Friday, April 01, 2011

Education, Innovation, Infrastructure – The Resurgence: Part II

In April 2006, the headline in a five part series in this column questioned, “Are We Losing the War for Innovation?” The conclusion was, “Whereas the 20th Century went down in history as the ‘American Century,’ the consequences of a failing educational system as well as a major demographic shift will prevent America from a repeat performance in the 21st century.”

A Time Magazine Classic

That was five years ago. During that time period you might have expected that some reform, some progress would have been made to improve our position related to education. Instead, in Time magazine’s March 4 th issue, under the headline, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?,” there is a stunningly fact driven assault on America’s failure to recognize that, as Time declares, “Burdened by debt, and led by feckless politicians the U.S. is hurtling toward mediocrity.” (Mediocrtiy? Whatever happened to “exceptionalism?) The five page article was written by Fareed Zakaria, the Indian born Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine, a Washington Post columnist, a New York Times bestselling author, and host of a weekly program on CNN. Esquire Magazine called him “the most influential foreign policy adviser of his generation.”

When I first created the major headline for this column, “Just In Case You Missed It,” I stated that each article would provide important information about which readers may not have been aware. I would rank Mr. Zakaria’s comments In Time as one of the most crucial and, perhaps an unsurpassable example of what has appeared in this column in the past, and what might yet appear in the future.

As I prepared to write this article, I had no idea that the Time magazine special feature would run. This is what I referred to in last month’s column as a “serendipitous” occurrence, and now it happened again. Despite my frequent use of the quotations below from Mr. Zakaria’s article, I urge you to read his entire report directly by googling, “Time magazine–Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” I think you will be stunned by the content, as I hope you will be by the excerpts reproduced here. (The underlines are mine.)

The Opening

In the three opening paragraphs of the Time feature story Fareed Zakaria writes, “ I am an American, not by accident of birth but by choice. I voted with my feet and became an American because I love this country and think it is exceptional. But when I look at the world today and the strong winds of technological change and global competition, it makes me nervous. Perhaps most unsettling is the fact that while these forces gather strength, Americans seem unable to grasp the magnitude of the challenges that face us. Despite the hyped talk of China's rise, most Americans operate on the assumption that the U.S. is still No. 1.

But is it? Yes, the U.S. remains the world's largest economy, and we have the largest military by far, the most dynamic technology companies and a highly entrepreneurial climate. But these are snapshots of where we are right now. The decisions that created today's growth — decisions about education, infrastructure, and the like — were made decades ago. What we see today is an American economy that has boomed because of policies and developments of the 1950s and '60s: the interstate-highway system, massive funding for science and technology, a public-education system that was the envy of the world, and generous immigration policies. Look at some underlying measures today, and you will wonder about the future.”

Wake Up to Reality

He writes in the third paragraph, “Here are some of the most shocking figures: “The following rankings come from various lists, but they all tell the same story. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. American health numbers are stunning for a rich country: based on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we're 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity. Only a few decades ago, the U.S. stood tall in such rankings. No more. There are some areas in which we are still clearly No. 1, but they're not ones we usually brag about. We have the most guns. We have the most crime among rich countries. And, of course, we have by far the largest amount of debt in the world.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Zakaria’s figures related to education are almost exactly the same as those quoted in my articles five years ago. However, he also delves into several other extremely problematic areas that project another compelling story. He describes a country (ours), if not in decline, than one that is standing still while much of the rest of the world is advancing.

Surprise! Surprise! It’s the Politicians

Mr. Zakaria cites the current political discourse as a distraction that hinders our ability to solve the most crucial and compelling problems we face. He states, “The changes we are debating amount to rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.” He believes that “…the larger discussion in Washington is about everything except what’s important. The debate between Democrats and Republicans on the budget excludes the largest drivers of the long-term deficit––Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare––to say nothing about the biggest non-entitlement costs, like the tax break for interest on mortgages.”

Before we continue, let me point out that Wikipedia cites various views on Mr. Zakaria’s politics, with some maintaining he is a Liberal, by others as a Conservative, and he stating that he is a Centrist. He believes that the Simpson Bowles tax commission “presented highly intelligent solutions to our fiscal problems proposing $4 trillion in savings, mostly through cuts in programs but also through some tax increases.” He then condemned Washington for ignoring the Commission’s recommendations, and for instead cutting discretionary spending where there is “much less money and less waste.”

He also alludes to Congress’s appetite to reduce budgetary funding “for things like education, scientific research, air-traffic control, NASA, infrastructure and alternative energy [that] will not produce much in savings, and will hurt the economy’s long term growth.” He then expresses concern that this “short sighted and wrong footed action” is occurring …at the very moment when [our global competitors] countries from Germany to South Korea to China are making large investments in those very same consequential areas that we are cutting.

Zakaria is particularly critical of the fact that “American politics is now hypersensitive to constituents’ interests. And all those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future. There are no lobbying groups for the next generation of industries, only for those companies that are here now with cash to spend. There are no special interest groups for our children’s economic well-being, only for people who get government benefits right now.” He goes on to say that, “The whole system is geared to preserve current subsidies, tax breaks and loopholes.”

He believes that “America’s success has made it sclerotic. We have sat on top of the world for almost a century, and our repeated economic political and military victories have made us quite sure that we are destined to be No. 1 forever.” He then emphasizes the advantages of “having a government that can help build out new technologies and infrastructure, that invests in the future and that can eliminate programs that stop working.”

Mr. Zakaria is most critical relating to the way politicians allocate our resources. He explains, “We spend vast amounts of money on subsidies for housing, agriculture and health, many of which distort the economy and do little for long-term growth. We spend too little on science, technology, innovation, and infrastructure.” His next statement is most pertinent: “For all the partisan polarization [in Washington], most Republicans know that we have to invest in some key areas, and most Democrats know that we have to cut entitlement spending.”

Here is where he gets more vehement and even more incensed: “We have a political system geared toward ceaseless fundraising and pandering to the interests of the present with no ability to plan, invest or build for the future. And if one mentions any of this, why one is being unpatriotic, because we have the perfect system of government handed down to us by demigods who walked the earth in the late 18 th century and who serve as models for us today and forever.” (Do I sense sarcasm here?)

The Zakaria article should be required reading for every politician in Washington. Perhaps that would encourage them to work for the good of the country instead of merely their party or for their own personal ambitions. More than 500 years ago, in his play Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare coined a phrase that has plausible relevancy to the political atmosphere that exists today in Congress––“A plague on both your houses.”

Is Fareed Zakaria’s dark view of America’s future correct? Next month, some contrary views.


<< Home