[EAS] Competition and Erosion

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Tue Nov 29 03:11:34 EST 2005

Dear Colleagues -

A sobering announcement about a just-to-be-released report from the 
National Academies Press "Rising Above The Gathering Storm: 
Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future":


If you've seen the 1987 movie "Broadcast News", do you remember the 
growing-up scene early on where Aaron Altman (played by Albert 
Brooks), later to become the star reporter among the three 
protagonists, is beaten up by high school toughs? In helpless rage he 
shouts at them "You'll never earn more than nineteen thousand 
dollars." As his tormentors walk away, one says to the other, 
"Nineteen thousand - not bad!" Not a particularly good metaphor for 
international competitiveness, I'll grant you, but a charming movie 
if you haven't seen it.

More seriously, and hardly ever talked about because of the primacy 
of economic arguments, are the "quality of life" issues of the "new 
capitalism." One of the exceptions is Richard Sennett's benchmark 
book "The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work 
in the New Capitalism" (Norton, 1998). A sociologist at the London 
School of Economics and New York University, Sennett contrasts the 
vanished world of rigid, hierarchial organizations where what 
mattered was a sense of personal character, against the brave new 
world of reengineering, risk, flexibility and short-term teamwork. He 
sees the positives of a dynamic economy, but also the steady erosion 
in the workplace of a sense of sustained purpose, a sense of 
integrity and trust in others -- attributes that an earlier 
generation understood as essential to personal character. Put 
differently, seldom if ever can parents now bequeath to their 
children any sense of their work ethic. As Studs Terkel puts it in a 
jacket quote "a worker has become ... as dispensable as Kleenex."


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