Redefining Competitiveness as Progress

Our Opinion:

As Americans watched the 2018 Winter Olympics, we could count our blessings, and with good reason. Our ancestors have built—and given their lives to preserve—a land of freedom and affluence. With self-assurance, teamwork and timely investments, those who preceded us built a society to be envied. Each generation brought new energy and devotion and, judging by this year’s Olympics, so too will the next.

Regrettably, we are leaving daunting challenges for the next generation. The US’s military and economic leadership have continued, but we no longer dominate other critical indicators of global competitiveness. The World Economic Forum gives the US high marks in economic vitality, but mediocre grades in science and math education. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) gives the US low marks in early childhood education. The Commonwealth Fund recently rated the US health care system as the worst among 11 developed nations. While other nations invest in infrastructure and other pillars of future competitiveness, we stand pat.

And the future will come whether we ignore it or not. Our population will continue to grow (and age), and our public service demands will mount. Other threats are well-documented. Obesity will increase preventable diseases, traffic congestion will overwhelm roads, natural resources will be depleted and aging utility water systems will jeopardize health. Despite clear evidence that capital, talent and ideas flow to those with the best social, health, educational and transportation assets, many of our leaders turn their backs on the future and defer the investments that competitiveness demands.

Why has our nation—and so many of its states and regions—become less competitive?

One reason is that we lack a unifying definition of competitiveness. Unlike sports where winning is all, global competitiveness eludes easy explanations. One view that prevails among many political leaders is that competitiveness is merely about economic growth, jobs, corporate tax rates and business regulation. But that view is simplistic, myopic and occasionally self-serving.

Fortunately, an alternative view of competitiveness is emerging. To illustrate, a recent National Geographic article, “The World’s Happiest Places,” defines competitiveness in broader terms. Competitive (happy) nations are those that, in addition to security, safety and economic growth, offer their people health, education, community and the opportunity to pursue a life of purpose. Similarly, the Gallup-National Geographic Index assesses five factors: social, purpose, financial, community and physical. In short, if competitiveness is that quality that makes a place appealing—as a place to work, live and learn—then it is a measure of the quality of life, not just GDP.

Another reason (or excuse) for our declining competitiveness is the polarization and paralysis of our politics. Less than two decades into the 21st century, there are undeniable signs that our can-do spirit has yielded to political acrimony and intolerance. A 2016 Harvard Business School report (Michael Porter et al) found America’s political system to be our “single biggest barrier to competitiveness.” Instead of providing a forum for enlightened debates of public ills and cures, our election laws have become the means by which both parties preserve the status quo … and shirk decisions that matter.

It may be fashionable for us to blame the two parties for our declining competitiveness, but we may be less the victim of broken politics than the cause. We are the ones who exclaim our distrust for politicians while entrusting them with the future of our states and communities. We are the ones who abrogate our responsibilities to our representatives. We are the ones who sit idly while our elected officials kick problems down the road. We are the ones who allow our elected officials to preserve the status   quo.

What should we do to honor our legacy and inspire our heirs? First, instead of allowing others to distract us with unforgiving ideology and mean-spirited tweets, we could start thinking for ourselves. Instead of longing for a past that never was, we could respectively debate the best ways to build a better future. Instead of demonizing those with different views, we could seek common ground that promotes competitiveness, and build non-partisan coalitions across urban, suburban, exurban and rural areas based on shared values, aspirations and ideas.

What will challenge this entail? If nothing else, it means taking the long view. The long view requires a coherent vision, along with measurable targets and pragmatic strategies for attaining that vision. It also requires boldness and imagination. To bequeath a more competitive nation to our successors, we must be willing to revisit everything—our institutions, systems and policies—with a youthful eye (as we once did). If we are unable or unwilling to do so, we should step aside.