2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Managing Director Excel Venture Management; Author, As the Future Catches You
Technology can untie the U.S.

Everyone grows and dies; same is true of countries. The only question is how long one postpones the inevitable. In the case of some countries, life spans can be very long, so it is worth asking is the U.S. in adolescence, middle age, or old age? Do science and technology accelerate or offset demise? And finally "how many stars will be in the U.S. flag in fifty years?"

There has yet to be a single U.S. president buried under the same flag he was born under, yet we oft take continuity for granted. Just as almost no newlyweds expect to divorce, citizens rarely assume their beloved country, flag and anthem might end up an exhibit in an archeology museum. But countries rich and poor, Asian, African, and European have been untying time and again. In the last five decades the number of UN members has tripled. This trend goes way beyond the de-colonization of the 1960s, and it is not exclusive to failed states; it is a daily debate within the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and many others.

So far the Americas has remained mostly impervious to these global trends, but, even if in God you trust, there are no guarantees. Over the next decade waves of technology will wash over the U.S. Almost any applied field you care to look at promises extraordinary change, opportunities, and challenges. (Witness the entries in this edition of Edge). How counties adapt to massive, rapid upheaval will go a long way towards determining the eventual outcome. To paraphrase Darwin, it is not the strongest, not the largest, that survive rather it is those best prepared to cope with change.

It is easy to argue that the U.S. could be a larger more powerful country in fifty years. But it is also possible that, like so many other great powers, it could begin to unravel and untie. This is not something that depends on what we do decide to do fifty years hence; to a great extent it depends on what we choose to do, or choose to ignore, today. There are more than a few worrisome trends.

Future ability to generate wealth depends on techno-literacy. But educational excellence, particularly in grammar and high schools is far from uniform, and it is not world class. Time and again the U.S. does poorly, particularly in regards to math and science, when compared with its major trading partners. Internally, there are enormous disparities between schools and between the number of students that pass state competency exams and what federal tests tell us about the same students. There are also large gaps in techno literacy between ethnic groups. By 2050 close to 40% of the U.S. population will be Hispanic and African American. These groups receive 3% of the PhDs in math and science today. How we prepare kids for a life sciences, materials, robotics, IT, and nanotechnology driven world is critical. But we currently invest $22,000 federal dollars in those over 65 and just over $2,000 in those under sixteen...

As ethnic, age, and regional gaps in the ability to adapt increase there are many wary and frustrated by technology, open borders, free trade, and smart immigrants. Historically, when others use newfangled ways to leap ahead, it can lead to a conservative response. This is likeliest within those societies and groups thant have the most to lose, often among those who have been the most successful. One often observes a reflexive response: stop the train; I want to get off. Or, as the Red Sox now say, just wait till last year. No more teaching evolution, no more research into stem cells, no more Indian or Chinese or Mexican immigrants, no matter how smart or hardworking they might be. These individual battles are signs of a creeping xenophobia, isolationism, and fury.

Within the U.S. there are many who are adapting very successfully. They tend to concentrate in a very few zip codes, life science clusters like 92121(between Salk, Scripps, and UCSD) and techno-empires like 02139 (MIT). Most of the nation's wealth and taxes are generated by a few states and, within these states, within in a few square miles. It is those who live in these areas that are most affronted by restrictions on research, the lack of science literate teenagers, and the reliance on God instead of science.

Politicians well understand these divides and they have gerrymandered their own districts to reflect them. Because competitive congressional elections are rarer today than turnovers within the Soviet Politburo, there is rarely an open debate and discussion as to why other parts of the country act and think so differently. The Internet and cable further narrowcast news and views, tending to reinforce what one's neighbors and communities already believe. Positions harden. Anger at "the others" mounts.

Add a large and mounting debt to this equation, along with politicized religion, and the mixture becomes explosive. The average household now owes over $88,000 and the present value of what we have promised to pay is now about $473,000. There is little willingness within Washington to address a mounting deficit, never mind the current account imbalance. Facing the next electoral challenge, few seem to remember the last act of many an empire is to drive itself into bankruptcy.

Sooner or later we could witness some very bitter arguments about who gets and who pays. In developed country after developed country, it is often the richest, not the ethnically or religiously repressed, that first seek autonomy and eventually dissolution. In this context it is worth recalling that New England, not the South, has been the most secession prone region. As the country expanded, New Englanders attempted to include the right to untie into the constitution; the argument was that as this great country expanded South and West they would lose control over their political and economic destiny. Perhaps this is what led to four separate attempts to untie the Union.

When we assume stability and continuity we can wake up to irreconcilable differences. Science and a knowledge driven economy can allow a few folks to build powerful and successful countries very quickly, witness Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Ireland, but changes of this magnitude can also bury or split the formerly great who refuse to adapt, as well as those who practice bad governance. If we do not begin to address some current divides quickly we could live to see an Un-Tied States of America.