I thought we’re number 1! Nope, how about 20-something?

Thomas Friedman wrote today in the NYT “Can’t Keep a Bad Idea Down.” In it (after ranting about the lack of current campaigning politicians who really grapple with the issues) he discusses a report by the National Academies called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5” (you can read it in full online here). Friedman quotes Charles M. Vest, a former M.I.T. president, who worked on the study to highlight some of the distressing statistics that show the decline of American intellectual competitiveness:

“The subtitle, ‘Rapidly Approaching Category 5,’ says it all,” noted Vest. “The committee’s conclusion is that ‘in spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.’ ”

But I thought: “We’re number 1!”

“Here is a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today,” says Vest: sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in rate of change over the last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.

These are clear areas where we should positively WANT our government to get involved, and to spend money, but if the current climate of political divisiveness endures for the next 2 years in a hung Congress, or even for the next 6 years of a potential Obama second term, the consequences for America’s future will be dire. It is pure Ostrich politics to think we are Number 1 at anything these days. The report clearly refutes the libertarian-conservative line of government is the problem: “If Americans are to compete for quality jobs in such a world—one where three billion new would-be capitalists entered the job market upon the restructuring of many of the world’s political systems late in the last century—they will need help from their government . . . at all levels . . . as well as from themselves. ”

The report starts off with some really crazy factoids:

  • Over two-thirds of the engineers who receive PhD’s from United States universities are not United States citizens.
  • In 2009, 51 percent of United States patents were awarded to non- United States companies.
  • The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in quality of mathematics and science education
  • Of Wal-Mart’s 6,000 suppliers, 5,000 are in China.
  • There are sixteen energy companies in the world with larger reserves than the largest United States company.
  • IBM’s once promising PC business is now owned by a Chinese company.
  • The legendary Bell Laboratories is now owned by a French company.
  • Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. (computer manufacturing) employs more people than the worldwide employment of Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Intel and Sony combined.
  • United States consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the government devotes to energy R&D.

I really like that last one: shows us where the priorities are. There is much work to be done and the laborers are few. (c.f. Luke 10:2)

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