Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Have we gone soft?

Hat tip to my cousin Jeff, who is doing his best to prepare the next generation of math geniuses just outside of Boston, for passing along this great post from Fareed Zakaria from Time.


The entire post is worth reading but the data focused paragraphs really grabbed my attention. Anyone running for public office needs to think long and hard about these numbers.

"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."

Let some of those facts sink in. More prison employees than auto workers? More psychology majors than engineering majors? $4 for every senior for ever $1 on children? These are the canaries in the coal mine.  It's clearly easier for politicians to promise the world - it's tax cuts, free healthcare 'til your 120, and rainbow unicorns for everyone!! - but someone needs to grow up and start making the hard decisions that the public can't make for themselves.

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