24 January 2010

The Perception Thing, Part 2

One of my major concerns about the stubbornness of the unemployment problem is the effect it will have on the younger generation when it comes to participating in the American process. They turned out in huge numbers in the 2008 election and overwhelmingly cast their votes for Barack Obama (66% to 32%). Yet, here we are pulling out of recession (or at least attempting to) while the unemployment rate among 18 to 29 year olds is at a jaw-dropping 18%. Unless something is done to turn that number around, their generation will abandon their duties as citizens and that will spell trouble to progressive candidates for at least a decade.

To be sure, Mr. Obama's economic polices are not the cause of the high unemployment rate among this age group. For decades our governments, both Republican and Democratic, have refused to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs from our manufacturing sector and have turned a blind eye to increasingly shitty education standards. The United States is falling further behind the rest of the world with each passing day, yet none of our leaders has been up to the task of reversing course.

What we need is a Roosevelt - a hybrid of both Teddy (to confront big business and the banks) and Franklin (to wrestle a systemic unemployment problem into submission). My fear is that the problems as they present themselves right now are so deeply embedded into the fabric of our economic engine, it will take a giant like TR or FDR to fix it. President Obama has the potential to be a president of such greatness. But if it is to be so, then he needs to shake things up a little bit.

Thomas Friedman has an idea or two:
What the country needs most now is not more government stimulus, but more stimulation. We need to get millions of American kids...excited about innovation and entrepreneurship again. We need to make 2010 what Obama should have made 2009: the year of innovation, the year of making our pie bigger, the year of “Start-Up America.”

Obama should make the centerpiece of his presidency mobilizing a million new start-up companies that won’t just give us temporary highway jobs, but lasting good jobs that keep America on the cutting edge. The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things, is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things. Without inventing more new products and services that make people more productive, healthier or entertained — that we can sell around the world — we’ll never be able to afford the health care our people need, let alone pay off our debts.

Obama should bring together the country’s leading innovators and ask them: “What legislation, what tax incentives, do we need right now to replicate you all a million times over” — and make that his No. 1 priority. Inspiring, reviving and empowering Start-up America is his moon shot.

And to reignite his youth movement, he should make sure every American kid knows about two programs that he has already endorsed: The first is National Lab Day. Introduced last November by a coalition of educators and science and engineering associations, Lab Day aims to inspire a wave of future innovators, by pairing veteran scientists and engineers with students in grades K-12 to inspire thousands of hands-on science projects around the country.

Any teacher in America, explains the entrepreneur Jack Hidary, the chairman of N.L.D., can go to the Web site NationalLabDay.org and enter the science project he or she is interested in teaching, or get an idea for one. N.L.D. will match teachers with volunteer scientists and engineers in their areas for mentoring.

“As soon as you have a match, the scientists and the students communicate directly or via Skype and collaborate on a project,” said Hidary. “We have a class in Chicago asking for civil engineers to teach them how to build a bridge. In Idaho, a class is asking for a scientist to help them build a working river delta inside their classroom.”

The president should also vow to bring the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, to every low-income neighborhood in America. NFTE works with middle- and high-school teachers to help them teach entrepreneurship. The centerpiece of its program is a national contest for start-ups with 24,000 kids participating. Each student has to invent a product or service, write up a business plan and then do it. NFTE (www.NFTE.com) works only in low-income areas, so many of these new entrepreneurs are minority kids.
I hope beyond hope that President Obama puts such bold proposals on the table at his upcoming State of the Union address. I hope his speech gives those Americans from 18 to 29, from San Diego to Kennebunkport, the hope that now that the economic bleeding has stopped, the patient will be stabilized and a heavy round of rehabilitation is about to start.