Don't Bet Against the United States

Through good times and bad, Americans have always worried about falling behind. That helps explain why the U.S. remains the world's leading nation

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Illustration by Joe Magee for TIME

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Change could be good: a simpler tax code would be a boon for most Americans. Ideally, we could accomplish this without discouraging the private charitable giving that totals more than $300 billion per year in the U.S. But it probably wouldn't make much difference in the incomes of the less than superrich.

Why? Because the main force flattening income growth for most Americans is much bigger than the tax code. Globalization is one of those huge transformations you read about in history textbooks — and not in paragraphs but whole chapters, even whole volumes. Globalization is an epoch, as surely as the Bronze Age or the industrial age, only it is happening with unprecedented speed and scope.

Contrary to what you may hear, the U.S. is doing pretty well at riding that whirlwind. Wages may have stagnated, but the U.S. hasn't. America's inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs and workers have answered the sudden glut of cheap labor around the world by leading an astonishing revolution in productivity. One American produces as much, per capita, as six Chinese. We outproduce Japanese and Germans by about 30% and citizens of the European Union by nearly 45%. So despite slow wage growth, our standard of living has continued to improve. The $160 that bought a portable black-and-white Admiral television set in 1971, with access to a handful of channels, will now buy (in 2011 dollars) a powerful laptop computer, with access to a world of information — more than any human could digest in a lifetime.

So yes, the world is changing, and yes, the U.S. — like all the world's countries — has a lot of hard work to do to keep up. It is deeply misleading, though, to cherry-pick dismal statistics from here and there to create an overall image of decline. To solve a problem, we must first understand it. American schools, for example, aren't lagging across the board. Where they struggle is in educating poor immigrant and minority students. Focus on that, and watch the gap close between our test scores and those of less diverse nations.

Even worse than flawed statistics, though, is the tendency to interpret the gains of other countries as losses for America. It's true that the U.S. used to generate more patents than the rest of the world combined. Now we produce slightly fewer than half. It is a safe bet that we will generate a smaller and smaller proportion in the future. We're not inventing less; instead, others are being empowered to imagine and invent. Will we always have more airports than the next dozen nations combined? Will we always have three times as many miles of railroad track as China? Probably not, because the rest of the world wants to be as connected as we are.

The fact that students in Finland score well on tests is no threat to us — even as we keep trying to improve our own performance. Attempts by China and Saudi Arabia to create world-class universities don't endanger our institutions — and nothing prevents us from making better use of those resources for more and more of our people.

As Americans, we're in favor of creativity wherever it can be found. We're apostles of prosperity and defenders of the free exchange of ideas. When more people in more countries are free to rise, to invent, to communicate, to dissent, it's not the doom of U.S. leadership. It is the triumph of the American way. Generations have worked hard and sacrificed much for the country to reach this point, and with further hard work and sacrifice (goaded by the spur of our relentless self-doubt) the U.S. will do just fine in the world it has shaped.

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