America faces a huge set of challenges if it is going to retain its competitive edge. As a nation, we have a mounting education deficit, energy deficit, budget deficit, health care deficit and ambition deficit. The administration is in denial on this, and Congress is off on Mars. And yet, when I look around for the group that has both the power and interest in seeing America remain globally focused and competitive - America's business leaders - they seem to be missing in action. I am not worried about the rise of the cultural conservatives. I am worried about the disappearance of an internationalist, pro-American business elite.
Is there any company in America that should be more involved in lobbying for some form of national health coverage than General Motors, which is being strangled by its health care costs? Is there any group of companies that should have been picketing the White House more than our high-tech firms, after the Bush team cut the National Science Foundation budget by $100 million in 2005 and in 2006 has proposed shrinking the Department of Energy science programs and basic and applied research in the Department of Defense - key sources of innovation?
Is there any constituency that should be clamoring for a sane energy policy more than U.S. industry? Is there any group that should be mobilizing voters to lobby Congress to pass the Caribbean Free Trade Agreement and complete the Doha round more than U.S. multinationals? Should anyone be more concerned about the fiscally reckless deficits we are leaving our children than Wall Street?
Yet, with a few admirable exceptions, American business has not gotten out front on these issues. In part, this is because boardrooms tend to be culturally Republican - both uncomfortable and a little afraid to challenge this administration. In part, this is because of the post-Enron keep-your-head-down effect. And in part, this is because in today's flatter world, many key U.S. companies now make most of their profits abroad and can increasingly recruit the best talent in the world today without ever hiring another American.
So with business with its head in the clouds, labor with its head in the sand, the administration focused on terrorism and Congress catering to people who think "intelligent design" is something done by God and not by Intel, it's not surprising that "we don't have a strategy for making America competitive in the 21st century - a century of three billion new capitalists," as Clyde Prestowitz put it. He is the author of a smart new book about the rise of China and India, called, appropriately, "Three Billion New Capitalists."