While the United States remains utterly frozen in a debate about budget deficits and all the things that government shouldn’t do, other countries are marrying public and private resources to make themselves stronger and more competitive.

While the United States is not even sure we should have gone halfway toward providing health insurance to all of our citizens, other democratic countries long ago began using government to cover all their citizens — and have health costs far lower than ours.

While Americans pay less in taxes than the citizens of other rich countries — and currently pay the smallest share of their incomes for taxes since 1958 — one house of Congress thinks the only thing that can be done to help the country is to cut taxes even more.

While other countries have jumped ahead of us in green economics, we have backed away from any effort to put a price on carbon to battle climate change and promote new technologies. In the Republican Party, politicians have to apologize for even thinking about global warming.

And while other countries invest in their basic facilities, we are letting our roads and bridges, rail and water systems, and our broadband access go to seed. We created the interstate highway system, and now we can’t maintain our sewers.

Oh, yes, and nearly 14 million of our fellow citizens are unemployed.

OK, now you can go back to the dreary deficit debate if you wish, but this catalog is offered to suggest the irrelevance of our Washington conversation to the problems the country faces.

Our imagination deficit is the shortfall we should worry about. We seem incapable of doing what we did in the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and, yes, Nixon years: imagining how practical public action could make our citizens’ lives better, our country stronger and our private economy more productive.

Sure, we need long-term fiscal balance, and going back to and then reforming the tax rates we had under Bill Clinton would do much of what we need to do — and cut the deficit faster over the coming decade than would Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, which is heavy on tax cuts.

The larger and more important challenge is to figure out how we can plan, invest and compete with countries far more focused than we are on how the new global economy works. And the people most amazed at our country’s inability to do so are not armchair socialists but tough-minded CEOs.

Encouraged by Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, I spent time recently with The Wall Street Journal’s report on its annual ECO:nomics conference, published in March. Right off, the Journal’s account emphasized that China is “grabbing clean-technology market share not because of its cheap labor … but through strong mandates and subsidies to build a new export industry.” Ahem, those words “mandates” and “subsidies” don’t come out of free market playbook.

The report quoted Mark Pinto, the executive vice president of Applied Materials Inc., who said that in solar power, the U.S. is “neither the largest in manufacturing nor the largest market.” He added: “That’s very unusual.”

Do we really want to lose this market?

On his blog, Pope cites another corporate leader who attended the conference, Andrew N. Liveris, the chairman and chief executive of Dow Chemical Co. “Around the world,” Liveris writes in his book “Make It in America,” “countries are acting more and more like companies: competing aggressively against one another for business and progress and wealth. … Meanwhile, in the United States, we operate as if little has changed.”

I won’t pretend to agree with all of the CEOs’ views on tax or regulatory policy. But it is striking that so many of them are pragmatists, not ideologues. They understand that government efforts to promote national prosperity need to go way beyond taxes and deficits.

You might recall an observant politician who noted earlier this year that “South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a ‘D.’ ”

A few months later, the same politician said: “We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit investment in our people and our country.”

That would be President Obama, and you wonder: Is there any chance at all that he can move our national conversation to the task of “winning the future”?

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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