By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
I confess, I find it dispiriting to read the polls and see candidates, mostly Republicans, leading in various midterm races while promoting many of the very same ideas that got us into this mess. Am I hearing right?
Let’s have more tax cuts, unlinked to any specific spending cuts and while we’re still fighting two wars — because that worked so well during the Bush years to make our economy strong and our deficit small. Let’s immediately cut government spending, instead of phasing cuts in gradually, while we’re still mired in a recession — because that worked so well in the Great Depression. Let’s roll back financial regulation — because we’ve learned from experience that Wall Street can police itself and average Americans will never have to bail it out.
Let’s have no limits on corporate campaign spending so oil and coal companies can more easily and anonymously strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its powers to limit pollution in the air our kids breathe. Let’s discriminate against gays and lesbians who want to join the military and fight for their country. Let’s restrict immigration, because, after all, we don’t live in a world where America’s most important competitive advantage is its ability to attract the world’s best brains. Let’s repeal our limited health care reform rather than see what works and then fix it. Let’s oppose the free-trade system that made us rich.
Let’s kowtow even more to public service unions so they’ll make even more money than private sector workers, so they’ll give even more money to Democrats who will give them even more generous pensions, so not only California and New York will go bankrupt but every other state too. Let’s pay for more tax cuts by uncovering waste I can’t identify, fraud I haven’t found and abuse that I’ll get back to you on later.
All that’s missing is any realistic diagnosis of where we are as a country and what we need to get back to sustainable growth. Actually, such a diagnosis has been done. A nonpartisan group of America’s most distinguished engineers, scientists, educators and industrialists unveiled just such a study in the midst of this campaign.
Here is the story: In 2005 our National Academies responded to a call from a bipartisan group of senators to recommend 10 actions the federal government could take to enhance science and technology so America could successfully compete in the 21st century. Their response was published in a study, spearheaded by the industrialist Norman Augustine, titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.”
Charles M. Vest, the former M.I.T. president, worked on the study and noted in a speech recently that “Gathering Storm,” together with work by the Council on Competitiveness, led to the America Competes Act of 2007, which increased funding for the basic science research that underlies our industrial economy. Other recommendations, like improving K-12 science education, were not substantively addressed.
So, on Sept. 23, the same group released a follow-up report: “Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.” “The subtitle, ‘Rapidly Approaching Category 5,’ says it all,” noted Vest. “The committee’s conclusion is that ‘in spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.’ ”
But I thought: “We’re number 1!”
“Here is a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today,” says Vest: sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in rate of change over the last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.
“This is not a pretty picture, and it cannot be wished away,” said Vest. The study recommended a series of steps — some that President Obama has already initiated, some that still need Congress’s support — designed to increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education, to reinforce long-term basic research, and to create the right tax and policy incentives so we can develop, recruit and retain the best and brightest students, scientists and engineers in the world. The goal is to make America the premier place to innovate and invest in innovation to create high-paying jobs.
You’ll have to Google it, though. The report hasn’t received 1/100th of the attention given to Juan Williams’s remarks on Muslims.
A dysfunctional political system is one that knows the right answers but can’t even discuss them rationally, let alone act on them, and one that devotes vastly more attention to cable TV preachers than to recommendations by its best scientists and engineers.