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Hope, Infrastructure, and the Future

November 27, 2009


Hope is an interesting topic. Samuel Smiles (a good name for someone filled with hope) once said, “Hope is the companion of power, and mother of success; for who so hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles.” Hope is lifeline to the future. San Francisco’s famous assassinated mayor Harvey Milk once remarked, “The important thing is not that we can live on hope alone, but that life is not worth living without it.” America was once filled with hope. The future held limitless opportunities. Everyone talked about achieving “the American dream.” America doesn’t seem to be dreaming as much as it used to. The Swiss have overtaken the U.S. as the world’s most competitive country [“Swiss, not U.S., now the most competitive,” by Elaine Engeler, Washington Times, 9 September 2009], China is predicted eventually to pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, and unemployment remains in double-digits. The question is whether as a country the U.S. has lost hope in the future. That is the subject of an opinion column by David Brooks [“The Nation of Futurity,” New York Times, 17 November 2009]. He begins his column by reminding readers that America was once the most hopeful nation on earth.

“When European settlers first came to North America, they saw flocks of geese so big that it took them 30 minutes to all take flight and forests that seemed to stretch to infinity. They came to two conclusions: that God’s plans for humanity could be completed here, and that they could get really rich in the process. This moral materialism fomented a certain sort of manic energy. Americans became famous for their energy and workaholism: for moving around, switching jobs, marrying and divorcing, creating new products and going off on righteous crusades. It may seem like an ephemeral thing, but this eschatological faith in the future has motivated generations of Americans, just as religious faith motivates a missionary. Pioneers and immigrants endured hardship in the present because of their confidence in future plenty. Entrepreneurs start up companies with an exaggerated sense of their chances of success. The faith is the molten core of the country’s dynamism.”

Brooks asserts that the U.S. is now facing a crisis of faith; produced, he claims, by the rise of China.

“It is not only China’s economic growth rate that produces this anxiety. The deeper issue is spiritual. The Chinese, though members of a famously old civilization, seem to possess some of the vigor that once defined the U.S. The Chinese are now an astonishingly optimistic people. Eighty-six percent of Chinese believe their country is headed in the right direction, compared with 37 percent of Americans. The Chinese now have lavish faith in their scientific and technological potential. Newsweek and Intel just reported the results of their Global Innovation Survey. Only 22 percent of the Chinese believe their country is an innovation leader now, but 63 percent are confident that their country will be the global technology leader within 30 years. The majority of the Chinese believe that China will produce the next society-changing innovation, while only a third of Americans believe the next breakthrough will happen here, according to the survey.”

The Chinese look at the horizon and see light where too many U.S. citizens now see gathering clouds. The U.S. would like to find a scapegoat for its gloominess; but most of its pains are self-inflicted. When the U.S. education system was stirring the souls of America’s youth, the U.S. led the world in hope, productivity, competitiveness, and innovation. As it let its education slip, its workers became less capable of meeting the challenges they would face. Greed, of course, played a large role in the numerous economic bubbles that have burst, but the fact that America has had to rely on immigrant entrepreneurs to keep its entrepreneurial spirit alive demonstrates that America needs an infusion of hope. For more on the links between education, good jobs, and a brighter future, read my post entitled Education and Employment. Brooks continues his commentary:

“The anxiety in America is caused by the vague sense that they have what we’re supposed to have. It’s not the per capita income, which the Chinese may never have at our level. It’s the sense of living with baubles just out of reach. It’s the faith in the future, which is actually more important. China … invites a certain sort of reverie. It is natural, looking over the construction cranes, to think about the flow of history over decades, not just day to day. And it becomes obvious by comparison just how far the U.S. has drifted from its normal future-centered orientation and how much this rankles. The U.S. now has an economy shifted too much toward consumption, debt and imports and too little toward production, innovation and exports. It now has a mounting federal debt that creates present indulgence and future hardship. Americans could once be confident that their country would grow more productive because each generation was more skilled than the last. That’s no longer true. The political system now groans to pass anything easy — tax cuts and expanding health care coverage — and is incapable of passing anything hard — spending restraint, health care cost control. The standard thing these days is for Americans to scold each other for our profligacy, to urge fiscal Puritanism. But it’s not clear Americans have ever really been self-disciplined. Instead, Americans probably postponed gratification because they thought the future was a big rock-candy mountain, and if they were stealing from that, they were robbing themselves of something stupendous.”

Brooks believes that it will take a great leader to “induce the country to salivate for the future again.” Such a leader would not only inspire hope but would connect “discrete policies — education, technological innovation, funding for basic research — into a single long-term narrative. It would mean creating regional strategies, because innovation happens in geographic clusters, not at the national level. It would mean finding ways to tamp down consumption and reward production.” It would also mean that we would have to stop listening to media pundits who are more interested in stirring up fear than in finding solutions. We would need politicians to support bipartisan legislation instead of voting along party lines. It’s hard to argue with anything that Brooks says. However, it wouldn’t be fair to write a column about hope if one thought there was no hope for the future. Brooks seems to think that there is a dim hope. He writes, “The most pragmatic guide for that remains in the Oct. 30, 2008, issue of Business Week.” In that essay, Porter reminds us of those things that made America great in the past. He wrote:

“The U.S. has prospered because it has enjoyed a set of unique competitive strengths. First, the U.S. has an unparalleled environment for entrepreneurship and starting new companies. Second, U.S. entrepreneurship has been fed by a science, technology, and innovation machine that remains by far the best in the world. While other countries increase their spending on research and development, the U.S. remains uniquely good at coaxing innovation out of its research and translating those innovations into commercial products. In 2007, American inventors registered about 80,000 patents in the U.S. patent system, where virtually all important technologies developed in any nation are patented. That’s more than the rest of the world combined. Third, the U.S. has the world’s best institutions for higher learning, and they are getting stronger. They equip students with highly advanced skills and act as magnets for global talent, while playing a critical role in innovation and spinning off new businesses. Fourth, America has been the country with the strongest commitment to competition and free markets. This belief has driven the remarkable level of restructuring, renewal, and productivity growth in the U.S. Fifth, the task of forming economic policy and putting it into practice is highly decentralized across states and regions. There really is not a single U.S. economy, but a collection of specialized regional economies—think of the entertainment complex in Hollywood or life sciences in Boston. Each region has its own industry clusters, with specialized skills and assets. Each state and region takes responsibility for competitiveness and addresses its own problems rather than waiting for the central government. This decentralization is arguably America’s greatest hidden competitive strength. Sixth, the U.S. has benefited historically from the deepest and most efficient capital markets of any nation, especially for risk capital. Only in America can young people raise millions, lose it all, and return to start another company. Finally, the U.S. continues to enjoy remarkable dynamism and resilience. Our willingness to restructure, take our losses, and move on will allow the U.S. to weather the current crisis better than most countries.”

The current malaise has the U.S. marching in place. Porter argued that the recession presents an excellent opportunity to restructure and consolidate inefficient institutions; but he noted that politicians seem little interested in making changes. He rightfully claimed that America needs to elect a new breed of politician who is more interested in progress than power and who is more interested in giving new direction to America than in dividing it. He wrote:

“To make America competitive, we have to get beyond this thinking. Political leaders, business leaders, and civil society must begin a respectful, fact-based dialogue about our challenges. We need to focus on competitive reality, not defending past policies. … Is such strategic thinking possible, given America’s political system? It happens in other countries—Denmark and South Korea are just two where I have participated in serious efforts by national leaders, both public and private, to come together and chart a long-term plan. This almost never occurs in the U.S., except around single issues. … America is at its best when it recognizes problems and accepts collective responsibility for dealing with them.”

Unfortunately, for at least a decade, America has been at its worse. Divisive politics are now what defines the American system. Brooks wistfully concludes that “it would be nice if Americans would once again start looking to the horizon.” One of the things that researchers have found that helps instill hope in neighborhoods is to spruce them up. It’s easy to get discouraged when you see unpainted and unmended fences; windows that are broken; and grafitti sprayed on walls. It’s also easy to get discouraged when one sees a nation’s infrastructure begin to decay. If sprucing up a neighborhood can revive hope, so can sprucing up national infrastructure. That is the focus of a separate op-ed column by Bob Herbert [“What the Future May Hold,” New York Times, 17 November 2009]. He writes:

“What will the United States be like in 20 years when today’s toddlers are in college or trying to land that first job or maybe thinking about starting a family? The answer will depend to a great extent on decisions we make now about the American infrastructure. … In 20 years, will today’s toddlers be traveling on bridges and roads that are in even worse shape than today’s? Will they endure mammoth traffic jams that start earlier and end later? Will their water supplies be clean and safe? Will the promise of clean energy visionaries be realized, or will we still be fouling the environment with carbon filth to the benefit of traditional energy conglomerates and foreign regimes that in many cases wish us anything but good? The answers to these and many other related questions will depend to a great extent on decisions we make now (even in the midst of very tough economic times) about the American infrastructure. We’re trundling along in the infrastructure equivalent of a jalopy, with bridges rotting and falling down, while other nations, our competitors in the global economy, are building efficient, high-speed, high-performance infrastructure platforms to power their 21st-century economies.”

Many people would argue that hard economic times are exactly when you need to invest in infrastructure. Not only would the hopes of Americans rise because the neighborhood looks better, but because they were put back to work. When I speak with leaders of developing countries, I reiterate the importance of infrastructure for attracting businesses and making already established businesses more competitive. America seems to have forgotten this lesson — or as Herbert puts it, “We used to be so much smarter about this stuff.” America moved forward only as fast as its infrastructure improved. People were moving west, but the transcontinental railroad opened the country up to real growth. America emerged strong from the Second World War, but the interstate freeway system helped keep the economy growing as it turned from war production to commercial manufacturing. Herbert laments:

“Policy makers all but gave up on that kind of thinking years ago. America’s infrastructure, once the finest in the world, has been neglected for decades, and it shows. Felix Rohatyn’s book on the subject, ‘Bold Endeavors,’ opens with: ‘The nation is falling apart — literally.’ It’s almost as if we no longer understand the crucial links between infrastructure and the health of the American economy, the state of the environment and the viability of the nation as a whole. We’ve become stupid about this. Consider transportation. [A Brookings Institution report] tells us, ‘Other nations around the globe have continued to act on the calculus that state-of-the art transportation infrastructure — the connective tissue of a nation — is critical to moving goods, ideas and workers quickly and efficiently. In the United States, however, we seem to have forgotten.’ Much of the nation’s rail infrastructure is approaching the tail end of its useful life. If you’ve flown anywhere recently, you know what a nightmare that can be. To the extent that we have any infrastructure policy at all, it is badly disjointed, dysfunctional, often doing more harm than good as it serves the interests of politicians who are crazy for pork rather than the real needs of the American public.”

Perhaps Warren Buffet’s recent railroad acquisition will pump new life into America’s failing infrastructure and new hope into the American psyche. We’ll have to wait and see. Herbert asserts that if we begin improving our infrastructure, hopes will rise and the future will be brighter. Herbert concludes:

“Brookings’ … [executive], Bruce Katz, offered a glimpse of the kind of economic environment today’s toddlers could face in a couple of decades if we started getting things right now. ‘We’ll very likely have a low-carbon-based economy,’ said Mr. Katz, ‘which will require enormous innovation with regard to energy and the infrastructure. We’ll be much more export-oriented than we are today, less consumption-focused.’ And as a nation, he said, we should have a better understanding of the importance of the metropolitan areas that are the major drivers of the U.S. economy, and how essential it is to give them the coordinated national support that they need on infrastructure and other forms of development. You can’t thrive as a nation while New Orleans is drowning, and Detroit is being beaten into oblivion decade after decade, and a bridge in Minneapolis is collapsing into the Mississippi River, and cities in upstate New York and the Rust Belt are rotting from lack of employment opportunities, and so on. Imagine, instead, an America with rebuilt, healthy, dynamic metropolitan areas, and gleaming new port facilities, and networks of high-speed rail, an America with electric vehicles and a smart grid and energy generated by the power of the sun and wind and water and the ocean’s waves. Imagine if the children of today’s toddlers had access to world-class public schools all across the nation and a higher education system that is both first-rate and affordable. Imagine if we set out seriously to do all this. Imagine.”

Brooks, a conservative, and Herbert, a liberal, seem to share a common vision. Their prescriptions for generating a better future look remarkably similar. Given that Brooks and Herbert can see eye-to-eye, is it too much to ask U.S. politicians to find common ground on how to move forward, spruce up the country, educate America’s children, employ its workforce, and instill hope in this and coming generations? I don’t think so. I read that the election results in November didn’t really tell us much about how the public was thinking — except in one respect: the electorate is unhappy with incumbents. Hopefully, incumbents will get the message and begin to replace divisiveness with vision — or maybe the whole lot of them will be thrown out during the next election. Norman Cousins wrote, “The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started.” I think it’s time that America found some hope so that we can get started making a brighter future.

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