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Democracy & Technology Blog What’s Fake and What’s Real

Sebastian Mallaby’s argument today that we face a “Fake China Threat” contains a number of true and important observations but in its overall effect is, I think, wrong. Mallaby correctly observes:
– The rise of Chinese science is positive-sum.
– Science tends to spread across the world, yielding new innovations and economic growth wherever the science is embraced and allowed to transform into commercial success.
– The U.S. has the world’s best universities and has a big lead.
But Mallaby complacently writes that “the world’s top researchers flock here; provided enough visas are available, it’s hard to see why this would change.” First of all, it’s not automatic that we will indeed execute a sane visa policy. Second, with universities and economic opportunities around the world improving rapidly, the delta between the research opportunities here and abroad will shrink. Even with perfect visa policies, we will not attract the best scientists and engineers at the rates we did over the last century, when immigrant scientists helped build everything from the atom bomb to Silicon Valley. Further, even though science and technology spread across free economies, the location of the people founding companies and doing rigorous work is still crucial in many ways. Consider another important caveat to the fact that the U.S. has the world’s best universities: it also has a vast array of mediocre schools, where soft fields have replaced useful studies. American males, moreover, are a falling proportion of college students — 43% and headed below 40% — reflecting both the poor preparation our K-12 schools offer and also the poor real-world job prospects inflicted by flimsy and irrelevant coursework at many colleges.
Mallaby’s view that the U.S. has been a friendly place for innovation is true; the big question is whether we can remain on top in management, entrepreneurship, and finance even as our technical dominance inevitably fades, while we attempt to orient the next generation of Americans toward technological work. Mallaby seems to suggest that the science, technical, and business communities’ efforts to boost American science and math education are some sort of special interest lobbying effort cynically exploiting a false crisis and that the status quo is just fine. Does he really believe that?
-Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson is a Senior Fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, where he researches technology and economics and contributes to the Disco-Tech blog. He is currently writing a book on the abundance of the world economy, focusing on the Chinese boom and developing a new concept linking economics and information theory. Swanson writes frequently for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal on topics ranging from broadband communications to monetary policy.