A Tale of Two Speeches

As the economic malaise continues for America and much of the world, political leaders continue to drive their nations to more pleasant pastures of high-growth industries. Unsurprisingly, these industries tend to be knowledge-intensive and require a deep reservoir of human capital. Creating new products and building fancy new widgets requires knowledge, and that knowledge comes directly from a strong and dynamic education system.

On August 8 and 9, two speeches illustrate the common goals -- yet divergent success -- in accomplishing this mission.

August 8 was Singapore's National Day, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a short address targeting increased investment in education as a chief priority of his government.

"Our goal is for all Singaporeans to enjoy the fruits of growth. When Singapore prospers, you will benefit from many government programmes: better designed HDB estates, higher quality schools and hospitals, more MRT lines and new places for recreation. But each one of us has to make the effort. Every student must be keen to learn and go as far as you can. Every worker must master the knowhow and skills to be productive and competitive. Every manager must train and motivate his staff to maximise their contribution and potential. Only then can Singaporeans do the better jobs that our economy will create, and enjoy higher incomes, brighter opportunities, and more fulfilling lives."

On August 9, President Barack Obama gave a lengthy address at the University of Texas-Austin in which he laid out his higher education agenda. His entire speech can be read here on the White House website.

A pull-quote:

"Now, when I talk about education, people say, well, you know what, right now we're going through this tough time. We've emerged from the worst recession since the Great Depression. So, Mr. President, you should only focus on jobs, on economic issues. And what I've tried to explain to people -- I said this at the National Urban League the other week -- education is an economic issue. Education is the economic issue of our time. (Applause.)

It's an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who've never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. Education is an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. Education is an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today, they will out-compete us tomorrow.

The single most important thing we can do is to make sure we've got a world-class education system for everybody. That is a prerequisite for prosperity. It is an obligation that we have for the next generation. (Applause.)

And here is the interesting thing, Austin. The fact is we know what to do to offer our children the best education possible. We know what works. It's just we're not doing it. And so what I've said is, let's get busy. Let's get started. (Applause.) We can't wait another generation. We can't afford to let our young people waste their most formative years. That's why we need to set up an early learning fund to challenge our states and make sure our young people, our children, are entering kindergarten ready for success. (Applause.) That's something we've got to do. (Applause.)"

Both Obama and Loong have identified the critical ingredient for economic growth - high levels of human capital development. Nations that wish to remain prosperous must be entrepreneurial and innovative, and people cannot do so if they can only read at an eighth grade level, or can barely graduate from high school (let alone college).

This is obvious. Unfortunately, America is already behind the rest of the world, and not just in the levels of bachelor degrees among recent graduates. The difference in the speeches are telling. At a fundamental level, PM Loong has accepted the notion that education is the road to financial success. There is a clear connection in the speech's early paragraphs that economic growth is directly tied to educational attainment.

Compare this rhetoric with that of President Obama's. Instead of delivering a clear line on the need for education, he instead devolves into a multi-paragraph explanation of why this is necessary in the current economic climate. This cannot be blamed on underwhelming speechwriting, but rather an insistent and damaging notion in America that education is not the solution to our current problems. One only has to look at the recent debate surrounding the bailout of 160,000 grade school teachers to see where the lines have been drawn. Improving education is not automatic in this country; instead, it has to be explained.

There are, of course, qualifiers for this. Singapore is a semi-authoritarian government while America is a broadly-constituted democracy. Singapore is incredibly small compared to America, and it suffers from a very different set of regional geopolitics demographics.

Yet, there is something disheartening that the country that put a man on the moon has walked so far away from its strength in education. In the competitive field that we face, developing a high-quality education system from preschool through doctoral studies is about the very survival of this country.

Time is of the essence. Economic geography shows that those places that successfully start industries tend to continue leading them for years and decades to come. Other countries seem to understand this basic fact. If America does not, it will be our loss.