Who's Counting: Double Deficits

Last month there was yet another dreary news story about American students' less than stellar performance on international achievement tests in math and science. Note, though, that this column will not be another dreary commentary on this dreary story.

The recent test, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, is probably as good a barometer of relative achievement as any (although, in my opinion, weighing narrow computational skills too heavily). It showed Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong taking away the honors. Having just returned from Hong Kong and Shanghai where business news, market indices, and currency fluctuations dominate TV and newspapers, and where there is an obsession with horse racing, other forms of gambling, and all things numerical, I don't find the results at all surprising.

Also in the news last month (and every month) was a spate of stories about the budget and trade deficits in this country, the historic low of 0.2 percent in Americans' savings rate, and the effect these were having on our trading partners. Again the contrast with China is stark. A feeling of an imminent goldrush strikes even the most superficial observer in Shanghai where businessmen from all over the world have set up shop to negotiate deals.

These two sets of stories may not be as unrelated as they seem, however, and this finally brings me to the meat of this column: the following somewhat parallel arguments.

Budget Deficit

1. We have a big budget deficit in this country. This is to say that we spend more money than we collect in taxes (approximately $400 billion more this year).

2. So we have to scare up a good deal of money to make up the difference.

3. Since American savings rate are at an-time low, we can't borrow very much from ourselves. There isn't a large pool of domestic savings that can be tapped for purchase of U.S. treasury bonds.

4. As a result we turn to other countries that have a lot of dollars sitting around their central banks (usually because we buy more from them than they buy from us).

5. The bottom line is that our increased consumption is being paid for, at least to an extent, by foreigners who lend us money by buying our bonds.

6. There are signs, however, that other countries are getting tired of this and that we may need to induce them to continue doing so by paying higher interest rates on the money we borrow from them. Raising interest rates brings about other problems, the prime one possibly being another recession, but it does sweeten the pie for foreign investors and allow the global financial market to work the way it should. Without the free flow of capital, we'd be in trouble

Math/Science Deficit

1. We have a big math/science deficit in this country. This is to say that we need more mathematically and scientifically trained people than we produce.

2. So we have to scare up a good many appropriately skilled people to make up the difference.

3. Since American students' average scores on international achievement tests in math and science are middling at best, we can't find enough such people among ourselves. There isn't a large pool of American students from which to draw new mathematicians and scientists.

4. As a result we turn to other countries that have produced relatively more such people than we have.

5. The bottom line is that our business and scientific competitiveness is being underwritten, at least to an extent, by foreigners who come here to work and study.

6. There are signs, however, that other nations are getting tired of this and we may need to induce them to continue doing so by making it easier and more attractive for their students and professionals to come here. But we're doing just the opposite. We're making it increasingly difficult for foreign nationals to obtain visas while foreign universities and corporations are becoming increasingly attractive to them. This past year, for example, foreign applications to American graduate schools were down almost 30 percent. The global education market is not working smoothly because we're making it harder for human capital to enter the country. If we don't produce more scientists and engineers or get them from other countries, we'll soon be in trouble.

But there is some good international news too. Our students and our treasury officials score among the highest in the world in self-esteem and self-regard.

-- Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. His Who's Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.

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