Are America's Best Days Behind Us?

The U.S. is used to being No. 1. But it's going to take a lot more than a few budget cuts and shifting resources to stay competitive in today's global arena. It's time to adopt a whole new way of thinking. Is America ready?

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Illustrations by Joe Magee for TIME

I am an American, not by accident of birth but by choice. I voted with my feet and became an American because I love this country and think it is exceptional. But when I look at the world today and the strong winds of technological change and global competition, it makes me nervous. Perhaps most unsettling is the fact that while these forces gather strength, Americans seem unable to grasp the magnitude of the challenges that face us. Despite the hyped talk of China's rise, most Americans operate on the assumption that the U.S. is still No. 1.

But is it? Yes, the U.S. remains the world's largest economy, and we have the largest military by far, the most dynamic technology companies and a highly entrepreneurial climate. But these are snapshots of where we are right now. The decisions that created today's growth — decisions about education, infrastructure and the like — were made decades ago. What we see today is an American economy that has boomed because of policies and developments of the 1950s and '60s: the interstate-highway system, massive funding for science and technology, a public-education system that was the envy of the world and generous immigration policies. Look at some underlying measures today, and you will wonder about the future.

The following rankings come from various lists, but they all tell the same story. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. American health numbers are stunning for a rich country: based on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we're 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity. Only a few decades ago, the U.S. stood tall in such rankings. No more. There are some areas in which we are still clearly No. 1, but they're not ones we usually brag about. We have the most guns. We have the most crime among rich countries. And, of course, we have by far the largest amount of debt in the world.

The Rise of the Rest
Many of these changes have taken place not because of America's missteps but because other countries are now playing the same game we are — and playing to win. There is a familiar refrain offered when these concerns are raised: "We heard all this in the 1980s. Japan was going to dominate the globe. It didn't happen, and America ended up back on top." It's a fair point as far as it goes. Japan did not manage to become the world's richest country — though for three decades it had the second largest economy and even now has the third largest. It is also a relatively small country. To become the largest economy in the world, it would have to have a per capita GDP twice that of the U.S. China would need to have an average income only one-fourth that of the U.S. to develop an economy that would surpass ours.

But this misses the broader point. The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who has just written a book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, puts things in historical context: "For 500 years the West patented six killer applications that set it apart. The first to download them was Japan. Over the last century, one Asian country after another has downloaded these killer apps — competition, modern science, the rule of law and private property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Those six things are the secret sauce of Western civilization."

To this historical challenge from nations that have figured out how the West won, add a technological revolution. It is now possible to produce more goods and services with fewer and fewer people, to shift work almost anywhere in the world and to do all this at warp speed. That is the world the U.S. now faces. Yet the country seems unready for the kind of radical adaptation it needs. The changes we are currently debating amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Sure, the political system seems to be engaged in big debates about the budget, pensions and the nation's future. But this is mostly a sideshow. The battles in state capitals over public-employee pensions are real — the states are required to balance their budgets — but the larger discussion in Washington is about everything except what's important. The debate between Democrats and Republicans on the budget excludes the largest drivers of the long-term deficit — Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare — to say nothing of the biggest nonentitlement costs, like the tax break for interest on mortgages. Only four months ago, the Simpson-Bowles commission presented a series of highly intelligent solutions to our fiscal problems, proposing $4 trillion in savings, mostly through cuts in programs but also through some tax increases. They have been forgotten by both parties, in particular the Republicans, whose leading budgetary spokesman, Paul Ryan, praises the commission in the abstract even though he voted against its recommendations. Democrats, for their part, became apoplectic about a proposal to raise the retirement age for Social Security by one year — in 2050.

Instead, Washington is likely to make across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending, where there is much less money and considerably less waste. President Obama's efforts to preserve and even increase resources for core programs appear to be failing in a Congress determined to demonstrate its clout. But reducing funds for things like education, scientific research, air-traffic control, NASA, infrastructure and alternative energy will not produce much in savings, and it will hurt the economy's long-term growth. It would happen at the very moment that countries from Germany to South Korea to China are making large investments in education, science, technology and infrastructure. We are cutting investments and subsidizing consumption — exactly the opposite of what are the main drivers of economic growth.

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