CAN AMERICA COMPETE?
The answer to that fundamental question seems, at least on the surface, less than straightforward. On one hand, America’s overall competitiveness as assessed by the World Economic Forum in Geneva recently plummeted from first place to sixth place in a single year. Perhaps even more perplexing, the news media have reported that a city in Pennsylvania not long ago considered adopting the slogan “Pittsburgh can become the Bangalore of America.” And few passengers on the main railroad line connecting New York City and the nation’s capital, can observe the large sign that for nearly 100 years has adorned the bridge crossing the Delaware River near Trenton, New Jersey, and reads “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” without having to suppress a mixture of nostalgia and bemusement. On the other hand, America this past year accomplished an extraordinary sweep of science-related Nobel prizes; the overall economy continues to be reasonably sound; and an extraordinary Team USA took first place at the 2007 International Biology Olympiad, squeezing past Team China. The US team’s Gold Medal winners were Meng Xiao He, Barry Liu, Mark Shteyn, and Helen Yang.
The answer to the competitiveness question is much clearer when one considers, as Wall Street insiders like to say, “broad forward-looking indicators.” Most of the indicators convey a troubling message, one that strongly suggests that America is rapidly losing its competitive position to steadily progressing economies, primarily in the developing world—a world populated by substantial numbers of highly motivated, increasingly well-educated, low-paid workers.
Over the years, global leadership has come to be accepted by many US citizens as an American province—which it often seemingly has been, particularly in the closely related fields of science, engineering, and innovation. But leadership is not an American
birthright. In this regard, it is useful to recall that Spain was a leading power in the 16th century; France dominated the 17th century; and England the 19th. It is also useful to remind ourselves, as economics historian Angus Maddison points out, that as late as 1870 China’s economy was nearly twice the size of the US economy. Seemingly, the only thing that stays the same in the worlds of politics and economics is the persistence of change.
The book on the 21st century is, of course, yet to be written, but if history teaches any lesson it is that no nation has an inherent right to greatness. Greatness has to be earned and continually re-earned. In fact, few nations, great or ordinary, have survived to enjoy the third century of their existence. Nations that take their technologic leadership for granted will be particularly vulnerable in this fast-moving global community in which there are said to be more scientists at work than existed throughout all prior eras combined.
Typifying our misconception of an assured position at the forefront of science and engineering is a revealing story told by Dan Goldin when he was administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It seems that he was being excoriated by a critic of NASA who objected particularly to the government’s spending on weather satellites. The skeptic asked, “Why do we need meteorologic satellites when we have the Weather Channel?”
In the same vein, former Air Force Chief Scientist and Princeton engineering professor Cort Perkins tells of sailing into Woods Hole Harbor, where he was greeted by a friend whose boat was moored in the adjacent slip. The neighbor’s fiberglass vessel was adorned with nylon lines, Dacron sails, a high-strength aluminum alloy mast capped with a radar antenna, and a bridge replete with the latest versions of GPS, depth finders, and radio equipment. Its owner, an attorney, was carrying a 10-megapixel digital camera with a stabilized lens and wearing photosensitive sunglasses. His clothing was made of synthetic fibers, and his shoes sported nonslip neoprene soles. In his pocket was a Blackberry. He cheerily greeted Professor Perkins, asking, “So have you technologists done anything for us lately?”
There have, of course, been ample indicators that the canary in the US competitiveness mine is not well. They include the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which urged more demanding high-school graduation requirements, measurable standards throughout K-12, and higher qualifications for teachers. The 1985 report of the President’s Commission on Industrial Competitiveness (also known as The Young Commission, after its chairman, Hewlett-Packard CEO John Young), Global Competition: The New Reality urged greater emphasis on science and technology and broad K-12 education reform. The Council on Competitiveness’s 2004 report Innovate
America: Thriving in a World of Challenge and Change proposed an urgent legislative agenda to make America more competitive. The Task Force on the Future of American Innovation’s 2006 report Measuring the Moment warned that “those who stand still will fall behind…. If the United States continues to stand still [specifically in basic research in the physical sciences], it faces inevitable decline.” The Council of Graduate Schools 2007 report Graduate Education: The Backbone of American Competitiveness and Innovation asserted that “we can no longer take for granted America’s continued leadership in innovation and competitiveness.”
Indeed, during the past 3 years alone, at least 16 significant reports on America’s growing competitiveness disadvantage have been issued by such reputable organizations as the Council on Competitiveness, the Business Roundtable, the Brookings Institution, the Association of American Universities, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the National Association of Manufacturers, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, the Technology CEO Council, the US Chamber of Commerce, The Council of Graduate Schools, and the National Academies.
Today, it is possible that our nation’s adult generation will, for the first time in history, leave their children and grandchildren a lower sustained standard of living than they themselves enjoyed. Should that occur, it will be the consequence of a collective failure to respond to the increasingly clear signals that are emerging, and indicate that we have entered a new era, a global era, an era in which Americans must compete in the marketplace not merely with each other but with highly qualified people around the planet. It will represent a change of seismic proportions with commensurate implications for America’s economic well-being, national and homeland security, health care, and overall standard of living.
At the same time, it must be recognized that the nations currently leading the global competitiveness surge are not without their own challenges. China, for example, is still basically an agrarian society with almost half its workers engaged in farming. Its gross domestic product per capita is only 17% of that of the United States. The corresponding value for India is but 9% of America’s. Thirty-five percent of India’s citizens survive on a daily household income of about $1 per person; but remarkably, this portion has been reduced from 50% in 1984. As developing nations prosper their governments may seek a disproportionate share of corporate earnings in the form of taxes and thereby undermine the progress that has been made. Other developed nations probably face even greater challenges than the United States, for example, Western Europe with its high labor costs,
short workweek, and resistance to change—particularly when established social benefits are at risk. But it is of little consolation that others may be even closer to the edge, at least at this moment, than we. The words of London consultant Mark Foster ring true: “The change is from globalization going one way to globalization going every way.”
The impact of this tidal wave will be felt for many years by the citizens of all nations—and not all equally. As the Council on Competitiveness warns, “Simply being an American does not guarantee a high-wage job anymore.”