Beware the Benchmarks to India

The country really isn’t a global competitor to the United States

The Competition that Really Matters, a new report jointly released by the Center for American Progress (a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration) and the Center for the Next Generation, contends that America’s competitive position is being eroded by the emergence of skilled labor forces in China and India.  It calls both countries among “our fiercest competitors for the jobs and thought leadership of the future.”  Noting the investments they are making in improving their human capital, it recommends that the United States substantially increase the level of resources directed at primary and secondary education.

Citing the report approvingly, a New York Times op-ed column chimes in that “We’re being outpaced in producing the employees of the future…. We’re cutting back, while our children’s future competitors are plowing ahead.”

There is certainly a strong case to be made that the U.S. educational system is in urgent need of overhaul.  But as I read the new report, I was reminded of Rising Above The Gathering Storm, a widely-publicized 2005 report that was written by an eminent group of U.S. business and scientific leaders.  It likewise warned that India and China were quickly acquiring a vast reservoir of low-wage but highly-trained brainpower that would inevitably sap America’s edge in innovation.  One of the particular warning indicators it presented was that Chinese universities were churning out some 600,000 engineers a year and India 350,000, but U.S. institutions were only minting 70,000.

In similar fashion, The Competition that Really Matters advises that India “is already producing more students with bachelor’s degrees than is the United States. Over the last seven years, India has tripled its output of four-year degrees in engineering, computer science, and information technology.”  It also notes that “seven times more children attend primary school in India than in the United States.”

But quality is really the issue here, rather than breathtaking quantity. Continue reading