Last week, Fareed Zakaria wrote an extended piece in Newsweek that coincided with a series of articles on global leadership and the U.S. position. The comparison Zakaria made is of the U.S. to Great Britain at the end of Queen Victoria's reign, which occurred at the last turn-of-the-century. Great Britain, at that time, was the world's sole superpower, a nation unmatched in its influence and reach, and unparalleled in its technology and military prowess. Yet as the 20th century proved correct, the winds of history have a way of turning even the most dominant empires into dust.
In comparing the U.S. of today to the Great Britain of 100 years ago, Zakaria makes some very valid points, but ultimately does not explore any concrete thesis. First, he goes through all of the ways that the U.S. is going down the tubes. He inevitably trots out statistic after statistic illustrating how the rest of the world is poised to not only overcome the U.S., but leave us in the dust. My favorite happens to be the fact that the U.S. graduated more people in 2006 with sports-exercise degrees than electrical engineering degrees. The bottom line: While the U.S. has higher growth and greater potential than most industrialized countries (such as France, Spain, Germany, and Italy), it will not be able to compete with the hunger, ambition, and sheer volume of intelligence, manpower, and cost-effectiveness of China and India.
Zakaria, however, then goes on to disprove this bottom line by explaining how the U.S. fosters a creative environment, how we have the best universities in the world, and that we have an increasing population, as opposed to the expected declines in other countries. The bottom line here: While the U.S. may fall dramatically behind in all of these numbers, it will never fall that far behind because of its spirit and ingenuity.
Could it be that we're actually doing both? That while our educated classes decline, our fortunes will be buoyed by the environment and nature of the U.S. economy? Well, yes, but under strict contingencies.
First and foremost, education must be a top priority. That blanket statement won't do, though. In order to compete in the world economy we need to determine what the role of the American worker is in that economy. Historically - well, for much of the past century - the traditional role was that of manufacturer. Over the past decade, and certainly in the near future, manufacturing will become nonexistent as a strong player on the national level. Simply put, U.S. workers cannot compete with Chinese, Indian, or Bangladeshi workers in the manufacturing trades. That's not a put-down to U.S. workers. It's the truth. The longer we deny that truth, the slower and more painful the death of U.S. manufacturing will be. Instead of going through that, we need to focus our educational efforts on three fronts: (1) Reeducating workers already in the workforce in innovative ways that will allow them to provide for their families while moving the U.S. forward economically; (2) ensuring that all children in the U.S. are prepared for the economy they will encounter after they graduate from high school; and (3) freeing resources for higher education to become hotbeds of technological, scientific, and other scholarly innovation. This means investing - heavily, in some areas - to earn the dividends on the other side.
The other priority is to remove xenophobic politics from the national scene. A fair, effective, and efficient immigration system - one that not only provides immigrants with the opportunity to live and work in the U.S., but also gives incentives toward citizenship - is absolutely essential if we are to compete with the "rest of the world." While our population may be increasing - certainly a positive sign when compared to our West European brethren - we cannot possibly compete with a couple billion people and change in Southeast Asia. In order to fulfill the promises of a global economy, we have to be a global country. The moment we start to truly regress in our immigration policies is the moment we will start slipping from our status as sole superpower.
I speak in the Spirit of Truth.