Will Truthiness Destroy America?
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity" -- "The Second Coming", William Butler Yeats
Yeats' lines aptly describe our current age of political mediocrity. As we consider our politicians, we can hardly say that they're our best. And the worst of them are full of passionate intensity, with passions driven by ideology, rather than fact-based analysis.
The United States has been in decline relative to other countries for the last 30 years. On key metrics, we've fallen behind our peer group of industrialized countries, such as the UK, France, Germany, and Japan.
Am I exaggerating? Well, according to the Corruption Perception Index, we rank 24th in the world (only slightly better than Qatar) for public sector corruption. We rank 25th (way behind our peer group) in the OECD for math scores among 15-year-olds.
Over the past 30 years, our national debt has grown from about 30 percent of GDP to over 100 percent, and will become much worse based on current trends. In a recent survey of 10,000 Harvard Business School Alumni, "66 percent of respondents see the U.S. falling behind emerging economies." It is difficult to find many encouraging metrics.
If the above statistics don't convince you, visit the New Delhi International Airport, then compare it with our JFK or Newark International Airports. In many areas, our infrastructure is an embarrassment, already inferior to that of many third world countries.
These facts (and many others) have escaped Romney, Santorum and our current group of Republican leaders. Obama and the Democrats aren't doing significantly better at confronting these challenges.
In the 19th century, America aggressively compared itself against the world, and aspired to be "best in class." We were an early adopter of kindergarten because we saw evidence that it would improve educational outcomes. In 1862, the U.S. was suffering through the Civil War, but Congress still had the foresight to pass the Land Grant Colleges Act, which created some of our finest universities. This investment was made because it was important for our country's growth, and the U.S. clearly lagged behind Europe in college and university education.
Today, many of us suffer from what Thorstein Veblen called "trained incapacity" and John Dewey described as "occupational psychosis." We filter the world through our own ideological training, believing only what fits our story. Or, as Stephen Colbert, cultural commentator and 2008 Peabody Award winner commented:
It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all... What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?... Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.'
Many Americans still have an almost cult-like belief that America is the greatest nation on earth. They systematically reject evidence suggesting we have significant room for improvement.
Sounds overly-dramatic? When opposing President Obama's health care reform proposals, Speaker of the House John Boehner repeatedly proclaimed (with passionate intensity) that America has the "best health care system in the world." Boehner is correct only if you exclude the entire developed world from the comparison. The U.S. ranks 50th for longevity and 49th for infant mortality, where we're barely ahead of Belarus, Croatia and Lithuania.
I defy anyone to name a single important health care metric where the U.S. is considered a best-practice example as a nation. The only thing we lead the world in... is cost of health care. We have the world's most expensive health care system. For example, our health care system costs almost twice Canada's, but we produce inferior results.
For Boehner to say we have the best health care system in the world, and not be laughed out of office, is at best 'trained incapacity' or 'occupational psychosis.'
Boehner doesn't have to support Obama's health care reform plan. Obama's reforms might make things worse. But, let's have an actual debate grounded in facts, without inventing (and propagating) falsehoods about the current system.
China has been one of the most successful countries economically of the last 30 years. It's fitting then to quote the architect of its economic renaissance Deng Xiaoping: "It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice." For too many Americans, what matters is not whether the policy works, but whether it fits our preconceived ideologies.
It's the ultimate irony that we need to take the advice of a communist hardliner to put aside ideology, and focus on fact-based pragmatic solutions. Otherwise we'll continue our slouch towards Third World status.
About the Author: Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). He is an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University for 2012. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University and over 20 years' private sector work experience. You can follow him on twitter at: @Steven_Strauss.