08/05/2011 05:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2011

America Needs a New Vision

In the aftermath of the debt-ceiling crisis, and amidst a looming double-dip economic recession, prospects for the United States look grim. When future historians look back, they may conclude that 2011 was the beginning of a lost decade -- when the U.S. descended into a decade or more of political dysfunction and economic malaise, and the American people concluded that the nation's problems are largely insurmountable.

Or those historians might conclude that 2011 and 2012 were watershed years that ignited a Great Renewal -- when a generation of Americans realized how much is at stake if we fail to unite behind a vision for national revitalization and make essential investments in our future. For what is at stake today is nothing less than the foundation of American leadership and the international order.

The 20th century was the American century in large part due to our economic dynamism and innovation, which depended on unrivaled public-private partnerships to invest in the engines of progress: science, technology, infrastructure, and education. This dynamism positioned the United States to underwrite the most peaceful and prosperous global period in modern history.

These investments spanned across Democratic and Republican administrations alike. As one president declared in a national address, "I've urged Congress to devote more money to research... It is an indispensable investment in America's future... Some say that we can't afford it, that we're too strapped for cash. Well, leadership means making hard choices, even in an election year."

Jimmy Carter? No, that was Ronald Reagan.

He was no exception. President George Washington supported the development of interchangeable parts, which revolutionized U.S. manufacturing, as the Breakthrough Institute has documented. Lincoln delivered railroads and land grant universities, FDR oversaw the Manhattan Project, Eisenhower developed interstate highways and nuclear power, Kennedy advanced microchips and the Apollo Project, Nixon launched the quest to cure cancer, and both Clinton and George W. Bush helped triple the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

Unfortunately, in the mad rush to reduce deficits, our leaders have forgotten these fundamentals -- even while countries like China are making epic investments to fuel their rise. Instead of strengthening our commitment to science and technology, the recent House Appropriations bill slashes budgets for energy innovation, NIST, NASA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which was cut by over 55 percent. Some of the most draconian proposals were defeated, but the damage may already be done, and the impact of the ongoing debt negotiation is uncertain.

We cannot simply cut our way to fiscal solvency. Fiscal responsibility requires a long-term economic growth strategy, and cutting in areas like technology and infrastructure is penny-wise but pound-foolish. The 1990s are a good example. The federal government balanced its budget, not through drastic budget cuts, but through an economic boom that boosted federal revenue. Much of this growth was driven by information technology, especially the rise of the Internet, which was developed largely at the Department of Defense. Indeed, economists estimate that up to 80 percent of modern economic growth arises from technological innovation.

As Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO and a leading global investment manager, wrote in the Washington Post last week, "fiscal solvency is not merely a function of deficits and debt... It is also highly sensitive to economic growth... the next step is equally important: to use the current political shambles as a catalyst for a renewed sense of common purpose and a better economic future."

As we look beyond the debt-ceiling crisis, the U.S. should embrace a new, proactive growth strategy that is commensurate with our capabilities. The specifics are debatable, but the outlines are clear: rebuilding our infrastructure, reforming science and math education, and strengthening innovation and manufacturing in advanced industries. For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers has already identified $2.2 trillion in necessary upgrades. In energy technology, a broad group of bipartisan experts have agreed on the target of $15 billion annually for federal investment. In advanced manufacturing, we need a public-private partnership and industry consortium to identify key hurdles and develop a national roadmap. The list continues.

Of course, the pundits will dismiss this as impossible. Our political parties are too polarized and entrenched, they'll say; the public, too weary and demoralized; the Tea Party, too radical and influential; our leaders, too small-minded and self-interested. And they will be right - if we allow ourselves to enter a Great Disillusionment.

The United States is at a crossroads, and the world is watching what we do. If we fail to rise to this moment, then the American era as we know it will end -- not all at once, but slowly and surely -- as will our ability to lead the world to overcome the defining 21st century challenges. But if our generation can embrace an aspirational vision for renewal and invest in the future, we can revitalize our nation's greatness and global leadership for decades to come.

Teryn Norris is a Truman Scholar, president of Americans for Energy Leadership, and former Project Director at The Breakthrough Institute.