The Danger of Drift
As Hurricane Katrina built up in the Atlantic last year, swept across Florida, then gathered force in the Gulf, many realized that this was the big one they had expected for years--yet when the storm struck, the country wasn't ready. Our political leadership had failed us. Even now, with a new storm season approaching, the Gulf region is still not ready.
Sadly, Katrina has become a metaphor for the nation, a symbol of what can happen when challenges to our well-being gain force, and we fail to address them. At few times in our history has that metaphor been more important than today, because a series of gathering storms--different from Katrina, yet more menacing--is now heading our way.
Washington once again is more obsessed with the politics of the moment than the long term. The decline and fall of the Bush administration is the topic du jour. Around the president, aides are diving into history books to see what lessons they can learn and scrambling to come up with stopgap measures to revive his fortunes. But the overriding issue isn't whether George W. Bush can climb back 5 or 10 points or who will win more congressional seats this fall. The real issue is whether we will drift through nearly three years with a president wounded, a Congress divided, and a public disillusioned. A thousand days as a leaderless nation would leave us almost defenseless against dangers bearing down upon us.
Most Americans know this in their bones. Traveling the country, one meets growing numbers deeply anxious about the future. And it's not just Iraq, gas prices, and immigration. What it is is the yawning gap between the many long-term problems we face and the inability of our leadership class to fix them. Just what are these "gathering storms"? Everyone has a different list. But there are five big ones on nearly all--storms that have been building for years.
Public education. Twenty-three years have passed since a national commission warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in our K-12 schools. After many efforts to improve, test scores are modestly better, especially in early grades. But progress has been excruciatingly slow and uneven. High school dropout rates haven't improved. Only a third finish high school ready for college, and even fewer, 18 percent, actually finish college within six years of high school graduation. "So much reform, so little change," one observer said ruefully.
Not only have we failed to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, and between minorities and whites, but our young people now face growing pressure from Asian students hungry for a better life. "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad," said Bill Gates, "I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow."
Troubles in K-12 spill over into universities, where the United States today is pressed to stay ahead as China, India, and other nations pour investment into science, engineering, and technology education. Larry Summers, Harvard's outgoing president, once estimated that of the top 10 research universities in the world, at least seven, and arguably 10, are now American, but 25 years from now, at least five could be in Asia. Already, more than twice as many engineers, computer scientists, and information technologists are graduating in China as in the United States. All of this suggests that to maintain its edge, America no longer needs evolution in its schools--we need revolution.
Healthcare. The quality of specialized care at U.S. hospitals remains the envy of the world, but the overall system is in deep trouble, perhaps meltdown. With medical inflation more than three times as high as general inflation, health costs have risen to 16 percent of gross domestic product and are heading toward an unsustainable 20 percent.
Not only are the ranks of the uninsured swelling--up to 45 million, an increase of 6 million since 2000--but corporations are under increasing financial pressure. General Motors spends more on healthcare than on steel. The Government Accountability Office estimates that without a major overhaul of healthcare, GDP will cumulatively grow 72 percent by 2030, but Medicaid will increase 166 percent and Medicare an astonishing 331 percent. Solving the healthcare puzzle has become the single most important step to solving budget problems, too.
Financial imbalances. It is well understood that the federal government has squandered the budget surpluses of just five years ago. Less well understood are the extra commitments Washington has quietly made to future spending. David Walker, a Republican voice of truth at the GAO, reports that five years ago, the federal government's long-term liabilities and unfunded commitments for things like Social Security and Medicare stood at $20 trillion. Today, the tab is $46 trillion. The new Medicare prescription program alone will account for $8 trillion of this mammoth debt.
As America continues to import far more than we export--so that we borrow some $2 billion a day from nations like China--we have built new twin towers: budget debt and trade debt. Economists keep warning us they are unsustainable, and our political leaders keep whistling past the graveyard.
Energy and the environment. From Richard Nixon on, presidents have called for energy independence. Congress has passed one bill after another, but the nation's dependence on foreign oil has actually grown since 30 years ago--from around 30 percent to over 60 percent! And with the price of oil around $70 a barrel, as columnist Tom Friedman points out, not only are consumers paying more at the pump, but we're financing authoritarian regimes in Russia, Iran, and Venezuela.
Then there's climate change. The question is no longer whether mankind is heating up the atmosphere but whether and when there might come a tipping point when warming is no longer reversible. Some scientists think we have already passed it; others disagree. But no one disagrees that the United States is a primary culprit, accounting for 24 percent of carbon dioxide emissions with less than 5 percent of the world's population. The time has clearly come for a "grand bargain" in American politics in which the right agrees to major conservation steps, the left agrees to more production and to nuclear power, and both agree on a dramatic investment in renewable energy. But Washington today is so caught up with gaining a tiny partisan advantage that no one even talks boldly.
Staying ahead. Last fall, the National Academies, experts on science, engineering, and medicine, issued a report aptly titled, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." It warned that unless the United States moves fast, China, India, and others will rapidly catch up with us competitively. America maintains commanding leads in many fields, but signs of slippage are abundant. In the sale of high technology, we've gone from a $54 billion surplus in 1990 to a $50 billion deficit today. Last year, American investors put more money in foreign stock funds than in domestic.
Part of the reason our rivals are catching up is their lower costs. A high-tech company in the United States, says the national commission, can now find and employ eight young engineers in India for the cost of just one in America. But another reason is that China and India are aggressively preparing for the future through education. Within five years, observers believe, 90 percent of all of the world's scientists and engineers will live in Asia.
We are already feeling the front edges of the economic storm putting downward pressure on incomes here. In one recent period, low-wage employers in companies like Wal-Mart (the nation's largest corporate employer) and McDonald's produced 44 percent of the country's new jobs, while high-wage employers generated just 29 percent. Unless we turn things around, we will soon see a steep downward slide in our standard of living.
All these storms are tied together. Mediocre schools mean we become less competitive. High medical costs make it impossible to bring our deficits down. A lack of energy independence makes us even more hostage to others. Losing our competitive edge lowers our incomes and makes it harder to pay for better schools and information systems that could help reduce healthcare costs. Each gathers force year by year.
In writing his books on World War II, Winston Churchill entitled the first The Gathering Storm. It was obvious in the 1930s, he said, that threats were rapidly building in Nazi Germany; yet the political leaders in Britain and France looked away, drifting into the future. One day, it was too late. Will history now repeat itself in America?
This story appears in the May 29, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.