America needs to clean up, hit the books, and go on a diet
An abandoned classroom in Detroit
March 7th, 2011
12:30 PM ET

America needs to clean up, hit the books, and go on a diet

by Nina Hachigian – Special to CNN

America has to do three things to get back on track: clean our house, hit the books, and go on a diet.

1. Clean Our House: Our generally laudable political system is a mess. Because of procedural loopholes, most prominently the increasing use of the filibuster it now takes 60% of the Senate to get anything done. This is way too high a bar in a country so closely divided on partisan lines. Tell your representatives to reform the rules so a majority can make some big decisions. If they make bad decisions, fine, we can throw them out at the next election. But at this point, trying some bold fixes is better than further gridlock.

2. Hit the Books: If I had to pick only one focus for investment and reform, it would be our pre-K through 12th grade education system, especially in math and science. Why? Because a high percentage of America's economic growth is driven by innovation, as an excellent new report details.

Think about the value and jobs Google has created, or what cheap solar cars could do for the global economy. The system that generates innovation in America has many components, but the primary ingredient for innovation is human brains. Someone has to think of new ideas before they can become reality.

America has been in the habit of importing brains from other countries and that has made up somewhat for the lack of interest and achievement of our own citizens in the sciences. But countries like China and India are going whole hog into innovation themselves and promising great opportunities to retain their budding scientists.

So while we should still try to attract the best and brightest from elsewhere, now, more than ever, we have to grow our own brains. Not only because it's the right thing to do to give every kid a chance, but because now it is an absolute economic imperative.

The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in quality of mathematics and science education. We clearly have to do a much better job of educating our kids, especially the least advantaged, because we need every brain we can get. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently put it – if I can tell by your zipcode whether or not you are going to get a good education, there is a big problem with the system.

The good news is that there is some consensus on what changes will make primary education better: improve teacher quality, increase classroom hours and make schools accountable for children's learning. The bad news is that there are some 14,000 school districts that each decide for themselves whether to take these steps, how and when, and budget pressures are sending many in the opposite direction.

The Obama Administration has been trying mightily, and succeeding, in using the limited leverage it has to incentivize these local systems to reform, but we really need a national citizens' movement, or several, to demand a major overhaul.

3. Go On a Diet: Finally, America has to rein in its huge appetite for cheap oil and easy credit. America's businesses and workers are on the verge of losing out in the biggest economic revolution of our time in clean energy. They cannot compete because they don't know what the energy rules are going to be in this country and are afraid that big investments in green energy will not pay off.

On the diplomatic front, America's refusal to embrace a low-carbon future reads to the rest of the world like a giant middle finger. They cannot understand why America will not do more to prevent a disastrous climatic future that it did much to create.

We also have to address our national debt and deficits. America has to get serious about living within its means or foreign investors will forsake us. Neither defense spending nor Medicare nor Social Security can be sacred. At the same time, though, the budget has to be balanced in a way that doesn't make our historically high income stratification any worse.

This is hard to believe, but from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent. The American dream that binds us together – that anyone, no matter how humble their circumstances, can grow up to do great things – is at risk.

If that hope dies, our social fabric will tear. Moreover, income stratification is a drag on economic growth. So, to start, Congress needs to enact a more fair and simple tax code, end subsidies for oil companies, and ensure that Wall Street never again needs a bailout from Main Street.

Just as important, we cannot allow Washington and the states to enact budget cuts that sacrifice our future. If the axe falls on kids' health and education, we will never become the America that we all want again.

There are other important priorities, but these are the three places to start. And we can do it, though it won't be easy, or pretty. Cleaning, studying, and dieting are not anyone's most favorite activities. But the only thing standing between us and our bright future is us.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American
and co-author of The Next American Century: How the US Can Thrive As Other
Powers Rise
(now in paperback).

Post by:
Topics: Competitiveness • Economy

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. Audrey Brodt

    PLEASE!!! When you and your colleagues talk about how the US ranks in education, poverty, and all other topics – one statistic that needs to be included if we are to see the real picture is the % of our budget that is military.

    As far as I know, no other country spends so much of their budget on military. Unless we take a serious and realistic look at military spending we will become a third world country. The very thing we’re doing (military) to keep us safe is destroying our budget and our reputation.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Reply
    • HenryJay

      these are peanuts-America needs to abolish the Federal Reserve

      March 8, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Reply
    • Buzzer

      Entitlements exceeded military expenditures a long time ago...funny that the defense of the U.S. is actually a job description of the Federal Government prescribed in the U.S. Constitution...still trying to find these "entitlement" programs outlined in said Constitution...please help me out Audrey.

      March 9, 2011 at 12:10 am | Reply
    • GKB

      very well said..couldn't agree more..a nation that spends more on military than on education can never progress

      March 11, 2011 at 9:31 am | Reply
  2. WES

    "This is way too high a bar in a country so closely divided on partisan lines. Tell your representatives to reform the rules so a majority can make some big decisions" As soon as they try it will be filibustered. Ironic huh.

    March 7, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  3. Steve O'Leary

    It really is a dismal outlook. Private Enterprise needs to create jobs, the Governement can not do that without costing far more later.

    It is obvious what the problem is, all the manufacturing has moved overseas wher ethe labor is cheap, and the cost of production is even cheaper. No OSHA there, much less costly health benefits if at all, working conditions are a magnitude less in cost. The US can not compete.

    To resolve it, it will take draconian measures, people won't like it. People like lower taxes, more government benefits, but that is only possible in a dream world, what the US has thought for the last 35 years. We now suffer because of it.

    We need stop buying foreign manufactured products, produce them here. That would take high tariffs on foreign made goods, . It would close walmarts and open up American production. Made in America use to mean Quality, it still does, but the proce isn't competitive with a low quality good from Taiwan or China.

    the US has became a financial center for the rich, service jobs. As said 4/5ths of the increase in America's income has gone to the 1% wealthiest. The policy of US corporations is a policy that has destroyed America.

    March 7, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Reply
    • Jujubeans

      No, accept the fact that the US can't compete in manufacturing. Do you want to pay $5000 for a TV made in America. Focus on technology and services.

      March 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Reply
      • McPgr

        If your job is lost to overseas cheap labor you would not buy TV for any price. And imported high quality goods are not much cheaper than manufactured here. All goes to the corporate profit.

        March 8, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  4. Matt

    **U.S. needs to convert to the metric system like all other countries in the world !

    **U.S. needs to have universal health care like all other western/industrical countries in the world!

    March 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      Matt, you need to get educated

      March 8, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Reply
      • Philip

        I don't know about the metric system conversion being a boon to American wellness, but universal healthcare is essential to make us competitive globally. It is economically right and morally right to use tax money to provide good health care to all citizens. The problem as always is special interests. There ought to be a better term, one that shows the greed of wanting the advantages for a few at the expense of the many. We need to cut off the power of lobbyists to manipulate Congress. We need publicly financed elections and a ban on any "contributions" to elected officials. How can we get our legislators, who live off the corporate dole, to legislate that system out of existence? Removing the campaign contribution influence from our legislatures would be a tremendous positive step. It would be like our Egypt.

        March 8, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  5. Dentalpiano

    If only...
    Our rich companies cared more about the people than their stock value....
    If only....

    March 8, 2011 at 10:22 am | Reply
    • Jujubeans

      That's why they're in business. We're not a socialist nation, accept it.

      March 8, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Reply
      • Oliver Chettle

        It isn't socialism to expect businesses to act responsibly, it is good capitalism. Businesses are legal "personalities": we should have the same contempt for a business that values only money, as for a person who values only money. Incorporation should not eradicate moral responsibility.

        Furthermore, the current system isn't even designed to effectively maximise shareholder wealth. It only maximises short term pay-outs to executives, and to money managers, who are also assessed on short term criteria, and therefore do not have the same interests as the underlying shareholders.

        March 9, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  6. Dr. Mort Ehudin

    How can we start an online movement to support the ideas of the Gang of Six senators who are willing to risk their political lives by telling the American people the truth about our debt and what we must sacrifice in order to resolve the crisis that hangs over the country?

    March 8, 2011 at 10:56 am | Reply
  7. Lucas

    Because of reforms made in the 1970s, it only takes 60% of the Senate, or 3/5, to invoke cloture, not 66% as stated in the article.

    March 8, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  8. David Grant

    I have to disagree with the first goal. I would rather have the Senate sit around and do nothing than create more law. I would propose that they should have to repeal ten laws for every new law, that every bill must go before the public at least a week before voting (one of Obama's promises), that each member of the house and senate take a test to show that they have read and understood the bill in question, and that no bill exceed 25 pages. Their inane meddling has done a lot more harm than good as of late.

    Your majority vote notion is wildly dangerous. A pure democracy is one of the worst governmental forms. There are good reasons to slow the political process.

    March 8, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  9. thebeerdude

    I'm an American. As long as I pay my taxes and obey the law, it is my constitutional right to do nothing.

    March 8, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  10. Steve

    The founders intentionally (and wisely IMO) wanted it to be difficult for government to accomplish much. They realized what the author doesn't – that more often than not the government is the problem, not the solution. What we nee is a government that does a LOT LESS, not more.

    March 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
    • Derek from Boston

      That's all true.

      But, at the same time, we have a government with responsibilities. That has to lead and direct the future of the country. And while the size of the government gets a lot of debate, I think efficiency is the main goal. Because it doesn't matter if the government is big, medium or small, if it's inefficient, it's ineffective.

      March 9, 2011 at 12:14 am | Reply
      • David Grant

        I agree with your efficiency point, but you cannot have large size and high efficiency. Size also requires a high funding appetite which means either deficit spending or higher taxes. Each means less efficiency in the only place that actually produces wealth, the private sector. Small and limited was intended from the beginning and is still solid policy today.

        March 9, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  11. Kevin

    The first thing this nation needs to do is get rid of Obama

    March 8, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Reply
    • Toni


      March 9, 2011 at 12:03 am | Reply
    • DaBulls!

      Why Obama, maybe it's Jesus fault?! This country will go down, because of rednecks like you!!! And i also wonder, who would you vote for?

      March 9, 2011 at 9:42 am | Reply
  12. Kneel2Satan

    This talk of investment and reform is nonsense, we just need shiny new jets and yachts for the Forbes 500, then everything will be fine. Vote Tea Party!

    March 8, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  13. Bill

    A few points/opinions from someone who is not an economist, educator, or political scientist.

    1. Except for the Senate rules themselves, it takes 3/5 of the Senate (60) to invoke cloture, a majority to pass a bill.

    2. Although inflation adjusted federal dollars spent per pupil on secondary education have risen by 190% since 1970, reading, math, and science scores have remained flat.
    The problem with the quality of secondary education doesn't lie with its amount of federal funding, the problem lies elsewhere.

    3. It is not bad news that school districts decide for themselves what steps they should take to improve the quality of education. That is their sole function, and one that is not properly under the purview of the federal government. Less successful districts can learn what is effective from more successful districts; the federal government has demonstrated that it has no clue about what is effective.

    4. All federal subsidies should be eliminated, including those granted to the oil industry. Viable energy solutions will spring from innovation exercised in the private sector. No one can predict what scientific discoveries, engineering applications, and commercial enterprises will ultimately prove to be the most successful.

    5. I agree that the increasing polarization of wealth has become a real problem and iniquity. A simplification of the tax code would serve everyone well. I would only hope that disincentives to productivity can be avoided and that entitlements, if any, would become self-funding, self-sustaining, and independent from the general fund and the normal operations of the government.

    6. If we don't get our exploding deficits under control, we won't win the future, and we might not have a future. I, like many Americans, am particularly sensitive to the idea of government investment, which has become a euphemism for spending. If any program is worth investing in, then it should be worth paying for. Any program that can be consigned to the private sector will probably be carried out much more efficiently there.

    March 8, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Reply
    • Philip

      Re 5. and 6. If we move investment in America to the private sector, we worsen the polarization of wealth.
      Without ridiculously low income and capital gains tax rates for the wealthy, our deficit problem would be much smaller. How can we let legislators get away with saying they want to cut the deficit while the enact massive tax cuts? Get those rates on the wealthy up around 50% and we will be much better off. The way I see it, we must first reform campaign finance, the system that bribes legislators to favor special interests. We will need a massive public outcry for reform, because why would legislators want to turn off the spigot? Where is the outrage about not cutting oil and ag subsidies? Why don't higher income earners pay into Social Security like everyone else? Special interest bribes of our government must go else we perish to the tyranny of the corporate elite.

      March 9, 2011 at 12:02 am | Reply
      • Oliver Chettle

        Absolutely, but it needs to be really radical. The cost of American politics needs to be cut by at least 90%. That can only be achieved by banning political advertising, which would require an amendment to the Constitution, which will never happen. As I see it from England, America's core problem is that a Constitution written to meet 18th century needs is treated as a holy text, even though it is becoming less and less relevant, and ever more harmful, to current needs. This problem will only get worse, and I should think Saudi Arabia is more likely to escape the bonds of the Koran, than the United States is to free itself from the straightjacket of constitutionalism. Policies should be debated openly on their merits, not according to the degree to which rhetorical trickery can make them seem to comply with the vague provisions of a constitution written by man who couldn't even guess at what challenges their country would face in the 21st century.

        March 9, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  14. DaBulls!

    This Detroit classroom reminds me of Chernobyl, Ukraine. How about nobody votes anymore, untill they stop corporate funding, which is bribery on a big scale!!! First of all PEOPLE must act and stop being ignorant- ex. if you want small business to bloom in your town, stop going to Supermarkets and so on... Maybe, Because of small taxes, most people can afford too much food, clothing and owns full garage of unused junk...

    March 9, 2011 at 10:00 am | Reply
  15. Justin

    This country is doomed. Real solutions to tough problems aren't even considered. Case in point, the debt crisis. In order to erase a massive debt, you have to both make spending cuts and tax increases. Just making cuts isn't enough. No one wants to hear it but it's true. What's worse is the 3 things that make up probably 80% of our budget, social security, medicare and the military, are "off limits" for the cuts.

    So let's get this straight. Our total debt dwarfs are budget. Yet we're going to cut a major hole in the debt by only focusing on cutting programs that make up a fraction of our debt and without increasing the governments revenue in order to pay the debt(taxes)? What world are people living in? And can we finally put to rest the idea that tax cuts for the rich spur the economy? That theory had 8 years of practice during Bush's tenure and didn't work. Yet congress is still obsessed with implementing them.

    Sorry but we don't have serious politicians in place. We need a politician who will flat out say "we're in a tough situation, and just like life, tough situations requires tough decisions that you won't like, i.e. tax hikes". A person like that wouldn't be electable though.

    As a result, America is getting what it deserves.

    March 9, 2011 at 11:44 am | Reply
  16. aelarsen76

    you think????????????

    March 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  17. Silent Hunter

    I am glad that I do not live in the U.S. Your dependacy on foriegn oil drives my economy. The fact that your government has outright lied to it's public in my opinion is just like a Dictatorship more than a democracy. The last time I checked the government was " For The People" and not for the personal financial gain for individuals. I know that every government has it's fair share of secrets but for one government to put sanctions on another country because they want to exploit another country is pure Bull#$%#@. The best example of this is the so called "Dirty Oil" that you recieve from Canada. The last time I looked Canada was way better economically stable than the U.S but thier price of gas is substantially higher than yours. The average price of gas is $1.17L in which works out to $4.49/U.S gallon. The way the corporate minds think is this Why not rip off other countries in order to fill thier greed. I admit that my country has been on the front lines for it's fair share of scandals but as a whole are at least doing something to strengthen thier economy like Not spending billions of dollars on an Economic Stimulas Package that temporarly fixed the problem. The Fat Cats on Wall Street warned Parliment Hill that massive spending on a Stimulas Package would not get the U.S government out of this mess but as you well know all governments have a "Hidden Agenda". The U.S government should cut salaries for all elected officials by at least 5% in order to "give back to the country" for all the corruption they had made thier people endure over the last 60 years. More and more U.S citizens should practice thier right to Freedom of speech and be more involved in thier political, economical and social voice instead of sitting back complaining that thier government has to help them. In closing I am in NO way running down the Citizens of your country but shedding some light on some issues that the citizens need to be aware of. Universal healthcare works in so many countries but why hasn't it worked for yours.

    March 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  18. justadude

    First of all, one of the biggest problems of the United State's educational system is that it is focused on test-taking rather than problem solving. Students are not taught on the whys or how to think outside of the box. This in turn stifles AMERICANS from being innovative which of course trickles down socially, politically and economically. Add to that the fact that the average American has to work harder for generally less money (can't be bothered with "trivial" stuff, gotta make the rent money happen) and you have the situation that we are in now. In fact I would venture to say that it is a vicious circle: You're poor, so you don't get the best education, you've never been taught on how to think "out of the box", since you're emphasis is on surviving you don't "have time" to think (or act upon) improving yourself or society in general...

    March 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • Chichi


      I agree with you. US has the best minds and the best resources to get the best education. However, the US society actually tries to suppress people from learning. As you mentioned, education is so expensive in this country. To get the best education is to owe forever. Also, the students are not encouraged to critically think. Instead, teachers are forced to teach to test or they will lose their jobs. It is only in this country that educators are not respected or even adequately compensated. To be an educator is to subject oneself to life of poverty. Many intelligent minds in the industry will leave the education arena to seek other employment so that they can survive the astronomical debt and extravagant lifestyles. We desperately need to make changes before we become a third world country. It is time that we swallow our prides and use the talented people in this country to boost out economy, education and society.

      March 17, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Reply
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