In the 19th century, industrialization swept the world. Many European nations expanded their welfare states but kept their education systems exclusive. The U.S. tried the opposite approach. American leaders expanded education and created the highest quality work force on the planet.
That quality work force was the single biggest reason the U.S. emerged as the economic superpower of the 20th century. Generation after generation, American workers were better educated, more industrious and more innovative than the ones that came before.
That progress stopped about 30 years ago. The percentage of young Americans completing college has been stagnant for a generation. As well-educated boomers retire over the next decades, the quality of the American work force is likely to decline. Mitt Romney captured the consequences in his withdrawal statement: “I am convinced that unless America changes course, we will become the France of the 21st century — still a great nation, but no longer the leader of the world.”
Americans feel the slippage every day.
If I were advising the Republican nominee, this is one of the places I’d ask him to plant his flag. I’d ask him to call for a new human capital revolution, so that the U.S. could recapture the spirit of reforms like the Morrill Act of the 19th century, the high school movement of the early 20th century and the G.I. Bill after World War II.
Doing that would mean taking on the populists of the left and right, the ones who imagine the problem is globalization and unfair trade when in fact the real problem is that the talents of American workers are not keeping up with technological change.
Doing that would also mean stealing ideas from both the left and right. Liberals have spent more time thinking about human capital than conservatives, who have tended to imagine that if you build a free market, a quality labor force would magically appear.
Bold thinking ... but Brooks may be onto something. Bill Clinton redefined his administration and fought back against a GOP-held Congress by incorporating some conservative points into his agenda. Shrewd conservatives may be wise to take a page from the Clinton playbook if they want to prevail this year.