Losing the future

E.J. Dionne Jr. returns to one of my favorite subjects today, highlighting the need for the United States to strive to be a more effective global competitor, and noting the mindset that holds us back.

While the United States remains utterly frozen in a debate about budget deficits and all the things that government shouldn’t do, other countries are marrying public and private resources to make themselves stronger and more competitive.

While the United States is not even sure we should have gone halfway toward providing health insurance to all of our citizens, other democratic countries long ago began using government to cover all their citizens — and have health costs far lower than ours. […]

While other countries have jumped ahead of us in green economics, we have backed away from any effort to put a price on carbon to battle climate change and promote new technologies. In the Republican Party, politicians have to apologize for even thinking about global warming.

And while other countries invest in their basic facilities, we are letting our broadband access, roads and bridges, and rail and water systems go to seed. We created the interstate highway system, and now we can’t maintain our sewers.

I know the whole “winning the future” theme isn’t exactly popular, but the thing I’ve always liked about it is the way in which it focuses on the risk of American decline. If we intend to stay on top, we’re going to have to work for it.

But when it comes to the debate in DC, we’re again watching policymakers talk past one another, engaging in different debates at the same time. The White House has its eyes on a broad, future-based prize: how can the United States take the lead in environmental innovation? How can we build 21st-century infrastructure? What’s needed to get more of our young people into higher ed? What kind of investments are required to make the U.S. the global leader?

Republicans don’t have answers to these questions, so they ask a different one: how can we cut government?

Ideally, we’d have a debate between the left and right about how best to reach the same goal, with competing ideas offering competing visions. That’s not even close to what passes for our discourse. Instead of arguing over how to develop the world’s greatest schools, Republicans are slashing education investments, and Democrats are struggling to stop them. Instead of arguing over infrastructure innovation and energy technology, Republicans are gutting budgets for both.

For one side of the political divide, it’s more important to cut investments than it is to keep up with global competitors. If foreign rivals surpass us, so be it. What matters is low taxes and a government that can be strangled in a bathtub — nothing more.

Dionne added, “The larger and more important challenge is to figure out how we can plan, invest and compete with countries far more focused than we are on how the new global economy works.”

Encouraged by Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, I spent time recently with the Wall Street Journal’s report on its annual ECO:nomics conference, published in March. Right off, the Journal’s account emphasized that China is “grabbing clean-technology market share not because of its cheap labor … but through strong mandates and subsidies to build a new export industry.” Ahem, those words “mandates” and “subsidies” don’t come out of the free-market playbook.

The report quoted Mark Pinto, executive vice president of Applied Materials, who said that in solar power, the United States is “neither the largest in manufacturing nor the largest market.” He added: “That’s very unusual.” Do we really want to lose this market?

On his blog, Pope cites another corporate leader who attended the conference, Andrew N. Liveris, the chairman and chief executive of Dow Chemical. “Around the world,” Liveris writes in his book “Make It in America,” “countries are acting more and more like companies: competing aggressively against one another for business and progress and wealth…. Meanwhile, in the United States, we operate as if little has changed.”

It’s impossible to win the future when only one side of the aisle even wants to have this conversation.