Skip to main content

How U.S. can once again define the future

By Patrick Doherty, Special to CNN
updated 5:32 AM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
The U.S. must meet challenges such as climate change and failing infrastructure to lead in the world, says Patrick Doherty.
The U.S. must meet challenges such as climate change and failing infrastructure to lead in the world, says Patrick Doherty.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Patrick Doherty: Fiscal cliff, Doha climate talks a reminder of challenges that U.S. faces
  • He says there's big opportunity too, if U.S. harnesses strengths to demographic shifts
  • Smart responses to ongoing economic recovery, climate and infrastructure stresses crucial
  • Doherty: If U.S. views these challenges coherently, it can once again lead in 21st century

Editor's note: Patrick Doherty is the deputy director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation and author of the forthcoming report, "Grand Strategy of the United States of America."

(CNN) -- Washington is all about the fiscal cliff these days. In Doha, Qatar, world leaders are negotiating over climate change. Federal debt and carbon emissions are indeed two big problems on the nation's front burner. But they are just the beginning.

As the fog of the election season lifts, America has a lot to worry about -- everything from competing economically with China to housing rapidly retiring baby boomers.

But there is another way to look at it. Decisively addressing the nation's primary global challenges -- backed by the market potential of powerful demographic shifts at home and abroad -- could yield opportunity unlike any other in America's history.

First, our four major challenges:

Patrick Doherty
Patrick Doherty

• In the last 20 years, households, businesses and the federal government accumulated exceptional levels of debt, which they are now trying, painfully, to pay down. The 2008 financial crisis triggered a spiral of unemployment and reduced demand that is nowhere near complete. As household income contracts, families consume less and try to erase debt, reducing demand for goods and services, forcing companies to reduce expenses, meaning more layoffs, deepening unemployment, and so on. Monetary policy and fiscal stimulus may have contained the worst of the pain, but they cannot cure the disease. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is right when he says the economy needs a broad-based and durable source of demand.

• Over the last 20 years, roughly 1 billion people entered the global middle class. In the next 20 years, there will be 3 billion more. Good news? Yes, except that these new consumers use huge amounts of resources and emit more carbon, a roughly 300% increase. Expect price increases for basic commodities like energy, food, and minerals, and deepening conflicts among the great powers over resources in familiar places: the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea, and Central Asia.

• Climate change is already with us. Superstorm Sandy, the Derecho, Arctic melting, and droughts in the Midwest, India, China, and Russia this past year confirm the scientifically proven trend. Beyond this, humanity consumes about 150% of the "goods" provided by the earth's natural systems -- including fresh water, soils, and fisheries. We are consuming our limited endowment of natural capital, reducing future returns while our global population expands to 9 billion. This is massively destabilizing, whether you're in New York City or Pakistan.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



• Our infrastructure, systems, and supply chains are not designed for the scale or the risks of the 21st century. Transportation, financial, food, and industrial systems have choke points, are inefficient, and lack oversight and sufficient investment. They are magnifying threat and risk when they should be compartmentalizing them. Quiet disruptions in such things as rare-earth minerals (critical to high-tech manufacturing), auto parts, and computer hard drives have all hit industry in the last two years, for example.

Opinion: We're living the dream, we just don't realize it

America's economy must do some heavy lifting. Just as the country transitioned from war production to civilian production 60 years ago, it must now transition to sustainable production, while building a new American dream. If it can, the United States will be ideally positioned to rebuild our middle class, compete globally and pre-empt growing confrontation over resources.

We must adapt and once again define the future.

First, America has a homegrown demographic opportunity unlike any other. Driven by baby boomers and millennials, 56% percent of homebuyers say that they want the trappings of their American dream to be walkable and convenient, not car-dependent and isolated, and home prices already reflect this. From 2014 to 2029, these two largest American demographics, each 25% of the total population, will meet in the housing market as boomers empty their nests and as more millennials marry and have children -- creating the largest concentration of demand for housing since the period after World War II. To seize this opportunity, however, Washington needs to let cities and towns decide how to grow, and discourage the car-based population dispersal known as sprawl. Not only will this put Americans back to work in construction, it could reduce the environmental footprint by roughly a third.

Who benefits from $26B mortgage deal?
Complete explanation of 'fiscal cliff'
Complete explanation of 'fiscal cliff'
Obama: Focus on jobs, not climate change

Second, global demand for food and resources is skyrocketing. By 2050 global food production must increase by 60%, while soil and fresh water must be regenerated, not depleted. American farmers are held back by expensive, distorting, and antiquated Cold War era subsidies that essentially pay farmers to overwork the land and waste scarce water resources. We've already lost up to 50% of Iowa's topsoil, drained the Ogallala Aquifer, and created a fertilizer-based "death bloom" at the mouth of the Mississippi. While conventional agribusiness is enjoying high global prices, climate-related drought and floods have reduced the harvest to the lowest since the early 1970s. Shifting the worst of these subsidies from big commodity crops (like corn, wheat, and soybeans) to pay farmers to convert their operations to modern regenerative systems will help our farming families earn a more secure living and be better stewards of the land.

Finally, the world needs innovation. To accommodate 3 billion new middle-class aspirants in 20 years, we will need to make our resources more productive while reducing the amount of carbon emitted. By focusing on advanced materials, energy and manufacturing, we can rebuild our middle class, supplying the jobs, wages, and returns Americans deserve. To lead this revolution in resource productivity, we must stop taxing work and start taxing waste.

Washington universalized the income tax to pay for World War II, when we had full employment and needed to subsidize resource extraction to get materiel to the Allies. Now we get 80% of federal revenues from taxing individuals, are suffering from long-term unemployment, and consume far more resources than Europe for an inferior standard of living. We're conserving labor and expending resources when we need to do the opposite.

We have the demand. Do we have the capital? Plenty. There are trillions of dollars in pent-up investment capital looking for reasonable, reliable returns, as the chairman of Goldman Sachs recently wrote.

Instead of Washington footing the bill, the federal government must reorient the Cold War subsidies for housing, agriculture, and resource waste and create a new generation of regional financing mechanisms. These new regional tools must connect Wall Street's capital to the infrastructure and innovation opportunities that will arise as regions plan for and build the future. If it's done right, we'll channel excess liquidity back into the productive economy and stop it from sloshing around as underperforming corporate cash, money market funds, and high-risk derivatives.

Yes, Washington must address the issue of the fiscal cliff and make progress on climate change. But isolated solutions will only waste precious time. Tapping into the new demand pools of the 21st century, unleashing pent-up capital, and shifting American markets to lead a revolution in resource productivity will position the United States to lead the world once again.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Doherty.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT