Monday, January 26, 2009

Journey to the West

As I said upon returning, I will now offer up some observations on California after my short sojourn last week. These may not be incredibly profound, but they're all I have.

1) I spent some time with people who came to this country in the 1970s from the Republic of China (which I will now call Taiwan since that's how we in the U.S. see it). Some of these folks have been remarkably successful, others less so, but right down the line their children are doing well.

[This is probably a good place to stop and point out that I understand the dangers of generalization, something I will be doing throughout this essay. I believe my observations have some validity, but I know that is a far cry from universality. Nevertheless....]

What struck me was that the degrees of separation hypothesis (that almost everyone on Earth is connected to everyone else by no more than six steps) needs a smaller number among this population. The people at the table seemed to have no more than two degrees to the new president, Ma Ying-Jeou, which seems surprising until you realize that there were a very small number of top schools that generated most of the immigrants at that time, and the ones who went back after studying here are part of that group.

But that demonstrates, I think, the two fallacies we have about immigrants and, now, foreigners. For we believe, based on what we've seen, that the Chinese and Indians and others who come here are the best and brightest (which they tend to be based on selection), then we extend that to (1st myth) believing that any further immigrants would be equally talented or entrepreneurial, then, in a huge stretch, (2nd myth) that the people who remain in their countries are also equally talented, that it's something genetic.

Here's the deal. The people who have come here to go to school tend to already be the best and the brightest, from good disciplined families - they simply are not reflective of the overall population of those countries (any more than the graduating class of Harvard is reflective of America's 22-year-olds). Even then, many of that first generation don't do as well as they would like (or, possibly, as well as if they had gone back). So when we set immigration and offshoring policies based on the "magical" qualities of Indians or Chinese or Koreans, we need to understand that we're looking for evidence from an already-select group.

2) A lot is made of the laid-back quality of Californians. When I left Chicago, it was below zero. When I got to San Jose, it was over 70 degrees.

My sense is that Californians have the luxury of being more experiential than the rest of us; that is, every day is something of a reward and they know it. If you live in other areas of the country, many days do not contain that intrinsic satisfaction, so we end up being more goal-oriented. For us, it's getting to something or somewhere else, because we don't get 365 days a year to enjoy the world. We have a grimmer focus on hitting the high points because our day-to-day lives offer less of the simple sensory enjoyment that is a near-daily occurrence to the Californian.

[Note: in reading this point over, it seems a bit pretentious, bordering on the David Brooks. Nonetheless, I'll leave it, because it was a thought I had out there, and that's what I promised to my readers.]

3) The economic news from California is pretty grim, with the unemployment rate hitting 9.3%. There is speculation, at least from one writer in the San Jose Mercury News, that California may be a "rust-belt-to-be":

Defense spending in the 1980s, high-tech startups in the 1990s and housing-fueled consumer spending in the 1990s — all were California economic bubbles that burst spectacularly, leaving recession and government deficits in their wake.

What, if anything, will come next to pull us out of recession and return California to prosperity? Some think it will be biotechnology, services to baby boomer retirees or solving global warming.

Lurking in the background, however, is a nagging worry that there won't be anything, that the state's endemically high costs, political dysfunction and long list of unresolved dilemmas, from transportation to water to education, have made us uncompetitive in a global economy. Just last week, a new federal survey found that California has the nation's highest adult illiteracy rate.

We have tended to take the future for granted. No matter how moribund the economy may be at the moment, we think, we have the weather, the entrepreneurial spirit and the strategic location to regroup and prosper.

We may have. But then again, maybe we aren't so special. Maybe we're not immune to the societal afflictions that have beset other states. Maybe we are a rust-belt-to-be on the left coast, a Michigan with winter sunshine.

I'm no expert on what's going on out there, but it seems clear that there are major problems ahead for our most populous state. What does this do to the theory that all we have to do is accumulate enough good minds in one place and wonderful things will happen? Because that's the prevailing theory that we're applying to educational policy, that we can just educate all the youngsters and our needs will be met, innovation will happen, and the streets will run with milk and honey.

There are some remarkable conditions in the Golden State, including some of the best institutions of higher learning and an environment which attracts the best from all over the world, but that isn't proving sufficient to overcome all the many things that seem to be getting in the way. There are so many things that contribute to the success of an area, a state, a nation, a world, and, while I would never deny that rising levels of education is desirable, it doesn't seem that assembling a critical mass of bright people is quite enough.

2 comments:

WhatsHisName said...

I agree with (in particular) point #2. When I first moved to Northern California, back in the mid-1990s, I experienced that daily reward, stemming from the great weather, being able to experience nature in a way summer camp never prepared me for (4th of July in Yosemite - you do not need fireworks), the riot of different cultures (from Russian Hill, I walked through Chinatown and little Italy on route to my job in the financial district), and meeting people I would have never met in Chicago (The apartment manager of my first and only SF apartment insisted we sign the lease with a joint, on him). A rent-controlled one bedroom with a view of the Bay - I inhaled.

Strange as it sounds, the commute to work never seems complete without the smell of Durian fruit combined with raw fish. Napalm in the morning?

I know what you mean about the challenges. Even in 2001, it was evident the dot-com silliness masked some serious job losses in the "bricks and mortar" industries that paid good IT money (TransAmerica, Pacific Telesis, Wells Fargo anyone?).

But, even living in New York, I miss the Northern Cal of memory. And (Mr. Blogger), how could you miss the Blueberry Pancakes at Polkers?

Androcass said...

But think of it this way, you can work real hard, struggle through the ice and snow, amass tons of money in the burgeoning New York economy, and move back to that city by the bay.

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