[SPECIAL INTERVIEWS WITH SCHOLARS ― (2) Jeremy Rifkin on strategies for the future]Too littlJeremy Rifkin is again in the public eye with the recent publication of “The European Dream,” as he was after his acclaimed book “The End of Work” in 1995. A professor at the Wharton School’s executive MBA Program at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Rifkin also established and works at the Foundation on Economic Trends.
Born in Chicago, Mr. Rifkin holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School and a master’s degree in international relations from Tufts University. He continues to be a social activist after participating in the anti-Vietnam War campaign when he was in college. -- Ed.
A hard rain was falling as I walked to the hotel to meet Jeremy Rifkin. The 2005 Global Progressive Forum was being held in Milan, Italy, an unlikely venue given its fame as a city of fashion. Mr. Rifkin was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the forum.
He had come to Milan to speak on strategies for the future to the forum, a gathering of European socialist parties for a discussion of responses to the challenges of the 21st century. Although he has published a number of books on the future of society, Mr. Rifkin prefers to be called a social activist rather than a futurist. Nevertheless, he transcends ideological leanings in order to advise people regarding those challenges. He has served as a pro bono consultant to Romano Prodi, former president of the European Commission. He was also invited to Korea recently by a large corporation to lecture and consult on the issue of future energy requirements and sources.
He has written seventeen books on social criticism and has devoted the last ten years in particular to five issues: labor, biotechnology, new economic systems, hydrogen energy and the European future. In his recent book, “The European Dream,” he argues: “The American dream is over. While the American dream is based on individualism, the European dream is a communal dream. In this sense, the European dream is a mirror opposite of the American dream.”
American liberalism is symbolized by automobiles, which represent both autonomy and mobility. Americans have achieved growth based on a “cowboy mentality,” he said. This concept of liberty offers enormous hope for individual development, but in terms of social development, he continued, America is a complete failure. Europe pursues quality of life, whereas the United States is after the economic wealth of individuals, so it looks like a prosperous country but it is not exactly so in reality, his thesis goes.
The homicide rate is four times higher in the United States than in Europe. Americans have only about ten days of annual vacation, while Europeans enjoy four to six weeks off. Europe has more doctors and a better welfare system. Europe also has shorter working hours and higher labor productivity per hour. The official unemployment rate announced by the U.S. government is seven percent, but in actuality it is nine percent; the remaining two percent of the population is omitted from the statistics because of the number of people in prison. Furthermore, about half of all black males in their twenties and thirties are incarcerated or suspected of crimes. Seeking only individualistic growth without addressing the concerns of the social community, the United States has higher social costs and has failed as a society.
Mr. Rifkin noted the rapid dismantlement of organized labor as a serious problem of the coming era. With computerization and automation, only five percent of the current work force will be needed in twenty years to produce the current level of production. Even in China, whose competitive edge is cheap labor, fifteen percent of workers have been pushed out of jobs over the last seven years. With the accelerated growth of science and technology, humanity is in a historical transition to a new Renaissance in the 21st century. However, it is also facing the threat of a new Dark Age caused by the collapse of the middle class, ignited by growing unemployment among white-collar workers.
As a solution to those future challenges, Rifkin does not recommend the protection of labor unions, but rather emphasizes work sharing. This may sound strange to Koreans who have just switched to the five-day work week, but Rifkin claims that, in the long term, a twenty-hour work week will become the norm. But what about the rising labor cost employers will have to bear to hire more workers under work-sharing programs? Rifkin thinks that it can be contained by reducing corporate taxes. It is more efficient to share work and pay a lower corporate tax rather than to increase corporate tax and spend it on unemployment allowances.
Another solution, he suggests, is volunteerism. Until the 20th century, employment was left to the market and the government. But in the 21st century, the surplus labor force should be transferred to the third sector, civil social organizations. He offered an example of how such a system could work: If a taxi driver were to take an emergency patient to a hospital free of charge, he could receive a certificate for volunteer work, comparable to a blood donation certificate, which he could use later in exchange for other services.
Mr. Rifkin also noted several key issues in Korean society. First of all, he was quite clear about his objection to Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s use of cloned embryos in his stem cell research. He strongly supports stem cell research, but rejects the use of embryos, which he believes violates human dignity. Using as an example a New York Times article regarding the use of skin cells in stem cell research last August, he asserted that stem cell researchers must find different methods to the same end.
Regarding the energy crisis, he recommends the development of clean, renewable hydrogen energy. If hydrogen energy is developed on a full scale, it may even prove to be a solution to labor problems, as it could enable massive reinvestments by society, just as the discovery of electricity once changed the entire social infrastructure.
Regarding the governance of the current administration in Korea, he noted that policy makers are criticized for amateurism, but the root of the word “amateur” is amor, or “love” and thus can have a positive meaning. He added that social reformers are passionate, but they often fail to follow up. Speaking about himself, he said he indulges in the study of social issues to increase his influence as a social activist and tries to suggest solutions to the problems of the future through writing, lecturing, and consulting.
A vehement critic of his native country, the United States, and the Bush administration, and a committed social reformer, Mr. Rifkin lives in Europe six months of the year, delivering passionate speeches to a wide range of audiences in order to bequeath a more beautiful society to the next generation.
After the interview, I left the hotel to discover that the rain that was pouring down earlier had stopped. As if scrubbed clean, the cloudless autumn sky over Milan was a dazzling blue.
* Professor Yeom Jae-ho teaches public administration at Korea University. He received a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University, and has taught at Hitotsubashi Univer-sity and Tsukuba University in Japan, Griffith University in Australia, and Brighton Uni-versity in Great Britain. He is currently researching knowledge governance and future society.
by Yeom Jae-ho