America's economic and social well-being is unraveling as problems and crises economic, environmental and educational mount that will surely burden coming generations.

"And I see our leaders doing little different than Nero did when he continued to fiddle as Rome burned," an emeritus business professor said Tuesday evening at Utah State University.Howard Carlisle gave the 13th annual Last Lecture at USU, focusing on what he perceives to be a crisis in leadership and the problems that, as a result, are getting out of hand.

In the past, each American generation has made improvements that have benefited those generations that follow. But this generation will probably leave considerably greater problems than it inherited, Carlisle said.

"Our personal income and standard of living have remained stagnant for nearly two decades," he said. "The environmental clock is running down, a tremendous debt is being passed to your generation, and education, the wellspring of society, is falling significantly behind that of other countries."

Carlisle said that as a business professor he has learned that organizations that ignore their problems are the first to fail. The time has come for the United States to forthrightly scrutinize and air its problems.

"If we can do that, there are reasons to be extremely upbeat," he said.

Carlisle said he believes leadership is critical. But, because facing issues is politically unproductive, candidates deal in generalities and try to be flexible enough to support both sides of an issue, depending on the audience.

"We certainly do not need a man on a white horse to lead us to victory," he said. "Above all, we require an informed citizenry that demands action be taken.

"We need to support people for political office who offer solutions to our problems, are willing to confront issues and are not afraid to ask for personal sacrifice. Our problem is we make it unattractive for competent people to seek office."

Declining productivity in American industry means that families are maintaining their standards of living by having more family members employed or by borrowing, Carlisle said. When the economy began to show signs of wear and tear, the executive and legislative branches closed their eyes and continued to back major increases in government appropriations, he said.

Borrowing enormous sums to make up for slower tax revenues caused the national debt to skyrocket. Servicing this debt consumes 1 percent of U.S. production, Carlisle said. The trade balance, which was in America's favor until 1971, is now well over $100 million in the red.

"The combined impact of the trade, public and private deficits is that the United States made the unbelievable switch of going from the world's largest creditor to the largest debtor nation in this decade," Carlisle said. "As a nation and as a people, we are living beyond our means."

The nation and its leaders are also basically blind to environmental issues, Carlisle said. "Even though our short-term economic and political perspective is threatening the nation's future, this is nothing compared to what our species is doing to the environment."

Carlisle said he is convinced that future historians will look at the 20th century as the time when humankind ravaged the environment and thoughtlessly destroyed the Earth's physical attributes and resources for short-term gratification.

"What is clear is that if we are fortunate enough to avoid a nuclear holocaust or other disaster, our short-term perspective must be replaced with one giving clear thought and even preference to future generations," he said.

"Otherwise, a large portion of our physical surroundings will be an artificial Disneyland of replicas and facsimiles. Technology can improve many things, but it is a poor substitute for nature."

Battles on the world's economic fronts rely directly on the quality of our education systems, Carlisle said.

The United States is faltering on this front, he said. Japan graduates more bachelor-level engineers than the United States although it has half the population. Japanese students spend over seven hours a day in school for 240 days a year, vs. six hours and 180 days in the United States. And in a test of scientific knowledge among 10- to 14-year-olds, Japan ranked first and the United States was 15th among industrialized nations.

"Weak schools are merely a reflection of our society," Carlisle said.

"The problems relate to the expectations of parents and others in the community and our willingness to compromise on issues as important as educational attainment.