Reclaiming U.S. Leadership

A March 2011 cover story for Time magazine by Fareed Zakaria asked the question “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” In the article, Zakaria asserted, “What we see today is an American economy that has boomed because of policies and developments of the 1950s and ‘60s: the interstate-highway system, massive funding for science and technology, a public-education system that was the envy of the world and generous immigration policies.” On a number of measures, the United States has relinquished its leadership position.


The New York Times Magazine published an article in its June 6, 2015 edition describing South Korea’s digital infrastructure. South Korea has the reputation of being the most connected country in the world, and Seoul has free Wi-Fi in over 10,000 locations, including the subway. Speed is the fastest in the world, twice as fast as the average American city. Upgrades over the next five years are predicted to make Seoul’s speed 1,000 times faster. In that same time frame, the Federal Communications Commission hopes to wire most U.S. homes to a speed that will be one-six-hundredth of South Korea’s goal.


In medical research, Singapore made a commitment starting in 2000 to put a major national focus on biomedical sciences. That commitment included a combination of government funded R&D, development of state-of-the-art research facilities that successfully attracted world class scientists, a favorable business environment for businesses and investors, and a supportive regulatory environment. When the Bush administration enacted policies to restrict federal money for stem cell research, Singapore’s liberal laws and government financing attracted a number of top scientists to its research facilities.


The government of Denmark sponsored energy research leading to its prominence in wind technology. The government then required power generating companies to pay 85% of the retail price of electricity to owners of private wind turbines. With more than 5,000 wind turbines, Denmark produces about 40% of its electricity through wind power, and is the world’s largest supplier of wind turbines.


Prominent on any list of necessary areas of improvement for the U.S. is education. Primary and secondary education are widely recognized as needing greatly increased investment. Finland provides a model of success in educating its students, and it does so through rigorous standards for its teachers. All teachers must have a master’s degree; for primary school teachers, the major is education. Upper grade teachers earn their master’s degrees in the subjects they will teach, for example, mathematics. Success is evident in the scores achieved in international education assessments. Guaranteeing high salaries for new teachers graduating with advanced degrees in science, math, engineering, and technology could produce the same results for U.S. students.


International competition for talent, both bright students going to college and degreed professionals in STEM fields, is causing the U.S. to be less effective in attracting these people. Post 9/11 immigration policies, and the lack of investment in education are exacerbating the problem. Investor and corporate advisor John Kao wrote in his book Innovation Nation, “While other nations around the world are aggressively recruiting foreign talent for their universities, we are scaring it away.” The number of H-1B visas issued annually is widely regarded as inadequate.


The common denominator in all the shortcomings described above is lack of government leadership. In his 1981 inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan made his often repeated quote, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Has U.S. leadership been diminished by lack of government leadership equal to that asserted in other governments?

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