On a visit to a college campus recently, Jim Collins raised a haunting question. Collins is a guru of leadership among business executives here and overseas. His most recent, runaway bestseller, Good to Great, explains why some corporations maintain records of modest success over the years while others in similar circumstances suddenly take off and climb to the mountaintop. The quality of leadership within the companies accounts for much of the difference, he has found.
Talking with students, Collins said that the key question facing us today here at home is this: Is America itself on the brink of going from great to good? He worries that in recent years, spanning more than just the current administration in Washington, we have experienced a lack of civic leadership--and followership--that is threatening our lofty standing.
His concern is well placed. At the moment, the political world is transfixed by the revival of the Bush presidency--and it is indeed a good story. Team Bush is on a roll, winning a string of victories. While Iraq remains on a knife edge, recent developments there are good news not only for Bush but for our country.
Still, a few weeks of good news and a bump in presidential polls shouldn't distract us from larger realities. The grim truth is that the political leadership of the country, especially in Washington, is almost dysfunctional in grappling with the big issues bearing down on us. From energy to education, climate change to healthcare, budget deficits to trade deficits, progress is perilously slow. And time is definitely not on our side.
Yet another important voice on America's future weighed in last week with a provocative presentation to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's economic conference. Harvard's Richard Freeman, a well-respected labor economist, argued that we have been sugarcoating the impact that China, India, and the former Soviet Union may have upon jobs and incomes in America in coming years. Unless we find some answers, our children--and certainly our grandchildren--will be in for a very rough ride.
Double whammy. Freeman points out that the world is undergoing two transformations that are unprecedented in all history. First, there is an explosion in the size of the world's labor force. If we were still in the 20th century, by his estimates, the total labor force competing in the world economy would be about 1.5 billion people. But with giants like China, India, and Russia now entering the fray, we begin the 21st century with an additional 1.5 billion people who are competing. The world's workforce has literally doubled in the twinkling of an eye.
Had the giants remained mostly uneducated and rural, America could easily have retained its pre-eminence, as the old North-South models of development would hold here, too. But they have decided instead to pour investments into science and engineering, as have Japan, Korea, and Europe. The results are eye popping: In 1970, U.S. students represented 30 percent of all university enrollments worldwide; by 2000, that had dropped to just 14 percent. The U.S. share of Ph.D.'s around the world is also plummeting, from about 50 percent in the early 1970s to a projected level of 15 percent in 2010. By a separate estimate, within just five years, Asia will have produced 90 percent of the world's scientists. Never before has there been such an explosion in the world's knowledge workers.