One of the things that I can’t figure out about the Bush team is why an administration that is so focused on projecting U.S. military strength abroad has taken such little interest in America’s economic competitiveness at home — the underlying engine of our strength.
At a time when the global economic playing field is being flattened — enabling young Indians and Chinese to collaborate and compete with Americans more than ever before — this administration is off on an ideological jag. It is trying to take apart the New Deal by privatizing Social Security, when what we really need most today is a New New Deal to make more Americans employable in 21st century jobs.
We have a Treasury secretary from the railroad industry. We have an administration that won’t lift a finger to prevent the expensing of stock options, which is going to inhibit the ability of U.S. high-tech firms to attract talent — at a time when China encourages its start-ups to grant stock options to young innovators.
And we have movie theaters in certain U.S. towns afraid to show science films because they are based on evolution and not creationism.
The Bush team is proposing cutting the Pentagon’s budget for basic science and technology research by 20 percent next year — after President Bush and the Republican Congress already slashed the 2005 budget of the National Science Foundation by $100 million.
When the National Innovation Initiative, a bipartisan study by the country’s leading technologists and industrialists about how to re-energize U.S. competitiveness, was unveiled last December, it was virtually ignored by the White House. Did you hear about it? Probably not, because the president preferred to focus all attention on privatizing Social Security.
It’s as if we have an industrial-age presidency, catering to a pre-industrial ideological base, in a post-industrial era.
Thomas Bleha, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer in Japan, has a fascinating piece in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs that begins like this: “In the first three years of the Bush administration, the United States dropped from 4th to 13th place in global rankings of broadband Internet usage. Today, most U.S. homes can access only `basic’ broadband, among the slowest, most expensive and least reliable in the developed world, and the United States has fallen even further behind in mobile-phone-based Internet access. The lag is arguably the result of the Bush administration’s failure to make a priority of developing these networks. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized state without an explicit national policy for promoting broadband.”
Since it took over in 2001, the Bush team has made it clear that its priorities are tax cuts, missile defense and the war on terrorism — not keeping the United States at the forefront of Internet innovation. In the administration’s first three years, Bush barely uttered the word “broadband,” Bleha notes, but when America “dropped the Internet leadership baton, Japan picked it up.
“In 2001, Japan was well behind the United States in the broadband race. But thanks to top-level political leadership and ambitious goals, it soon began to move ahead. By May 2003, a higher percentage of homes in Japan than the United States had broadband.
“Today, nearly all Japanese have access to `high-speed’ broadband, with an average connection time 16 times faster than in the United States — for only about $22 a month. And that is to say nothing of Internet access through mobile phones, an area in which Japan is even further ahead of the United States. It is now clear that Japan and its neighbors will lead the charge in high-speed broadband over the next several years.”
South Korea, which has the world’s greatest percentage of broadband users, and urban China, which last year surpassed the United States in the number of broadband users, are keeping pace with Japan — not us. By investing heavily in these new technologies, Bleha notes, these nations will be the first to reap their benefits – from increased productivity to stronger platforms for technological innovation; new kinds of jobs, services and content; and rising standards of living.
Economics is not like war. It can be win-win. But you need to be at a certain level to be able to claim your share of a global pie that is both expanding and becoming more complex. Tax cuts can’t solve every problem. This administration — which often seems more interested in indulging creationism than spurring creativity — is doing a very poor job of preparing the country for that next level.