We had a little discussion on Twitter about this topic. It was triggered by this post by Sam Altman @Sama, (about increasing political censorship of heterodox ideas in Silicon valley) but became a more general argument about US competitiveness and ability to attract talent, especially scientific talent. I just wanted to put a few random thoughts and questions out there, in the hope of enlightening feedback.
Clearly the US is still the world’s number one destination for exceptional scientific talent. But this is just year one of the reign of the mad king and already there are many reports of racist and bureaucratic obstruction of visas and suchlike (being both racist and bureaucratic, this process naturally has limited connection to rational priorities). There is also the general decline of US reputation across the globe (whether it reflects the reality of US life and to what extent, these are separate issues; the perception itself would likely influence SOME aspiring migrants). This is one (obvious) side of the story. There is also an attack from the Left flank (see below).
US higher education is increasingly perceived (again, reality may or may not be exactly this, but the perception itself should make a difference) as being dominated by left-liberal/SJW ideas. In the short term this may not matter much because STEM subjects are able to recruit immigrants (Chinese and Indians dominate, but they get talent from everywhere, from Eastern Europe to Africa) as students, as faculty, as slave labor (graduate students, postdocs etc) and so on. In any case, they are still the best in the world, about that there is little dispute. But all this is paid for by fee paying liberal arts majors, by endowments (paid for by disproportionately Republican donors) and by the state and federal governments, some of whom are thinking about (or actively working on) making war on what they see as dens of opposition propaganda. This is not good news. The Right wing attack on the universities will likely be as racist and bureaucratic as the Right wing attack on immigration. But that is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that there will be a fightback, and civil wars are hugely destructive, no matter who wins. The end results is likely to be a significant degradation of US higher education (even the real subjects, not just the “critical studies” type fluff).
The rise of China is real and it is not going to go away. China really IS an ancient culture with deep roots, with a securely established dominant ethnic group (the Han Chinese) and a long tradition of valuing excellence and learning. Of course, they are not supermen, and they are not going to run the world like some unchallenged boss. They do have their weaknesses. Fraud and corruption are higher in China than they are in Western countries and this means it is not a “high trust” society. They are still relatively poor. Their international reputation is not at American level. Language is a big barrier in a world dominated by English. And their Achilles heel is their political system, which is really less a political system and more an authoritarian highly bureaucratized empire, albeit run at this time by a party elite rather than an emperor; but the point is that there is no deep theoretical underpinning for the current system. The elite themselves know fully well that they are simply lying when they describe it as socialism and when they claim it has long term stable legitimacy. Some people will immediately jump to say that the American system is in a similar state, but even on the most cynical reading, there are huge differences of degree between the lies and manipulation (and coercion) necessary in the Chinese system, and those that currently exist in the American one. But all this is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle to STEM dominance. Censorship and coercion are not as heavy handed as they used to be, and even if there is political instability at some point, it will really be an intra-Han affair, it does not mean that foreign talent cannot be attracted there. Already, there are tens of thousands of foreign students in China. While many are attending glorified diploma mills (and corruption being high, this will not get better any time soon) there are also real centers of excellence, and in STEM, they will increasingly attract real talent. Maybe they will never be like America (America is sui generis), but they will be a STEM superpower, and intra-Han political squabbles will not stop that work from continuing. There seems to be no appetite for a Mao-style millennarian revolution that attempts to burn everything down and “rebuild it nearer to heart’s desire”, so political shenanigans and corruption need not stop this process.
US decline is bipartisan. While Trump-Bannon style White nationalism and “America-first” solo flight attempts are burning down US credibility and appeal in the outside world, the SJW Left, with its anti-science agenda and attempts at censorship is doing its own part to immanentize the eschaton. People frequently argue that the Left is so weak that their hysterics do not need to be taken seriously. This is true in the sense that if the current system IS overthrown, it will be overthrown by an authoritarian from the Right, not the Left, the American Left lacking the street power or the ability to organize violence and enforce their will that the Right can muster if the system does crash and burn. But keep in mind that the Left does not have to take over the country and start a Red terror to discourage STEM talent from coming to the United States. Their disproportionate influence in elite educational institutions means that pillars of the scientific establishment like Scientific American and (and this really hurts) even the Royal Society have been penetrated. Just take a look at this piece from Scientific American, and then at the fact that the Royal Society gave their award for top science book of the year to Testosterone Rex. Enuff said. As an aspiring scientist, you could be excused for starting to have some doubts about the Royal Society (OK, the Royal Society is British, not American, but it is part of the same scientific establishment, if they are sinking, can America be far behind).
Many people react to the above by pointing out that “America was never that great; slavery, imperialism, the prison industry and other embarrassments being brought up. But I am not talking about absolute goodness or some ideal of progress, just about relative ranking in knowledge creation (especially scientific knowledge) on planet Earth at this moment in time. There can be no dispute about the fact that the US leads the world in science and technology today and has done so for at least 70 years.
The question I am asking is just this: is this lead likely to persist?
Place your bets. And present your arguments. ” I ask this, O you Fathers, not as a challenge. I ask it to know” (Rig Veda)
Post Script: people may ask why only China was mentioned as the alternative. What about Europe? or Russia? or India? or someone else? or no one at all (just a globalized world with a transnational elite)?
Well, why not? you tell me..