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Monday, October 17, 2005

The Future of Success, by Robert Reich

This book starts out badly, pointing out things that should have been obvious to anyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the last few years. Reich points out that the winner take all society seems to have gotten more and more prevelant, and Americans seem to be running harder and harder just to stand still.

Fortunately, he gets better! He analyzes the cause of the increasing disparity between classes (the stakes are higher --- each 5% of success compared to the median draws much more proportionate income and pieces of the good life than it used to, and each 5% of failure contributes to much less money than it used to), and points out that it's simply not true that the culture of students have not gotten more selfish and materialistic. That it's not true that Americans are addicted to work and are workaholics (Americans now work even more hours than the Japanese!) --- but it's a rational reaction to the current state of affairs, where cut-throat competition amongst employees, companies, and fellow students is a result of the increased uncertainty in the marketplace --- your pay is now much more variable than before, while your expenses are still fixed, so you're compelled to work as hard as you possibly can whenever you have an opportunity.

His policy proposals are also quite reasonable: wage insurance, for instance, is an excellent idea --- if your job gets outsourced, you can half the difference between your old job and your new job, which gives you a cushion to get retrained. This is too good an idea and will never get passed while the Republicans are in charge, but I definitely consider it a solution to a major cause of bright students deciding to abandon engineering and science because of the fear that all the technical jobs are going to India and China.

Let me quote one passage that demonstrates that Robert Reich gets it, while many science and engineering educators and other smart people don't:
The stars of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood are coming to resemble Professional athletes who can count on no more than ten to fifteen years before losing their competitive edge. Twentysomething software engineers are in great demand; when they're over forty, they're over the hill. Surveys show that six years after graduating with a degree in computer science, 60 percent are working as software programmers; after twnety years, only 19 percent are still at it. This largely explains why high entry salaries and generous signing bonuses are still not enough to entice greater numbers of undergraduates into the field. They know how quickly they'll become obsolete

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