Economic Trends

The Surprising Secret Behind America’s Success

April 6, 2018


The Surprising Secret Behind America’s Success

“We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.”

– President Donald Trump

The conventional wisdom is that America’s best days are behind it.

Back in the good old days, the U.S. economy ensured broad-based prosperity throughout the land.

Washington politicians reached across the aisle and got things done.

And the world’s best and brightest flocked to America’s shores for a better life.

Today, the U.S. economy is sharply divided between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Political vitriol has reached unprecedented levels.

And illegal immigrants have become scapegoats for crime and taking jobs from Americans.

No wonder President Trump was elected on the slogan of “Make America Great Again.”

I’ve lived abroad for most of my adult life. So it’s no surprise that my perspective on the United States has changed much from when I grew up in the Midwest.

I’ve learned that America has some remarkable – and underappreciated – achievements.

But I also see a real danger: President Trump’s policies and rhetoric threaten to undercut the source of much of America’s past and current successes.

Celebrating America’s Successes

First, let’s celebrate America’s successes in ways you may not have thought of.

Let’s start with brains…

Since World War II, the U.S. has dominated the Nobel Prizes in medicine, chemistry, physics and economics.

Many of today’s leading global thought leaders live in the U.S.

Appearances by the likes of Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, British historian and Stanford senior research fellow Niall Ferguson, and financial author and philosopher Nassim Taleb attract intelligent audiences across the planet – whether in New York, London or Beijing.

And brainy U.S.-based tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google have woven themselves into the fabric of billions of lives across the planet.

So how about brawn?

The U.S. dominated the medal table at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, winning a total of 121 medals.

China had 70, the next highest total.

More than 1,000 current and former NCAA student-athletes competed in Brazil, representing 223 NCAA member institutions.

Athletes from Stanford, my alma mater, won 26 Olympic medals alone – 14 of them gold.

If Stanford were a country, it would have ranked 11th for the total number of medals – and an astonishing sixth in the world for gold.


Yes, America Is a Special Place

But perhaps not for the reasons you think.

In 2016, the U.S. claimed six of the nine scholars who shared the four science-based Nobel Prizes.

The surprise?

Not a single one was born in the United States.

So what made these winners “American”?

Each of the six winners worked at a U.S. university and called the U.S. home.

How about those U.S.-based thought leaders?

As it turns out, Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker was born in Canada. Stanford fellow Niall Ferguson hails from Scotland. And Nassim Taleb grew up in Lebanon.

And what about America’s Silicon Valley-based tech giants?

Remarkably, the current CEOs of Microsoft, Adobe and Mastercard all went to the same high school – in India.

And all those Olympic medal-winning NCAA athletes?

Well, just because you are an NCAA athlete does not mean you are “American.”

The more than 1,000 NCAA athletes at the Rio Olympics represented an astonishing 107 countries.

These U.S. and foreign NCAA athletes won 232 medals at the Rio Olympics -105 of them gold.

Remarkably, NCAA athletes won more gold, silver and bronze medals alone than the United States and China did together.

The lesson is clear…

You don’t need to be American to be the best in the world at what you do.

But if you are world class, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in America.

And it’s America’s ability to attract (and keep) this kind of world-class talent that’s the secret to some of its greatest successes.

But Here’s Why I’m Worried

My American friends and I who live abroad always find ourselves defending the country of our birth.

And frankly, the task is getting harder.

Here are two worrisome trends…

First, President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is discouraging the best and the brightest from flocking to America’s shores.

The numbers aren’t yet huge…

But there’s little doubt that at least a handful of future “American” Nobel Prize winners and Olympic athletes are turning away from studying and working in the U.S.

Second, the U.S. media (and culture) has become schizophrenic.

It is at once both lowbrow trashy… and highbrow intolerant.

The U.S. media lionizes lowbrow cultural icons like rapper Snoop Dogg, reality TV star Kim Kardashian and YouTube sensation Justin Bieber.

In contrast, posters on the streets of London celebrate the U.K.’s Nobel Prize winners. And successful British Olympic athletes are hailed as role models.

Combine this with the oppressive highbrow enforcement of political correctness…

And the “land of the free” seems anything but that.

Yes, it’s important to keep perspective…

The good old days when the United States was not gripped by some social or political crisis du jour is a fantasy.

Counterintuitively, it’s that ceaseless churning and change that gives America its unique dynamism and resilience.

As the late, great author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn observed, “People aren’t building rafts to escape to Cuba.”

That won’t change anytime soon.

Still, the world is watching.

And sadly, it’s growing less impressed with what it sees.

Good investing,


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