October 9th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

America is getting soft

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Barack Obama has apparently committed blasphemy. In an interview in Florida last week, he dared to say that America had gotten "soft." The denunciations came in fast and furious from the right. Rick Perry said, “Americans are plenty tough. What we've got is a soft President.” Romney added, "It's not that we have become soft. It's that he's on our shoulders and is too heavy."

If you watch the clip, here's what the president really said:

"The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track."

Isn't this self-evidently true? And isn’t this what conservatives have been saying for decades?

The evidence on the topic is pretty clear. The United States is slipping by most measures of global competitiveness. In category after category - actual venture capital funding, research and development - America has dropped well behind countries like Japan, South Korea and Sweden.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation measures 39 countries on their efforts to improve competitiveness over the last decade. America comes in next to last. Perhaps the most crucial measure of our ability to compete in a global economy is our educational levels, especially in science, math and engineering. A generation ago, America had the highest percent of college graduates in the world. Today we're ninth and falling. In 2004, only 6% of U.S. degrees were awarded in engineering, which is half the average for rich countries. In Japan it's 20% and in Germany it's 16%.

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. America was a country marked by this ethic.

I'll give you three examples.

1.  In the 1950s, household debt was just 34% of disposable income; today it is 115% of disposable income.

2.  Over the same period, investments in infrastructure and R&D spending are both down by a full percent of GDP.

3. Today, the federal government spends four dollars on every adult over 65. Compare that with what we spend on children under 18 - just one dollar. Every level of government now spends less of its money investing for the future and more and more on consumption for the present.

Conservatives used to believe in confronting hard truths, not succumbing to comforting fairy tales. Some still do. In a bracing essay in the right-wing National Review, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and a politically active libertarian, describes how America has, well, gone soft. He notes that the economy hasn't been performing well for decades and that median wages have been stagnating. He argues that the country's innovation culture has begun to decay, corroded by a widespread search for "easy progress" and quick fixes. "In our hearts and minds," Thiel writes," we know that desperate optimism will not save us."

That's just what the feel-good mantras you hear so often these days sounds like - desperate optimism.

For more on this read my column in this week's Time magazine or at Time.comFor more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to bookmark the Global Public Square. Also, for more of my takes, click here.

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    July 20, 2012 at 3:27 am | Reply
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    October 9, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  4. Tam

    Honestly... I myself don't think that colleges should not let some people in just because they are supposedly smarter, and want to give hispanics and african americans a chance to excell.It's just not right!!!

    October 9, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
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  6. Andrew

    yes, too soft. come into America illegally, have a child (children) while here illegally, those children are citizens. too soft. the principal is 'fruit of the poisonous tree'. go into a theater, kill random, innocent people, spend the rest of your life in jail, too soft. mandatory death sentences for premeditated murder. no jury member has to vote against their beliefs, it's automatic. time to tighten up. all this softness is not lost on our enemies.

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