America has been the most innovative nation of the past century. But decades of consumption beyond its means have robbed the country of its competitive edge, says the former President.
Question: Why has America led the world in innovation for so many decades?
Jimmy Carter: Well America has always been a country of innovation and dynamism, entrepreneurship. And I think that one of the things that has made our country great too is its heterogeneous population where people come here from all over the world. And quite often, the people who do leave their own nation and come to an unknown destination, like the United States, are inherently adventurous, so we’ve had that adventurous spirit that has embedded itself collectively in the American consciousness.
I think all of those factors combined have made it possible for us to be in the forefront of change, social change as we had to accommodate people from different societies and different religions and so forth, and also changes that have taken place in innovative science because America has had the best university system in the world for a long time. And so we have been innovators, not only in the discoveries as proven by Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics and that sort of thing, but we’ve been able to put that into practical application with new gadgets that people admire.
Question: Is America falling behind?
Jimmy Carter: We’ve had a serious problem in our country in recent, I’d say few decades, in becoming more inclined toward consumption and gratification on how much we own, rather than having a spirit of innovation and dynamism and producing new products. It was in the 1970s that our nation first became a consumer nation, that is, we bought from foreigners more than we sold to foreigners. And increasingly, that has been a blight on our economic system—increasingly every year. And now we have an enormous trade deficit, that is we buy from foreign nations, particularly China and others, a lot more than we sell them. And it means that they are producing the products that we use. And we used to be the main producer of goods to be sold to our competitive nations that were fairly well off, in particular to the countries that were very poor. That’s changed now.
So I think we’ve lost the competitive edge that we had a number of years ago.
Recorded November 30, 2010
Interviewed by Andrea Useem