The Great Budget Debate of 2011: Setting a Course for a Competitive, Prosperous Future

February 22, 2011

By Victor C Johnson

One of our country’s periodic “great debates” is in full swing. This one constitutes an early round in the national conversation that we need to have about how to address the budget deficit, which has mushroomed out of control over the past decade, a product of earlier policies compounded by a historic recession. The first serious round consisted of the creation, deliberations, and report of the President’s Deficit Commission. Now the 2010 election and, in particular, the assumption of control of the House of Representatives by a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party, is forcing the issue onto the policy agenda. Virtually by definition, great debates affect the course of the nation, and this one promises to be no exception. Uncomfortable as it is, this debate can no longer be avoided.

I would like to advance some thoughts that I believe should guide those of us who believe in international education in this debate. None of them are terribly original or profound, but they do sometimes tend to get lost in the daily trench warfare to defend “our” programs from cuts. Indeed, I would argue that we should not attempt to defend each and every one of our programs from cuts. The “don’t cut me, cut the other guy” approach may be attractive, but at the end of the day, we’re all going to suffer cuts. So let’s try to make the best case we can in terms of what’s best for the country, and support those in government who share our view—even though some of their proposals may be painful for us.

A Successful Growth Strategy

I believe we share President Obama’s perspective that even though the times call for tough cuts, at the same time, we can’t stop investing in our nation’s future through investments in education, innovation, clean energy technology, infrastructure, and the like. We can’t just cut everything; there are always some things we have to spend more on—even in the context of a spending freeze or a declining budget—because otherwise, we can’t grow out of the situation we’re in now. In our own interest as international educators, we need to help the Congress and the administration understand how to do this—because international education is in fact integral to a successful growth strategy for the United States.

The president has proposed a five-year freeze on non-security, discretionary spending. That may be necessary, but even that cannot mean—must not mean—that there will be no new programs for five years. In an age like this one, when revolutionary global changes can occur within a five-year time span, it is unimaginable that we would remain programmatically static for such a long period of time. Old programs will disappear, and new ones will be created—even in the toughest times. It must be so—and even as we must sacrifice some things, we can and should boldly propose others, so long as they further the goal of a more innovative, competitive, and prosperous America.

We face a long-term budget crisis; our response must also be long-term. America is too prone to respond to these things with fads, and the effect of that tends to be inadvertently to undercut other important national values in the name of addressing the immediate crisis. A case in point:  For years, we have underfunded the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies (USAID, Peace Corps) as we have loaded up the Defense Department—to the point where even Secretary Gates concedes publicly that the imbalance must be redressed. And we have begun to do so; the civilian foreign affairs agencies were just starting to grow again. There are extremely compelling reasons of national interest why this must continue—yet some budget proposals before us would start these agencies back on a downward cycle again. We cannot do this; it’s just not smart. This is part of a long-term investment in the nation’s future. International educators can and should make this case strongly—confident in the knowledge that it’s good for the country, and good for us.

This suggests, of course, that any approach to balancing the budget which focuses only on domestic discretionary spending—12 percent  of the national budget—to the exclusion of military spending, is the wrong approach—and we should say so. Indeed, we should be wary about even buying into the narrative that gross cuts in domestic discretionary spending are essential for fiscal responsibility, because we know that the real drivers of the deficit are entitlements and our failure to tax ourselves to pay for what we spend—neither of which is addressed in the current debate.

A Competitive, Prosperous America

With these thoughts in mind, I want to identify what I see as a basic flaw in the president’s approach, and that is precisely his inattentiveness to international education. The president wants to get to the right place:  a more innovative, competitive, prosperous America. But we can’t get there from here unless we understand—and act on the understanding—that this objective will be achieved, or not, in a global economy. Many of the innovators that we need are not here, but rather abroad. The markets that will grow our economy are abroad. Many of the best jobs will move abroad as companies increasingly move their operations closer to where their major markets are. Education is global, and the job market is global—but we continue to conduct our policy debates as if this were still a self-contained society. Where are the actual policies that will prepare Americans students to compete and thrive in the global economy? We need a vibrant, coordinated plan to provide every American student with an international education. This is an attainable objective—even in times of fiscal austerity. The Department of Education should understand that, in these times, education is inherently international; therefore, international education should be seen as an essential part of the department’s mission.

We need to have a real policy for attracting international students, scholars, and talented individuals to this country, and for enabling them to join our workforce and help us compete if that’s what they want to do with their lives. This is not a big ticket item. It means getting all the agencies of the government that impact on the propensity of talented individuals to come here, on the same page and acting in a coordinated manner. It means enabling talented foreigners, who want to live here and help us thrive, to obtain a green card in a timely manner.

We need a policy to enable every American college student to pursue part of his or her education abroad. This is not expensive either—if we recognize that the models we have used to finance study abroad for the few no longer serve us well if our agenda is study abroad for the many. The appropriate model already exists—and is being employed by this administration’s Department of Education in the form of “Race to the Top”:  competitive grants to states for improving education at the K-12 level. With tiny amounts of money, competitive grants could be used to encourage and enable colleges and universities to internationalize their curricula and make study abroad an integral part of undergraduate education. Legislation to make a start on this will shortly be introduced in Congress; the administration should own it and make this initiative its own.

It should be our objective that every student in this country will graduate from college with knowledge of at least one foreign area and with the ability to converse in a foreign language. This can be done, but it will require refocusing existing resources.

If we think less in terms of protecting programs and more in terms of achieving outcomes that move our country forward, we can advance a robust international education agenda within the parameters of available resources. As we proceed through this great debate, this should be our objective as international educators.


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