The Hard Truth About Going 'Soft'

The President got flak for pointing out we're not on top of our game. He's right

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

Barack Obama has apparently committed blasphemy. In an interview in Florida on Sept. 29, he dared to say that America had gotten "soft." The denunciations have come in fast and furious from the right. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Eric Cantor and the Wall Street Journal editorial page are all shocked--shocked--that the President could say such a thing. "America is the greatest nation in the world," Cantor declared. Romney concocted a confusing metaphor about America carrying Obama on its shoulders, but his basic point was the same. Now, if you watch the clip, here's what the President said: "The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft, and we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track." Isn't this self-evidently true? Isn't this what conservatives have been saying for decades?

The evidence on the topic is pretty clear. The U.S. is slipping, by most measures of global competitiveness. It has dipped slightly in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) rankings to No. 5, behind Sweden, Singapore, Finland and Switzerland. But the WEF rankings are based, in good measure, on surveys--polls of CEOs and the like. Other studies, using hard data, show America slipping further behind. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation finds that in category after category--actual venture-capital funding, research and development--the U.S. has dropped well behind countries like Japan, South Korea and Sweden. The foundation measures 44 countries and regions on their efforts to improve their competitiveness over the past decade. The U.S. comes in next to last.

Perhaps the most crucial measure of our ability to compete in a global economy is our educational attainment, especially in science, math and engineering. A generation ago, America had the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. Today we're ninth and falling. The WEF report ranks the U.S. a stunning 51st in science and math education. If a willingness to study science, math and engineering is an indication of being willing to work at hard stuff, there is no question that we are going soft. In 2004 only 6% of U.S. degrees were awarded in engineering, half the average for rich countries. In Japan it's 20%, and in Germany it's 16%. In 2008--09 there were more psychology majors than engineering majors in America and more fitness-studies majors than physical-sciences majors.

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