Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Five Questions About the Future

This post is going to wander a bit.  But I want to share a few observations and questions about the future of the US that seem to me to be absent from a lot of the current political discussions and blame games.


  1. The US dominates the list of the top universities in the world.   You can be skeptical about the rankings, how they are made and what this all means, but in almost any list you see the US is at the top.  In the link above, 35 of the top 50 are from the US and 52 of the top 100 are from the US.  Typically science and technology is what dominates the rankings and if you look at the top US institutions, they are also at the top of the NIH and NSF rankings in total research dollars.  While a lot of esoteric stuff happens in research universities a lot it eventually ends up translated to things that have economic value and make a difference in people’s lives.  Government funding for R&D is under threat and tuition is higher than ever.   Are these good long term trends that bode well for future economic growth?
  2. The US was an early investor in universal education and shortly after the Civil War there was free primary education in every state and a very high rate of literacy.  Early emphasis on literacy for religious reasons has also been credited for the economic success of both Protestants and also Jews.  The idea is that an educated population creates the human capital needed for societies to thrive economically.  Other things have to be in place as well, but you can only do so much with an uneducated population.  We can bash the schools, we can bash the teachers, we can spend more money, we can spend less money, but does anyone have any idea about what policies actually work and how they might get implemented?
  3. One issue in the US and perhaps the rest of the developed world is that as a result of globalization and labor saving technology there is no such thing as a middle skill high wage job anymore.   Some of what happened in the US in the 1950s when there were plenty of high wage jobs in manufacturing probably also reflected that fact that most of the rest of the world’s industrial capacity had been destroyed or degraded by World War II.  So, some of what has happened is also about the rest of the world simply catching up.  There are a lot of arguments about how unions or management blew it, and what policies could have been in place to change things.  However, maybe the blame game misses the big picture.   Isn’t the real question, what do we do next to make a new wave of middle class jobs accessible to more people?
  4. A lot of people are concerned about the rising income gap and gaps in economic opportunity.  This concern is made worse perhaps by the loss of middle skill high wage jobs.  To fix this aren’t we going to have to do more than simply change the tax code?  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are projected to cost between 4-6 trillion dollars and what have we gained?  Are we more or less secure than when they started?  Could this money have been better spent on things like rebuilding roads and bridges in the U.S.?
  5. The US is lurching toward the next big set of budget show downs and the prospects for a collection of policies that stimulate growth in the short term and tame the deficit in the long term look unlikely.  Every time I read about this nonsense I think about how Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill negotiated to restructure Social Security and the Tax Code.  If Reagan, an icon to conservatives, could negotiate with a New Deal liberal like Tip O’Neill; why can’t the current crop of “leaders” find some common ground?


I am sure I could come up with 50 more questions that we might all ponder, but for some reason I keep coming back to these five.  Who knows what the “right” answers are,  but it seems to me you can’t get to the right answer if you don’t ask reasonable questions.


One Response to “Five Questions About the Future”

  1. August 26th, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Roger Lindahl says:

    Good questions Dr. Joyner.
    One flurishing segment of the economy is entertainment. Movies, gaming, internet stuff. unfortunately, entertainment utility ends at the instant consumed, unlike a road, bridge, auto or paper machine which goes on to continue producing, or assist in producing into the future. It’s important we invest in the segments of the economy that continue to produce on-going production.
    Another part of our problem is we are aging, and aging populations are into avoiding replacement, and downsized replacement, vs. initial purchase and upscaling replacement.

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