This piece is inspired by a writer that I much admire. In my humble opinion, he is one of our best, if not the very best, analytical writers of our times. He brings together past history and present events along with the thoughts and actions of individuals in a way that gives astounding insight into the world as it is, and as it is going to be. I speak of none other than Thomas L. Friedman, author of “The World is Flat 3.0”, and more recently, of “That Used To Be Us.” Tom has gotten me thinking about what politicians are doing to destroy our chances of being “all that we can be” in terms of scientific discovery, innovation and economic development. In my estimation, our current crop of politicos not only has little idea of what “American exceptionalism” means in this new “flat” world -- a world in which more people and nations can plug-in, connect and collaborate with more equal power than ever before—but too often do exactly the opposite of what we need to live up to that claim.
Friedman says: “I insist that wealth in the age of flatness will increasingly gravitate to those countries who get three basic things right: the infrastructure to connect efficiently and speedily as possible with the flat world platform, the right education programs and knowledge skills to empower more…people to innovate and do value-added work on that platform, and…the right governance -- that is, the right tax policies, the right investment and trade laws, the right support for research, the right intellectual property laws, and, most of all, the right inspirational leadership -- to enhance and manage the flow with the flat world.” (emphasis added).
One basic -- the right governance -- is about all that politicians can talk about these days. Republicans -- Tea partiers and libertarians alike -- believe that the right governance is to have as little government intervention as possible, to go back to a time when government was smaller and less intrusive, to cut programs of government that they say are out-of-control, and to reduce spending. Unfortunately, what they are talking about has little to do with the crisis that is brewing in this country: the failure to deal decisively with the gaps that exist in science, education and governance.
As Friedman indicates, America was lucky to be the only economy standing after World War II, and we were also fortunate to have little or no competition for forty years afterward. That gave us “a huge head of steam but also bred a culture of complacency” that really took hold in the 1990s when there was a profound tendency to extol consumption over hard work and investment, immediate gratification over long-term thinking and sacrifice. “When we got hit with 9/11, it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to summon the nation to sacrifice, to address some of its pressing fiscal, energy, science, and education shortfalls -- all the things that we had let slide. But our president [Bush] did not summon us to sacrifice. He summoned us to go shopping.”
And today, what do many of the politicians in Washington, and elsewhere, want us to focus on? Certainly not on science, education, infrastructure and informed management of government, but on the following:
-- The government-hating crowd is leading us astray at a time when we need a strong central government that can call us to sacrifice, to innovate, to build and re-build, and to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in this new world. The manufactured problems of government intrusiveness and failures is exactly what we don’t need right now. What we do need is increased collaboration of government with business, labor, educational institutions, and programs of national significance that will re-build our crumbling infrastructure once again into the best in the world.
-- The deficit-hawks are losing sight of where our tax dollars need to go in order to re-build our competitiveness. Yes, of course, we need to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse, but where have you seen any meaningful criteria assigned to those categories? Is it wasteful to spend money to repair and renovate our public school buildings so that children have an inspiring atmosphere in which to work? In some cases yes; in some cases no. The problem is, we fail to define parameters for knowing what is wasteful. More to the point, politicians have failed to define for us the areas in which we need to invest, and why such investment is important to our future. Take for instance, cuts to the NASA space programs; we have defined where we can cut, but not where we need to invest. What NASA programs should be strengthened or begun because they can increase our scientific skills and innovation as a country? Has anyone even asked that question?
-- And what about education: how have the politicians and leaders of this country dealt with that? Well, first there was “No Child Left Behind” which touched just one aspect of our educational spectrum, that of accountability, testing, grading. What a colossal misappropriation of time and energy and dollars! At a time when we should be setting challenging goals for training students in math, science and engineering, we are instead focusing on test scores! In a time when we should be training students in critical problem-solving, in flexibility, in creative thinking, in human interactions that are critically needed in this flat world, we are worried about schools that fail to test well!
--Lately, we have the Obama administration’s attempt to “race to the top.” But the definition of that race, the elements of it, the goals and purposes, remain murky at best and are unknown to the average American without whose commitment no progress will be made toward a lasting and meaningful reform of public education.
-- At this time, when the skills and commitments needed in order to compete in this new world of technological innovation are critical to our future as a country, we cannot be eliminating programs and supports that are needed in advancing those competencies. We cannot afford to cut back on Pell grants; we cannot afford to shorten the school week or school days; we cannot afford the laying off of thousands of teachers as though they are expendable and as though it will not weaken our public school system; we cannot talk about the elimination of the Department of Education; we cannot afford a curriculum that eliminates subjects like art & music that add to the creativity which is essential to living in a world of global competition; nor can we ignore or question scientific method and conclusions and substitute someone’s mythical ideas about creation or how humans got here in the first place.
-- And where are we on energy? Republicans think tax breaks for oil companies, drilling in Alaska and off-shore, hydro-fracking for natural gas in the Marcellus shale, and using clean coal and atomic power will solve our energy problems. They are, once again, leading us in the wrong direction, and spending money on 20th century concepts that will not solve one of our major 21st century problems. We need innovation, and cut-backs on research and development to help solve a budget deficit will not bring innovation and new industry like energy-efficient homes and factories, electric cars and alternative fuel sources.
-- We are probably no better off when it comes to infrastructure building and re-building. Will President Obama’s new jobs plan bring some real activity in this area; will we invest in better school buildings, faster trains, safer bridges, roads, and airports? It’s anybody’s guess, but the deadlock in Congress does not bode well for addressing the overwhelming needs we have in these last two areas.
Friedman made the point about 9/11 being an opportunity to call the nation to sacrifice and to address some of the gaps in education, science, energy, and governance that are becoming critical in this new age. But, we have dithered, and governance has turned into rhetoric without depth, into talking points made without walking points enacted, into opposing without reasoning, into ideologies about principles with minimal ethical content, into government-hating when we desperately need governance reform.
I would only add, that we have lost Vision. We know that we are spending too much, both individually and as a government, but still, we have great resources. We know that we have a tremendous capacity to assess and address whatever problems we may face. We are an exceptional nation, but saying we are exceptional is entirely different from actually demonstrating our talents, our resolve, our innovative spirit, our ability to recover from set-backs, our tremendous capacity to succeed.
What we need right now is a Vision of where we need to be as a nation in the future. Obama has tried to define it in certain areas like education and energy and healthcare, but has failed to present a vision like John F. Kennedy did when he called for us to place a man on the moon in ten years. No one else has come forward to offer a real vision of the future. Conservative politicians have, in fact, a vision of moving backward -- they want to return to the past as a way to confront the future, which is absolutely sophomoric and oxymoronic.
The ancient questions-- Who are we? Why are we here at this time? Where are we going? -- are questions we must address once again in our never-ending mission to be a nation that leads and that heals the world. We need someone to come forward who will tell us who we are as a people; to show us what purpose we have as individuals and a people at this time in history, and finally, we desperately need someone to tell us where we need to be as a nation in the rest of the 21st century. If the world is as flattened as Friedman claims, perhaps the answers will come, not from political leaders, but from individuals who are plugged-in and collaborating with each other by electronic means. What is your Vision for America?