The nation faces a wide variety of external threats. Many of them have the potential to cause some serious damage; some of them even have the potential to destroy the nation. Thankfully, such latter threats as asteroid impacts and comprehensive nuclear strikes have very low probabilities. The real threat to national well being is our ability to align our internal social and economic systems to meet the challenges of globalization and environment change. These challenges have the potential to undermine our viability as a nation, demolish our prosperity, and destroy our potential to be a global leader in troubled times. The current recession only underlines the urgency of these challenges.
As a nation, we have a long list of neglected challenges, including:
- Health care - We neglect our most basic resource, our own citizens. Despite the fact that we spend some 15 % of our Gross National Product (GNP) on health care - one of the highest percentages in the world - we still have over 40 million people without basic health coverage. With such a high spending level, our health care system should do much better; organizationally, it is badly flawed. Hospital infections kill tens of thousands every year, personal with severe mental problems end up on the streets, an obesity epidemic is complicating a wide range of other medical problems, and our ability to respond to serious disasters remains severely limited.
- Environmental degradation - The first impact of environmental degradation is on public health, exacerbating the health care challenge outlined above. The low levels of hundreds of toxic substances now found in our daily environment particularly challenge pregnant women, babies and young children. Environmental degradation also contaminates water supplies and reduces agricultural and fishing yields. And now, global climate change threatens to further complicate our situation. Both the causes and potential impacts remain controversial, but it appears almost certain that there will be significant adverse effects on agriculture and water supply, as well as new patterns of diseases. More powerful storms and higher sea levels are also expected, putting at risk trillions of dollars worth of housing, commercial and industrial assets in low-lying coastal areas.
- Education deficiencies - This is another aspect to the neglect of our own human resources. Even today, despite its high literacy rate and large expenditures on education, our nation now stands at 16th out of 27 industrialized countries in the proportion of students who complete college. We pride ourselves on American ingenuity. Our ability to be both creative and practical is reflected in the fact that almost 33% of worldwide patents in 2008 were to Americans. Unfortunately, the United States is the only one of the top six nations that showed a decline - Germany and Japan showed over a 10% increase.
- Energy dependence - By now almost everyone is well aware that dependence on foreign energy sources is a significant restraint on the US economy. From a purely financial point of view, the nation was paying over $300 million per day to foreign suppliers. While obviously lower during the current economic recession, this restrains our freedom of action globally. More immediately, it pushes us to maximize our use of coal (contributing to both mercury pollution and greenhouse gas production) and consider oil and gas production in locations which could result in further environmental degradation.
- Income inequality - America has stressed equal opportunity and recognized that there would be unequal results, but the degree of inequality is steadily increasing - the top 1% of Americans receive over 20% of the national income. The Land of Opportunity is increasingly restrained by globalization and other factors. Even in one of the richest countries in the world, almost 40 million people live below the poverty level, breeding crime, drug use, and social disruption. It is becoming increasingly difficult for prosperity to rely on economic expansion rather then economic sustainability, but this would require some basic realignments of our national economy.
- Illegal immigration - This problem is deeply intertwined with the challenge of creating a sustainable economy. The American economy has always relied on an underclass. In the past, the Land of Opportunity provided a route for immigrants at the bottom to rise into the middle class, being replaced by new immigrants. This growth cycle has basically ground to a halt, exacerbated by recession, but grounded in the structure of an unsustainable growth economy.
- Infrastructure - The current stimulus measures addressing the growing recession recognize the need to build a more robust infrastructure as the backbone of a sustainable economy. Unfortunately, the magnitude of the problem is staggering. National infrastructure encompasses the basic facilities that communities, cities, governments, and businesses need to survive and thrive. This includes schools, waterlines, wastewater-treatment systems, stormwater management, dams, flood mitigation, hospitals, emergency management and operations centers, law enforcement facilities, energy, aviation, rail lines, ports, communications, cyber networks, and utility systems, both above and below ground. Investing in infrastructure today and planning for contingencies ensures a higher degree of public safety, national security, and economic prosperity tomorrow and for future generations. Transit infrastructure alone needs some one and a half trillion dollars for upkeep and repairs.
- Crime - Crime has become a major national challenge. The United States has the world's highest reported incarceration rate. Although it has less than 5 percent of the world's population, it has almost one-quarter of the world's prisoners; more than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars. Prison overcrowding and now cutbacks in rehabilitation programs make the prison population self-sustaining as prisons become our graduate schools of crime. The drug trade continues to flourish and now threatens to collapse the Mexican government. And there are now over 650,000 registered sex offenders in the nation. Cyber and internet crime, almost unknown a decade ago, is now a major national problem. Hard economic times only intensify these problems as well as racial, cultural, and ethnic divisions.
- Accidents. Accidents kill over 100,000 people a year (including over 40,000 in traffic accidents) and injure tens of thousands more. Industrial accidents killed over 5,000 people in 2007 and injured over four million. Through the years efforts to reduce accidents have shown that focused programs can have significant positive results.
- Military Service. Our military defends the nation from a wide variety of threats, but it does this at a high cost. This includes over $600 billion a year of budgeted costs -- mainly expenditures for nonproductive uses and clearly represents large opportunity costs for the rest of the national budget. But the direct fiscal costs do not address the large social costs. Casualties from Iraq alone now stand at over 4,000 dead and at least 30,000 wounded; an estimated 320,000 veterans have brain injuries. Each casualty affects other family, friends and associates leading to a very large social costs.
Collectively, these challenges have the potential to devastate the nation. What most of them share in common is that they are broad, amorphous problems which are hard to define and for which there are no solutions. The best that can be done is to craft approaches which reduce the problem, and then continually adjust those approaches to match changing circumstances. It is practically impossible to prove beforehand, and frequently even afterwards, that a specific policy had some specific effect. Even where an effect can be demonstrated, it may have little effect on public opinion. So, for example, lives lost in traffic accidents are real persons, with names and circumstances; lives saved by stronger regulations are statistical lives - no one knows who they are. And almost any policy runs into vested interests and controversy.
So it is no wonder that policy makers focus on more tractable challenges, ones which can be neatly defined and where a clear policy can be developed. Congress, in particular, is ill suited for broad and diffuse challenges; its committee structure almost prohibits addressing any of the large problems facing the nation. When a commission is set up to address some broad problem - as has happened in recent years in regards to terrorist attacks and to intelligence - implementing a long list of diverse recommendations becomes an exercise in bureaucratic frustration. Each individual policy must follow its own path through the legislative process with outcomes shaped by opposing vested interests as much as by national interests.
It was refreshing to see the Director of National Intelligence, a retired Navy admiral, tell Congress that the current global economic crisis is the primary near-term security threat to the United States. But it is disturbing to realize that this critical economic challenge is seen as short term, something that will pass so that we can get back to whatever the "real" focus of national security should be. In fact, the economic challenges facing us underlie everything. The analysis has it backwards. It is not the purpose of the economy to support military assets, but rather the purpose of military assets to support the economy without which the military cannot even function. Economic challenges are not temporarily impeding our global leadership, they are the basis of any global leadership we have.
As Tom Engelhardt has stressed in a recent analysis, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, brought on by a misadventure in Afghanistan, the United States saw itself as the unquestioned global leader. It never occurred that what happened to the Soviet Union could happen to us next. But it can. Even while challenges at home - including those mentioned above - undermine the well being of the nation and we face daunting challenges of globalization, we continue to try to fix the world. What we need most is to fix us.