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
Progress and co-author of The Next American Century: How the US Can Thrive As Other
Powers Rise (now in paperback).