It's been a long time since I took my last biology class. So when I was thinking about some of the recent global trends in relative education levels, ambition, intellectual production and the national R&D spending that influences these factors, I was surprised to find that I kept thinking of osmosis - that's right, (from Webster) "the diffusion of fluid through a semipermeable membrane from a solution with a low solute concentration to a solution with a higher solute concentration until there is an equal concentration of fluid on both sides of the membrane".
To me, it seems that the laws of osmosis -- and the tendency of fluids to diffuse in such a manner as defined above -- offer a perfect frame to view the prospects of American quality of life for the generation ahead, given our present course. What do I mean? Consider a quick look at GDP per capita figures. If you assume that the cold war and other factors have led these figures to take form in some sense in relative isolation, at least when compared to the today's increasingly global trade community shaped by the post-cold war geopolitical climate and the Internet, then you could argue that these recent factors have brought together "cells" with very different properties, positioned them right next to each other, and immediately made their exterior membranes more permeable than ever before.
If each "cell" had the same internal properties, then you would have to assume some gradual evening of the currently quite divergent GDP per capita figures. But, of course that's not the case. Unfortunately, while many of those internal factors still favor US prospects and would point towards a very slow osmotic process, an increasing number of factors actually favor the reverse, and as such, warrant significant concern from the prospective of an American. High school math and science scores continue to plummet. As an interesting recent Foreign Affairs article pointed out, the US is falling significantly behind in Internet Infrastructure. The number of patents and scientific papers coming out of the US has dropped significantly recently, and for the first time in over 150 years, was exceeded by other countries. Finally, as if to sum it all up in one fell swoop, I was told recently by a graduate professor at an Ivy League university that "foreign students just come in better prepared and seem willing to work much harder".
Coming up with a formula that incorporates osmotic flow rates and global economics, and then spits out an accurate prediction for what's ahead is more than a little out of my league. But I have noticed that I am very good at seeing the obvious these days, and what seems obvious to me is that if we don't get serious about doing the things necessary to maintain our leadership position in the world, before long (and I don't think it will be nearly as long as most people would tend to think), we'll find ourselves in the unenviable position of being more "average" than we'd like to be.
There are obviously a lot of things that need to be done to put us back on the path to maintained leadership, but it seems that perhaps the most important (in that it impacts all of the little items below) is the idea of bringing back a culture of investment AT A NATIONAL LEVEL, and eliminating the harmful concept that all taxes are an affliction that need to be cured or eliminated. Our country has done some of its most amazing things during periods of great investment, and with an aging infrastructure that can barely handle the current population, we're going to need to get back on that horse in a big way in order to handle the new 100 million more people that we'll be adding in the next 50 years.
Who knows, if we do it right maybe more kids will be interested in science, pay attention in their 9th grade biology class, and get scared by osmosis the same way I am.