The Thing About ‘STEM’

When I was young, I got the impression very early that I should go into science and be good at math. It’s actually one of my earlier memories: if I could be good at science, math, or things like it (computers, etc) then I’d be smart and successful. Bottom line: I could make money.

I get angry now when I remember this structural hoodwink. Such bullshit. There’s been various waves of emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in United States curriculum policy. One of the biggest was during the Cold War after the Soviet Union launched its satellite Sputnik and won the space race. The existence of a strong communist presence in the world had a significant impact on US domestic policy in a number of ways (cf. the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which wouldn’t have happened with out pressure from the communist world).

One of these impacts was funding for science education, specifically to develop the population’s knowledge and skills to make sure capitalism won against communism. That legislation was called the National Defense Education Act.

This Cold War mentality was also helpful in the 1980s when the Japanese car industry gave the US rust belt a serious run for its money. In the midst of an inflation crisis and stagnating production (the famous stagflation moment), Reagan got elected and whipped everyone up into a frenzy about losing our place as a global superpower. A Nation at Risk was published, and, lo and behold, it also called for more funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Cold War was still happening, but this ideology persisted.

Even since the ‘end of history’ (which has been over for a few years now, lol), while the terrain has changed, this Cold War idea about STEM persists in myriad forms. It’s kind of like what Antonio Gramsci said about the old dying while the new cannot be born. Calls for STEM education are a residual ideological practice left over from another time preventing society from moving on.

The problem stems from jobs

While the rhetoric about STEM is about American hegemony, the material conditions undergirding that rhetoric are STEM jobs. That is, if American students get better STEM education, they’ll get STEM jobs at STEM firms and America will lead the STEM market and thus the world.

But in this (post)neoliberal American economy, which is really an aging and ever-more-rickety ‘globalized’ economy over-reliant on finance, firms aren’t exactly sticking to the plan. Shockingly, they’re more interested in keeping wages as low as possible while producing just enough to keep shareholders happy. And how do they do that? By hiring people from other countries.

Rachel Rosenthal wrote a good piece in Bloomberg titled “Big Tech Wants You to Believe America Has a Skills Gap.” Turns out foreign temporary workers on H1-B downs make up 10% of the tech workforce. Rosenthal contrasts this with the fact that there’s never been more American students graduating with STEM degrees. They’re also getting higher scores than ever before.

The numbers don’t lie: there’s no shortage of people to fill STEM-type jobs, but companies don’t hire them. So we should take any discourse about STEM, jobs, and the threat to American hegemony with a grain of salt.

And it should taste pretty salty, because that’s not all. American firms are incentivized to hire non-American workers because they can pay them less. Rosenthal bases her reporting on a study by the Economic Policy Institute that finds:

  • Sixty percent of H-1B positions certified by the U.S. Department of Labor are assigned wage levels well below the local median wage for the occupation. While H-1B program rules allow this, DOL has the authority to change it—but hasn’t.
  • Major U.S. firms use the H-1B program to pay low wages. Among the top 30 H-1B employers are major U.S. firms including Amazon, Microsoft, Walmart, Google, Apple, and Facebook. All of them take advantage of program rules in order to legally pay many of their H-1B workers below the local median wage for the jobs they fill.

What does this look like in terms of savings for firms? Rosenthal cites a shocking number from DC:

companies in the D.C. metro area got a 36% discount from the median wage level for the most common certified H-1B occupation (a category of software developers) in the wage bracket for entry-level positions, a difference of $41,746 per employee in fiscal 2019. The discount came to 18%, or $20,863, for the second-lowest bracket. This can amount to billions of dollars of potential savings for employers.

If you could get a 36% discount on your most expensive cost (labor), would you take it? Companies in DC did. And they saved a ton of money.

Coming back to the STEM education ideology, the proof is in the pudding: calls for STEM education are bullshit, but a specific kind of bullshit. It’s a bullshit that sounds good for politicians playing to their bases, probably older middle class-types who are stuck in Cold War politics, still ginned up from tax revolts during the stagflation crisis, and don’t really look into the details.

Socialists should know better. The truth is the opposite: there are a lot of students studying STEM, they’re more successful at this than ever, but there aren’t enough jobs for them when they graduate. Why? Companies have an incentive not to give American graduates jobs because it’s cheaper to hire temporary foreign workers, which federal policies encourage. Firms can and do save a lot of money by not hiring STEM graduates from the US.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an anti-immigration argument. What I’m saying is that the whole STEM ideology in education–that we need to focus on STEM, better STEM programs, more STEM funding, more STEM graduates, etc– is basically a dead muscle in a gangrenous limb on the dying body of globalized, neoliberal, finance capitalism.

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