Stop me if you’ve heard this one: So, will.i.am, Arianna Huffington, Tom Brokaw, and one of the President’s economic advisers walk into the ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton for a panel discussion on job creation...
There is no punchline, except to say this hellbroth of personalities were all participating in a real event at the Democratic convention, and it was about as bad as it sounds. Officially, it was called “Opportunity: What Is Working - A Bipartisan Search for Solutions to the Jobs Crisis,” and it was sponsored by the Huffington Post. In total there were 16 people on the panel, which they accommodated by stopping after an hour and playing musical chairs. Aside from the aforementioned Big Names, the panel was rounded out with a smattering of tech CEOs, leaders of charitable organizations, and, yes, politicians.
Alan Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn offered some remarks, though I didn’t pay too close attention because I was just waiting for him to personally apologize to everyone in the room for spamming their inbox with pleas to join his also-ran social network. (I currently have 58 email invites waiting to be deleted from acquaintances foolish to turn their address books over to Mr. Blue.)
Gerald Chertavian, the CEO of Year Up, an intensive one-year training program that teaches job skills to low income youth, was also a font of ideas. To juice the job market, Chertavian has created a PTC program—Professional Training Corps—which is analogous to the ROTC. It would be “swapping fatigues for business attire [and] rather than learning military moves, you learn about Microsoft mouse moves,” a tradeoff that sounds like all of the drudgery of the military but none of the adventure. Cheratavian also talks of a “G.I. Bill for urban young adults . . . to help them realize their potential.” Of course, there is a G.I. Bill to help realize the potential of urban young adults. It’s called the G.I. Bill. And ROTC grads would probably say that the leadership skills, discipline, and logistical management taught in the program are directly applicable to cultivating business skills and professional growth. But for some reason, encouraging young people looking for quality job training and a sense of purpose to join the military isn’t really an option on this panel.
San Antonio Mayor and Rising Democratic Star™ Julian Castro, outlined his city’s recipe for job growth in a surprising amount of detail, though all of the policies seemed unified by a tired theme—the city strong arms anyone who wants to do business with them into reinvesting in various municipal programs. Asked where he gets his job growth ideas, Castro said, among other things, “I have to confess I’m boring enough to read things like Governing magazine.” (Castro said nothing about benefiting from the aggressively pro-growth, anti-tax policies of the Republicans who run Texas at the state level.)
The only person on the panel capable of making real news was presidential economic adviser Gene Sperling. But his comments were brief and anodyne and he left before the second panel. But judging by the crowd reaction, no one was there to get an idea of what the president might be thinking about job creation.
The big draw was will.i.am, the leader of the wildly popular hip-hop group, the Black Eyed Peas. (Anyone who saw the Black Eyed Peas’s Superbowl half-time show a few years ago might better know will.i.am as History’s Greatest Monster.) Mr. will.i.am was wearing what appeared from the back of the room to be a black velvet tuxedo jacket over a t-shirt, and his hairstyle was vaguely cubist. Objections to will.i.am’s music aside, there’s no point in pretending will.i.am isn’t a very, very successful businessman who might have something interesting to say about job creation. Aside from his musical endeavors, he’s one of the founders of the wildly popular Beats headphone company. Much of his de rigueur charity work is directed at math and science education for public school kids, an unorthodox cause for a celebrity--and a very worthy one.
As one of the last remaining media dinosaurs—a consensus figure—moderator Tom Brokaw never seemed so old and so out of touch as when mustered all the gravitas his nasally baritone would allow to ask the writer of the hit song “Let’s Get Retarded In Here,” the following question: “How do you do what you do?” Brokaw further emphasized will.i.am’s relevance by telling the audience. “music has such an enormous influence on the generation we’re trying to reach now.” Anyway, here’s will.i.am talking about a science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for kids (STEM programs). I have reproduced his remarks in full, though to get the full mental picture, you’ll have to imagine his wild hand gesticulations throughout:
I think it should be mandatory that a STEM program is in every single school across America. A STEM program should be mandatory for kids at an early age. If you look at every single high school, junior high school across the country, there’s a basketball court and a football field. For that football field, there’s one company that benefits from that training, that’s the NFL. The NFL is a corporation. It's a company with a logo and they benefit from the people's skill set and their interest in football. It isn't necessarily for health because if you look through those high schools a lot of those kids are unhealthy, [have] obesity and they're going to have diabetes in the next couple of years. That basketball court, only one company benefits from that basketball court. It's called the NBA. All the great athletes that we see, a lot of them, the heroes, didn't go to college. They went straight from high school straight to the NBA. Now if we have STEM, when you think of STEM, you don't really think of a company that is connected to STEM. When we should start connecting companies to STEM and stimulate these kids to come up with new entrepreneurial, innovative technologies so that Black Friday every Thanksgiving a 15-year-old can have the bestselling product. Once you have that you'll have new job creation and a whole new vision on kids wanting to be scientists, technicians engineers and mathematicians. We can start that in America. Just like we started Santa Claus. Coca-Cola is responsible for that. So companies help define what we did fourth quarter. They helped create this whole new Disneyland and Kodak. Now if it wasn't for Instagram, Kodak would still be around, but that was the juggernaut that killed Kodak. And from there goes News Corp. because of Twitter and the combination of Instagram, Facebook and the whole new way of taking images. But those are all new innovative, disruptive technologies that came from the youth. So we need to see what's happening right now. I'm on a mission to change Boyle Heights where I'm from. It's the reason why I gave a million dollars Prince Charles to build a STEM center in East London. Why? Because I'm from East L.A. and I'm going to need other people to see you have to go help other folks so they can help you out in your neighborhood. I am not stoppin' until it is poppin’!
If will.i.am’s stemwinder sounded like he’d put 20 TED talks in a blender and produced an incoherent mess, the audience still greeted him with raucous applause. Then again, if there was any watchword for this event, “self-awareness” wasn’t it. As far as revealing tableaus go, it's hard to top a few hundred obviously posh attendees gathered in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton, just down the street from the Democratic convention, to enjoy the salmon and polenta while they hashed out what to do about job prospects for urban youths. The elites on the dais even wore those little headset mics favored by inspirational speakers and televangelists and greeted Arianna Huffington with “Hello, Love.”
And this lack of self-awareness is ultimately why we shouldn’t be too hard on will.i.am. Of all the panelists, he was the only one that could be said to have both impressive business success and experience being one of the poor urban youths they’re all trying to help. At this point, will.i.am’s career goes well beyond selling records, and it’s hard not to look at his career and say He Did Build That—a marked contrast to most of the politicians and foundation heads surrounding him. Sure Arianna Huffington laughed nervously when will.i.am said Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus, and an earlier digression on Nikolai Tesla and H1-B visas did not inspire confidence in his knowledge base. But before you laugh with Huffington, consider that maybe will.i.am is so passionate about education precisely because he’s aware of the limits of the education he received as a poor kid in East L.A.
If you go back and really think about what will.i.am is saying above—and admittedly it took me a while to stop rolling my eyes and gloss over a lot of seeming nonsense—the underlying message is this: If you want to fix America’s job market, that means letting corporations have significant influence over the smoldering ruins of America’s public schools.
will.i.am is a big Obama booster—he produced the cultish, celebrity-laden “Dip Dive” Obama video that boosted the president’s campaign in ’08—so I doubt even he realizes he’s preaching a message that’s far more at home at a Republican convention. His unquestioning belief in the power of capitalism to fix governmental failures is startling, when you consider how anathema it is to the message that’s been put out in the Democratic convention hall all week. He inadvertently told the truth to a roomful of liberal elites, and for that, will.i.am might actually deserve to be applauded.
But that’s not what happened. will.i.am finished his remarks, and the Ritz-Carlton ballroom put their hands together, not because they had any idea what he was saying, but to pay tribute to the celebrity in their midst.