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November 26, 2005

The "Tepping" Point Here at Home

On Wednesday I wrote an entry about The Tepping Point, a grossly simplified equation (Technology + Education = Productivity > Progress) that I fell underlies which economies become successful and which fall behind. I framed it in the context of Africa and Jeffrey Sach's groundbreaking book The End of Poverty. However, the Tepping Point isn't just a concept that it's important for economic develpment abroad. It's just as important right here in the U.S.

I'm reading the most recent issue of Fortune and I came back-to-back articles where the Tepping Point has direct relevance. The first ("Get a Life!") describes the increasing desire of men to have better work/family/life balance. One of the main issues: Can people be as productive (or even more productive) while working 40-50 hour weeks as they are if they are working 60, 70 or even 80 hours a week? The second article ("It's His Economy Now--And Yours" includes a couple of interesting charts that plot the growth of real GDP and real wages and salaries over the last five years. The take-away? While real GDP has been relatively strong (3-4% over the last couple of years), real wages and salaries have been falling for the last couple of years.

With a few blips on the radar the U.S. economy has been on relative easy streets for the last couple of decades. It's easy to think that will continue indefinitely, especially when we've been in the midst of such a prolonged uptick. However, history is full of examples of countries that were on top and presumably invincible one year can find themselves in troubled waters only a few years after. One only needs to look to what's happened in Japan over the last decade as evidence of that.

One again, let me offer a full disclaimer that I'm far from anything remotely resembling an economist but I get the general sense that there could be economic trouble ahead for the United States. Not in the sense of "Oh my gosh we're going to have another Depression and everyone is going to be poor." Rather a sense that although we will continue to do well and specific sectors might do very well that we're going to face an intense challenge from China, India and other countries that are growing at a much faster rate than we are.

China's economy is growing at a rate of 8% per year. Let me repeat that. China's economy is growing at a rate of 8% per year. With that type of torrid growth rate we don't need to look forward more than a couple of decades to a time when China, not the United States, will rule the world economically. After all, as I read in the early pages of The End of Poverty, it was a mere 1% difference in GDP growth rates between the U.S. and Africa between 1820 and 1998 that lead us becoming an economic power and Africa becoming an economic backwater.

OK, full disclaimer #2: I don't care who wins. I love my country as much as anyone but I also don't define myself by it. So I don't write any of this in the interest of trying to imply that it's bad if China or India or somebody else takes over the #1 spot in the world's economy. Rather I want to see all nations and all individuals succeed to their best possible ability.

And that's what I love about the Tepping Point. It's the furthest thing from a zero-sum game that you can find. Technological development and educational advancement form a tide that lifts all boats. No one loses in a more educated society. That's the beauty.

And to be honest, just as Africa has a long way to go in terms of education so do we here in the United States. Many K-12 schools are in a lot of trouble as over-worked teachers struggle to deal with larger class sizes and fewer resources. Colleges and universities are still world leaders but many American students are falling behind their often harder-working foreign classmates.

And adult education? Well the most telling sign for me of the state of adult education is when I tell people that I have a company that sells audio and video educational products. The immediate assumption by the vast majority of people is that we offer products for children. It takes many people a surprisingly long time to get the fact that we're trying to educate people who've already finished "their education" (as defined by that high school/college/graduate diploma).

Sure, a lot of people are good at learning what they need to know for work. Which is fine until you switch positions or careers and realize that this often means developing a whole new skill set. Or until you're forced to deal with the fact that innovation is moving at break-neck speeds and that the knowledge you have today is increasingly likely to become obsolete a couple of years from now. Or until you wake up and realize that 1.3 billion Chinese people are now a prime player in the global economy and that many of those people want your jobs and are very qualified to take them.

But by then it might be too late. That's what we want to help prevent here at LearnOutLoud. We want you to start Learning Out Loud before you find yourself in a position of learning too late.