Surf the web or watch TV and you will probably conclude that American politicians and American pundits don’t agree on much at the moment. But that polarized public discourse obscures the equally important fact that Americans are remarkably united when it comes to determining what the big issues facing the country are.
This isn’t a moment when the nation is divided between isolationists, who want to focus on domestic issues, and expansionists, who want to focus on the rest of the world; nor is this an era when the political debate is about whether social policy—those old standbys like abortion, gay rights and family values—or economic concerns—be they poverty reduction or business growth—should be pre-eminent.
Instead, everyone is pretty much agreed on the big challenges facing America: stimulating economic growth, balancing the budget and finding a place for the United States in the world economy. There is even consensus, at the broadest level, on what the country needs to do to achieve all three: save more and spend less; invest more in social and physical infrastructure and less in personal consumption.
Here’s how Nobel-prize winning economist Michael Spence framed the problem—and the basic solution—when I interviewed him at a recent conference. “Let me describe China thirty years ago,” said Spence, who is advising the Chinese government on the twelfth, and latest, five-year plan. “Thirty years ago China had a per capita income of $400, changed direction, and started saving at 35% and investing at 35%. OK? Now when you have a $400 income and you’re saving at 35%, that means you’re consuming 65% of $400. That is a huge commitment to the future as opposed to the present, right? Now you either make the commitment, as the Chinese did and all the other high-growth developing countries, or you don’t.”
That’s a tough message, but it’s not actually a particularly controversial one. The hard part has been finding a consensus on how to pay for that investment in the future.