Mort Zuckerman: America's Problems Are About Will and Character

The United States is experiencing a cultural and economic crisis, but we can fix it.


[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Relayed in Ping Fu's new book Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds is a classic example of how we have got our priorities wrong. In the '80s, when Ping arrived as a young refugee from Mao's Cultural Revolution, she had no money and only three words of English. She worked her way through college, eventually discovered a talent for creating computer software, and cofounded Geomagic, maker of an innovative 3-D system for designing products. Today we lose people like Ping every day.

Other nations understand that knowledge and skills are the new global currency. While we once led the world in the quality of our free public education, today our problems with education are critical and serious. We ignore the fact that an achievement gap exists even before students start first grade. Many refuse to acknowledge that teaching should be a high-skill, high-entry-level profession.

And now, to save taxpayers money, there are those who would cut back on scholarships and student loans, not realizing that in doing so we are "eating our seed corn." Experience shows that education is not a consumable that "costs," but rather a matchless investment that "pays." Everyone wins from a better educated public. Education is more closely correlated with upward mobility than anything else. It's the best way to reduce excessive inequality in incomes and opportunities, and the best way to avoid having our society degenerate into a class system.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

Ordinary Americans get it. They understand that we are in the midst of the most predictable crisis in modern history. Who could dispute that, when our government has to borrow almost $4 billion a day just to keep going? Now we are at risk to the point that our national debt is an existential threat. The indifference to this debt crisis was captured by Wimpy, a character in the Popeye cartoon, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

We guarantee that we'll have to endure more austerity by failing to invest in education and infrastructure; the biblical Joseph's dream of "seven fat years" followed by "seven lean years" may be upon us.

The American public is looking for renewal. We learned much when we had to serve a market stretching vast distances over mountains, deserts, and rivers, and meet the needs of a diverse population. We learned that we could incubate the future in graduate and undergraduate universities and labs and business schools drawing many of the world's best and brightest. We saw the results when talented people entered the private sector, where the successful are rewarded in a nation of doers. And we developed a unique business culture of individualism, entrepreneurialism, pragmatism, and novelty, and a people who are mobile physically and mentally, given to self-help, self-improvement, and self-renovation.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Does the United States Need a Balanced Budget Amendment?]

Growing from the grass roots has enabled us to manage ongoing revolutions in technology, information, and logistics and to marry a new economy and technology to an older economic culture. We continue to fund the new and not the old. The notion of American exceptionalism still endures.

What must we do? There are no mysteries here. We simply must invest more in our decaying infrastructure and our education system at all levels. We must re-conceptualize immigration as a recruiting tool. We have a history of national consensus, and in moments of crisis, of finding a leader who fits Harry Truman's definition: "a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do and like it."

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults." The issues we face are not about our power and capacity. They are about our will and the quality of our character.

  • Read Ford O'Connell: GOP Must Turn Up the Heat on Senate Democrats