The Age of Hubris and Complacency

When times are good, it’s easy to believe that they will stay that way.

It’s early March. The Dow is getting ready to add a digit. The U.S. military is flexing its muscles in Iraq and Kosovo. The chattering class is contentedly chewing on the paltry remains of the Monica media feast. What else is there to do? The Soviet bear has been transformed into a pack of hungry yapping puppies. The Japanese and European economic machines are in the shop. The American century is drawing to a close with the United States more powerful and more dominant than could have been imagined even a decade ago. Bobby McFerrin should be preparing a rerelease of his hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

But two news briefings that I attended in Washington on March 11 served as a healthy antidote to shortsighted optimism. At the Brookings Institution, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Assistant Secretary for International Security Policy Ashton Carter were talking about their new book Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America (Brookings, 1999). They acknowledge that the United States is not facing any major threats at the moment, but they are far from sanguine. Having just returned from a trip to Taiwan, China, and South Korea, Perry and Carter were in a mood for looking beyond the immediate horizon.

The focus of most defense-related news today is on relatively small conflicts such as those in Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, which do not directly threaten U.S. interests. Attention is also given to the Persian Gulf and to the Korean peninsula, where conflict could threaten U.S. interests. But the United States is apparently complacent about situations that, although of no immediate concern, could become major direct threats. Carter and Perry would organize defense policy around preventing developments that could become serious problems: that Russia could descend into chaos and then into aggression or that it could lose control of its nuclear weapons; that China could become hostile; that weapons of mass destruction could proliferate widely; or that catastrophic terrorism could occur in the United States. Their advice is to develop a strategy of preventive defense aimed at addressing these major concerns before they can become real threats. Their model is the Marshall Plan, which was an effective strategy to prevent Germany and Japan from becoming isolated and hostile after their defeat in World War II.

Economic hubris

Later that day, the Council on Competitiveness released The New Challenge to America’s Prosperity: Findings from the Innovation Index by Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School and Scott Stern of MIT’s Sloan School of Business and the National Bureau of Economic Research. The report is an effort to identify critical indicators to measure a country’s innovative capacity and thus its ability to keep pace with future competitive challenges. U.S. performance on this innovation index should give pause to U.S. business leaders and policymakers.

No one can question the success of the U.S. response to the competitive challenges of the 1980s. Through better financial management, global marketing, quality improvements, leaner staffing, and quicker product development, U.S. industry reestablished itself as the world leader. But now that it has survived this emergency, there is a temptation to settle into hubris. That would be a serious mistake. The actions of the past decade were an effective response to near-term problems, but in the mood of crisis there was a tendency to forget long-term issues. Cutting back on basic research, education, and infrastructure will improve the bottom line for a while-but at a cost. Porter and Stern provide the data that quantify that cost.

Among the trends that trouble the authors is that U.S. spending on all R&D and on basic research in particular is declining as a percentage of national resources. Industry has been increasing its R&D investment during the past decade, but the increases are heavily concentrated in product development. R&D personnel as a percentage of all workers are declining, and enrollment in graduate programs in the physical sciences (not the life sciences), math, and engineering is static or declining. Finally, U.S. commitment to tax, intellectual property, and trade policies that promote innovation has weakened in recent years.

Porter and Stern make clear that these trends are not inevitable and that the current state of innovation is still strong. What worries them is the direction of the trends in U.S. indicators. They rated the United States as the world’s most innovative country in 1995, but by 1999 it had fallen behind Japan and Switzerland. If current trends continue, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden will also pass the United States by 2005. The United States has the resources to be the world’s innovation leader, but it must renew its commitment and extend its vision.

Parochial concerns

The science and engineering community should be a receptive audience for these messages, because R&D plays a role in protective defense and in an innovation-driven economy. Carter and Perry recommend changes in the military procurement system to take better advantage of commercial technology. If the military starts increasing the demand for better commercial technology, it will create a demand for more R&D to develop the desired technology and products. Porter and Stern state very directly that the country must invest more in educating scientists and engineers and in research, particularly in universities. That’s the tune that scientists and engineers want to hear.

But that tune is only one theme in the symphony. Just as most sectors of U.S. society think too little about the future, the science and engineering community often thinks too little about the broader society. Acquisition reform and innovations in military technology by themselves will not significantly improve U.S. security. And as Porter and Stern say explicitly, increasing research spending or increasing the number of scientists and engineers will not be enough to enhance U.S. innovative capacity. In fact, to win the research or education battle without also making progress on the other components of the innovation index would be to lose the war, because the investment would not pay. The key to winning public support for science and technology is to make certain that investments in this area are accompanied by complementary actions in related domains that are critical to the larger goal, whether it be national security or economic strength. Complacency and hubris may be the vices of the larger society, but they are no more dangerous than parochialism.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “The Age of Hubris and Complacency.” Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 3 (Spring 1999).

Vol. XV, No. 3, Spring 1999