It is now time to focus on building a competitive 21st-century American economy in the thriving global market.

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U.S. policymakers face the extraordinary challenge of restoring a recession-ravaged economy while simultaneously re-engineering it to thrive in a world of unprecedented global competition. Their recent focus by necessity has been on responding to record high levels of unemployment, repairing the financial system architecture, finding a path toward fiscal balance, and rebuilding the crumbled pillars of the economy.

Now our nation must turn to building on this new foundation a competitive 21st-century American economy in a thriving global market. We need a common, long-term strategy to ensure that American firms find more global investors and customers, that more jobs are created in the United States, and that workers here and around the world enjoy a rising standard of living.

One option for developing  and effectively implementing an ever-evolving and long-term U.S. competitiveness strategy is for President Barack Obama to issue an executive order that creates a Quadrennial Competitiveness Assessment by an independent panel of the National Academies whose objectives are to collect input and information from many sources and perform a horizon scan that identifies long-term competitiveness challenges and opportunities.

Management of government is by its very nature focused on the short term. But it is important to stand back periodically to think about how the nation is doing and where policy response may be most important. Processes to do that are currently established in defense and intelligence and are being adopted to help guide diplomacy. The same should happen for competitiveness.

We recommend that the National Academies convene an independent bipartisan panel at least every four years to perform a broad horizon scan of American competitiveness. This would build upon the work of the Academies panel, chaired by Norman Augustine, that wrote “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.”

This panel should identify U.S. strengths and weaknesses, the strengths and weaknesses of other countries, and emerging challenges and opportunities. The purpose would not be to develop policy, but rather to spotlight priorities that policymakers should address. This report would follow the model of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2020 report, described above, which identifies opportunities and potential problems in world affairs that might warrant policy action.

The administration should be invited to submit comments, evidence, and information for the National Academies panel to consider. And relevant federal agencies should provide research and support staff for the panel’s work.

The panel should deliver the completed Quadrennial Competitiveness Assessment to the president and Congress, and should brief relevant members of the Congress, cabinet, and White House staff. This report should be made public, setting the backdrop for policymaking over the next four-year period.

The lack of a long-term planning capacity, and therefore lack of a long-term strategy, for American competitiveness is not an academic concern. It has significant implications for the ability of the U.S. government to respond to emerging challenges and to focus and organize interagency policymaking around a set of longterm goals. At a time of low public confidence in the economy, the government should offer a vision of how it can boost our children’s chances of enjoying—and surpassing—our current standard of living.

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