January 2005 | Commentary | Checking In

Tipping Point, Again? (Keith Biondo)

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We are at a tipping point in terms of America's ability to compete globally. Go one way and we can expand our economic growth and leverage the trend toward globalization. Go the other and we may reach a point where others drive the well-being of our economy and workers.

And if it is now true that a sine qua non of homeland security depends upon the spread of democracy, (which we bear the cost of), our economic success gains even greater importance.

Time moves slowly, so some do not see, or agree with, the warning signs of a tipping point. Yet incremental occurrences will aggregate, reaching a point that quickly alters the course of events, like other times in our nation's history.

The new America in 1789 was an agrarian society and that's the way many Americans wanted it. "We'll let Europe be our workshop," said Thomas Jefferson when considering the direction—industrial or pastoral—our new country should take. (Let others be America's workshop? Does that sound familiar today?)

Others never saw it that way, and even Jefferson later changed his mind. Robert Fulton, his predecessor John Fitch, and Fulton enabler John Livingston, for example, had a vision of an America unleashed by transportation, by steam-powered boats. For more than 20 years, they used their grit to bend America to their vision—rivers navigable in both directions, oceans made smaller by man, commerce on major rivers, the Louisiana Purchase doubling the size of the United States, and, later, westward expansion.

If we are at a point where Jefferson once was, let's recall that the work done in our workshop has given us all that we have. If diminished, what then drives our economy in the coming years? The capacity to efficiently transport goods was once fundamental to growing our nation's geographic size and economic power. But what is our capacity now to efficiently transport goods in terms of infrastructure, energy policy, mindset?

Infrastructure. We fail to invest, maintain, and grow our infrastructure to keep up with changing demands. Other countries invest billions in new planes, many U.S. air carriers fly on broken wings. Few expand globally, most are contracting here at home.

Others expand sea and airports, investing billions to position their trading ability for the future. But port improvements, highway initiatives, rail investments here? Slim.

China can lay 400 miles of superhighway seemingly overnight. Here, highway projects and improvements stall, and take years to complete at higher costs than needed. Or we spend highway trust funds on under-utilized 'light rail' ventures.

Energy policy. What energy policy? Yet energy is fundamental to the cost of every move, every touch, at every point in the supply chain. A lack of a sound energy policy impacts more than transportation. It affects our trade deficit, our ability to compete for global capital, the ability of our labor to compete globally, and more.

Mindset. A healthy, natural tension exists among players in business relationships. It is, in a natural selection way, purifying. But what of government policies that are more often obstructionist than not? Many view business as somehow divorced from those it gives sustenance to. These are anachronistic attitudes, damaging potential and limiting progress.

Do we have a collective vision of transportation and trade's importance in a post-manufacturing America? Are we aggressively pursuing the kind of education we need to lead in global trade? Are we investing in and crafting the elements that allow us to do that?

Or are we caught up in a cat's cradle of competing concerns, doing little to advance the economic interests of this nation and the people that work for the companies in it?

Without a sense of purpose, without contemporaries like Fitch, Fulton or Livingston, without a shared mission, we could soon reach a point that tips us in the wrong direction. But, we have all the elements—the power, the capacity, the people—to move this country in the right direction.

Which way do we go?

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