How to Restore the American Dream

Technology and globalization are shattering the middle class. With the midterms around the corner, the good news is that a bipartisan policy agenda can return the U.S. to prosperity. But no one says it will be easy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Danny Kim for Time

(4 of 4)

There are advantages to the U.S. system. We don't stream people too early in their lives, and we allow for more creative thinking. But the path to good jobs for the future is surely to expand apprenticeship programs substantially so industry can find the workers it needs. This would require a major initiative, a training triangle in which the government funds, the education system teaches and industry hires — though to have an effect, the program would have to be on the scale of the GI Bill.

Fiscal sanity. To pay for such initiatives, the government needs to get its house in order. The single most important aspect of this is getting health care costs under control, followed by other entitlement programs, especially pensions at the state level. Government today spends vast sums of money on current consumption — health care and pensions being a massive chunk of it — which leaves little money for anything else. We need a radical rebalancing of American government so it can free up resources to fund future growth.

Benchmark, benchmark, benchmark. There is now global competition for growth, which means the U.S. has to constantly ask itself what other countries are doing well and how it might adapt — looking, for example, at what other countries are doing with their corporate tax rates or their health care systems and asking why and where we fall short. Americans have long resisted such an approach, but if someone else is doing tax policy, tort litigation, health care or anything else better, we have to ask why.

There are things the U.S. does well. Most new jobs in America are created by start-ups and small companies, so the ease of doing business is crucial — and there's good news there. The World Bank has a ranking of countries measured by the "ease of doing business," and the U.S. is No. 4. That's very good, but there's a catch. Those rankings are divided into several categories. In most, like "starting a business," the U.S. does well. But in one category it's only 61st in the world, and that is "paying taxes."

The American tax code is a monstrosity, cumbersome and inefficient. It is 16,000 pages long and riddled with exemptions and loopholes, specific favors to special interests. As such, it represents the deep, institutionalized corruption at the heart of the American political process, in which it is now considered routine to buy a member of Congress's support for a particular, narrow provision that will be advantageous for your business.

The Work Ahead
My proposals are inherently difficult because they ask the left and right to come together, cut some spending, pare down entitlements, open up immigration for knowledge workers, rationalize the tax code — and then make large investments in education and training, research and technology, innovation and infrastructure. But the fact that it is a solution that crosses political borders should make it more palatable, not less. And time is crucial. The U.S. has considerable advantages, but every day other countries try to find ways to attract growth within their borders. People often note that America's political system is broken. Perhaps the truth is more awkward: America needs radical change, and it has an 18th century system determined to check and balance the absolute power of a monarchy. It is designed for gridlock at a moment when quick and large-scale action is our only hope.

When I left India, the marginal tax rate was 97.5%, corporate taxation was punitive, and business was stifled or went underground. Were I to move from New York City to Mumbai today, my personal tax rate would drop, as would every other rate, from corporate to capital-gains taxes. (The long-term capital-tax rate in India is zero.) Singapore now ranks as the No. 1 country for ease of doing business, with a top tax rate of 20%. I know permanent residents working in the U.S. who are thinking of giving up their green cards to move to Singapore. To an Indian of my generation, this would have been unthinkable. The green card was a passport to the American Dream. But for young Indians, there are many new dreams out there, and new passports.

But there are reasons for optimism. The U.S. faces huge challenges, but it also has enormous advantages. "I've always been bullish on America," says Coke's Kent. "It's the largest, richest market in the world. Look at the demographics alone. North America is the only part of the industrialized world that will be growing in people. It now has a higher birthrate than Mexico, for the first time in history." Or listen to Alcoa's German-born Klaus Kleinfeld, previously the head of Siemens: "I know the things that America has that are unique. The openness, the diversity, the dynamism — you don't have it anywhere else. If you keep all these things, build on them, I still believe in the American Dream."

The term American Dream was coined during the Great Depression. The historian James Truslow Adams published The Epic of America in 1931, in an atmosphere of even greater despair than today's. He wanted to call his book The American Dream, but his publishers objected. No one will pay $3.50 for a book about a "dream," they said. Still, Adams used the phrase so often that it entered the lexicon. The American Dream, he said, was of "a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save the American Dream from the forces which appear to be overwhelming it."

Today, those forces really do look overwhelming. But challenges like them have been beaten back before — and can be again.

Restoring the American Dream: A Fareed Zakaria GPS Special will air on CNN at 9 p.m. E.T. and P.T. on Saturday, Oct. 30, and at 10 a.m. E.T. and P.T. on Sunday, Oct. 31

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. Next Page