How can we keep America on top?

Posted on October 24, 2005

When Lamar Alexander last made much noise, he was wearing a red-and-black plaid shirt and putting an exclamation point after his first name. While he never became the kind of one-name celebrity he wanted to be in his two runs for the Republican presidential nomination, his consolation prize was to be the junior senator from Tennessee. But that in no way means he shouldn't be heard. With Washington consumed by what passes for drama here--former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay smiling broadly for his jailhouse arrest photo, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (the better-known senator from Tennessee) under investigation, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove under the scrutiny of U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald, Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers on the wrong end of too many jokes--it is too bad the mannerly Alexander doesn't do shoutouts. What has been occupying Alexander's time recently is far more important to the fate of the country than what happens to any of those caught up in the gears of the Capitol's scandal machinery. It's the American way of life. Alexander, a former two-term governor of Tennessee and education secretary under the first President Bush, had become increasingly alarmed watching American students fall further behind in the study of math and science to students in China and India, and watching thousands of jobs vanish forever because of cheaper labor, often in the same two countries. The lowlights: For every engineer hired in this country, 11 can be hired in India; of the 120 most costly chemical plants built around the world recently, one is in the United States and 50 are in China; universities in China graduated more than 600,000 engineers last year, compared to 350,000 in India and only 70,000 in this country. Crafting the solution So Alexander, along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), petitioned the National Academy of Sciences in May not to do what politicians so often request--define the problem--but rather to craft the solution. It was a request of grand scale and ambition. "How do we ensure that the United States remains at the epicenter of the ongoing revolution in research and innovation that is driving 21st Century economies?" was just one of several fundamental questions put to the National Academy of Sciences. "Unless we are careful, we will lose our brainpower advantage, and if we lose it, the number of good jobs will decrease and our standard of living will go down," Alexander said in an interview. So they asked for a Top 10 list of actions that federal policymakers could take to ensure an economic and strategic dominance that has essentially been in place since World War II. "This nation must prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security," the report said. Among other things, the academy recommended that the government help to vastly improve science and mathematics education from kindergarten through 12th grade to increase "America's talent pool," in part by recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers by awarding four-year scholarships and "thereby educating 10 million minds." It went on to call for an increased government role in fostering the kind of research that leads to transformational change. Along with that, it called for a climate in this country that attracts the best minds and keeps them here and for modernization of the patent system and tax policy to encourage innovation and ensure "affordable broadband access." But the report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," has received scant attention. Alexander has hit on something that actually matters, and the report he requested provides actual solutions instead of merely outlining the problem. "In Washington, we have a lot of talk but we have very few answers to tough questions from people. ... This is about keeping America on top. This is the solution. This is the way we can." Will Washington listen? Whether he can get Washington to listen is another matter. "My judgment would be that in the next presidential campaign that will be a central issue if not the central issue," he said. "How do we do this? How do we compete? "We are constantly going to be in economic turmoil because globalization means we are always losing lots of jobs and to succeed we have to keep creating lots of good jobs, and that depends almost entirely on brainpower." A big, national idea is hardly what we have come to expect from Washington, so Alexander is pushing a sizable stone uphill. The first test of how seriously he is taken might come in President Bush's State of the Union address in January. "My hope is that the president makes this the subject of his State of the Union address and the focus of the remaining three years of his term," Alexander said. "Congress is not well-suited to making an agenda. We are reactors. It is the job of the president to set an agenda and persuade half of us that he is right."