Radio Address to the Nation on Economic Competitiveness

February 21, 1987

My fellow Americans:

This past Tuesday I gave a major address on our administration's proposal to make our nation more competitive in the world economy. Then on Thursday I submitted those proposals to Congress. American competitiveness -- it's an issue that involves all our hopes for keeping this country a land of opportunity in the years ahead. Of course millions of us have the feeling that, recently, American products haven't been measuring up in the world marketplace quite the way they should. According to one poll, 9 out of 10 Americans are worried that the United States is losing its competitive edge. But it's important to move away from general notions like these to define the problem as precisely as we can.

Looking back we know that, virtually throughout our history, the United States has grown more competitive with the rest of the world, not less. In the century and a third between our founding and the First World War, we went from a minor agrarian nation -- a country for the most part of small towns and little farms scattered among vast reaches of virgin wilderness -- to an industrial power of the first rank, with great cities and factories and a workforce that was large and highly skilled. By the end of the Second World War, the United States stood alone, an economic giant that none of the war-ravaged powers could even begin to match. Since the war the United States has undergone economic expansion, growing economically still stronger; but so have other nations.

The countries the Second World War laid low have in recent decades not only rebuilt to prewar levels but gone on to play major roles in the modern world economy. This is as it should be, as we Americans would want it to be. It's no good being the tallest one around just because everybody else is flat on his back. And we went to great lengths with the Marshall plan and other programs, specifically to help other nations get back on their economic feet. But, yes, this new prosperity on the part of other nations does involve certain challenges. By the way, I'd like to stress that I used the word ``challenges,'' not ``threats.'' Threats are something you need to beat back; challenges are something you can rise to.

Today we see these economic challenges everywhere, challenges like the high quality of so many foreign goods and improved marketing techniques for selling foreign goods here at home. The strong dollar of recent years -- in large part a reflection of the underlying health of our economy -- has added a challenge of its own, making foreign goods less expensive in America and American goods more expensive abroad.

Yet perhaps the most distressing shortcomings involve the aspect of American life that will most directly affect our future -- education. Compared to students in the Soviet Union, American high school pupils spend over 20 percent fewer hours each year in school. Compared to students in Japan, American pupils receive significantly less instruction in those subjects of special importance to so many areas of economic growth -- mathematics and the sciences.

And we've cut tax rates and held down the growth of government spending during these past 6 years. America has begun to meet these challenges. Education test scores have risen. Inflation has fallen to its lowest level in 25 years. Our economy has created some 13 million jobs. In manufacturing, labor productivity is rising at a rate almost 50 percent greater than the postwar average. To give just one example of improved quality: Our auto industry is retooling and offering extended warranties. And in the words of management expert Peter Drucker: ``We have made the biggest demographic change any country has ever made in terms of labor force participation of women. It's an incredible achievement.''

An incredible achievement indeed, but one to build upon, not take for granted. And that's why in my address on Tuesday I put forward an array of proposals, including worker retraining, redoubled efforts to open foreign markets to American goods, and new research initiatives to spur innovation in science and technology. This quest for excellence must be a great national undertaking that challenges Americans to achieve their best -- that challenges workers to take greater pride in their product; businessmen to become even more enterprising and innovative; and educators to instill in our children a willingness to strive for that magic word, ``excellence.'' So, I call on Congress to put our proposals at the top of its agenda and to act upon them promptly. Working together I'm confident that we'll go on to still more jobs and even greater prosperity. After all, when it comes to world competitiveness, we Americans have quite a history behind us.

Until next week, thanks for listening, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from Camp David, MD.