United States must take risks to succeed

Michael Kahn

The year is 1933. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announces the New Deal to recover from the Great Depression.

The year is 1961. President John F. Kennedy announces that Americans are going to the moon within the decade.

The year is 2010. President Barack Obama announces… what, exactly? His intention to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or maybe pass national health care. But these are not the kind of grand, long-term plans that will drive Americans and their government for the next decade. Until we can find such a plan, we as a nation will find it impossible to maintain a competitive advantage over countries like China that are making big bets in technology and infrastructure.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been the only true global superpower, and it took upon itself the role of international policeman. Since 2001, the War on Terror has drained our resources and become one of the government’s top priorities. But as we have poured our resources into Iraq and Afghanistan, we have lost sight of other internal goals.

We support corrupt governments with foreign aid but leave our own people in poverty. We need a commitment to developing infrastructure, to bringing 21st-century technology to the entire country. We need long-term goals that will inspire a generation of American youth.

In a column at The New York Times last week, Thomas Friedman (author of “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century”) compared the United States’ investment in Afghanistan to China’s investment in infrastructure and cutting-edge technology. His conclusion: “The contrast is not good.”

Friedman is right. China is investing in renewable energy and high-speed rail, and its (mostly) command economy means that these investments can be supported by the force of its authoritarian government. Among the advanced technologies Friedman discusses are electric vehicles. China has made such cars one of its “industrial pillars.” But while China and Europe are focusing on innovative technologies for transportation, the United States seems to be making little progress.

Sure, political leaders make speeches promoting renewable energy and high-efficiency vehicles, but until their words are backed by broad efforts, we will only see incremental developments. And while I do not intend to advocate China’s style of government control for America, history shows that our free-market principles and relatively limited government do not stop us from making big bets that have big payoffs. Today, however, we are not willing to make the investments or the sacrifices necessary to achieve these grand goals.

It may be that the United States has outgrown its period of accepting great challenges. We may be too cynical, too skeptical of our government to take big risks. When President George W. Bush tried to channel Kennedy and announced that NASA would return to the moon and continue to Mars, few people thought there was any chance of making his seemingly arbitrary deadlines. Many doubted the goals would be achieved at all. As the last few months have shown, we skeptics were right.

Truthfully, though, a literal moon shot is not what the country needs right now. We need something even more audacious: a genuine change in the lives of Americans everywhere. The age of Kennedy and Roosevelt, when great dreams led to great results, seems to be behind us. Yet, if we are to maintain our standard of living, we have no choice but to begin dreaming once more. We must not be afraid to take risks. We must not be afraid to fail. We must not be afraid to make our own future.

Michael Kahn is the forum editor for The Tartan at Carnegie Mellon University.