment was a tough but essential part of the march toward higher incomes and a better standard of living. What’s more, this example has been cited time and again to explain subsequent upheavals in employment. In 2003, N. Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economist who then headed President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), told a Washington audience that the more recent fall in manufacturing jobs was an “inescapable” consequence of rapid productivity growth: “The long-term trends that we have recently seen in manufacturing mirror what we saw in agriculture a couple of generations ago.”

In a 2006 speech, University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee made the same point, explaining why the long-term decline in manufacturing jobs didn’t worry him. “Employment in the [manufacturing] sector and the share of spending in the sector get smaller and smaller almost as proof of how productive it has become,” said Goolsbee, then a top economic advisor to Senator Barack Obama and more recently CEA head under President Obama. “It is exactly the same process that agriculture went through.”

Numerous statistics would appear to confirm Mankiw and Goolsbee’s analogy. Manufacturing employment in the U.S. is on a long downward trend, with no sign of a rebound. Despite the supposed recovery, companies are still announcing factory shutdowns and consolidations. One example: in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a Whirlpool refrigerator plant currently employing about 1,000 workers will close its doors by the middle of 2012.

Nevertheless, these ever-fewer workers seem to be producing ever-larger quantities of manufactured goods, such as electronics, aircraft, medical equipment, and chemicals. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, American manufacturing output was 16 percent higher in 2010 than it was a decade earlier, despite the devastating impact of the Great Recession and the virtual disappearance of some manufacturing industries. Combined with the sharp plunge in employment, the BEA statistics imply that manufacturing productivity rose by a stunning 74 percent from 2000 to 2010. Companies that distribute and sell these goods, like Walmart and Best Buy, also seem to be enjoying sizable efficiency gains. According to government data, wholesale and retail trade companies have seen a 20 percent increase in productivity since 2000, as information technology and the Internet enables them to deliver more goods with fewer people.

These statistics undergird one of the chief messages of reassurance that has been repeated throughout the economic crisis: yes, factories may be closing, and whole domestic industries may be withering left and right, but Americans should take heart because we have the “most productive” workers in the world. This refrain has been voiced to the American people by everyone from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney, from Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, to Tom Donohue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Whenever leaders and economists cite this reported strength in productivity—and the historical precedent of agriculture—they are advancing a certain basic theory of our current situation. The U.S. economy is fundamentally sound, the theory goes, and could create broad prosperity if only Washington made some targeted policy interventions. (The nature of the proposed quick fix—stimulus money or tax cuts—varies according to party affiliation.) After all, if the analogy to agriculture holds true, then rising productivity in the manufacturing and distributive sectors should eventually pay off in higher real wages and higher living standards for Americans. Today’s high poverty and unemployment rates will only be part of a painful but temporary period of disruption, as exports of manufactured goods increase and unemployed workers are gradually absorbed into other sectors of the economy, just as an entire generation of farmworkers moved north and west to work in factories.

There are two big problems with this theory, however. One is that the analogy between agriculture and manufacturing is profoundly misleading. The gains in agricultural productivity that transformed this country in the twentieth century are fundamentally different from the gains in manufacturing and distributive productivity we are seeing today. The other, related problem is that our bullish measures of productivity suffer from an enormous statistical blind spot. Rather than wait for rising productivity to save the day—and relying on economic policies that are essentially complacent—the U.S. needs to adopt drastic measures if it wants to keep living standards from falling.

Consider, for a moment, what a farmer has to do to improve the yield of a corn or wheat field in Kansas or Nebraska. Machinery has to be purchased to plant and harvest the crops. Pesticides and herbicides have to be applied to fight bugs and weeds. Irrigation has to be used appropriately to make sure the crops mature as desired.

In a very real sense, agricultural productivity is intrinsically rooted in American soil. Yes, the tractor might be imported from Japan. But a farmer cannot plant crops in Iowa and then outsource the harvesting to Vietnam. Pesticides have to be sprayed on American bugs, and crops have to be irrigated with American water. Most of the value created by agriculture is made in America.

By contrast, most manufactured goods these days are the product of global supply chains, which may include multiple countries and border crossings. Your smartphone, for example, is assembled from components that were manufactured all over the world. On a less high-tech note, the cedar hangers that organically keep your suits and dresses free of pests may be made of wood grown in the U.S., shipped to China for manufacture, and then shipped back to the U.S. again.

Given the dominance of global supply chains, manufacturers and distributers both have two very different strategies available to them for cutting costs. On the one hand, they can invest in raising productivity in their domestic operations. A midwestern auto factory can rearrange its assembly line to produce more cars with fewer workers; a retailer can shift more sales to its online division; a real estate agency can invest in contact-management software to help fewer brokers manage more potential buyers and sellers…

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2011, Karachi. I find myself looking at an illustration of an airplane colliding with the World Trade Center. Fire and smoke plume from the buildings. Below the illustration are the words, in Urdu: “Tay—Takrao.” Translated, they are along the lines of “C is for Collide.” The image is in a textbook for first-grade students who are learning the Urdu alphabet. “Jeem—Jihad” and “Hei—Hijab” follow (the accompanying illustration shows a woman in top-to-toe niqab rather than hijab).

The fate of Pakistan is dependent on the state’s ability to impart education that enlightens students rather than pulling them into the darkness of obscurantism.“Madrassas,” I say, shaking my head. But the friend showing me the illustrations says such books can also be found in schools that aren’t within the madrassa system. She suggests that I look at some government-issued textbooks before coming to any conclusions about the wide gap between education in madrassas, which are largely unregulated, and education that follows the National Curricula.

So the next day I went out in search of government-issued textbooks. I came upon one for social sciences published by the Punjab government (each of Pakistan’s four provinces has its own textbook board). Flipping it open, I saw a chapter on the livestock of Pakistan. The section on “The Cattle” started: “It is a ‘Sunnah’ [custom; recommended practice] of our Holy Prophet to rear the cattle. By doing so, we fulfill our needs and at the same time obey the Sunnah-e-Nabi[custom-of-the-Prophet].” Further on in the book was a section on health, which began: “It is said that health is wealth.” But clichés weren’t the worst of the section’s problems. It ended with: “We need to make great efforts to solve the problems of our province so that all of us can live in peace and prosperity. We need to work selflessly and devotedly because to do what is just and virtuous in the eyes of Allah is a great Jihad.” That wasn’t the only mention of the J-word. Later, it merited its own chapter, which laid out the different kinds of Jihad, includingJihad bin Nafs: “A Jihad by sacrificing one’s own life and self. It means that every kind of physical effort may be put in for the service of Islam, so much so that one may sacrifice even one’s life for the propagation and cause of Islam.” Not so far from “Tay—Takrao” and “Jeem—Jihad” after all.

The fate of Pakistan is dependent on the state’s ability to impart education that enlightens students rather than pulling them into the darkness of obscurantism. Just educating children is daunting enough, but there is also the quality of that education. Pakistan has a shortage of qualified teachers, a reluctance in many parts of the country to send girls to school once they’re considered old enough to help their mothers with domestic chores, and a large number of “ghost schools” that exist on paper, are included in official counts, often receive international funding, but don’t, in reality, function as schools. Pakistan’s DAWN newspaper carried a photograph on April 30, 2009 of a “school” that was being used as a barn for animals. According to Pir Mazhar ul Haq, the Education Minister for the province of Sindh, there were 7,700 ghost schools in Sindh alone. But as the textbooks prove, education is not a word bathed in golden light; what and how children learn is at least as important as the fact of learning itself.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and trustee of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a nonprofit organization for cultural and historic preservation, spent time in different madrassas over the course of several years. There, she saw firsthand the language used by teachers to indoctrinate students. Not quite 1 percent of Pakistan’s 1.7 million school-going children attend madrassa (as opposed to the 66 percent who are educated within the formal education structure), but the number is still sizable and the indoctrination process isn’t confined to the madrassa system alone.

Using what they learned during a three-day workshop at the Museum of London and a baseline survey of government schools in Karachi, which confirmed the degree of hatred taught in schools as well as the lack of critical thinking, the individuals at CAP put together a “parallel curriculum.” They then set about using their contacts in the NGO world to find several schools across Karachi that would allow them to send in a team to teach their curriculum alongside the government curriculum for a few hours a week. When I first heard of this, I imagined “the team” as a vast and complex organism, but it turned out to be two twentysomethings, Adnan and Sana, along with two technical assistants.

One winter morning in February 2010, I accompanied Adnan and Sana to a school that had agreed to work with CAP. As we drove through Karachi, progressing from neighborhoods where bougainvillea climbed high boundary walls to those where political graffiti was painted on cement buildings, I tried to understand what a handful of people could accomplish when set against an entire education system—and also why exactly they might do it.

In Sana’s case, joining CAP’s School Outreach Project was a natural progression from her student days in America where she studied history and wrote her thesis on a comparison between the textbooks of India and Pakistan. (“They’re as bad as each other in terms of teaching skewed history,” she says. “The only difference is India doesn’t feel the need to be as defensive about itself.”) Adnan, on the other hand, studied social sciences at university and then went on to work at an oil and gas company. “But I saw what was going on in Pakistan; I live here, this is my country. I had to do something, so I joined CAP,” he says. “I live here; this is my country” could well be CAP’s motto, I thought as I listened to him.

“With the boys you have to get to them by the time they’re eleven or twelve. Any later is too late,” Sana said, recalling how a group of fourteen-year-olds told her, “What do we need education for? We’re in politics.”On that day, they would be presenting a one-hour education module on Pakistan’s geography. This was the second and final visit to the school; the first had concentrated on history. They acknowledged that there was only so much one could do in terms of education in two hours. But they took the long view that the more projects and schools they were involved with the more exposure CAP’s school project would receive, thereby increasing the likelihood that other groups and individuals with resources would partner with them, expanding the project.

The workshops were still getting off the ground, but CAP had already been involved for several months in a longer-term project with five schools in Karachi. There, Sana and Adnan were teaching weekly classes in Urdu. These consisted of twenty-four lesson plans that focused on Pakistan between the years 1940 and 1955, and included topics such as the creation of Pakistan, the role played by women in the founding and early years of the state, and the setting up of the influential Radio Pakistan. The lessons weren’t without reference to the present; conversations around the mass migration that accompanied Partition and the then government’s response to the influx of refugees were set against those about the large number of internally displaced persons in Pakistan following army action in Taliban-controlled areas in 2009.

When Obaid-Chinoy explained the structure and aims of the Outreach Project to me in the bright and breezy CAP office, it sounded straightforward. Talking to Adnan and Sana made it clear that it was anything but. They said that the schools didn’t take what CAP was doing seriously, that they treated the lessons as extracurricular activities to amuse the children. ThatCAP used videos and graphics as teaching tools no doubt aided in this impression. Usually, the class teachers didn’t bother to stay and listen to what their students were being taught, though this was, in its own way, a blessing. One teacher who did take an interest was annoyed to discover that the students were being taught about Nehru and Gandhi, not as figures of hate but as politicians involved with the anti-colonial struggle whose differences with the Muslim League played a significant role in Partition. There was no point, the teacher had said, in teaching such things. Fearing being forbidden from any further teaching at the school, CAP removed the lesson from the curriculum for that particular school.

Adnan and Sana soon learned that almost anything could cause offense; early on they stopped giving out handouts for the children to take home. “You never know what the parents will object to and create a fuss about,” Adnan explained…

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Since I discovered U.S. Route 66 as a teenage hitchhiker, I’ve traveled it by Greyhound bus and tractor-trailer, by RV and Corvette and, once, by bicycle. Recently, when I wanted to return for another look, I headed straight for my favorite section, in Arizona, stretching from Winslow west to Topock on the California border. The last 160 miles of that route constitute one of the longest surviving stretches of the original 2,400-mile highway.

I’m happy to report that Route 66’s obituary—written repeatedly since 1984, when the opening of I-40 enabled motorists to make the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles on five connecting interstates—was premature. What John Steinbeck called the Mother Road had been reborn, not quite with the character it once had, but with enough vitality to ensure its survival.

When I reached Seligman, I called Angel Delgadillo at his home. He set his tenor sax aside to pedal his bike the few blocks to his barbershop and settled into his hair-cutting chair, a cup of coffee in hand. “You know,” he said, “even the Greyhound abandoned us” after I-40 opened. “So I sit here today and say to myself, ‘It’s pretty unreal how we’ve brought 66 back to life.’ ” Seligman has 500 residents—and 13 souvenir shops selling Route 66 memorabilia.

“We’ve got a tour bus pulling up,” his daughter Myrna shouted from the adjacent gift store. Delgadillo, who is 84, bounded out of his chair, wearing a smile as wide as a crescent moon, and rushed to greet a group of German tourists, shaking hands and slapping backs. “Good morning, good morning! Welcome home.” Home? They gave him a quizzical look, not understanding that to Delgadillo, Route 66 is a quintessential home to all the world’s wanderers, even though he himself had never strayed far from it.

The tourists loaded up on postcards, Route 66 bumper stickers, road signs shaped like shields and black-and-white photographs of dusty Ford Model Ts chugging through Seligman in the 1930s, canvas water bags slung on their hoods to keep radiators from overheating. I asked one of the visitors, a 40-ish man named Helmut Wiegand, why in the world a foreigner would choose this road for a vacation over Las Vegas, New York City or Disney World. “We all know 66 from the old TV series about two lost young men traveling it in a Corvette,” he said. “For us, 66 is a connection with America. It’s your most famous street, symbolic of your freedom, your restlessness, your quest for new opportunity.”

As the travelers returned to their bus, Delgadillo shook hands with each of them. He was born in Seligman, the son of a railroad man who owned a pool hall and barbershop but had a hard time supporting his family of seven. “In ’39 Dad built a trailer for our Model T, loaded it up and shuttered the windows of our house,” he said. “We were ready to join the Okies and go to California.” But his three brothers had formed an orchestra, with 12-year-old Angel on the drums, and the boys got a job performing in a local club. For the next four decades, they played at high-school dances, American Legion halls and VFW lodges, and community events along Route 66. “The highway saved us,” said Delgadillo, who is now known locally as “the Angel of Route 66” for his preservation efforts.

The road west from Seligman cuts through the Hualapai Indian Reservation and desert plateaus covered with juniper and mesquite. Red-rock cliffs thrust skyward on the horizon. In the 1850s, U.S. Navy Lt. Edward Beale traveled this route, along centuries-old Indian trails, with 44 men and 25 camels imported from Tunisia. Beale and his men created the first federally funded wagon road across Arizona, from Fort Defiance to the mouth of the Mojave River in California. The first telegraph lines to penetrate the Southwest territories soon followed, as did settlers in covered wagons and then railroads. Finally, in 1926, black Model Ts came chugging along an intermittently paved road designated as Route 66. It wasn’t the first road across the West; the Lincoln Highway, known as the Father Road, was dedicated in 1913, running 3,389 miles from New York City’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. But 66 became synonymous with wanderlust and discovery.

For Cyrus Avery, the new road was a dream come true. A visionary Tulsa businessman and civic leader, Avery had persuaded federal officials designing the nation’s first comprehensive highway system to move the proposed Chicago-Los Angeles route south of the Rocky Mountains so it traveled through his hometown. Oklahoma ended up with 432 miles of Route 66, more than any state except New Mexico; 24 miles of the road snaked along Tulsa County’s residential and commercial streets. The thoroughfare spurred the development of a city that had, Avery would later recall, “no electric lights and pigs running on the streets” in the early 1900s. A few years ago the city of Tulsa purchased two acres of blighted land near the Cyrus Avery Memorial Bridge spanning the Arkansas River and built a plaza and skywalk. But the centerpiece of the $10 million-plus project will be a Route 66 museum and interpretive center, still in the planning stages.

The last time I traveled the road, crossing the open range and Painted Desert of northern Arizona in 1995, Winslow was a dying town. Route 66, which had become 2nd and 3rd streets, was a shambles of closed shops and nasty-looking bars. The magnificent La Posada, last of the famous Fred Harvey hotels built between Chicago and Los Angeles for rail and Route 66 travelers, had been closed in 1957 and converted into offices for the Santa Fe Railway. The Posada’s splendid murals, depicting desert flowers and Southwestern landscapes, had been painted over. The soaring timbered ceiling had disappeared under tiles fitted with fluorescent lights. The lobby was turned into a dispatch center for trains and the ballroom partitioned into cubicle offices. The original museum-quality furnishings, designed or selected by the building’s creator, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, regarded by many to be the Southwest’s greatest architect, had been auctioned off or given away. In 1992, even the Santa Fe Railway gave up on the place, reportedly offering it to the city for $1. Winslow said no thanks…

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January 23, 2012

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