Corporate-sponsored Academies and America’s Unemployment Problem

Among other things, living in Poland means it’s easy to fall behind the US news cycle. There are too many pirogies to eat and all the smog makes it pretty hard to see long-distances. But today I got a chance to catch up on some Daily Show; and the November 2nd interview with Tom Brokaw needs some dissecting.

Brokaw is on to talk about his new book, which attempts to address unemployment in America. I haven’t read the book, and I don’t plan to – but I’m imagining a kind of hackneyed bildungsroman in which Brokaw discovers that pandering to the big boys can get him in to big-boy camp.

Here’s what Brokaw proposes to solve the unemployment crisis in America (my punctuation):

“What I suggest in the book is that we could have public service academies kind of on the model of the military academies. Public-private partnerships – the John Deer fellow in agriculture, the Johnson & Johnson fellow in medicine. They work in this country and then they work abroad for three years; and then they come back, they get two years to prove themselves in their companies. We’ve got a new workforce with a new skill set that we’ll need to go into the future. And we need some big, bold ideas in this country that everybody can get excited about.”

Getting beyond Brokaw’s apparent inability to connect clauses meaningfully (part of which could be due to my punctuating what is, in the interview, delivered without pause), what exactly is Brokaw proposing here? And please tell me the phrase “big, bold ideas” is not a reference to his own proposal? Please tell me he means that these people coming back from abroad will be the ones with all the bigness and boldness. The only thing big and bold about Brokaw’s proposal is its scariness.

Top donors in the 2012 election cycle. The first labor union appears at #10. From the Center for Responsive Politics.

An asymmetry already exists in the American political process, most noticeably in the unequal application of interest group pluralism. Contrary to conservative rhetoric, labor unions, environmental groups and other civic associations simply do not have the legislation-altering power of corporate lobbyists.* Greenpeace cannot affect law-writing like the Koch brothers can. But Brokaw would like to extend this imbalance by actually creating corporate-sponsored schools. With no apparent irony, he thinks it would be a good thing to have medical school fellows overseen by Johnson & Johnson.

Don’t get me wrong, I do, obviously, agree with Brokaw that targeting unemployment is critical. Market production is a good thing, economic growth is a good thing and creating jobs is a good thing. Public sector and private sector cooperation is also a good thing. I am not, in my own estimation, a rube. What isn’t a good thing is creating a whole bunch of academic institutions that shill for the private sector. Maybe I’m missing something. I mean, I realize that private companies already recruit heavily at universities and fund various research projects there. And Bell Labs, Xerox PARC and other private institutions have done some pretty amazing research. But taking a relationship that is generally ad hoc, and turning it into one of dependence seems to me ridiculous at best and downright frightening at worst.

The most precious part of Brokaw’s interview comes next, when he attempts to hide his effervescent self-satisfaction in the humble tones of a messenger. (Note how either Brokaw didn’t know that one of his friends was very conservative or that Brokaw’s proposal changed this guy’s political leaning on the spot or something.)

“What I’m just trying to do is kick-start the conversation with the public service academy idea, let’s start talking about it… When i first proposed it to some friends of mine, one of them turned out to be a very conservative south Texas business man, and he said, well, make it public-private, get the private sector involved.  I thought that was an excellent idea, so that’s why I put that in there. And, you know, I’ve talked to a lot of CEOs and others and they said, you know, it’s worth thinking about.”

Humble Tom. Just kick-starting ideas. Throwing them out there. If you throw enough crap against the wall something will stick and you can tell your buddies it’s art.

The rest of the interview is worth shaking your head at too. Brokaw and Stewart talk about how America’s returning military members represent a massive, untapped resource. Which of course is true (if you put aside how tapped they’ve already been destroying stuff). But here’s how they describe what’s untapped. Members of the military are both experts at “rebuilding nations” and “assessing risk.” It’s often hard to gauge Stewart’s level of genuineness, but members of militaries, especially the US military, are generally better at blowing things up than rebuilding things. And, I would argue, they are generally better at dealing with (i.e., tolerating) risk rather than assessing it.

The thing about people like Tom Brokaw is that they’ve learned to rumble their voices so deeply that it’s easy to think there’s depth down there.

*According to The Center for Responsive Politics, admittedly a left-leaning organization, the Environmental lobby spent $20 million currying favors in 2010; the Alternative Energy Production and Services lobby spent $32 million. The Energy and Natural Resources lobby spent $450 million.

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