It's often said in recent years that the US is losing it's manufacturing capability. This is a falsehood. The truth is that the US produces more now then ever before in it's history (as does Japan for example - this isn't a US-centric occurrence); it's just doing so with fewer pay-earning, tax-paying people doing the work than ever before. And there's the crimp in the bright and shiny futurist's dream; how do we - especially those of us like myself who earn our daily crust building something for others to buy - continue to make a living (and occasionally buying some of the stuff for our own use) when the jobs we have need of are being performed by machines instead? How do we get from here - putting Tab "A" into Slot "B" on an assembly line - to being capable of fabricating what we need for ourselves as the need for an item arises (or as another's desire for an item makes them willing to exchange value to acquire an example)?
Instapundit has linked obsessively to the on-going meltdown of education (and by implication skills training too) efforts and institutions in the US and elsewhere, and more power to the good Professor for doing so. His recent link to Stephen Gordon's Speculist post is in my opinion an examination of this education/employment dilemma from the actuarial other end my own approach has pursued. Which is good; we need to develop a remedy that meets current needs as well as those almost certain to develop in coming years.
My personal belief has long been that individual education, both technical as well as classical, offered the most reliable mechanism for relieving the employment opportunity dilemma as well as the "education bubble" which is both a financial and subject matter issue I think. Too many new lawyers (or whatever - too many degreed people generally) having both a dearth of practical skills to earn a living and a financial debt that requires an upper-middle class income level just to fund basic payment levels is the crux of the problem. From my perspective, too many manufacturing workers no longer having a recognisable opportunity to earn a living using their years-in-the-learning skills as they get progressively older is the actuarial other end of the same condition.
Instead of placing these two groups of people in active opposition to each other, we need to devise a mechanism whereby they can both achieve their desired ends. And therein lies the strategic opportunity my other personal interest speaks of (a strategic opportunity is, by definition, one that no-one else has recognised and taken advantage of).
I recognise and agree with Stephen's observation that much of retail and individual business is transacted in the "comfy chair" environment that booksellers like Barnes & Noble and coffee shops like Starbucks are associated with. Stephen's contention that education ought to transition to such an environment and away from the historical "groves of academe" model that modern universities strive for is well taken. Such a model would permit learning at the individuals pace and ability (and remove most doubt as to the source of failure as well), and do so at a potentially much reduced cost at the same time, Stephen notes that much of the current cost of education derives from administrative overhead endemic to the current school model, though I notice he pays little attention to the near-certain efforts people will make to create equivalent drags on the "coffee shop" model of school too. Even so, anyone not named Kevin Baker can only put so much into a single blog post, and Stephen makes a good case for his observations on education.
I want to take a different approach to addressing the same circumstance (and not only because my middle name isn't actually Contentious either :)) and place this issue in the context of human rights, in particular the right enumerated in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. I select this particularly contentious human right because it is my belief that it best addresses the dynamic we also face in the education and employment "bubble"s.
In a nut shell, the US Second Amendment asserts that we each possess an inherent right to defend ourselves within certain delineations - principal among these being that our efforts not impose upon another's equally valid individual right. My argument is that this principle can be also equally validly expressed as an inherent right to fend for ourselves, and that this logically leads to the necessity to structure our society in such a fashion as to maximise the potential opportunity for everyone to do just that, as their interests guide them and from within the identical delineations and limitations on mutually acceptable options and actions that constrain their other expressions of their rights.
In this model (and I recognise I'm stretching the definition of the word here - it's a work-in-progress), education is a life-long pursuit to provide a context for the skills training one acquires to obtain the wherewithal we each need in life. A practical knowledge of plumbing (more specifically, the mechanics of a fluid under pressure within a confined space - like the brake lines in your car, for example, and not just the drain under the sink), electricity (why not wash out the interior of a plugged in toaster again?), CPR (see: electricity), arithmetic (yes, I understand that spreading the risk of real estate mortgage finance among numerous parties reduces the level of individual risk, but how does assuming any additional risk entail advantage to me again?), the potential subject list is probably longer than the lifespan of even Lazarus Long and all of it offers added opportunity for individual advantage particularly from within the context of the ethic imbued within the Second Amendment. Classical education provides the shared context for practicing the specific skills we need trained in to meet the challenges of supporting ourselves in the ethical manner prescribed by the equal and inherent human right of self defense from proffered threat (whether deliberate or circumstantial).
This is a very good - if somewhat dated - paper on the nature and general types of fabrication processes and though presented in 1997is quite readable to a non-specialized audience of which I certainly am a part. As a practical matter, something like what is described here is what most of us would need familiarity with to be positioned to make the leap from building things using Industrial Revolution methods to what I regard as a likely seeming near-term future manufacturing model. Much as an apprentice plumber doesn't start out building the high pressure steam lines for a nuclear reactor-driven power plant, a qualified new-hire fabricator needs a demonstrated competence with the basic knowledge and operating principles of deposition fabrication before taking charge of a commercial fabrication machine. Documenting a level of competence using essentially a hobbyist version of the technology achieves this I think.
An example of what I'm saying (and not too surprisingly, I hope, consistent with my Second Amendment thesis) can be seen here. A personal machine shop has the capability to build a complex machined tool (which is the practical definition of a gun after all) from refined metals stock. A fabricator has the capability to build the same machined tool from refined metal (and other) stock by building up succeeding layers of material to construct the desired end shape rather than by removing the excess raw material to reveal the desired end product. Another example of a potential application for this entry-level professional fab shop business opportunity lies in special orders of complex machined objects that are no longer being produced, such as the example noted in this Oleg Volk post.
Our education "coffee shop" needs to offer that specific level of training/education, to anyone willing to learn the subject matter at the least financial cost manageable. From my past association with Stephen Gordon and Phil Bowermaster, I'm sure they have no objection to doing any of what I've suggested here, but it isn't clear they're actually seeing the connections and thus the strategic opportunity that I assert exists.
A recurring concern with any alteration of the education/training model has to do with the accreditation/documentation of the subject matter learned. I think Phil Bowermaster's employer sells a product that could readily be adapted to achieve this end. As Richard
Fernandez writes in his Belmont Club critique of Stephen's education post:
Your diploma would essentially become your reputation log, rather like the debits and credits that you see when you view your bank account. That is your “rep”; your human capital balance.
That strikes me as a very eloquent description of Zapoint's SkillsMapper technology, and making their business product into the world standard for documenting individual education and occupational skills ought to be an obvious opportunity I would think. That aside, having some commonly acceptable standard of documentation is necessary to escape the constraints of the existing education/employment models while not making matters even worse. Given the frequently competitive nature of business and employment generally, pursuing such a program from an ethical basis such as that imbued in the inherent human right of self defense seems merely common sense as well. A business and manufacturing model that allows us to make and get the stuff we want to make our lives safer, more satisfying or just plain livable is certainly an improvement on the hopeless dependence that is being offered to us in the present, as is an education process that is as unlimited as we choose to be ourselves. Styling that idea as a Limited Liability Company is just my idea of humor.
It isn't really possible to "solve" a systemic problem such as those under discussion here. The best we can hope to accomplish is to create a mechanism whereby individuals have the opportunity to make the necessary change for their own reasons. By structuring the opportunity such that ethical action is more rewarding than some other choice because that creates the greatest chance of personal success seems the least intrusive method of preventing deliberate mis-use of the skills and knowledge learned, and not coincidently I believe, not a method chosen by our present educational and employment structures.
Edited to add: Al Fin independently arrives at a similar conclusion on the education topic that contains a variation on the business opportunity I note above. Very much worth your attention and consideration.