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Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?
established research facilities in India, and the R&D boom in China and elsewhere is also gathering momentum.
The irony is that “American” companies may well survive, and their owners even prosper, but market forces will cause this to be at the expense of America’s workers. In such a scenario, America could evolve into a nation comprising a number of extremely wealthy shareholders (fully 55% of Finland-based Nokia’s shares are owned by Americans) and a few corporate headquarters (at least for a time) mired in an enormous sea of unemployment. That is not a formula for stability, national security, or quality of life for most of America’s future citizens.
Is it already too late? Is the contest, as some critics have suggested, already over? Is America’s future now behind it? One observer, Electrical Engineering Times, recently provided the following assessment in the introduction to its annual State of the Engineer Survey: “The single, young, energetic, upwardly mobile engineer constantly angling for better pay and greener pastures was for decades a Silicon Valley stereotype. But that image no longer holds true. The go-getters are now in India.”
In contrast, the National Academies and others believe that it is not too late, but they warn that it is getting late—very late. The good news is that we can do something about the competitiveness challenge, but only if we act with urgency and perseverance.
Less than 12 years after being surprised by Sputnik, America mobilized itself and placed the first of a dozen humans on the moon—and brought them all home safely. A similarly intense effort will be required if we are to give Americans the opportunity to hold high-quality jobs in the future. Other nations have faced serious competitive challenges and are doing something about them. Finland, Singapore, Portugal, and Ireland are prime examples. This past year, Portugal, in its overall environment of severe fiscal austerity, increased its investment in science and technology by 60%. In 1987, Ireland’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita was 31% below the average of the European Union (EU). It was, by almost any measure, among the poorest countries in Europe. In fact, 1% of its population—including some of the youngest and best educated members of its citizenry—was leaving the country each year in search of opportunity. But by 2003, Ireland’s GDP per capita had grown to 36% above the EU average; unemployment had fallen from 17% to 4% and young people were immigrating into Ireland from the rest of Europe to fill the new jobs being added at a net rate of 4% per year. Economist Dermot O’Brien describes this growth as “off the scale in European terms.”
But except for those who fail to adapt, this is a race without a finish line, a race that