For the last eight years I've flown to New York at least once a month every month, and I've seen the gaping hole at Ground Zero from almost every angle -- from the air, the street and from nearby buildings.
While a memorial and museum finally are under construction, and five new skyscrapers are planned, the fact that there is still mostly a hole in the ground where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood, and construction on the new buildings isn't expected to be completed until sometime between 2014 and 2018, says something important about America. And it's not an encouraging message.
Those in government and business who are worried about the growing economic might of China, India and other rapidly developing countries should pay heed. If the hole in lower Manhattan is a metaphor for 21st-century America, we're headed for serious problems. And jobs summits, bailouts, rescue packages, stimulus programs and corporate reorganizations won't change this.
If terrorists destroyed one of China's landmark skyscrapers, do you think there would still be a hole in the ground eight years later? In about the same amount of time it will take to complete construction at the former World Trade Center site, China is expected to complete construction of a 16,000-mile nationwide high-speed rail network and 100 or so new airports. It takes the typical U.S. airport several years just to obtain the permits needed to build a single new runway.
What is it that ails us -- and what can be done about it?
Politicization. Everything in America is now politicized, with interest groups jockeying for power and favor. It is not just 24/7 news; it is now 24/7 politics. Much of the creativity, energy and resources that used to go into productive activities -- research and development, building, creating, marketing and managing -- now goes into politics and lobbying.
NIMBY. Hand in hand with politicization is the phenomenon known as "NIMBY: Not in My Back Yard." Many in the United States, for personal or ideological reasons, have become naysayers, rather than yea-sayers. Their answer to virtually everything is no. Some of this is national, but much is local: as when community activists block construction of offshore wind turbines near Cape Cod or, in Wilmington, N.C., block the building of a cement plant in the exact location of an abandoned cement plant, despite the community's need for jobs.
Decision by committee. When the blame game is constantly being played, as it is when everything is politicized, one of the best ways to shield yourself from criticism is by deferring decisions to committees. Decisions by committee are always slow and the result is usually blandness, rather than boldness.
Numbing bureaucracy. Committees are forms of bureaucracy.
Most Americans don't understand that when governments write laws -- even detailed laws like the 2,000-plus-page health-care overhaul now in progress -- that is only the beginning. After legislation is signed into law, the agencies responsible for implementation write regulations explaining how the law will be administered and enforced. In 2008 alone, 80,700 pages were added to the Federal Register, the official government compendium of all proposed, newly finalized and amended regulations.
Add to that thousands of pages of state and local regulations. What this means is that every move in any direction requires businesses to navigate their way through a minefield of mind-numbing paperwork that costs money to complete, reduces the time available for other pursuits, and takes the joy out of business.
We have seen indecision and delay in New York and it's the wrong formula for America, unless America wishes to drift into mediocrity.
China is serious about being number one, as is India.
America, meanwhile, spends valuable time talking about its exceptionalism while shackling its own hands.
The hole at Ground Zero suggests how this story might end.
Rather than lose by default, the hole should inspire us to think smarter, work harder, move faster and believe in ourselves again.
Sirkin is a senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group and co-author of "GLOBALITY: Competing with Everyone from Everywhere for Everything."
McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE