Friday, May 29, 2009

American Dream, Interrupted

The third installment of my column in Zahraničná politika, a Slovak foreign policy magazine, touches on the less obvious yet very troubling effects of the economic crisis.

American Dream, Interrupted

There has been a lot of talk about change lately, including in this column, as a result of the election of Barrack Obama and his arguably progressive agenda. And yet the most striking changes occurring all over the place are not happening because of Obama and his agenda, but rather around him and despite him. I am talking about the current economic crisis / recession / depression and how it is slowly redefining the US in ways that are far reaching and profound. And increasingly I have to wonder, what is left of America as we know it?

The US banking system is only a few steps away from nationalization - it has been saved for now simply because the administration wants to try every avenue possible first. Several major car manufacturers are only a few miles from bankruptcy, temporarily held afloat by loans from the government. The real estate market continues to melt down and that the government is trying to revive it seems like par for the course. In short, not only are some of the key symbols of American capitalism - banks, cars, houses - are under serious stress, but also the essence of their rescue plan could be labeled un-American: government intervention and control. And yet, even those who criticize big government, higher taxes and deficit spending, have had little to offer in term of alternatives. In fact, the US - and by extension, the world economy - is lucky that the largest economic contraction since the Great Depression is occurring under the watch of a President and Congress that don't seem philosophically opposed to taking bold pro-active steps.

Yet, as ironic as all these extraordinary circumstances may seem, they do not make me wonder about the future of American capitalism and its position in the global economy. Time, simple forces of supply and demand, and presumably the current government intervention, will eventually sort out the problems in banking, autos and real estate one way or another. No, the changes that should make Americans more worried are much more quiet and subtle and are affecting some of the core fueling forces of America and, as cheesy as it may sound, shattering the idea of the "American dream."

The first issue I have in mind here is immigration. While the topic of illegal aliens is consuming the attention of the mainstream media and the President, there is an entirely different battle going on - against legal immigrants who have been living in the country on working visas. Due to a special skill or high level of education, these foreigners have been sponsored by a US company to live in the country. Over the years, many of these individuals have contributed greatly to the US economy - for example, Microsoft says that 35% of their patents came from new inventions by visa and greencard holders. In other words, this program - and immigration in general - has been the feeding channel to attract and retain the hardest-working, brightest minds from all over the globe to the US.

And yet, the visa program has come under criticism from those who argue that during a recession, American companies should not be giving jobs away to foreigners. The most vivid assault on the program came in the economic stimulus plan which imposes severe restriction on any company receiving federal funding and their ability to hire foreigners. However, even outside of the companies directly affected by the stimulus restrictions, the popular backlash against the visa program has led to a drop in applications for new visas as companies are becoming shy about sponsoring foreign workers. It was in that spirit that Wells Fargo, a major US bank, has decided to discontinue sponsorships for some of the foreigners they already employ. And Microsoft, after it announced it will continue sponsoring immigrants, had to quickly soften its stance amid criticism from media and lawmakers and declared it will file "substantially fewer" applications - this despite having clearly stating how crucial hiring from the global talent pool is for them - and the US.

Education and research are another defining element of America that is being threatened as a result of the current crisis. On one end of the spectrum, the institutions relying on public funding are facing a tough future as 36 states have either enacted or proposed budget cuts for elementary or higher level education. On the other end of the spectrum, private institutions which are not solely dependent on public funding are dealing with massive declines in the values of their endowment portfolios - 23% during the 5 months ended in November of last year, according to the National Association of College and University Endowments. Even Harvard - with its breathtaking endowment that peaked at $37 billion in 2008 but is expected to decline 30% as a result of the market meltdown - is planning to reduce its budget by $220 million over the next two years. Moreover, in the US education goes hand in hand with research: American universities are not just educational institutions, but also powerhouses of invention and progress. In fact, universities now perform about 60% of all basic research in the US, according to National Science Foundation. And the math is quite simple: fewer education dollars equals less research.

Perhaps most profoundly, however, shrinking higher education budgets translate into fewer dollars available for financial aid for students from lower income families at a time when increasingly more students are in need of such aid due to the economic downturn and market losses. Because attending college is impossible for the poor without outside assistance, the reductions in funding could have a meaningful impact on social mobility. In other words, kids from lower income families will have fewer chances to get higher education and move up on the socio-economic ladder.

While funding for higher education is dropping, it is hard to imagine any other country replacing the US as the leader any time soon. It is telling, however, that the US stands to capitalize less on its investment in education than ever before, as foreign students are increasingly likely to return home after graduation. This is not some insignificant group we're talking about: according to National Science Foundation, foreigners received nearly 60% of all engineering doctorates and over 50% of all engineering, math, computer sciences, physics and economics doctorates awarded in the US. And today, they are planning to return home in greater numbers than ever before. As the Kauffman Foundation found in its report "Losing the World's Best and Brightest", 58% of Indian, 40% of European and 54% of Chinese students surveyed would stay in the US if given the choice, which suggests a meaningful drop in the appeal of the US given that historically as much as two thirds of foreigners overall stayed in the US after receiving a doctorate, more specifically 92% of the Chinese and 85% of Indians. And while the availability of economic opportunities in the home country was the most important reason for returning (other than family ties) - a stunning revelation in and of itself - the ability to obtain a visa was also an important factor. Stated differently, it would seem that the aforementioned backlash against working visas is making it harder to stay in the US for the shrinking portion of those that find it appealing in the first place.

And so, in 2010 (or any time between 2011 and 2020, depending on which pessimistic economist you believe), when the US recovers from this recession, it will probably be very different - not because its banks will operate under different regulations and a few car companies will no longer exist but rather because some of its key competitive advantages, like ever replenishing diversity and investment in human capital, will have fallen prey to the economic meltdown. Will those naturally recover as the economic engine goes back into full speed and will other countries capitalize on America's weakness in the meantime? That remains to be seen. But for now the American Dream is on hold.

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