The Hard Truth About Going 'Soft'
The President got flak for pointing out we’re not on top of our game. He’s right
Barack Obama has apparently committed blasphemy. In an interview in Florida on Sept. 29, he dared to say that America had gotten “soft.” The denunciations have come in fast and furious from the right. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Eric Cantor and the Wall Street Journal editorial page are all shocked—shocked—that the President could say such a thing. “America is the greatest nation in the world,” Cantor declared. Romney concocted a confusing metaphor about America carrying Obama on its shoulders, but his basic point was the same. Now, if you watch the clip, here’s what the President said: “The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft, and we didn’t have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track.” Isn’t this self-evidently true? Isn’t this what conservatives have been saying for decades?
The evidence on the topic is pretty clear. The U.S. is slipping, by most measures of global competitiveness. It has dipped slightly in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) rankings to No. 5, behind Sweden, Singapore, Finland and Switzerland. But the WEF rankings are based, in good measure, on surveys—polls of CEOs and the like. Other studies, using hard data, show America slipping further behind. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation finds that in category after category—actual venture-capital funding, research and development—the U.S. has dropped well behind countries like Japan, South Korea and Sweden. The foundation measures 44 countries and regions on their efforts to improve their competitiveness over the past decade. The U.S. comes in next to last.
Perhaps the most crucial measure of our ability to compete in a global economy is our educational attainment, especially in science, math and engineering. A generation ago, America had the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. Today we’re ninth and falling. The WEF report ranks the U.S. a stunning 51st in science and math education. If a willingness to study science, math and engineering is an indication of being willing to work at hard stuff, there is no question that we are going soft. In 2004 only 6% of U.S. degrees were awarded in engineering, half the average for rich countries. In Japan it’s 20%, and in Germany it’s 16%. In 2008–09 there were more psychology majors than engineering majors in America and more fitness-studies majors than physical-sciences majors.
The great scholar Daniel Bell once summed up the essence of the Protestant ethic that had spawned industrial civilization: delayed gratification. The ability to save and invest today for a better tomorrow has been at the heart of every society’s leap from poverty to plenty. The U.S. was a country marked by this ethic. In the 1950s, household debt was just 34% of disposable income; today it is 115%. Then, the government made massive investments in research, development, infrastructure and education. Today, spending in all those areas is declining. Infrastructure and R&D spending are each down by a full percentage point of GDP. Federal funding for the physical sciences fell 54% over the 25 years since 1970 and has continued to fall. Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum point out in their new book that 30 years ago, 10% of California’s general revenue went to higher education—and the result was the crown jewel of American public education, the University of California system. Just 3% went to prisons. Today, 11% goes to prisons and 8% to higher education, a number that is dropping fast. There are now about as many Americans who work in the prison business as in auto manufacturing.
Federal, state and local governments now spend less of their money investing for the future. Health care and pensions are devouring budgets everywhere, and whatever their virtues, it is difficult to mark them as producing a more competitive society. The federal government spends $4 on every adult over 65, compared with $1 on every child under 18. That is a statement about our priorities, favoring consumption over investment, the present over the future, ourselves over our children.
Conservatives used to believe in confronting hard truths, not succumbing to comforting fairy tales. Some still do. In a bracing essay in the National Review, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and a politically active libertarian, describes how America has, well, gone soft. He notes that median wages have been stagnating for decades and argues that the country’s innovation culture has been corroded by a widespread search for “easy progress” and quick fixes. “In our hearts and minds,” Thiel writes, “we know that desperate optimism will not save us.” So when you hear someone like Eric Cantor recite one of these feel-good mantras (“U.S.A., No. 1!”), think of that well- chosen phrase: desperate optimism.