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The Third Economic Revolution — Boom or Bust for America?

Andy Stern – Georgetown Public Policy Institute  and Former President, SEIU

Posted: February 2, 2011 08:53 AM

Last Thursday the leaders of the Senate, in contrast to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, reached an agreement on rule changes which shows again that they may be able historians, but they fail miserably as futurists and leaders of change.

Sadly, this is simply the latest in a series of American leaders failing to choose to change and maybe make history, preferring to stick to the status quo and threatening to turn American competitiveness into ancient history.

In 2005, I wrote about the need for change at this moment of economic inflection in my book, A Country That Works–Getting America Back on Track. I was reminded during President Obama’s State of the Union address how many of my own observations about the future were embodied in his speech.

My book’s premise was simple — our country, joined by the rest of the world, is living through the most profound, the most significant, and the most transformative economic revolution in the history of the world.

And where the first economic revolution — the agricultural revolution — took 3,000 years, and the industrial revolution 300 years, this third economic revolution will take only 30 years. As the President reminded us, “In a single generation revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work, and do business.”

I wrote in 2005 “…that America cannot confront the challenges we’re facing with constituency groups operating in separate silos or like-minded individuals failing to combine their voices. Our country’s failure to break loose from conventional wisdom and embrace the future is the biggest threat we face“, or as the President said, “The future is ours to win.”

I even called out my own Sputnik moment, “In 1957, Americans were shocked to discover that the Soviet Union had successfully launched the world’s first satellite into space…Our country responded to the news with a patriotic effort to join the Soviets in space by launching Explorer I and creating NASA.”

My prediction then was that the 2008 Olympics in Beijing would be another “Sputnik” moment for Americans, when they see the striking evidence of China’s economic might. America would have the chance to respond to China with a plan as quickly and effectively as we did to Sputnik. This would be the signature test for our generation, and a history making moment for our children’s future.

Now 5 years later in an ever increasing global economy, and two years after the Beijing Olympics, with workers having endured both a jobless decade and 3 decades of virtually no wage growth, capped off by an economic collapse — America still has no plan to keep the American Dream alive or compete globally in the face of this third economic revolution. Our Sputnik moment lacks the energy and political cohesion for lift off while China keeps rolling along.

New Congressmen pay homage to the market, as their economic cure-all, despite clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. Our employer based health care and pensions systems, by putting the cost of benefits on the price of our products, is a drag on American competitiveness, but politicians seem more comfortable designating “Obamacare” as the real root of all evil.

Our competitors’ VAT taxes allow them to tax our exports while we let their imports into our country tax-free.

While China promotes unions to raise wages, many US elected officials and leaders in our business community want them to disappear. Our health care system costs 2-7% more of GDP than our competitors, but we continue to brag that it is the best in the world, and, given the extreme cost differential, it better be.

And now the middle class jobs in legal and pharmaceutical research, and medical care, to name a few, are being shipped overseas in a trading system were America obeys the rules and China and others flout them. White collar parents who played by the rules and made sure their children had a college degree are asking this century the same question that was dismissively cast aside when raised by blue collar parents’ last century — where are my kids going to find a job?

President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, coupled with his 2008 campaign message and his New Foundation speech in April 2009 at Georgetown, my current institution, establish his futurist credentials, and his recognition that this is no longer our father’s or grandfather’s economy.

Yet, most of the political class in Washington thinks we can drive into the future looking in the rearview mirror.

Today, Americans are embroiled in a very different revolution than the one our forefathers were engaged in fighting for liberty in 1776. But the truth is that this revolution, the third economic one, is the defining contemporary moment for our nation’s greatness.

Team USA needs a 21st century future oriented plan to make this truly-A Country that Works– for everyone, and where the dreams of our children still can come true.

Our future is not a matter of chance, but a matter of choice. And it is time to decide!

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