Sailing Past Byzantium

Dec 09, 2008 | 

Peter Wood

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Sailing Past Byzantium

Dec 09, 2008 | 

Peter Wood



Here in Byzantium, NJ, we know something about nature, culture, education—and what is past, or passing, or to come. I see in a press release that went up on GlobeNewswire that a new report has been issued on “which competitive assets are most crucial to the future growth and success of 20 leading cities around the world.”  The report, titled Cities of Opportunity: Readiness Indicators for the 21st Century, by the Partnership for New York City and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PfNYC/PwC) may not be the sort of thing to keep a drowsy emperor awake, but it has its points.   PfNYC/PwC argues that “high concentrations of intellectual capital and capacity for innovation” make a city appealing to business. The “9 indicators and 32 variables to measure business readiness,” include having universities that rank in the top 500; having college educated folks in the general population, and having some resident Nobel Prize winners. 

                It is perhaps no surprise that this New York City-sponsored study discovered that New York City ranked high on most variables: 4th for intellectual capital; 5th for technology IQ and innovation; 1st for transportation assets; 1st for demographic advantages; 1st for financial clout; 7th for cost; 2nd for “lifestyle assets”; 5th for safety and security; and 5th for ease of doing business. The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas—it’s all pretty much as you would expect.   And we here in Byzantium have no paltry objections to a city creating monuments to its own magnificence.   And we are especially pleased to see that higher education is treated with such robust respect. More on that in a moment.

                First, let us note that the prose of Cities of Opportunity bears little resemblance to hammered gold. The take-out quote on the flyleaf is that “Globalization is a juggernaut that will not be stopped.” This is something to ponder. A juggernaut, as word lovers around the world know, is a statue of Krishna that is pulled through the streets of Puri each year in a chariot in the festival of Rathayatra. Legend has it that ecstatic worshippers in former times would throw themselves in front of the chariot and be crushed to death, as the chariot of Krishna stops for no man. We get an echo of this Juggernaut each year when Hindu pilgrims somewhere are crushed in a stampede, as most recently occurred in August when 145 people died climbing the path to Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh.   Presumably this is not the kind of juggernaut that the Partnership for New York and PricewaterhouseCoopers had in mind.

                What then? Because of the grisly legend, the word juggernaut has come to mean an irresistible, unstoppable crushing force. A juggernaut proceeds on its inexorable path of destruction. To speak of “globalization” as a juggernaut is not surprising—if you belong to, say, the Global Justice Movement, or any of the various anarchist and anti-globalist groups that routinely protest at meetings of the World Bank and the G-8. It is, however, a bit disconcerting to see that New York City and PricewaterhouseCoopers have rhetorically joined up with this lot. 

                Then there is the redundancy. Globalization, says, PfNYC/PwC, is not just a juggernaut, but “a juggernaut that will not be stopped.” Oh, that kind of juggernaut. 

                In Byzantium, we have time to think about these things, and we are not amused when people set out to praise “intellectual capital” in the tattered language of ill-fitting clichés. This sloppiness of expression runs through the whole report, in which findings are never just clear but “loud and clear.” Poor expression is typically a clue that the quality of thought is not much better, and Cities of Opportunity seems to confirm the rule. Although the report calls for “a new dialogue that reflects a fresh way of thinking about cities,” we know we are in well-trodden territory from the start. What is “globalization”? Don’t look for an answer here among people who disdain “old economic indicators” in favor of “variables that better reflect what it takes to succeed in a vibrant knowledge economy.”

                Here in Byzantium we regard knowledge almost as a kind of music and find it pleasant to contemplate a “knowledge economy.” Still, one would have to sail very far indeed to find either an economy that is not based on knowledge, or one that is based only on knowledge. Economies, as we understand it, involve joining ideas to action. People have to know in order to make, albeit you don’t need to know a whole lot to carry out some tasks, such as washing dishes, mowing lawns, or editing The New York Review of Books

                Thus it would help to have a rough idea of what makes an economy qualify as a “knowledge economy.”   Is it an economy with an advanced division of labor that requires many kinds of specialized knowledge?    Like, say, Thebes in the 18th Dynasty? Is it an economy built on restricting employment opportunities to those who hold specialized credentials? Like, say, Peking under the Chinese Imperial Examination System?  

                This is not to be intentionally obtuse. We know the PNY/PwC folks want us to think about high-tech jobs involving lots of advanced intellectual skills of the sort one learns at world-class universities. But this makes the logic of the PfNYC/PwC study entirely circular. How do you rate a city’s “intellectual capital”? Apparently by counting up top-flight universities, educated people, and Nobel Prize winners (the latter being “a proxy for high-level intellectual output in a variety of fields, including scientific and medical research.”) But these measures tell us only that credentials are popular, not that a city has any particular edge in the kinds of knowledge and skill that might advance a contemporary economy.

                Picture all the university degrees awarded in fields that are techno-phobic, anti-intellectual, disdainful of science, and hostile to civilization. If we want to take the PfNYC/PwC report seriously, shouldn’t we ask them to subtract points from cities where the universities award degrees in such fields?   Likewise, the number of “educated people” in the workforce might have to be adjusted to exclude those who hold degrees that are the mortal dress of intellectual neglect. These folks are not granted visas to visit the holy city of Byzantium. 

                But then again, Byzantium doesn’t make the PfNYC/PwC list of “Cities of Opportunity.”  

                Intellectual Capital, Rankings from p. 10, Cities of Opportunity

 

Rank
City
Score
Top 500 universities
Population with higher education (percentage)
Nobel Prize winners
1
London
23
    11
9
3
2
Paris
22
    10
11
1
3
Tokyo
19
    10
7
2
4
New York
18
    10
4
4
5
Toronto
17
     7
10
0
6
Atlanta
15
     7
8
0
7
Los Angeles
12
     7
5
0
8
Chicago
11
     7
3
1
9
Frankfurt
9
     2
7
0
10
Singapore
8
     7
1
0
11
Shanghai
4
     2
2
0

 

                Not that we mind. Byzantium is devoted to unageing intellect, not intellectual capital. As the juggernaut of New York City boosterism proceeds to crush under its wheels all doubts about the quality of American higher education, we will proceed with our own work in peace. If the poet flatters us as “singing masters” to his soul, we realize our more humble calling. We’re here to remind the academy of its better self.
                It is a genuinely good thing in this age of recession and declining fortune that cities take heart from the excellent things they still have.  We worry, however, that American educational excellence is increasingly an illusion, sustained mostly by the continuing power of sciences. It might even be that the frailty of our current economy is due in some measure to the hollow education we have bestowed on students for over a generation.   This is no country for young men.

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