The Economist has an interesting article out on, among other things, globalization’s tendency to exacerbate economic disparities within countries—not just among earners, but also between geographic regions. How to deal with the problem in the United States, the article argues, will involve mobilizing a variety of assets, and the author suggests among several a rethinking the role of public land-grant institutions:
In the late-19th century, America’s federal government set up what are now known as land-grant universities. The legislation gave federal land to states, which were meant to sell it to raise money to create agricultural and mechanical colleges. Those colleges were initially intended to provide a solid technical education for young farmers and engineers across the great American expanse.
They were fairly soon given additional missions: first, to carry out agricultural and engineering research, and second, what was termed “extension”—connecting with working farmers and mechanics in order to spread knowledge of new techniques and best practices. Today, many of those institutions have become fully-fledged research universities, which often co-operate with local firms to commercialise research findings, develop curriculums and place students in new occupations.
Governments could invest in an effort to expand the reach and remit of such institutions (or to create new ones). These could be given resources to expand training for working adults. And they could prioritise extension once again by helping local firms to master new technologies such as machine learning, augmented reality, additive manufacturing and so on. The better understood a new technology is, the less important it is for those wishing to use it to be near the people and firms where it originates. Post-secondary education could expand its focus from equipping individuals with skills to speeding the flow of knowledge from those who generate it to everyone else, companies included.
If there is a particular reason to favour dispersion of technological know-how and economic activity, it is that the concentration of such things also corresponds to a concentration of power. Since the late 1990s, as you would expect given the logic of globalisation, American industry has become more concentrated and more profitable. Superstar firms can draw on their financial and political capital to quash or take over would-be rivals, leaving fewer high-growth companies with the potential to anchor local economies.
The above passage makes an interesting theoretical point: namely, that investment in local knowledge-centers helps to break talent oligopolies that are themselves made possible by winner-take-all market economics. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way—especially since even regionally some people may benefit more than others from globalization and the competitive forces associated with it, but it helps to underscore the many underappreciated advantages of our local universities, especially in a time of waning public support.