The Game of Life – Windfalls Matter, Education Doesn’t

Nicholas Kristof painted a portrait of China as the emerging leader of this century through their serious and aggressive education goals in an article in the NY Times a few days ago. He compares his own daughter’s “excellent schools in the New York area” to a peasant school in Guangdong Province and finds it lagging two grades behind — an appalling discrepancy. When well-traveled, well-educated affluent Americans pale in comparison educationally with China, you’d think Americans would begin to understand the “competitiveness” concerns Silicon Valley has been screaming about for years. After all, if the top classes of American society cannot compete with the children of peasants, what does that say about American competitiveness in a global economy? Yet America does nothing more than wring hands and complain while China pulls ahead. Why?

Perhaps the witty essay by Lawrence Downes (“Love and Debt”) today holds the answer. In his exploration of the newly revised “Game of Life” from Milton Bradley, he found that players who chose to forgo education and have children did much better in the game than those who deferred having children, spending time and money on education. Debt just happens, with no downside consequences — no foreclosures, no homelessness. There is no connection made between career, salary and education. In fact, to make the game more interesting those who are not educated were far more likely to win lotteries or other windfalls than those who are educated. In the world of Milton-Bradley, a doctor is more likely to end up poor than a “strawberry picker”. A degree is simply a means to more debt, and not a means to social mobility.

In the real world, we laugh at such silly notions — after all, it is a game and games aren’t real. We all know that debt is real and inescapable. Credit reports make or break obtaining mortgages and using credit. Interest rates can escalate on the basis of one late payment, causing people to spiral deeper and deeper in debt for old purchases. It isn’t debt that “happens” — it’s poverty. So why should we care? Perhaps because the games we play very much reflects our biases and wishes, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.

Salaries and job security are tied very much to education. Those who start off poor and ignorant are statistically likely to remain that way if they do not better themselves through education. In Silicon Valley, there is a tremendous demand for educated workers. Whether you believe there is an H1B visa crunch or not, it is inescapable that engineering and programming jobs are increasingly going overseas to get the job done. This is not just because of lower salary costs (the costs of administering an overseas contract when factoring in time, travel and oversight ends up more in the realm of two-to-one, not the 10-to-one HR drones like to quote), but because countries like China and India are turning out more and better engineers, scientists and programmers than America.

According to Computing Research Association’s 2005-2006 Taulbee survey of Ph.D.s in computer science and computer engineering (CS & CE), instead of increasing the number of CS and CE doctorates, they have been steadily decreasing since the dot-com boom, so that the “number of new CS majors in fall 2006 was half of what it was in fall 2000 (15,958 versus 7,798)”. China and India are simply picking up the slack. In addition, the CRA notes that “54 percent of CS doctorate recipients in 2004 held visas”, up 8 percent in two years. As Americans shun these majors, more and more foreign students are taking their places in American universities. And those students are the ones Google and Microsoft and the next big startup will hire.

Very few people who hang around the house watching TV and having kids ever win a lottery. Those divorced from society are much more likely to end up in prison or hospitals. People who are impoverished through lack of education, access or debt aren’t likely to get that magical windfall — that get out of debt free card that Milton-Bradley promises them. In fact, according to mathweb’s lottery calculator, if I had to pick six correct numbers in any order from 1-49, the odds of my winning are 1 in 13,983,816! But this doesn’t even scratch the surface — restrictions on ordering and numbers reduce the odds significantly. According to PBS Frontline, the odds of winning the California Super Lotto Jackpot are 1 in 18 million! Despite the enormous reality distortion field that surrounds the occasional “lucky” lottery winner (Steve Jobs RDF is nothing compared to this), the truth is it isn’t going to happen to most everybody — just a few folks. Is that a good basis for financial security? According to a 2006 survey from the Financial Planning Association and the Consumer Federation of America, “one-fifth of Americans (21 percent) [and] 38 percent of those with incomes below $25,000” believe that winning the lottery is the means to personal wealth and debt mitigation. And it should be noted that 30 percent of those with no high school degree believe in a lottery saving them, versus only 8 percent of those with a college degree.

While people who have a college education often have more relationships, opportunities and financial leverage, those who have not built this economic network rely on fantasies of wealth. Milton-Bradley built this fantasy into their world, with a twist — the lower the status and profession chosen, the more likely the player to get windfalls. The higher the status and profession chosen, the more likely the player would accumulate straight debt with no windfall potential. The message to children who play this game is pretty clear — don’t bother to go to school, stay home and have babies, play the lottery and everything will be fine. Hmm, I don’t know about you, but that’s not the way every millionaire and billionaire (yes I know a few well) in Silicon Valley got their wealth…

To be successful, a game must hold the promise of a world that we wish were real. Games reflect our values and aspirations. If Americans didn’t believe more in lotteries instead of education, why would they push games like this on their children?

Bill Gates has recently joined with Eli Broad to spend $60 million to push education to the political forefront as a nonpartisan “single-issue initiative”. According to Bill Gates, “The lack of political and public will is a significant barrier to making dramatic improvements in school and student performance”. Mr. Broad adds that “We’re trying to create a Sputnik moment, to get people to see that our very economic future is at stake.” So far, even with all their money spent on advertising, they are having little effect on the political campaign. Not surprising, really, when three of the major Republican presidential wanna-bes don’t believe in evolution (so much for healthcare and biotech investments) and Democrats spend their wad on other matters like Iraq.

This disdain for education as the key to success is why America will lose and why China will win. But Milton-Bradley will probably sell a lot of games. And isn’t that what America is all about?

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Lynne

Lynne Jolitz is a Silicon Valley OS pioneer, inventor, and startup founder.

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