Dec 242010
 
Michelle Rhee
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THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Last summer I attended a talk by Michelle Rhee, the dynamic chancellor of public schools in Washington. Just before the session began, a man came up, introduced himself as Todd Martin and whispered to me that what Rhee was about to speak about — our struggling public schools — was actually a critical, but unspoken, reason for the Great Recession.

There’s something to that. While the subprime mortgage mess involved a huge ethical breakdown on Wall Street, it coincided with an education breakdown on Main Street — precisely when technology and open borders were enabling so many more people to compete with Americans for middle-class jobs.

In our subprime era, we thought we could have the American dream — a house and yard — with nothing down. This version of the American dream was delivered not by improving education, productivity and savings, but by Wall Street alchemy and borrowed money from Asia.

A year ago, it all exploded. Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

“Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges,” argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor. “This loss of competitiveness has weakened the American worker’s production of wealth, precisely when technology brought global competition much closer to home. So over a decade, American workers have maintained their standard of living by borrowing and overconsuming vis-à-vis their real income. When the Great Recession wiped out all the credit and asset bubbles that made that overconsumption possible, it left too many American workers not only deeper in debt than ever, but out of a job and lacking the skills to compete globally.”

This problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

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