Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.


Basketball and forecasts

Is there a better place to be during the holidays -- outside the family -- than the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament at the Show Me Center? The mix of fans sitting in the crowd leads to relaxed conversation, and I've never been to a game without running into a friend I hadn't seen for years. One of my favorite images this year was Notre Dame teacher Steve Mosley sitting virtually in the center of the Notre Dame student section: a graybeard among the cheering teenagers.

Meanwhile, the action on the court never fails to delight: Even the blowouts are interesting as determined but overmatched smaller teams do their best to score, never quitting, always fighting. Until the semifinals, though, most of the hubbub seems to be in the stands -- rather than on the court -- as conversation, laughter and, dare I say, flirting abound.

My daughter's favorites at the tournament are the dip-n-dots -- though I'm sure regular ice cream would be fine, too. And, for the first time in her life, she asked to wear a ribbon in her hair -- a contraption she usually yanks out as soon as her mother or I place it there. Could all the cheerleaders with bright ribbons perched on top have influenced this wide-eyed, 3-year-old?

Each year the Southeast Missourian is proud to sponsor the Christmas tournament. We go to a bit of extra effort to cover all the action, especially on our regional sports site, www.semoball.com. You can find photo galleries there that capture the spirit of competition. Special thanks to semoball editor Toby Carrig and the Southeast Missourian writers and photographers for their in-depth coverage. And to Tracker (this year played by Seth Robert) for revving up the crowds. This area is also blessed to have a great radio sports team, led by ESPN 1220's Erik Sean with Todd Bonacki and Jess Bolen. Thanks, guys, for your efforts.

Congratulations to Mitch Wood and the tournament organizers for another successful event. Each year, you put on the best tournament in the region. And, last but not least, congratulations to Ronnie Cookson and the Scott County Central Braves for another tournament title.

The U.S. economy: As 2008 draws to a close, the following excerpt from the Kiplinger Financial Report provides interesting perspective on the U.S. economy. As a New Year's wish, let's hope the areas where America is strong get stronger in 2009. And, where we're weak, progress is begun. Happy new year, everyone.

Mired in the worst recession in decades, it'd be easy to focus on how much worse off the U.S. is today than it was a year or two ago: More jobless, slower sales, lower profits, smaller real incomes, etc. But there's another set of comparisons ... equally valid in any assessment of U.S. well-being.

Compared with the rest of the world: How does the U.S. stack up? Economically, politically and socially?

It's no surprise that in many measures ... the U.S. ranks at the top of the pile:

The largest economy, the most broadly used currency. The largest exporter and the biggest importer, by far. The U.S. military is the world's mightiest, and the nation contributes more foreign aid than any other. It's the first and largest responder in times of international crisis.

But America's supremacy is being challenged. Its ranking has slipped in some measures of global economic competitiveness and the prosperity and well-being of its citizens.

Want proof that the U.S. remains the world's preeminent economy? Look no further than what's happening these days to U.S. Treasury bills. In the face of global recession, investors worldwide are flocking to that safe haven, pushing yields to zero in recent weeks. Why? Because despite the current contraction, confidence in the U.S. economy is greater than almost anywhere else in the world, and investors feel assured that the U.S. government will pay off its obligations.

Foreign direct investment flows also point to the U.S. economy's vibrancy: Last year, foreign investors sank $233 billion into business ventures in the U.S., far eclipsing any other economy, including China and Hong Kong combined.

At nearly $14 trillion, the U.S. economy dwarfs every other. It's three times as large as the economy of Japan, which ranks second. GDPs for China, ranked third, and Germany, in fourth place, each run in the neighborhood of $3.5 trillion a year.

And it's tops not just overall, but in both services and industrial output. In 2005, U.S. manufacturing output topped $1.7 trillion. In comparison, Japan cranked out $950 billion in manufactured goods, and China, about $780 billion. Since then, the U.S. has doubtless lost some of its edge, but it still solidly leads. Particularly strong competitors include health care and communications equipment, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, oil and gas equipment and industrial machinery.

Sure, U.S. output will shrink in the recession, but so will everyone else's. And it's not likely to cede the number one position for many years yet.

One reason for U.S. economic pre-eminence: Strong productivity. Since 1995, American industrial output per hour of labor has grown faster than in most other industrial countries, averaging a healthy 2 percent increase a year. Among G-8 nations, only the United Kingdom has outpaced the U.S. since 2000, with Japan notching growth just below America's pace and others significantly lower.

High productivity pays off in U.S. agriculture as well. The efficiency of American crop and livestock grower, supported by a well-established research network, is one reason the country ranks first in output of corn, soybeans, beef, poultry, dairy products and more. Of course, abundant arable land doesn't hurt, either.

America's farmers are at little risk of losing their edge in coming years, despite rising production costs. Increased world population, better diets worldwide and a growing biofuels market should have agriculture chalking up big positives for the country for years.

Another winning factor for the U.S.: A well-developed infrastructure ... roads, bridges, railroads, ports, water, electricity, etc. The World Economic Forum considers U.S. infrastructure to be among the world's best, ranking it ninth, below Germany, France and four other European countries where roads, railroad and ports have been a funding priority for over a century.

It's true, though, that much of the country's infrastructure is deteriorating ... succumbing to age, overuse and too much maintenance deferred for too long. A swift infusion of capital will help ... coming soon in the economic stimulus planned by president-elect Obama to help jolt U.S. economic growth back to life. But to remain a big asset, U.S. infrastructure will need long-term investment.

At particular risk: Providing reliable, affordable electricity to businesses and homes. Ensuring an adequate supply and transmission will take tens of billions of dollars over the next five years or so. Plus concerted efforts to overcome opposition to putting new plants ... many of them nuclear ... and power lines in local neighborhoods.

One area where the U.S. is getting left in the dust: Public education. Over the last century, U.S. workers were the world's best educated. That's no longer the case. Over the past three decades or so, South Korea, Japan, Norway, Canada, Switzerland and others have overtaken the U.S. in the portion of people who enter the workforce with a high school diploma or its local equivalent. New Zealand, Hungary and other countries are on the verge of doing so.

In math, science and literacy, foreign students are outpacing Americans. The U.S. falls in the middle or bottom of the pack in the three continuing studies that compare young people's academic achievement in a variety of countries, though one recent report showed significant gains in U.S. math scores since 2003.

Because more jobs require higher education, the trend's especially troubling. By 2016, nearly 80 percent of all U.S. jobs will require more than a high school diploma, but 70 million Americans between ages 25 and 40 haven't gone past grade 12. In fact, the U.S. is the only industrialized country where the generation entering the work force is less educated than the one leaving it, though Germany is getting close to that point.

The good news is that business and government are tackling the challenge. Across the country, companies are actively working to improve workforce education. They're sponsoring mentoring programs and internships, funding community colleges and more.

Another trouble spot for American competitiveness: The aging population. But the U.S. is in better shape than most of its industrial peers. In Japan, the labor force has begun to shrink as older workers retire and fewer young people are available to replace them. Europe's labor force peaked this year and will slide next.

It's immigrants who are the U.S.' saving grace. They tend to be younger than the general population and to have more children than U.S.-born residents.

That'll help buy the U.S. a bit more than a decade ... till 2020 or so ... before the growth of the U.S. work force follows that of Germany, Italy and others on a downward path.

In good times and in bad, Americans are better off than most of the world. About 1.4 billion of Earth's inhabitants live in abject poverty. A more meaningful comparison is with those who live in Europe, Japan, Australia and a handful of other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members.

Even compared with its industrial peers, the U.S. fares very well. The U.S. per-capita GDP ranks only 16th in the world, behind Ireland, Sweden, Australia, France and others. But this understates U.S. living standards.

Adjusted for cost of living, U.S. is tops among large, industrialized nations. In the whole world, it trails only Qatar, Luxembourg, Norway, Singapore and Brunei.

In housing, the average U.S. family enjoys nearly twice as much living space as the Germans, French or Brits. Even the 20 percent of Americans with the lowest incomes tend to have larger residences than is typical for households in western Europe.

Health care is another story, however. There's no doubt that the U.S. is by far the leader in quality of health care for those who can get it. But ... access and affordability are a problem. U.S. health-care expenditures in 2006 accounted for over 15 percent of GDP. The share is probably greater now. In France and Germany, health consumes about 11 percent. In Canada, about 10 percent. Japan and the U.K ... around 8 percent. The U.S. is low on key indexes of public health among major industrialized nations: Infant mortality, life expectancy, deaths preventable with proper care and the high portion of people without health coverage.

And there are more measures by which the U.S. doesn't compare very well: The personal savings rate is dismally low but finally beginning to rise. College education is less affordable than in many other countries, where governments provide much more assistance to qualified students. Lower-incomers are less likely to move up the ladder than in parts of Europe, though upper-incomers are also likely to move down ... the U.S. is less class-bound. Environmental quality is generally considered to be lower in the U.S. than in most other industrialized countries, though it exceeds developing nations.

It's a varied story on income taxes. The Bush tax cuts moved the U.S. from the 15th highest income tax rates in the OECD to the 21st. But it's a good bet that tax increases under the coming Obama administration will reverse some of that. Participation in the political process ... voter turnout ... is also lower in the U.S., just 62 percent this year, compared with 90 percent-plus in Australia, Italy, Greece and Belgium, for example. It should be noted, though, that in those countries voting is mandatory.

All in all, a very mixed bag of successes and shortcomings. America faces increasingly tough competition for global leadership. Candid acknowledgment of the challenges is a first step toward meeting them.

-- The Kiplinger Report

Jon K. Rust is the publisher of the Southeast Missourian. E-mail: jrust@semissourian.com.