I was just reading the survey and analysis of a new Washington Post poll conducted on the perceptions of American economic competitiveness. Not surprisingly, most Americans believe that the country is falling behind (glad people are paying attention), but the more interesting point was question two of the poll: "Do you feel that being number one in the world economically is an important goal for America, or that being number one is not that important a goal, as long as we're one of several leading economic powers?"
The answer sort of shocked me, as barely more than half said yes to the question. Slightly less than half of the country believes that America should be the top economic power in the world, and we wonder why American competitiveness is declining? Part of the problem is the framing of the question, since being one of "several leading economic powers" is sort of a pointless statement - America is not going to be falling behind a significant number of other countries any time soon.
To a certain degree, I understand this point of view. The world is a large place, and more than able to accommodate several large economies. However, these answers are also ironic given our capitalist nature: we are in this for ourselves, we are number one right now, and we don't want to be number one in the future? Try asking Goldman Sachs bankers, "Do you feel that being number one in investment banking is an important goal for Goldman, or that being number one is not that important a goal, as long as the company is one of several leading banks?" I doubt the response would be this mixed.
Let's extend this hypothetical question to another arena. "Do you feel that being number one in the world militarily is an important goal for America, or that being number one is not that important a goal, as long as we're one of several leading military powers." This question will skew across a number of different lines, but I doubt that less than 50% of the country would answer no to the question. And there you have the cause of the decline.
America should be #1, if only because it provides a means of setting goals for the country. Let's stop the participation-trophy/consolation prize complex and begin demanding a higher standard.