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Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth? A NEW BEGINNING … OR A NEW END? As action is sought in the political sphere to meet the nation’s competitiveness challenge, it needs to be emphasized that competitiveness is not a partisan issue. It is an American issue. In fact, the initial bill introduced in the Senate to implement the National Academies’ findings promptly acquired 70 cosponsors—35 Democrats and 35 Republicans—all in an election year. The fiscal year 2007 federal budget that was enacted in part through a continuing resolution, made special provisions for many of the recommendations offered in the Gathering Storm report. Similar steps have been taken with regard to the 2008 budget; for example, the bill that rectifies differences among the various competitiveness measures previously proposed in the Senate was cosponsored by the majority leader and the minority leader. Votes on competitiveness measures have received overwhelming support in the House of Representatives. The final America COMPETES Act was passed by both houses and signed by the President in August 2007. Speaking in support of the initial competitiveness legislation introduced in the Senate after the National Academies’ effort, Bill Frist, then Senate majority leader, noted that “authorizations for these programs would total $73 billion over the next 5 years; when we consider that over the next 5 years our economy will exceed $76 trillion— a [0.1%] investment for the future seems a small price to pay for our continued economic security and leadership in the world.” Senator Lamar Alexander noted on the occasion when he introduced legislation to implement the Gathering Storm report’s recommendations, “If we only spend money on war, welfare, Social Security, debt, hurricanes, disasters, and flu, we’re not going to have an economy strong enough to pay the bill for those urgent needs.” There is, of course, little political gain in taking the lead in addressing challenging problems—even serious problems—that most of the public has not yet recognized to
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Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth? be problems. Columnist David Broder, writing in The Washington Post under the title “Thankless Bipartisanship,” put it this way: “On Monday, with few of his colleagues present and the Senate press galleries largely unoccupied, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee took the floor. ‘Last week,’ he said, ‘while the media covered Iraq and [recently fired] US attorneys, the Senate spent three days debating and passing perhaps the most important piece of legislation of this two-year session.’” Broder went on to assert that “Alexander’s larger point is that this is the model Congress and the president need to follow—if any of the major challenges facing the country are to be met.” Indeed, the constructive bipartisanship reflected, at least to date, in addressing the nation’s competitiveness-jobs-quality of life issue poses an excellent example for the resolution of many challenges. Ironically, when the overwhelmingly supportive vote on competitiveness was occurring in the House of Representatives, the media made virtually no mention of the event. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on a partisan battle that was concurrently being waged on another piece of legislation. Some rightfully question whether the actions proposed by the National Academies, even if fully implemented, will be sufficient or even significant. One can know the answer to that question only as time progresses, but the proposals are at least a beginning. What is clear is that to do nothing is an almost certain formula for a greatly diminished America. There remain a few observers who insist that there is in fact no competitiveness issue; that concerns such as those expressed here are overstated. One can only hope that these observers are correct. But it seems imprudent to gamble the future of the nation and its children on that possibility. As Churchill said of those who argued against defense spending in Britain after World War I claiming that future wars were impossible in the “more civilized society” then existing: “It would be a pity if they were wrong.” In my travels abroad, I have been astonished by the degree to which foreign officials are familiar with the National Academies’ Gathering Storm report. Some are conducting similar reviews of their own competitiveness standing. The ultimate irony—it might be termed the Doomsday Scenario—would be if our efforts succeeded in motivating others to do more and then we ourselves did or sustained little. This nation did not arrive in its increasingly tenuous competitiveness situation overnight, certainly not under any one political party’s oversight or through any single ill-considered action. For example, it has now been fully 24 years since a prestigious national commission on education cited what it called “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s public schools. The true measure of our commitment in this contest will be staying-power.
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Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth? As has been noted, it is unreasonable to expect that in a broadly prospering world any single nation can maintain indefinitely the broad dominance that America has enjoyed in recent decades. But America can, if it wishes, maintain a position of considerable strength, overall prosperity, and constructive leadership. Furthermore, if America decides no longer to play a major leadership role, the perplexing question then arises, Who might do so? This should be of concern to all. Although only the passage of time can offer certainty, the available evidence strongly suggests that America and the world are on the precipice of a change of seismic proportions—a tipping point—similar to the one that saw the fraction of American workers engaged in agriculture plummet from 84% in the early 1800s to eventually settle at about 1%. The primary differences between that shift and today’s is that the current transition will take place on a global scale and will occur much more rapidly. And no one will be immune to its impact. A Broadway show some years ago bore the provocative title, Stop the World—I Want To Get Off. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, this new world is not likely to stop, or even pause, for anyone. Perhaps, then, the best advice for everyone is offered in a poem by Richard Hodgetts: Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle—when the sun comes up, you’d better be running. Churchill once said that you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else. Reversing America’s competitiveness decline is one thing we had better get right the first time.
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