The good news from Washington is that plans to extend the debt-ceiling farce into 2014 are moving forward on a bipartisan basis. The chances that the U.S. government may soon resume its functions temporarily and that there'll be no default on U.S. sovereign debt for as much as several months appear to have improved.
Talk about defining success down. It's almost enough to make you believe in American Decline. Granted, despite everything, the United States is still having a better recovery than Europe, so things could be worse. The trouble is, if the country's political class keeps this up, they will be.
Nobody denies that government by recurring fiscal crisis puts the productive parts of the U.S. economy under stress and is damaging in itself. But it's also a distraction from other issues that simply can't wait. While politicians in Washington have their hands full failing to keep the government running and calling the nation's creditworthiness into question, everything else is allowed to slide. In some cases, this is a grave error.
One wonders how many U.S. political leaders have even bothered to look at an authoritative new survey that says the U.S. is failing — and failing abjectly — in an area of policy that is crucial for prosperity. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has just published the first results from an exhaustive international survey of skills. It's the most authoritative project of its kind — a huge undertaking, comparing adults' proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem- solving across the organization's member countries.
In effect, the survey measures the quality of human capital, one of the crucial drivers of long-term economic success. The U.S. performance in these rankings isn't just poor, it's pitiful.
The average literacy score for Americans ages 16 to 65 places the United States 18th out of 22 participating countries. In numeracy, the U.S. ranks 20th out of 22. In “problem-solving in technology-rich environments” — a measure of the capacity to interact productively with computers — the U.S. comes in 14th out of 19.
Those results are actually quite good when compared with the performance of adults ages 16 to 24. In literacy, young Americans rank 20th out of 22; in numeracy, 22nd out of 22; and in problem-solving, 19th out of 19.
The only glimmer of good news in these figures, if you can call it good news, is that U.S. standards of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving aren't falling in absolute terms as fast as the poor relative performance of U.S. youngsters might suggest. Young Americans have slid to the bottom of the rankings mainly because young adults in other countries are doing much better than their predecessors did, whereas their American counterparts aren't. The fact remains, the capacities of the U.S. labor force are consistently well below average, and those of the youngest segment rank (on two out of three measures) dead last.
The range of ability in the U.S. is unusually wide, too, which tells you something about the roots of economic inequality. The U.S. gap between highest and lowest scores in numeracy is bigger than in any other participating country.
The more closely you look, the more startling the U.S. skills deficit appears. For instance, the study defines numeracy in levels one through five. At level one, adults “can complete tasks involving basic mathematical processes in common, concrete contexts where the mathematical content is explicit with little text and minimal distractors. They can perform one-step or simple processes involving counting, sorting, basic arithmetic operations, understanding simple percents, and locating and identifying elements of simple or common graphical or spatial representations.” Roughly 9 percent of American adults fail to achieve even this level, compared with roughly 1 percent in Japan. Only about 8 percent of Japanese adults are at level one or below; the figure for the U.S. is 29 percent.
One striking if not especially surprising result in the study is that skill, or lack of skill, in numeracy, literacy and problem-solving tend to go together. A disturbingly high proportion of young Americans therefore lacks the ability to break out of a vicious circle of incapacity. If you struggle to read, do simple arithmetic and interact with the Internet, your possibilities for meaningful self-improvement are minimal.
America's elite universities are the best in the world and as yet face no serious challenge. They'll continue to produce exceptionally able young workers who will go on to reap commensurate rewards. But an anomalously large proportion of the population — and especially of young Americans — stand at the bottom of the advanced-economy human-capital league, and suffer from such acute poverty of skills that they're likely to stay there. The tectonic economic forces that have widened inequality to date are unlikely to improve their prospects, because basic literacy, numeracy and problem-solving are also measures of adaptability to change. Lack of these essential proficiencies condemns them to economic insecurity, long-term unemployment and low wages.
This is what a grave economic problem — a clear and present danger to U.S. prosperity and social cohesion — looks like. Perhaps when Washington tires of dealing with a crisis entirely of its own devising, it might give the real thing a moment's thought.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.