But of course smarter people have reached this ground before me, so below are are excerpts from "The Future of American Power" by Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. He may be best known for his October 2001 piece titled "Why they hate us."
I began expecting a sobering portrayal of our fading on the world stage. Halfway through I began to believe how strong our advantages remain, if we will learn to ignore useless rhetoric, keep our eyes on the ball and harness, once again, the things that make us great.
The full article, adapted from a book, is worth reading. Every word. It's 11 pages, shown here in the print-friendly version:
The United States has serious problems. By all calculations, Medicare threatens to blow up the federal budget. The swing from surpluses to deficits between 2000 and 2008 has serious implications. Growing inequality (the result of the knowledge economy, technology, and globalization) has become a signature feature of the new era. Perhaps most worrying, Americans are borrowing 80 percent of the world's surplus savings and using it for consumption: they are selling off their assets to foreigners to buy a couple more lattes a day. But such problems must be considered in the context of an overall economy that remains powerful and dynamic.
Indeed, higher education is the United States' best industry. In no other field is the United States' advantage so overwhelming. A 2006 report from the London-based Center for European Reform points out that the United States invests 2.6 percent of its GDP in higher education, compared with 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan. Depending on which study you look at, the United States, with five percent of the world's population, has either seven or eight of the world's top ten universities and either 48 percent or 68 percent of the top 50. The situation in the sciences is particularly striking. In India, universities graduate between 35 and 50 Ph.D.'s in computer science each year; in the United States, the figure is 1,000.
The U.S. system may be too lax when it comes to rigor and memorization, but it is very good at developing the critical faculties of the mind. It is surely this quality that goes some way in explaining why the United States produces so many entrepreneurs, inventors, and risk takers. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, until recently Singapore's minister of education, explains the difference between his country's system and that of the United States: "We both have meritocracies," Shanmugaratnam says. "Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. We know how to train people to take exams. You know how to use people's talents to the fullest. Both are important, but there are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well -- like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority."
Can I just give an A-f'ing-men to that last part? Continuing:
The reality is that Europe is moving toward taking in fewer immigrants at a time when its economic future rides on its ability to take in many more. The United States, on the other hand, is creating the first universal nation, made up of all colors, races, and creeds, living and working together in considerable harmony. Consider the current presidential election, in which the contestants have included a black man, a woman, a Mormon, a Hispanic, and an Italian American.
Without immigration, the United States' GDP growth over the last quarter century would have been the same as Europe's. ... Foreign students and immigrants account for 50 percent of the science researchers in the country and in 2006 received 40 percent of the doctorates in science and engineering and 65 percent of the doctorates in computer science. By 2010, foreign students will get more than 50 percent of all the Ph.D.'s awarded in every subject in the United States. ... In short, the United States' potential new burst of productivity, its edge in nanotechnology and biotechnology, its ability to invent the future -- all rest on its immigration policies. If the United States can keep the people it educates in the country, the innovation will happen there. If they go back home, the innovation will travel with them.
White people ain't gonna like that. But, wait, he addresses that:
Some Americans have always worried about such immigrants -- whether from Ireland or Italy, China or Mexico. But these immigrants have gone on to become the backbone of the American working class, and their children or grandchildren have entered the American mainstream. The United States has been able to tap this energy, manage diversity, assimilate newcomers, and move ahead economically. Ultimately, this is what sets the country apart from the experience of Britain and all other past great economic powers that have grown fat and lazy and slipped behind as they faced the rise of leaner, hungrier nations.
The United States is used to being the leading economy and society. It has not noticed that most of the rest of the industrialized world -- and a good part of the non-industrialized world as well -- has better cell-phone service than the United States. Computer connectivity is faster and cheaper across the rest of the industrialized world, from Canada to France to Japan, and the United States now stands 16th in the world in broadband penetration per capita.
For decades, American workers, whether in car companies, steel plants, or banks, had one enormous advantage over all other workers: privileged access to American capital. They could use that access to buy technology and training that no one else had -- and thus produce products that no one else could, and at competitive prices. That special access is also gone. The world is swimming in capital, and suddenly American workers have to ask themselves, What can we do better than others? ... What distinguishes economies today are ideas and energy. A country can prosper if it is a source of ideas or energy for the world.
If I could ask Zakaria only one question about all of this, it would be: Where does this leave the poor man of moderate or lesser intelligence? If we are to become a nation of ideas (again?), having exported our manufacturing, where does that leave the good man without that inner spark of creativity? Continuing:
The United States has a history of worrying that it is losing its edge. Today's is at least the fourth wave of such concern since World War II. The first was in the late 1950s, a result of the Soviet Union's launching of the Sputnik satellite. The second was in the early 1970s, when high oil prices and slow growth convinced Americans that Western Europe and Saudi Arabia were the powers of the future. The third one arrived in the mid-1980s, when most experts believed that Japan would be the technologically and economically dominant superpower of the future. The concern in each of these cases was well founded, the projections intelligent. But none of the feared scenarios came to pass. The reason is that the U.S. system proved to be flexible, resourceful, and resilient, able to correct its mistakes and shift its attention. A focus on U.S. economic decline ended up preventing it.
The economic problems... are the consequences of specific government policies. Different policies could quickly and relatively easily move the United States onto a far more stable footing. A set of sensible reforms could be enacted tomorrow to trim wasteful spending and subsidies, increase savings, expand training in science and technology, secure pensions, create a workable immigration process, and achieve significant efficiencies in the use of energy. Policy experts do not have wide disagreements on most of these issues, and none of the proposed measures would require sacrifices reminiscent of wartime hardship, only modest adjustments of existing arrangements. And yet, because of politics, they appear impossible. The U.S. political system has lost the ability to accept some pain now for great gain later on.
The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia -- politics as theater -- and very little substance, compromise, or action. A can-do country is now saddled with a do-nothing political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.
I will go on record right now that I will do my best to stop writing stories about jackasses saying nothing helpful. Well, maybe one story about the Democratic Senate primary every two weeks, but that's it. Zakaria brings it on home:
Progress on any major problem -- health care, Social Security, tax reform -- will require compromise from both sides. It requires a longer-term perspective. And that has become politically deadly. Those who advocate sensible solutions and compromise legislation find themselves being marginalized by their party's leadership, losing funds from special-interest groups, and being constantly attacked by their "side" on television and radio. The system provides greater incentives to stand firm and go back and tell your team that you refused to bow to the enemy. It is great for fundraising, but it is terrible for governing.
For most of the last century, the United States has dominated global economics, politics, science, culture, and ideas. For the last 20 years, that dominance has been unrivaled, a phenomenon unprecedented in history. We are now living through the third great power shift of the modern era -- the rise of the rest. Over the past few decades, countries all over the world have been experiencing rates of economic growth that were once unthinkable.
The United States must come to recognize that it faces a choice -- it can stabilize the emerging world order by bringing in the new rising nations, ceding some of its own power and perquisites, and accepting a world with a diversity of voices and viewpoints. Or it can watch as the rise of the rest produces greater nationalism, diffusion, and disintegration, which will slowly tear apart the world order that the United States has built over the last 60 years. The case for the former is obvious. The world is changing, but it is going the United States' way. ... It might be a world in which the United States takes up less space, but it is one in which American ideas and ideals are overwhelmingly dominant.
Not covered in the article: environmental concerns and terrorism. But an awful lot to think about. I wonder what we will do, but cannot believe we'll fail.
Also, I'm (almost) kidding about the Democratic Senate race. Name calling aside, some of the candidates are bringing up important issues, including the prevalence of special interest funding in federal politics.