Regaining America's Competitive Edge | Wilson Center

Regaining America's Competitive Edge

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Once the world’s uncontested manufacturing and high-tech powerhouse, the United States must today contend with stiff international competition for markets, innovation, and talent. To regain its edge, America needs serious-minded and long-range reforms in K-12 education, the tax code, and immigration policies, an expert panel said.

“We need to recruit the best and brightest,” noted school reformer Paul Vallas, a former superintendent of schools in Chicago and Philadelphia. Vallas also stressed performance-based measures to reward good teachers and punish bad ones, and he emphasized the importance of “universal early childhood development” to give children the foundation they need to become good students.

On education, performance standards tied to salary bonuses is needed to attract and retain good teachers, especially in fields where private-sector pay is highly competitive, former Lockheed-Martin CEO Norm Augustine said. “A great physics teacher should be paid more than a good physics teacher who should be paid more than a phys ed teacher,” he said.

Immigration policies should also be reformed to keep advanced-degree graduates in science and math in the United States, Jan Rivkin of Harvard Business School said. “We should staple a green card to the degree of each foreign Ph.D. in engineering and science,” he said.

Immigration reform is needed to enhance America’s industrial and greater economic competitiveness, former Michigan Governor John Engler said. “It is in the national interest to have a comprehensive immigration reform bill now,” he said.

Educational improvements are needed not only at the primary, or K-12, level, but throughout the course of workers’ careers, as industries adapt to swiftly changing markets, Deborah Wince-Smith of the Council on Competitiveness said. Students should be encouraged to pursue careers in manufacturing, as well, she added. “Manufacturing is safe, strong, and surging, not dumb and dangerous,” she said, citing exciting new frontiers in nanotechnology, materials science, and bioengineering. 

Tax reform is essential to enhancing corporate America’s edge, said many of the panelists. The corporate tax rate should be lowered to levels that allow private-sector competition with the rest of the world, but at the same time the loopholes and deductions that corporations have used to effectively pay lower taxes need to be closed, they said.

The National Conversation at the Woodrow Wilson Center series provides a safe political space for deep dialogue and informed discussion of the most significant problems and challenges facing the nation and the world.


  • Jane Harman

    Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center
  • John Engler

    President, The Business Roundtable and former Governor of Michigan
  • Norm Augustine

    former CEO, Lockheed-Martin, Chair of the National Academies Gathering Storm Committee and author of Rising Above the Gathering Storm
  • Paul Vallas

    Distinguished Scholar
    Education Reformer and Former Superintendent of the Recovery School District of Louisiana
  • Jan Rivkin

    Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Business Administration Unit Head, Harvard Business School
  • Deborah L. Wince-Smith

    President, Council on Competitiveness
  • David Wessel

    Former Public Policy Scholar
    Director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy and Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, Brookings Institution; Contributing Correspondent, Wall Street Journal