State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Diversity as a Value, and the Economic Value of Diversity

In the late 1960s, I grew up in Brooklyn and was a high school student rights advocate protesting for racial integration of New York City’s schools and opposing the war in Vietnam. At one point, I was the head of something we called the James Madison High School Coalition to End the War. We didn’t end the war, and we certainly didn’t end racism, but I’m sometimes comforted by Dr. King’s oratory that “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.” I take that long view, and while I see a culture bending toward tolerance, one would be foolish to ignore the hate speech, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and xenophobia present in our country and legitimized by social media. This hate has always been out there, but the past decade has seen it come out from under the rock it used to hide beneath.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I knew I lived in a place that might well be unique, and after going to college in Indiana, I started to suspect that I did not have a typical American upbringing. The 1960s challenged the reflexive racism of our culture, and the 1970s saw the start of a sustained attack on sexism and homophobia. Those of us coming of age during that time learned a great deal and had to confront the attitudes we were raised with to become the people we wanted to become. It was, at times, painful and often embarrassing as we confronted attitudes we weren’t always aware we had. Today, in 2023, I find this a work in never-ending progress. But at the end of the day, when I take my five-year-old granddaughter to Morningside Park and see her play with kids of many races and nationalities, I am thrilled by the diversity of the city I live in. I am aware of the segregation and income inequality that characterizes my home city, but these children and their families seem to exist in a different universe. I am happy to live in that universe.

This is to say that, to me, diversity is an ethical and, indeed, moral value. It is a principle that I deeply believe in. We learn so much when we engage with each other and share our different cultures and life experiences. In New York City, 40% of the people who live here were born in other countries. They, like my grandparents, had the courage to travel thousands of miles to make a better life for themselves and their children. I grew up, like many Jewish New Yorkers, without fully realizing that I was part of a minority group. But then I learned about the Holocaust by asking my grandmother about the tattoos on some of the older people on Brighton Beach. New York’s newer immigrants engage with those of us who grew up in “the city” in countless ways and countless places. In many parts of the world, you can never become a “native.” In New York, I think it takes about a decade. Certainly, no longer than a generation. Two million people in New York City speak Spanish as their first language, and my eldest granddaughter attends a public school that teaches its lessons in English and Spanish on alternating days. Thousands of immigrant children bussed up from Texas by their posturing governor are already enrolled in New York City public schools while their parents wait for the federal government to give them permission to work. New York is built on the labor and energy of people who came here from someplace else. Many African Americans came to New York City from the American South, and while a few are now returning South, neighborhoods from Harlem to Bed-Stuy and, of course, the entire city have been shaped by their work, culture, and politics.

But diversity is not simply a principle, it has economic value as well. The U.S. economy is dominated by our service economy. Joe Biden may want to bring manufacturing back to America, and automation is already doing some of that, but 80% of our GDP is in the service economy. These days there is more money in software than hardware. And business folks know that. In 1950, when 95% of America’s clothing was manufactured in New York City, 500,000 people worked in the garment industry, or what we used to call the rag trade. Today, virtually no clothing other than samples is made here, but about 100,000 people work in New York’s fashion industry designing, presenting, and selling clothing. We are in what I often call the “brain-based economy.” The high value-added part of the economy is creative, analytic, technical, and strategic. That requires talent. It requires brainpower and creativity.

If I can recruit my staff from the entire world, from people of every nation, race, and ethnicity, without regard to gender or sexual preference, I am, by definition, drawing on the largest possible pool of talent. Eliminate any group or person, and I am inherently diminishing the talent I can draw on. In a global, competitive economy, diversity strengthens my organization and enables me to out-compete my rivals.

I know Joe Biden is trying to appeal to the American workers abandoned by our politics and to do that is promoting an “America-first” economy, but he is swimming against the tide of technological and economic history. Even worse, like Donald Trump, he has an out-of-date vision of manufacturing. A modern auto plant employs hundreds rather than thousands of employees. Much of the labor is automated, and even more manual labor will be performed by robots in the future. Construction trades see the same trends. Buildings used to be built on-site. Today they are prefabricated in automated factories and assembled on-site. The jobs of tomorrow are not like the jobs of yesterday. Nostalgia has its value, but the idea that workers have lost jobs due to immigrants or exported industry is an idea whose time has passed. Even worse than the faulty economic analysis, it reinforces sick ideas that lead to absurd concepts like the white supremacist “replacement theory.” This is dangerous ground for President Biden to tread on, and he would do better if he tried to explain the modern economy to American workers.

Technology has led to automation, globalization, and the brain-based economy. And it has made diversity both valuable and necessary. Inexpensive communication, computation, and transportation are based on a wide range of new technologies, from cell phones to the internet to bar codes to containerized shipping. Our planet has shrunk even as it has become more crowded. Inventions like FaceTime and Zoom allow families to live on different continents and remain in touch. Remittances from immigrants in wealthy nations support families and capital formation in the developing world. It’s important that people learn about and understand that global economic interdependency is now permanent, and no amount of nationalist saber-rattling will turn back that economic clock.

New York City’s resilience and great economic strength are directly derived from its diverse people and communities. People come here from all over America and all over the world, knowing they will find other people from home who got here before they did. It can get contentious, and all is not peace and love, but it is remarkable in how it works and thrives. I find it thrilling when I learn about different cultures, histories, foods, and art, and never take the amazing complexity of human communities for granted. The energy of New York pulsates from its people and its diverse friendships, workplaces, and relationships. This engagement is positive, productive, and worth preserving and protecting.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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