Americans in reality denial

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek: How Long Will America Lead the World?

Well, Americans have replaced Britons atop the world, and we are now worried that history is happening to us. History has arrived in the form of “Three Billion New Capitalists,” as Clyde Prestowitz’s recent book puts it, people from countries like China, India and the former Soviet Union, which all once scorned the global market economy but are now enthusiastic and increasingly sophisticated participants in it. They are poorer, hungrier and in some cases well trained, and will inevitably compete with Americans and America for a slice of the pie. A Goldman Sachs study concludes that by 2045, China will be the largest economy in the world, replacing the United States.

It is not just writers like Prestowitz who are sounding alarms. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, reflects on the growing competence and cost advantage of countries like China and even Mexico and says, “It’s unclear how many manufacturers will choose to keep their businesses in the United States.” Intel’s Andy Grove is more blunt. “America … [is going] down the tubes,” he says, “and the worst part is nobody knows it. They’re all in denial, patting themselves on the back, as the Titanic heads for the iceberg full speed ahead.”

Much of the concern centers on the erosion of science and technology in the U.S., particularly in education. Eight months ago, the national academies of sciences, engineering and medicine came together to put out a report that argued that the “scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many nations are gathering strength.” President Bush has also jumped onto the competitiveness issue and recently proposed increases in funding certain science programs. (He has not, however, reversed a steady decline in funding for biomedical sciences.) Some speak of these new challenges with an air of fatalism. The national academies’ report points out that China and India combined graduate 950,000 engineers every year, compared with 70,000 in America; that for the cost of one chemist or engineer in the U.S. a company could hire five chemists in China or 11 engineers in India; that of the 120 $1 billion-plus chemical plants being built around the world one is in the United States and 50 are in China.

There are some who see the decline of science and technology as part of a larger cultural decay. A country that once adhered to a Puritan ethic of delayed gratification has become one that revels in instant pleasures. We’re losing interest in the basics—math, manufacturing, hard work, savings—and becoming a postindustrial society that specializes in consumption and leisure. “More people will graduate in the United States in 2006 with sports-exercise degrees than electrical-engineering degrees,” says Immelt. “So, if we want to be the massage capital of the world, we’re well on our way.”

America’s problem right now is that it is not really that scared. There is an intelligent debate about these issues among corporate executives, writers and the thin sliver of the public than is informed on these issues. But mainstream America is still unconcerned. Partly this is because these trends are operating at an early stage and somewhat under the surface. Americans do not really know how fast the rest of the world is catching up. We don’t quite believe that most of the industrialized world—and a good part of the nonindustrialized world as well—has better cell-phone systems than we do. We would be horrified to learn that many have better and cheaper broadband—even France. We are told by our politicians that we have the best health-care system in the world, despite strong evidence to the contrary. We ignore the fact that a third of our public schools are totally dysfunctional because it doesn’t affect our children. We boast that our capital markets are the world’s finest even though of the 25 largest stock offerings (IPOs) made last year, only one was held in America. It is not an exaggeration to say that over the past five years, because of bad American policies, London is replacing New York as the world’s financial capital.

I’m a member of the internet generation; one who more or less has always participated in online discussion, whether on usenet, web forums, or the blogosphere. One of the benefits of that is that I get to have conversations with people who actually live in the rest of the world (or minimally, the English speaking world). I regularly talk with people who live in Canada, the UK and the rest of Europe. I get my news from any number of international sources. I like to think that this keeps my feet planted in reality with regards to what the rest of the world is actually like.

I have discussions with my family on occasion – people who don’t really come online, who don’t know anyone living outside of the country (or outside the tri-state area, for that matter), who’ve never or rarely been outside the country. Their beliefs about what the rest of the world is actually like are just a tad distorted – they buy the jingoistic “America is the greatest country ever!” and never think to question it, despite the fact that we lag behind in a number of areas. To them, America is still the land of opportunity (though our society is more aristocratic with less social mobility than Europe now). To them, America is still the world’s technology leader, despite the fact that our cell phone networks and broadband access pale in comparison to some other places. America is the the land of the free, despite crackdowns on free speech and freedom of the press, the NSA engaged in domestic spying, limited economic freedoms for the working class and continuing efforts of the religious right to force their morality on the country via legislations.

I happen to like this country; I think the ideals that it espouses are noble ones and I think that the citizenry generally stands behind those ideals. But if Americans on the whole can’t even acknowledge the fact that we have problems, that we’re not “the best” simply by virtue of being American… how can we hope to solve the (rather monumental) problems facing us over the coming decades?

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