Downgrading America?


Xconomy Boston — 

I don’t know how most Americans feel these days, but I haven’t felt like this since just before Richard Nixon left office in 1974. Our political leaders (think “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence”) have just completed a grand game of chicken. They ended up in just the same position Neville Chamberlain was when he negotiated with Adolf Hitler.

I won’t dwell on the inanity of the negotiations or final resolution about spending, revenues and debt limits. Suffice it to say that cutting a little over $2 trillion from the projected 10—year deficit is akin to losing 7 pounds off a starting weight of 350. We will still have accumulated deficits over that time frame of $7 trillion, and we still confront total debt and vested liabilities of perhaps $90 trillion.

One side argues that we can’t raise revenues and the other argues that we can’t cut entitlements. I have no horse in the race, so to speak, so let me be clear: both sides are wrong, dumber than a pile of rocks, but much more dangerous. Entitlement costs, especially healthcare, will eat us alive: without real reform of affordable health delivery, not just reform of access to health insurance, the U.S. economy is doomed. More generally, at all levels, government has given away the future in order to buy votes in the present. It has been a truly bipartisan effort over decades. On the revenue side, we will need to increase taxes, broaden the tax base, and reform the tax code, or we are also doomed.

Because the negotiated settlement of the debt crisis was so lame, a ratings agency has downgraded the country. Instead of asking whether we are indeed in greater danger of long-term financial difficulties, everyone is blaming the bearer of bad news, pointing out that they weren’t exactly prescient in the recent financial crisis. Of course that is true but irrelevant. You don’t need a crystal ball to see that we have an unsustainable business model and no political process for change.

Reading the papers these days is remarkably uninformative. Increasingly, the media mixes editorial and news content. Each outlet picks a side and then puts all its weight behind a particular narrative. Silver-tongued/penned commentators rail against the lunacy of the other side without the slightest sense of humility or responsibility. Meanwhile, the American public divides into equally ill-informed and unthinking partisan camps.

Whenever I see this recurrent set of facts play out, I am reminded of one of the Dr. Seuss books (The Sneetches) in which one group has a star on their bellies and purports to be superior to the non-starred crowd. The latter gets an enterprising entrepreneur to put stars on, which causes the previously starred group to hire the same entrepreneur to remove their stars. In the end, of course, … Next Page »

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William Sahlman is the Dimitri V. D'Arbeloff – Class of 1955 Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. The d'Arbeloff Chair was established in 1986 to support teaching and research on the entrepreneurial process. Follow @

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10 responses to “Downgrading America?”

  1. It is time for digital laws and digital literacy in Congress and use technology like IBM Watson to query and all start with the same numbers and the old paradigm of its for those guys over there needs to die:)

    Congress has a demonstration and opportunity but apparently digital illiteracy goes so far as to not have any of them recognize a technology tool to help them do their jobs sadly.

  2. June says:

    Leadership, innovation and less regulation would go a long way to helping us climb out of this mess. Why would any entrepreneur or investor take such a risk when they are penalized for their success at every step, through over regulation, taxation or a high cost of doing business, particularly in California?

    Without either party implementing vision through real leadership, we will continue to be mired in the same muck we’re lumbering through today.

    Leadership comes from individuals, not parties and unfortunately there are no individuals willing and bold enough to stick out their political necks to get the job done – not yet, anyway.

  3. Drewski says:

    Yes, grow our way out of it- the only real solution.

    However, you made, then ignored, a key point:
    “More generally, at all levels, government has given away the future in order to buy votes in the present.”

    Next year and decade are already sold- we need to live within our means today, since we don’t have future left to borrow against.

    Yet you propose raising taxes- which stifles growth and presupposes a future unencumbered by yesterday’s debt. Its too late for that- time for a small government and vibrant entrepreneurial ventures to solve this crisis.

  4. Neil Greco says:

    Interesting perspectives. Agreed on many fronts – I can’t help but get irate when I drive along Route 128 and the sheer waste of tax payer dollars to put up noise barriers – let alone the continued congestion the construction causes on an already crowded roadway. To what avail?

    Without a doubt, energy efficiency is one of the more viable efforts with definable payback periods that we can undertake. One that creates jobs and preserves our fragile environment – a win win. Look at NYC and the NJ Energy Master Plan for example. PlaNYC targets 4,000 city owned buildings and drives efficiency. The Jersey Master Plan offers incentives for continued use of renewable sources of energy. Great examples that – by the way – are the beneficiary of ARRA (a.k.a stimulus) dollars.

    Unfortunately, in our broken political system, we seem to have lost sight of the common good and common sense. Was the recent political wrangling more about the debt ceiling or posturing for the coming elections? Were the noise barriers in the same vein?

    Thanks for sharing your viewpoint.

  5. Richard Griessel says:

    Was it not Harvard that created a lot of the bad ideas which got us in this mess. Like outsourcing….and selling this as a great new MBA tool. Is it not Harvard like most Universities that have become morally so destitute that the indebt their students with loans that they can never repay and made sure the system is tweeked in a fashion that even if you are broke that is the only thing you have to repay. If you raise taxes then only if education is as free as in Europe. Because if you do the math the US taxes are actually higher if you add in the services that the European taxes buy you. Higher US education is not considered tops by most people in this world anyway. So I would strongly recommend Harvard to be more humble as they may be part of the problem and not the solution.

  6. A well-written and interesting piece from Xconomy It’s a shame that most of the public probably can’t understand what is being said here. The system isn’t designed to solve the problems the country is facing. I’m assuming anyone who read all the way to hear felt that this was a classic case of preaching to the choir. I am interested and hopeful as to how this country will turn out, but I’m also a pragmatist, thinking of the opportunities that are out there for investors and small fraction of Americans who aren’t complete fools. Check out for more interesting reads on international investing and investing in general.

  7. Lynn says:

    A fine summation of the economic damage that has occurred, while mistakes continue to be made. It is a shame we see inconsistent leadership and so little honest discussion. This is what happens when extreme political views try to run the country. Major issues have been clouded by partisan politics while the people hold their collective breath and wait for sensible solutions and clarity.

  8. Jim Bland says:

    Great summary and echoes my article as well

    We have weak kneed leadership and too few workers prepared to excecise innovation and creativity.