The Nation of the Future
Everywhere I go people tell me China and India are going to blow by us in the coming decades. They've got the hunger. They've got the people. They've got the future. We're a tired old power, destined to fade back to the second tier of nations, like Britain did in the 20th century.
This sentiment is everywhere — except in the evidence. The facts and figures tell a different story.
Has the United States lost its vitality? No. Americans remain the hardest working people on the face of the earth and the most productive. As William W. Lewis, the founding director of the McKinsey Global Institute, wrote, "The United States is the productivity leader in virtually every industry." And productivity rates are surging faster now than they did even in the 1990's.
Has the United States stopped investing in the future? No. The U.S. accounts for roughly 40 percent of the world's R. & D. spending. More money was invested in research and development in this country than in the other G-7 nations combined.
Is the United States becoming a less important player in the world economy? Not yet. In 1971, the U.S. economy accounted for 30.52 percent of the world's G.D.P. Since then, we've seen the rise of Japan, China, India and the Asian tigers. The U.S. now accounts for 30.74 percent of world G.D.P., a slightly higher figure.
What about the shortage of scientists and engineers? Vastly overblown. According to Duke School of Engineering researchers, the U.S. produces more engineers per capita than China or India. According to The Wall Street Journal, firms with engineering openings find themselves flooded with résumés. Unemployment rates for scientists and engineers are no lower than for other professions, and in some specialties, such as electrical engineering, they are notably higher.
Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation told The Wall Street Journal last November, "No one I know who has looked at the data with an open mind has been able to find any sign of a current shortage." The G.A.O., the RAND Corporation and many other researchers have picked apart the quickie studies that warn of a science and engineering gap. "We did not find evidence that such shortages have existed at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon," the RAND report concluded.
What about America's lamentable education system? Well, it's true we do a mediocre job of educating people from age 0 to 18, even though we spend by far more per pupil than any other nation on earth. But we do an outstanding job of training people from ages 18 to 65.
At least 22 out of the top 30 universities in the world are American. More foreign students come to American universities now than before 9/11.
More important, the American workplace is so competitive, companies are compelled to promote lifelong learning. A U.N. report this year ranked the U.S. third in the world in ease of doing business, after New Zealand and Singapore. The U.S. has the second most competitive economy on earth, after Finland, according the latest Global Competitiveness Report. As Michael Porter of Harvard told The National Journal, "The U.S. is second to none in terms of innovation and an innovative environment."
What about partisan gridlock and our dysfunctional political system? Well, entitlement debt remains the biggest threat to the country's well-being, but in one area vital to the country's future posterity, we have reached a beneficent consensus. American liberals have given up on industrial policy, and American conservatives now embrace an aggressive federal role for basic research.
Ford and G.M. totter and almost nobody suggests using public money to prop them up. On the other hand, President Bush, reputed to be hostile to science, has increased the federal scientific research budget by 50 percent since taking office, to $137 billion annually. Senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Bingaman have proposed excellent legislation that would double the R. & D. tax credit and create a Darpa-style lab in the Department of Energy, devoting $9 billion for scientific research and education. That bill has 60 co-sponsors, 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans.
Recent polling suggests that people in Afghanistan and Iraq are more optimistic about their nations' futures than people in the United States. That's just crazy, even given our problems with health care, growing inequality and such. America's problem over the next 50 years will not be wrestling with decline. It will be helping the frustrated individuals and nations left so far behind.