IS AMERICA FALLING OFF THE FLAT EARTH?
In October 2005, the National Academies, in response to a bipartisan request by members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, issued a report titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future stating that America is in substantial danger of losing its economic leadership position and suffering a concomitant decline in the standard of living of its citizens because of a looming inability to compete in the global marketplace. Since that time, well over 100 editorials and op-eds have appeared in the nation’s newspapers, at least one in every state, addressing this issue. Virtually all supported the Academies’ conclusions.
The president of the United States incorporated a number of the Academies’ recommendations in his 2006 State of the Union Address, and various bills were introduced in the Senate and House, almost all on a bipartisan basis, to implement many of the recommendations. The continuing resolution that established the federal budget in several relevant fields for FY 2007 provided an important step forward in preparing America for the intensifying global competition for jobs. Similarly, the House of Representatives (by votes of 389-22 and 397-20 on key bills) and the Senate (by a vote of 88-8) took steps to authorize many of the Academies’ recommendations in the FY 2008 budget. Final approval in the House of the America COMPETES Authorization Act was passed by a unanimous consent vote following a 367-57 approval of the conference report. President Bush signed the legislation on August 9, 2007. Private firms are also stepping forward: the ExxonMobil Foundation recently committed $125 million to help implement one element of the Academies’ proposals: improving America’s K-12 education system in science and
mathematics. But competitiveness is a long-term challenge and much remains to be done in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, our competitors have not been standing still. The World Economic Forum dropped America from first to seventh place in its ranking of nations’ preparedness to benefit from advances in information technology; the number of US citizens entering engineering school declined still further; the remnants of the legendary Bell Labs, the birthplace of the laser and the transistor and the home of many Nobel laureates, were sold to a French firm; a new generation of semiconductor integrated circuits—the mortar of the modern electronics revolution—was introduced; the largest initial public offering in history was conducted by a Chinese bank; another $650 billion has been spent on US public schools while the performance of its students on standardized science tests of those about to graduate declined further; American companies once again spent three times more on litigation than on research; and in July, for the first time in history, foreign automakers sold more cars in the United States than American manufacturers.
The competitiveness issue as seen some 18 months after the National Academies’ study was completed is the topic of this essay. Its content is based on congressional testimony and a series of lectures by the author and thus offers a less formal but updated version of the findings in the Academies’ report. Although this essay draws heavily on that report and other sources, the views expressed herein are those of the author.