Economic Insecurity Challenges

GAO-07-1060CG: Published: Jun 20, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 20, 2007.

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This speech was given by the Comptroller General before the Rockefeller Foundation's Trustees and Executives Dinner audience in New York City, New York on June 20, 2007. Tonight you have asked me to make some remarks regarding issues relating to economic insecurity in America. The United States is a great nation, probably the greatest in history. However, we are currently relying too much on our temporary sole superpower status and our past successful track record. America faces several large and growing sustainability challenges that we are not taking seriously enough. What are some of the sustainability challenges that we face? They include our current fiscal, foreign, health care, education, energy, environmental, Social Security, Iraq, immigration, and infrastructure policies, and the business models for our military. Americans are deeply concerned about their economic security. What are some of the key factors that could be driving America's economic insecurity? First, while America is still the world's largest economy, we can no longer dictate to others. Furthermore, while our economic and other influence in the 21st century will be significant, it is likely to diminish as a percentage of the global economy over time unless we change course. We must recognize the reality that America cannot compete based on wages--and we shouldn't want to. As a result, in today's knowledge-based economy, America must compete based on innovation, productivity, and quality. This means that we need to focus our education, immigration, research and development, and other key public policies and private practices to help maximize the skills and knowledge of our workforce. Another key fact that we must recognize is that while the private sector is the engine of growth in our economy, companies do not have duties of loyalty to countries. They have a duty of loyalty to their shareholders, and hopefully they will consider the interests of all key stakeholders, but you can't count on it. Furthermore, U.S.-based businesses that do business in other countries have demonstrated their willingness and ability to move facilities, jobs, and even their headquarters overseas. Given escalating health care costs, pension coverage for American workers has been stagnant for several decades. In addition, most workers are now covered by defined contribution versus defined benefit plans. Health care costs are out of control. In fact, health care is the largest fiscal challenge for the federal and state governments as well as the biggest competitive challenge for American business. The bottom line is that we must engage in fundamental and comprehensive health care reform in installments because the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable. Americans are also concerned about the rising cost of housing and energy costs for themselves and college costs for their kids. Furthermore, an increasing number of Americans are being sandwiched between caring for their kids and caring for their aging parents.

It is clear that America faces many sustainability challenges and that an increasing number of Americans are concerned about their current and future economic security. These are among the primary reasons why a significant majority of Americans believe that the United States is on the wrong track. Yes, we face serious challenges that require tough choices. At the same time, we also have certain assets and opportunities that we need to capitalize on: for example, our nation's diversity, millions of underutilized "seasoned Americans," our innovative ability, our can-do attitude, and our entrepreneurial spirit. We can, we must, and we will eventually take steps to address our many challenges and capitalize on our related opportunities. However, we need to start soon, because our clock is ticking and time is working against us. How can we create a greater sense of urgency? First, we need to engage in more public education and engagement efforts in connection with these issues. Second, we need to take steps to help ensure that the next President is willing to take on tough issues. He or she must be able to effectively use the bully pulpit, forge bipartisan agreements, and make hard choices. Third, we need to recruit a few champions on both sides of the political aisle and on both ends of Capitol Hill to help create and support a sensible and bipartisan approach to addressing these issues. Finally, we may also need some sort of capable, credible, and bipartisan commission to help prepare the way and set the table for needed actions. Each of us as individuals and all major institutions concerned with public policy issues and the greater good must decide what role we can play to help ensure that our collective future is better than our past.

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