It's been six years since 9-11 and the question everyone is asking is, "are we safer"? All the news channels are filling air time with the multi sides of that issue. What we can all agree upon is that 9/11 changed our country. For as far as I can see into the future, there will always be a pre-9/11 America and a post-9/11 America. That's just the most recent change to our country. Factor in the immigration boom the country has undergone over the last few decades that has further influenced the nation (when I was born there were 1/3 fewer people in this country), the advent of the Internet, the rise of media conglomerates and the 500 channel TV, and so many other things make evident that this is not the same country I grew up in.
Let's take stock of the current American landscape in a few key areas.
A recent report by the National Academies for Medicine, Engineering & the Sciences argued that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many nations are gathering strength. Although we are still doing well we seem to be setting ourselves up for failure in the future by not making the right investments and by not implementing the right policies in this area. My concern is that if more of us are not aware of this we will not elect the leaders who are also aware of it and can do something about it.
Henry Paulson, the U.S. Secretary of Treasury predicted that by 2045 China will supplant America as the world's largest economy. Due to the size and ambition of the Chinese population that may be inevitable. But it doesn't have to mean that America loses its dominant place in the world. In fact, if American business is the main driver of investment in China many of the Chinese profits could come our way. There of course are leaders and business people in our country who see this but compared to the number of leaders in the public and private sectors in most other industrialized nations I'm afraid we're behind the eight ball. Americans have a reputation for having the least understanding of international matters and most mistaken view of themselves (ourselves) of any population on the globe. If the perceptions are correct how can we compete in a world we understand so little?
Most people I speak with from other countries about world affairs speak of America's world dominance in the past tense. No kidding! They don't simply predict America is on the path to less relevance. They tend to believe the only country in the world that doesn't recognize America's dominance truly is in the past tense is America itself. Of course that's not quite true since America still holds more sway than any other nation on Earth but we are being seen by the rest of the world as less and less relevant, kind of like a lame-duck leader. Our term in office is up and everyone's already thinking about the next power-to-be and only dealing with us because they have to until its official. It used to be that America was the dog that wagged the tail. That's not so true anymore.
Another interesting point is that America is no longer attracting the best and brightest minds from many of the world's developing nations. If this trend continues America will lose one of the advantages that has contributed to our rise on the world stage. I recently saw an interesting statistic. China and Japan together graduate 950,000 engineers every year compared with just 70,000 in the U.S., and many of those are actually foreign students who no longer stay in the U.S. after graduation because they can now earn a good living back in their home countries. India has invested in education so heavily that its institutions of scientific education are starting to be considered almost on par with MIT.
I want to note that America has bounced back from perceived leadership threats before. In the late 1950's after Russia launched Sputnik. In the early 70's when high oil prices made western Europe and the Middle East seem dominate and in the mid 80's when everything new and good seemed to be made in Japan. But I don't see our current crop of leaders overly concerned about America's position in the world. Growing up we were all told that America was the greatest country on the planet and to thank God we were born in the land of the free. I agree that on balance America remains the greatest country in the world but we are falling behind in so many key areas it is very concerning and it's difficult to see how we will hold that title for much longer if current trends continue. In all fairness we have to recognize that America is no longer dominant in an increasing number of key areas. We seem to be losing our edge.
It's hard to convince many Americans of this when we've grown up believing we're unrivaled. We don't tend to apply much introspection to our national affirmations. We repeat them and recite them as if they are unchangeable. But they are not and our country has become complacent. We are allowing ourselves to be overtaken. It's hard to get ourselves motivated when our politicians get elected for telling us how great we are and can't get elected if they so much as question our hold on world leadership and our position of unrivaled greatness and unequaled standard of living. To question it is to be considered un-American or unpatriotic. And it's hard for most Americans to know the difference anyway since only 21 percent of us have passports and a large portion of those that do are foreign-born. In fact, I read somewhere (but can't verify) that only about 1/3 of the members of Congress have passports. If true, how can they lead us in the ever-more-complex world in which we live? Globalization means we now compete on a global playing field and apparently most of our leaders haven't even been outside of our own locker room. Those who have never been out of the country (and I don't mean just across the borders of Canada and Mexico) really have difficulty understanding just how rivaled we really are and in what areas we've already fallen behind. Reading statistics isn't enough. You have to see it, feel it and experience it to really "get" it. We need leaders who get it!
On to other indicators of the path we're on (these not so bleak). The U.S. today produces 29 percent of the world's economic output up from 22 percent 25 years ago. That's an impressive gain. The World Economic Forum still ranks America first in technology and innovation, first for corporate research and development spending and first for the quality of its research institutions. The United Nations said a week or so ago that the U.S. is first in worker productivity but also first in number of hours worked.
Our society seems however to be getting more superficial.
Esther Dyson says that instead of admiring academics and scientists, astronauts, leaders and war heroes as we did a generation or two ago we now admire and emulate celebrities and movie stars, people who get lucky on TV shows and sports heroes (although I think we've always admired the latter).
In short, since the economic boom of the '80s we've clearly become a society of instant gratification, one that is unwilling to work toward less immediate goals, the kind building a country requires.
Our leadership, instead of encouraging us to reach beyond ourselves and lead the way to the future tends to appeal to our desire for this instant gratification by saying, "Vote for me and I'll make it easy" or "I'll give you instant results."
Without a doubt we have become a nation driven and heavily influenced by the media. We in the entertainment industry can and should harness that to send a better message; one that builds rather than destroys.
On to a related subject, did everyone see the video clip that recently made the rounds of Miss South Carolina in the Miss Teen USA Pageant? Click here to check it out!
While I realize that she has since said she was so nervous she didn't hear the question and that this probably isn't an indicator of the average level of sophistication most of our high schoolers have these days, I do think, that we need to make major changes to our school systems.
Speaking of rankings the U.S. is losing ground in education, as peers across the globe zoom by with bigger gains in student achievement and school graduations. I found an AP article that says:
"Among adults aged 25 to 34, the U.S. is ninth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree. In the same age group, the United States ranks seventh, with Belgium, in the share of people who hold a college degree. By both measures, the United States was first in the world as recently as 20 years ago."
Dyson says we need more competition and more excitement in our schools. People need to be heralded not just for artistic creativity but also for technical and scientific creativity.
In a recent speech at an Intel Plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico George W. Bush said, "With the right policy we can compete with anybody anytime anywhere. It's been the history of America and it's gonna be the future of America. We should not fear the future 'cause we intend to shape it."
That's a tough sell to less high tech locales such as North Carolina, for example whose economy is based largely on textiles, furniture and agriculture and has seen 61 percent of its jobs go to China and Malaysia in recent years. But at least North Carolina is fighting back. Governor Mike Easley is overhauling his state's educational system in an aggressive initiative to create a 21st century work force.
I agree with those that believe we need to start expecting academic rigor from all students not just some students; re-tooling teachers, re-thinking curriculum and redesigning schools so that a much larger percentage of ninth graders graduate and graduate with courses that lead them to college. It's my understanding that currently North Carolina loses 1/3 of its students in grades 9 to 12.
I also agree with those who say we should blend the relevance of the workplace with education so students see, feel and experience how their studies are going to translate into higher paychecks, a better standard of living individually and a stronger economy for the future.
The United States has historically always held the leading positions because we have the best system in the world. Our people aren't inherently more intelligent, more fit, or somehow genetically superior. It's our system and the structure of our society that has always brought out in us the best of ourselves. It has harnessed our desire for a better life and made it possible for our individual ambitions to be met. Our system has allowed us to excel and if that is now changing it is due to two phenomena. The first: other countries are adopting the best policies that used to only exist in the U.S. and are now using them to compete with us. The American Dream is no longer uniquely American as healthy and robust middle classes emerge and thrive in countries all over the world while ours is under attack by our own policies. The second phenomenon is that our leaders are making changes to our winning system to benefit the few whereas it used to benefit a much larger percentage of the population and that is limiting us in some areas that made us great. Our leaders are not navigating the new, globalized and connected world as well as many other nations. Some of those nations competing against us have taken the best policies that America invented and then made improvements upon them to adapt to a new world while we have not.
We need to elect leaders who can see this and can do something about it!
So this brings me to the end of my tirade. While I recognize the importance of safety, instead of asking ourselves the fear-driven question of whether or not America is safer this September 11th than we were six years ago I think we need to ask ourselves the more general question; the question that applies more to our long term safety, influence and economic prosperity: Is America on the right path?
I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas.
Follow Mike McCready on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@mjmccready