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Columnist: H. James Harrington

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


The Decline of U.S. Dominance--Part 2

Land of the lackadaisical



In last month’s column, I addressed the fact that the United States was slipping backward in terms of world opinion. We used to be the most respected nation in the world. Now many countries openly express negative views of the United States and our policies. We have become a country that has lost its economic and technical leadership role, and now even our focus on strong family values is diminishing. But as bad as it sounds, it is not too late. Our forefathers worked hard to make this country the best place in the world to live--and it is. Millions of men and women have given their lives for the freedom that we enjoy, such as the right to openly voice our opinion about anything and everything.

The United States is still the most creative nation in the world. Nearly a third of all patent applications last year came from the United States. However, other countries are catching up fast. U.S. patent applications increased by 9.8 percent in 2005, compared to 43.7 percent in China, 33.6 percent in South Korea, 24.3 percent in Japan and, 10.1 percent in Australia.

We have an obligation to add value to the U.S. economy. We cannot all be managers, lawyers, or doctors. Too many of us look down on the person who is mowing the lawn, sweeping the street, picking up garbage, and driving the trucks. “Work” isn’t a dirty four-letter word--the hard worker with dirt under his fingernails is the one adding real value to the country.

We need to take pride in what we do. When you go home at night and look in the mirror, will you able to smile and say, “I did my very best?” Too many of us stop short of being our best. We say, “That’s good enough,” never knowing how good we could be. We used to look up to the person in the organization who was doing the outstanding job. She was the one that was always in before the starting bell and worked late at night to be sure that everything was done in a professional manner. It was these superstars that we all tried to mimic, but that has changed. The superstars have begun to look at the low performers--those who come in late and go home early to make up for it. The superstars question if it’s worth all the additional effort for the small difference in pay. Work standards are now being set by the slow-moving workers (those who do just enough to get by) rather than the superstars. To make up for these sloppy work habits, we are using information technology to offset the lack of interest in the job and the lack of commitment to the organization.

We are living in a knowledge-based economy. Knowledge is power. We all need to be concerned about our educational system. In particular, we need to be concerned about the erosion of scientific and technological output from our colleges and universities. China and India combined graduate 950,000 engineers every year, compared to only 70,000 in the United States. For the cost of hiring one engineer in the United States, you can hire five chemists in India; in China, you can hire 11 engineers. Of the 2006 college graduates in the United States, there were more degrees in sports management than in electrical engineering. That’s a trend sure to end our technical leadership of the world. We may be the best at basketball, but we might not be able to build the radar system needed to protect ourselves from invasion.

Our universities are something of which we can be proud--out of the top 20 universities in the world, 18 are in the United States. The United States invests 2.6 percent of its gross national product in higher education, compared to 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan. The United States spends more on education than any other country in the world, but it is not reflected in the scores at the grade-school levels. The United States places 15th in the international reading assessment median score for fourth graders. Even more troubling, we have far worse world standings in science and math than we do in reading.

Our problem is that we’re just not stepping up to the fact that the rest of the world is coming up fast. I want the United States to mean as much and provide as many opportunities to my great-grandchildren as it did for me. The world economy is opening to competitors more than ever before. Countries that used to talk down capitalism are changing their tunes. Technology is allowing people in Africa, India, and South America to compete for U.S. jobs. China and India with their 2.3 billion people have an almost unlimited source of workers.

What we need to do is get back to basics. The things that made us great in the first place are hard work, pride in accomplishment, technical education, and strong family values. We need to build on our country’s strong points--openness, fairness, creativity, ethics, and excellence in output.

About the author
H. James Harrington is CEO of the Harrington Institute Inc. and chairman of the board of e-TQM College Advisory Board. Harrington is a past president of ASQ and IAQ. He has more than 55 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 33 books. Visit his web site at www.harrington-institute.com.