Losing our greatness to barking fools
Countries that don’t plan for the future tend not to do well there. When you watch the reckless behavior of the Tea Party-driven Republicans in Congress today, you can’t help but fear that we’ll be one of those. What makes it all the more frustrating is that in so many ways we have the wind at our back, if only we’d pull together to take advantage of it.
In a world that rewards imagination, we have an incredible melting pot of immigrants that constantly blends together new ideas from technology to commerce to the arts. In a world where secure, clean energy is a huge asset, our investments in efficiency and discoveries of natural gas, if properly exploited, have the potential to pull manufacturing back to America from all corners of the globe.
In a world where the big divide is no longer between developed and developing countries but rather between high-imagination-enabling countries and low-imagination-enabling countries, we remain the highest-imagination-enabling country in the world — and we have the innovative companies, startups and venture capitalists to prove it.
In a world where so many countries are struggling with diversity, we do so as well, but at least we’ve reached a point where we could twice elect a black man for president, whose middle name is Hussein, who defeated a woman in his own party and then four years later a Mormon from the other. No one else does that.
A country with this many natural assets should be celebrating, and instead we’re inflicting wounds on ourselves. The gerrymandered hyperpartisanship that has infected both parties since the end of the Cold War is debilitating enough, but the latest iteration is a new low.
The Republican Party is being taken over by a Tea Party faction that is not interested in governing on any of the big issues — immigration, gun control, health care, debt and taxes — where, with just minimal compromises between the two parties, we’d amplify our strengths so much that we’d separate ourselves from the rest of the world. Instead, this group is threatening to shut down the government and undermine America’s vital credit rating if it doesn’t get its way.
This kind of madness helped to produce the idiotic sequester — the $1.2 trillion in automatic, arbitrary and across-the-board budget cuts from 2013 to 2021 — that is already undermining one of our strongest assets.
Ask Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, the crown jewel of American biotech innovation. In fiscal 2013, the sequester required the NIH to cut $1.55 billion across the board: 5 percent at each of its 27 institutes and centers, irrespective of whether one was on the cusp of a medical breakthrough and another was not. “There was still an ability within each institute to make adjustments, but, as NIH director, I could not decide to emphasize cancer research and down-modulate something else,” Collins explained.
Because of the sequester and the fact that the NIH budget has been losing ground to inflation for 10 years, “we will not be able to fund 640 research grants that were scored in the top 17 percent of the proposals we received,” said Collins. “They would have been funded without the sequester, but now they won’t. They include new ideas on cancer, diabetes, autism and heart disease — all the things that we as a country say are a high priority. I can’t say which of those grants would have led to the next breakthrough, or which investigator would be a Nobel Prize winner 20 years from now.”
Of those 640 top research proposals, 150 were from scientists financed in a previous budget cycle who had returned to the NIH to secure another three to five years of funding — because they thought they were really onto something and a peer review board agreed. “Now we are cutting them off,” said Collins, “so you damage the previous investment as well as the future one.”
In 2014, the NIH was planning to offer new money to stimulate research proposals in a dozen areas, including how to speed up the use of stem cells to cure Parkinson’s and other diseases, how to better manage pain in sickle-cell disease and how to improve early diagnosis of autism. All were shelved because of the sequester, said Collins: “Why ask people to submit applications we would just have to turn down?”
In addition, in 2013, the NIH had to turn away from its research hospital 750 patients who wanted to be part of clinical trials for disorders for which medicine currently has no answers. America’s biomedical ecosystem depends heavily on the NIH doing basic research the private sector won’t do. So we’re cutting the medical research that has the potential to prevent and cure the very diseases that are driving health care costs upward.
In short, we’re cutting without a plan — the worst thing a country or company can do — and we’re doing it because one of our two parties has been taken over by angry radicals and barking fools and the old leadership is running scared.
I have plenty of issues with Democrats. They are not blameless for our paralysis. But when the Republican Party goes this far off the rails, it isn’t even remotely challenging President Obama to challenge his base on taxes and entitlements.
And thus does a great country, with so much potential, slowly become ungreat.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.