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Grammatically Impeccable; Technically Imprecise; Economically Impossible

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In my most-recent column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I warn against being misled by language that superficially appears to convey meaningful ideas but that, upon scrutiny, is revealed to be meaningless [2]. A slice:

Also meaningless is the phrase “global technological supremacy.” Technology is not akin to a sports league, with a single criterion for ranking participants’ relative success. There are countless varieties of technology. Success on one technological front not only does not imply success on other such fronts, but it practically requires lack of success on other technological fronts.

America might, for example, be home to the most successful companies at producing advanced aerospace products. But to achieve this “first-place” distinction requires that not as many workers, and not as much capital and innovative effort, be devoted in the U.S. to consumer electronics and other high-tech industries.

And so given that the achievement of supremacy in one particular high-tech field requires sacrificing supremacy in other high-tech fields [3], it makes zero sense to talk about a country winning the “race for global technological supremacy.” To be “supreme” at “global technology,” how large must America’s margin of superiority at aerospace production be in order to overcome our lack of supremacy at producing consumer electronics or advanced chemicals?

Because we understand the reality of such trade-offs in our individual lives, we’d laugh at a man who declares that he aims to win the race for “global skill supremacy.” Skill in what endeavor? A person might well become the world’s most skilled clarinetist, but precisely by doing so that person avoids learning the skills of a neurosurgeon and auto mechanic.

All talk of a country winning “a race for global technological supremacy” is just as meaningless — indeed, as silly — as is talk of a man winning a race for global skill supremacy.

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