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Fall 2007

Is America on Course to Fall Like Rome?

This article is adapted from a speech on Aug. 7 before the Federal Midwest Human Resources Council and the Chicago Federal Executive Board by David M. Walker, comptroller general of the United States and head of the US Government Accountability Office.

Chicago — Throughout history, many great nations have failed to survive, notably the longest-standing republic and the major superpower of its day, the Roman Republic. Is America headed down that path today?

Unless the US government adopts a long-term perspective and strategy that fits the 21st century, we might well be.

At the start of the 21st century, our country faces a range of sustainability challenges: fiscal, health care, energy, education, the environment, Iraq, aging infrastructure and immigration, to name a few. These challenges are complex and of critical importance.

Some younger people may have no firsthand memory of the Cold War or the Iron Curtain. Their world has been defined by more recent developments, such as the invention of the microcomputer, the spread of the AIDS virus and the mapping of the human genome. The challenge before us is to maintain a government that is effective and relevant to future generations.

Unfortunately, our government’s track record in adapting to new conditions and meeting new challenges isn’t very good. Much of the federal government remains overly bureaucratic, myopic, narrowly focused and based on the past. There’s a tendency to cling to outmoded organizational structures and strategies.

That needs to change because efficient and effective government matters.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought that point home in a painful way. The damage these storms inflicted on the Gulf Coast put all levels of government to the test. While a few agencies, like the Coast Guard, did a great job, many agencies, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency, fell far short of expectations. Public confidence in the ability of government to meet basic needs was severely shaken—and understandably so. If our government can’t handle known threats like natural disasters, it’s only fair to wonder what other public services may be at risk.

Transforming government and aligning it with modern needs are even more urgent because of our nation’s large and growing fiscal imbalance.

Simply stated, America is on a path toward an explosion of debt. And that indebtedness threatens our country’s, our children’s and our grandchildren’s futures. With the looming retirement of the baby boomers, spiraling health care costs, plummeting savings rates and increasing reliance on foreign lenders, we face unprecedented fiscal risks.

Long-range simulations from my agency are chilling. If we continue as we have, policymakers will eventually have to raise taxes dramatically and/or slash government services the American people depend on and take for granted. Just pick a program—student loans, the interstate highway system, national parks, federal law enforcement or even our armed forces.

Our nation’s financial problems are undermining our flexibility to address a range of emerging challenges. For example, America’s population is aging. Tens of millions of baby boomers, and I’m one of them, are on the brink of retirement. Many of these retirees will live far longer than their parents and grandparents. The problem is that in the coming decades, there simply aren’t going to be enough full-time workers to promote strong economic growth or to sustain existing entitlement programs. Like most industrialized nations, the US will have fewer full-time workers paying taxes and contributing to federal social insurance programs. At the same time, growing numbers of retirees will be claiming their Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

Another ominous trend: American companies are cutting back the retirement benefits they’re offering to workers. This means all of us are going to have to plan better, save more, invest more wisely and resist the temptation to spend those funds before we retire.

Beyond fiscal imbalances, the US confronts a range of other challenges. Globalization is at the top of that list. Markets, technologies and businesses in various countries and in various parts of the world are increasingly linked, and communication across continents and oceans is now instantaneous. This new reality was made clear by the recent drop in stock markets around the world.

Challenges also come from technology. In the past 100 years, but especially the last 25 years, spectacular advances in technology have transformed everything from how we do business, to how we communicate, to how we treat and cure diseases. Our society has moved from the industrial age to the knowledge age, where specialized knowledge and skills are two keys to success. Unfortunately, the US—which gave the world Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Bill Gates—now lags behind many other developed nations on high school math and science test scores.

In many respects, our quality of life has never been better. We’re living longer, we’re better educated, and we’re more likely to own our own homes. At the same time, Americans face a range of quality-of-life concerns. These include poor public schools, gridlocked city streets, inadequate health care coverage and the stresses of caring for aging parents and possibly our own children at the same time.

Our very prosperity is placing greater demands on our physical infrastructure. Billions of dollars will be needed to modernize everything from highways and airports to water and sewage systems. The recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis was a sobering wake-up call. The demands for such new investment will increasingly compete with other national priorities.

To preserve its ability to address these and other emerging trends, America needs to return to fiscal discipline and focus on the future. At both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—the White House and Congress—and on both sides of the political aisle, we need leaders who will face these facts, speak the truth, partner for progress and make tough choices. We also need leadership from our state capitols and city halls, from businesses, colleges and universities, charities, think tanks, the military and the media. So far, there have been too few calls for fundamental change and shared sacrifice.

America is a great nation, probably the greatest in history. But if we want to keep America great, we have to recognize reality and make needed changes.

There are striking similarities between America’s current situation and that of Ancient Rome. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home; an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands; and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Sound familiar? It’s time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time.