Friedman: The way we were — before all this

Countries that don't plan for the future tend not to do well there. When you watch the reckless behavior of the Tea Party-driven Republicans in Congress today, you can't help but fear that we'll be one of those. What makes it all the more frustrating is that in so many ways we have the wind at our back, if only we'd pull together to take advantage of it. In a world that rewards imagination, we have an incredible melting pot of immigrants that constantly blends together new ideas from technology to commerce to the arts. In a world where secure, clean energy is a huge asset, our investments in efficiency and discoveries of natural gas, if properly exploited, have the potential to pull manufacturing back to America from all corners of the globe.

In a world where the big divide is no longer between developed and developing countries but rather between high-imagination-enabling countries and low-imagination- enabling countries, we remain the highest-imagination-enabling country in the world — and we have the innovative companies, start-ups and venture capitalists to prove it. In a world where so many countries are struggling with diversity, we do so as well, but at least we've reached a point where we could twice elect a black man for president, whose middle name is Hussein, who defeated a woman in his own party and then four years later a Mormon from the other. No one else does that.

A country with this many natural assets should be celebrating, and instead we're inflicting wounds on ourselves. The gerrymandered hyperpartisanship that has infected both parties since the end of the Cold War is debilitating enough, but the latest iteration is a new low. The Republican Party is being taken over by a tea party faction that is not interested in governing on any of the big issues — immigration, gun control, health care, debt and taxes — where, with just minimal compromises between the two parties, we'd amplify our strengths so much that we'd separate ourselves from the rest of the world. Instead, this group is threatening to shut down the government and undermine America's vital credit rating if it doesn't get its way. This kind of madness helped to produce the idiotic sequester — the $1.2 trillion in automatic, arbitrary and across-the-board budget cuts from 2013 to 2021 — that is already undermining one of our strongest assets.

Ask Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, the crown jewel of American biotech innovation. In fiscal 2013, the sequester required the NIH to cut $1.55 billion across the board: 5 percent at each of its 27 institutes and centers, irrespective of whether one was on the cusp of a medical breakthrough and another was not. "There was still an ability within each institute to make adjustments, but, as NIH director, I could not decide to emphasize cancer research and down-modulate something else," Collins explained.

Because of the sequester and the fact that the NIH budget has been losing ground to inflation for 10 years, "we will not be able to fund 640 research grants that were scored in the top 17 percent of the proposals we received," said Collins. "They would have been funded without the sequester, but now they won't. They include new ideas on cancer, diabetes, autism and heart disease — all the things that we as a country say are a high priority. I can't say which of those grants would have led to the next breakthrough, or which investigator would be a Nobel Prize winner 20 years from now."

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