Archive for January, 2011

January 26, 2011

A Sputnik moment?

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an Internet connection…The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us…We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world… This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.

President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011

A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into outer space: the replica is stored in the National Air and Space Museum.

Last night, President Obama offered a State of the Union Address that reprised one of his favorite themes — the pathway to renewed American greatness lies in improved science and technology. I have a lot to say about the Address, and I’ll explore President Obama’s 5-point plan — Fostering innovation, Improving education, Rebuilding infrastructure, Reducing barriers to business investment, and Closing deficit by freezing government spending — over the next few days.

But this morning, my mind keeps circling back to the contention that innovations in science and technology will pull the US out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I am particularly struck by President Obama’s assertion that this is a “Sputnik moment.”

The current historical moment is very, very different from the one in which Sputnik was launched. The Soviets fired Sputnik in 1957, an extremely prosperous year for the United States: production, employment, and income attained record levels. The unemployment rate hovered around 4%. Inequality was the social norm: women and men of color had been forced back to the “normalcy” of second-class citizenship after gains made during WWII were rolled back by the politics of fear and a culture of conformity.

Today, while Wall Street profits and payoffs may be skyrocketing once again, most of us are facing lower incomes and more employment insecurity. We have an official unemployment rate of around 9.4%, but if you count those who are employed part-time but looking for full-time work, or who have become dispirited and given up looking altogether, the rate is closer to 17%. And those of us who benefited from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s are certainly not going back to 1950s “normalcy” without a fight.

So why see this as a similar historical moment? Why the blind hope that a rocket or a computer or a nanobot can fix all of the nation’s troubles? The idea that science and technology will magically solve our problems sometime in the future is dangerous, because it keeps us from dealing with the very real economic, social, and political challenges we face in the now.

In my book, I wrote about the kind of dissociative thinking we can get caught in when we decide that science and technology will magically save us:

The continued emphasis on the development of science and technology as the route to greater prosperity and equality for all Americans is a familiar but dangerously underexamined species of magical thinking.

In psychology, magical thinking is the belief that merely thinking about an event in the external world can cause it to occur, a delusion often present in very young children and schizophrenics. Many of us in the United States have engaged in a massive, collective, consensual hallucination about the power of technology, particularly information technology (IT), to “level the playing field,” create broad-based economic and social equality, and nurture transparency and accountability in democratic governance.

This magical thinking has its root in an incomplete picture of the impacts of IT and technology-driven economic development schemes in our communities, a myopia shaped by race, class, and gender inequality. This shortsightedness in turn skews our policy responses to issues of high-tech equity and, in many cases, creates policies and institutions that deepen inequality rather than alleviate it.

We need to expand and clarify our vision of equity in an information age. Massive investment in science and technology without simultaneous investment in a more just society is an investment in increasing political and economic inequality. If robust democracy, broadly shared prosperity, human rights, and equity are important to us as a society, we must reject our magical thinking and look with clear and courageous eyes at the real world of IT, our shared technological present.

January 19, 2011

Shortwave New Year

I’m going to out myself as an actual geek here and admit that I love shortwave radio.

Shortwave Radio

Our Grundig

My honey and I have a Grundig S350, and since we weren’t up to huge New Year’s festivities this year, we tuned in to hear the year turn, around the world, via shortwave. We opened the first bottle of champagne as Big Ben rang in London, then we tried to track the midnight line as it moved west – Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru.

Didn’t have a lot of luck DXing, so we listened to Radio Habana Cuba most of the night. The DJ mixed stories about the 30th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion with son, rumba, cuban jazz, and reggaeton while we drank Auld Lang cocktails and traded resolutions.

Shortwave sets are cheap and widely available just about everywhere in the world. A low power, low cost, difficult to censor medium, it is incredibly popular in developing countries and under repressive regimes. Shortwave is more like the internet than the internet.

Shortwave frequencies can reach just about anywhere on earth because they are short waves (hence the name) and ultra bouncy. They just zing off the ionosphere and POW! You’re listening to China, or Radio Oman, or Brother Stair from Walterboro, South Carolina. To listen, it’s best to be in a clear area — the woods, a mountaintop — and to wait until night.

Shortwave is a medium of secret confidences. It feels like eavesdropping. It’s an intimate, clandestine thrill. You can listen in to your neighbors, to far-flung countries, to the universe itself. That computer voice reciting a sequence numbers? Spies use those to decode messages, still. That regular clicking sound? It’s not a clock – it’s a quasar, the most energetic object in the universe. That fuzz and hiss? That sound like popcorn? Could be an ATM down the block, could be a solar flare.

Here are some good shortwave links, if you’re interested:
A Shortwave New Year’s Celebration Around the World (
Shortwave Central (
Guide to Shortwave Radio stations (

January 5, 2011

High-Tech Mega-Incentives and the State of New York State

What price do New Yorkers pay for high-tech jobs?

I listened to Andrew Cuomo deliver his first State of the State speech on the radio this afternoon. Though it was admirably public and occasionally downright rousing, the speech—perhaps like Cuomo’s political agenda itself—came across as schizophrenic, at least to this listener.

Cuomo seems to be trying to balance contradictory impulses – (purported) fiscal conservatism and (alleged) political progressivism. On one hand, he committed to a broad spectrum of laudable social justice goals: green jobs, minority and woman-owned businesses, reformed juvenile justice facilities, marriage equality and urban green markets.

Kings of Industry! Andrew Cuomo needs your help!

On the other hand, he squarely placed responsibility for the past and future success of New York State in the hands of industry. Cuomo exclaimed that a vibrant private sector is what made our state great and declared that under his governorship, New York will once again be “business-friendly.”

If there was one message that Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Majority Leader Dean Skelos—uncomfortably sharing their first stage—all agreed on, it was “Less government, more jobs.”

I find this sentiment baffling. Why do political leaders on both sides of the aisle insist that the best way to add jobs to the economy is to, in Skelos’ words, “Empower business to succeed, and then get out of the way,” when taxpayers often pay an enormous price for jobs created in the private sector?

In my book, I talk about the price we pay, as community members and workers, for high-tech economic development. I write at length about the costs of high-tech growth: environmental degradation, increasing social inequality, political disenfranchisement, and amplified economic vulnerability for poor and working-class women and families.

For today, we’ll ignore more abstract costs to focus on direct taxpayer contributions to the “innovation economy,” the sector praised by Sheldon Silver as the solution to New York State’s unemployment woes. Let’s take just one example: the $4.2 billion semiconductor manufacturing plant being built in Malta, NY. Over the next 15 years, GlobalFoundries will receive $1.37 billion in financial incentives from the state to complete this project, including a $665 million capital grant and $700 million in Empire Zone credits (Pinho 2009).

In return, GlobalFoundries promises the state of New York 1,400 new permanent semiconductor manufacturing jobs, 5,000 permanent “indirect” jobs, 1,600 temporary construction jobs, and 2,700 temporary construction-related jobs.

So let’s do the math.

$1.37 billion in cash incentives and uncollected tax revenues


Permanent Employment:
1,400 new semiconductor manufacturing jobs
5,000 projected* indirect jobs
= 6,400 permanent jobs

2-Year Construction Phase Employment:
1,600 construction jobs
2,700 projected* construction-related jobs
=10,700 total jobs.


Cost to New Yorkers:
$978,571 per manufacturing job
$214,063 per projected permanent job
$128,037 per projected job (of any kind)

The 1.37 billion dollar taxpayer price tag does not include infrastructure investments in the Luther Forest Technology Campus, where the plant is being built. Nor does it include funding of research centers at local colleges and universities (such as Albany NanoTech) or the cost of educational undertakings to train workers for chip fabrication facilities.

What’s more, these numbers don’t say nearly enough about the quality or wages of the jobs GlobalFoundries has promised to create. They expect the plant to have an $88 million annual payroll when at full production, an average wage of around $66,000 for full time workers, and that “indirect” jobs will have an average salary of $40,400** (GlobalFoundries 2009).

It is well-documented that information economies are bifurcated, or two-tiered, with a small percentage of jobs going to highly-educated “knowledge” workers and a much larger percentage of jobs being created in the service economy that supports those workers. So, very conservatively, let’s estimate that 1/2 of the indirect jobs promised by GlobalFoundries will go to workers in the traditionally low-paying service industries.

Based on this estimate, New York taxpayers are paying $128,037 each for 10,700 jobs, even though 6,800 of those jobs (64%) will only last two years and/or will pay below a self-sufficiency wage. So if we count only decent jobs–those that last more than two years and pay above a poverty wage–New Yorkers are paying $351,000 a pop!

Incentives for business in New York State have become so expansive that the media invented a new name for them: Mega-Incentives. Mega-incentives beg big questions. In the drumbeat of “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!” why aren’t we talking about good jobs, jobs that can lift New York families out of poverty? And, for that matter, what would that 10 billion dollar budget gap everyone screamed about during the State of the State Address look like with all the ill-considered business incentives removed?

In these financially austere times, maybe we should consider taking high-tech industry off welfare.

* All of these job numbers are projected by GlobalFoundries. As no one else has thought to check their numbers, I guess we’ll just take their word for it.

** The average salary for indirect jobs will put many workers below the threshold of economic self-sufficiency in Saratoga County. For example, in 2010, the self-sufficiency wage for one working adult with a pre-school-aged child was $41,812, while the self-sufficiency wage for one working adult with an infant and a pre-schooler was $54,604 (Pearce 2010).

GlobalFoundries 2009. “GLOBALFOUNDRIES Breaks Ground on World’s Most Advanced Semiconductor Foundry,“ July 24, 2009 Press Release, available at: Accessed Jan 5, 2011.

Pearce, Diana. 2010. “Self-Sufficiency Wage for Saratoga County, NY, 2010.” Available online at: Accessed January 5, 2011.

Pinho, Rute. 2009. “Comparison of Tax Incentives for Manufacturers in New York and Connecticut.” Document 2009-R-0425, State of Connecticut General Assembly. Available online at: Accessed January 5, 2011.