12/06/2010 10:22 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Attention Deficit Disorder

The Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform ended its work not with a bang or a whimper, but, as Co-Chair Alan Simpson put it, by taking a "big banana and throwing it into the gorilla cage." Let's hope the gorilla doesn't slip on the peel and knock himself out before he can eat it.

Seriously, the Commission and many other groups and individuals have brought much needed attention to the nation's budget deficit and debt. They have paid little or no attention, however, to a more important deficit. That is the tragic consequences of the "human spill" in our country.

We are suffering from a serious case of attention deficit disorder when it comes to focusing on this issue. We ignore it at our peril. If we do not become as obsessed with addressing this malady, as we are now with deficit reduction, the American dream will go by the boards.

What is the American Dream anyway? Here's our definition.

The American Dream is the opportunity each and every citizen has to realize one's personal potential and to achieve success, generally measured as economic security. The fundamental elements of the dream are getting educated and working hard in order to have a good job that pays decent wages, provides adequate benefits, puts food on the table and a roof over one's head, and allows for retirement with dignity.

Given this definition, the dream is definitely at risk. This is because the U.S. is losing the competitive advantage that it has enjoyed for at least the last half a century. The domestic sources of that advantage have included: an ample supply of permanent, good paying jobs; a broad middle class; vibrant small businesses; and, a strong manufacturing sector. Our current performance in each of these areas is dismal.

The unemployment rate currently stands at 9.8%. Unfortunately, the job situation is significantly worse than regularly reported in the unemployment statistics. Using a combination of metrics, at least 25 percent of American workers are unemployed or underemployed.

The middle class is eroding. In 1970, 40 percent of all Americans lived in middle-income households. By 2006, only 35 percent did.

Small businesses that generate around 60 percent of our jobs still can't get access to capital. Thus, they can't be the job creation engines they must be to propel a recovery.

The manufacturing sector has shrunk from a robust 20 percent of our gross domestic product to only around 12 percent today. We lost almost 2 million manufacturing jobs in the past two years alone.

The United States is losing its competitive advantage and this is impacting a large number of Americans adversely. A study, released by the Rockefeller Foundation this summer, reports that "Economic insecurity has increased over the last quarter of a century and is likely to have increased dramatically in the last few years. In 2009, projections suggest, approximately one in five Americans experienced a decline in income of 25 percent or greater."

Classic economic theory is that as GDP goes up, unemployment goes down, and the standard of living goes up. As the recent Rockefeller Foundation Report revealed, a rising tide has not raised all boats over the past few decades and it hasn't happened as the great recession has been declared officially over either. If a recovery has begun and/or occurs, but the benefits do not flow through to a large segment of the populace, what does it say about the future of America and the American dream?

Our elected officials and business leaders recognized that the budget deficit and debt threaten our nation's future with the establishment of the National Commission for Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. We need to understand that the disjuncture between "recovery" at the macro level and "renewal" at the micro, or individual, level is a critical one that threatens our nation's future as well. It demands as much, if not more attention, as the budget deficit.

Therefore, we recommend that a National Global Competitiveness Commission be established to develop a 21st Century Competitive Advantage Plan for the United States. The charge to the commission should be to conduct a thorough and in-depth assessment of the United States' current situation. Based upon that analysis, the commission should develop a comprehensive strategic plan for competitive advantage that includes recommendations for creating the necessary and essential bridge between growing GDP and enhancing IEW -- individual economic well-being.

Going forward, we need to have economic policies that build both. If we do not, we will be condemned to become a nation that has a few have-a-lots, and a lot more have-a-lot-lesses. We will be a nation with virtually no middle class.

The American dream was built on a promise -- a promise that each of us would be given a level playing field and the chance to do our personal best and to be rewarded or recognized for accomplishing it. If that opportunity is destroyed, the dream dies and America as we know it dies with it.

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