Thursday, June 03, 2004

Creation vs. Conflict

I recently ran across a survey that claimed that 80% of college graduates want work that is "meaningful" when they graduate. As a school administrator, I frequently receive resumes from people in their 40s and 50s who have "retired" from the worlds of business, law, technology, or banking and now want to have a second, more meaningful, career.

As incomes continue to rise, an increasing percentage of our population will have the option of spending an increasing percentage of their work career engaged in employment for which meaning, rather than pecuniary gain, is the primary rationale for their choice of work.

Often college graduates are attracted to "activism" as a meaningful career. Although there is certainly a role for activism, often activism treats symptoms rather than causes. The ultimate cause of poverty is that people don't have adequate marketable skills and sufficiently professional job habits. Until and unless poor people develop the marketable skills and professional job habits required, they will remain poor.

The position of office manager in a school is key: The person who runs the office ensures that all the systems runs smoothly, that parents get the information that they want, that teachers are properly supported, etc. In Palo Alto during the dot com boom, our school couldn't find an adequate office manager for $40,000. Tech companies were paying similar people $50-80K and we couldn't offer a similar salary. This position does not need a college degree, or even a high school diploma. A person simply needs to be smart, organized, responsible, and with good people skills. "Training" programs do not supply these pre-requisites. Basic computer knowledge is also useful, but basic computer knowledge can be taught very quickly to the right person.

While I love education, most education is a ridiculous waste of time. If someone simply wants to earn a living, were it not for government-mandated credentials, there would be numerous career paths for bright people with (or without) a high school diploma. Often sales people earn more than $50K, in many cases over $100K. These positions require no education: just excellent persuasion skills and verbal style that matches the social class to which one is selling. Rather than a worthless high school diploma and a worthless four year degree, bright young people could be taught to speak in a particular manner and make great incomes selling. At no point in our education system is this option recognized.

One of the marvelously democratic aspects of the early tech boom is that no credentials were required. As a consequence, many high school and college drop outs became programming professionals. The last tech expert that I hired was a high school drop out who had been making more than 100K working for Sun Microsystems.

What if activists, instead of fighting zero-sum battles on behalf of the poor, fought battles that resulted in endless opportunities? Credentialism limits access to, and increases the cost of, education and health care. Yes, activists can fight to obtain more funding for education and health care for the poor. They may or may not win. If they win, they may deepen resentment from other taxpayers. They will not have made much of a difference in terms of why the poor are poor. And because they will not have resolved the root causes of poverty, they will feel a need to keep fighting. War is costly, and so are political battles.

The idealism that motivates activists could be re-directed towards creating a society based on creation rather than conflict. What if we were to create lower cost, and ultimately much higher quality, health care options by means of eliminating most (or all) government regulations concerning health care? What if we were to create lower cost, and ultimately much higher quality, education options by means of elimination most (or all) government regulations concerning education? The same applies to housing and community creation.

Looked at from this perspective, a horrifying conspiracy exists to keep education and health care expensive, hard to obtain, and not appropriately designed for the needs of the people. This conspiracy is led by some of the nicest, most conscientious people, including professors at our best universities. Nonetheless, the result is the same: limit quality and access, and raise cost, for those things that are most important to human well-being.

If it were legal to do so, and if there were visionary entrepreneurs who helped to make it happen, the millions of young people who long for meaningful careers, the millions of older people who are ready to retire into meaningful careers, could flood into the fields of health, education, housing, and community and reduce poverty more than any government program possibly can.

"Let us do it" is the true meaning of "laissez-faire." We want to do it, we can afford to do it. We need visionary leaders and we need freedom. Given these pre-requisites creative idealists can begin to improve life for rich and poor alike.