Clayton Mitchell: Time for a Wake-Up Call

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By Clayton A. Mitchell, Sr.

On April 25th, the International Monetary Fund predicted that China’s economy will surpass the United States’ economy in real terms within five years. Within 40 years, China has elevated itself from a third-world nation to a modern economic superpower. Unfortunately, the average Main Street American is psychologically detached from the reality of the imminent unfolding economic paradigm. Notwithstanding our voluntary ignorance, Americans will soon learn the hard way that we are not the only nation that can propagate an industrial and technological revolution.

We Americans have treated our longstanding preeminence as the world’s lone superpower with a degree of unction that is tantamount to a birthright. America is not accustomed to the flagellations of an equal economic rival. While America has been occupied developing a course of purported “free trade”, China has pursued an aggressive agenda of Sinocentric economic dominance. Because of our contemptible debtor-nation status, we will soon be involuntarily fettered to the whims and desires of our larger Asian creditor.

There is a simple undeniable truth: For decades we Americans have passively rested on our laurels. We have become a nation of increasingly indolent people who have come to believe that that hard work is no longer necessary to preserve prosperity and that we are furthermore entitled to enjoy our freedoms without care or consequence. We have deemed ourselves entitled to retire in comfort by our mid-sixties, to have all our medical needs met with little out-of-pocket cost and to accumulate creature-comforts by leveraging our assets with massive debt. Our sense of enduring security is misplaced.

The empirical signs of America’s chronic decay are legion: Standard & Poor’s has altered its outlook on American debt from “stable” to “negative”; China announced it will significantly reduce its holdings of U.S. dollars; PIMCO, the world’s largest bond holder is “shorting” U.S. government bonds; gasoline prices have reached $5 per gallon in several metropolitan areas; U.S. households are now receiving more income from the Federal government than they are paying in taxes; one out of every four tax dollars in the Federal Budget is encumbered to pay interest on the national debt; the total American home mortgage debt is five times higher than 20 years ago; consumer credit card debt is 8 times higher than it was in 1980; the typical American household debt is 136% of the average household income; and the average length of unemployment has reached 39 weeks. The preceding list is illustrative and not comprehensive - it could go on for many pages.

America is losing its edge to other countries, not because we lack the capacity to excel, but because we have failed to act. In the pursuit of our decades-long folly, we Americans have emancipated ourselves from the standards of excellence we previously and instinctively knew were right. “American Ingenuity” and “American Intellectual Firepower” used to be the envy of the world.

In 2007, the United States Census Bureau reported that only 27% of the American population attained a bachelor's degree or higher. According to the College Board, Russia (yes – Russia!) is the world leader in spawning college graduates. Data from the Organisation for Economic and Cooperative Development reveals that approximately 54 percent of the Russian Federation's population aged 25 to 64 has an associate's degree or higher. Our neighbor, Canada, is in second place with 48.3 percent of its population with these degrees. The United States, formerly the world’s leader, is in twelfth (12th) place, with 40.4 percent of its adults holding associate's degrees or higher.

In spite of our inferior performance, the world does not believe that America’s higher education system is second-rate. Many nations purposefully send their students to America to study at our universities and colleges. Foreign nationals’ participation in our higher learning institutions has metastasized. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Some 671,616 international students attended U.S. institutions in 2008-9, an increase of almost 8 percent from a year earlier. First-time-student enrollments grew even more robustly, by nearly 16 percent.” According to the Economist magazine, the Chinese now comprise the largest group of foreign students with over 127,000 of its citizens attending American universities.

Concomitant with America’s failure to fully utilize our outstanding university system resources, America currently lags other nations in elementary and secondary education. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that a new global study of educational systems in major nations (the “PISA” report) ranks American 15-year-olds fourteenth (14th) in the world in reading skills, seventeenth (17th) in science and twenty-fifth (25th) in math. This level of academic performance is not a formula for 21st Century economic growth. Which country ranked at the top with the highest student performance in all PISA report categories? China.

To help resolve our nation’s budgetary problems and to reignite our industrial and service economies, it is essential that America sufficiently educate its future workforce. Without superior intellect, we will not reacquire the envy of the world. The potential bounty of new products, new industries and new businesses can only be produced by sowing the seeds of our children’s minds. We cannot grow our way out of debt without the generating the requisite domestic brainpower.

The Chinese sleeping giant is now fully awake, working and planning for a dominating prosperous future. If we Americans are smart we will answer the wake-up call and not again hit the snooze button. The clock is ticking.

Clayton A. Mitchell, Sr. is an attorney in Stevensville and regular contributor to Center Maryland..
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