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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Michael J. Lewis

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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The closer you look, the bleaker it seems. In the next few years, Iran will detonate a nuclear bomb and (perhaps during this diversion) China will reclaim Taiwan in an unexpectedly swift air-and-sea assault. We will then peer into our national larder and find it distressingly bare. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill reminded himself that the annual Anglo-American steel production exceeded 100 million tons, and the Japanese only 7—and he slept soundly. Today he would toss and turn, when Chinese production exceeds 625 million tons, and is growing, while ours is barely 80 and declining. We once heard that such statistics were immaterial, because economic vitality now rests on technology, finance, and a vibrant service sector, not on heavy industry. That claim now falls flat.

One still hears another cliché, which is that our political culture has grown too poisonous and polarized to solve the debt crisis. But this gets things exactly backwards. It is the debt—and the entitlement payments that increasingly compose it—that poisoned our politics. Nothing has debilitated our political culture more than the task of maintaining a welfare state that demands an ever-greater share of the nation’s wealth. A fundamental tenet of parliamentary government holds that no parliament can bind its successors. But the welfare state binds the legislators in just this way, increasingly restricting their scope of action. A great deliberative body has withered into something like a speech-giving collection agency. And as the scope for genuine legislative action narrows, the great questions of American life are increasingly settled by fiat on the part of nonelected regulators or judges.

In 2008, when government intervention in the mortgage market led to a financial crash, and when national confidence in our international presence faltered, we elected a president and a Congress that promised more of the same: an even greater government role in the economy and an even more cringing international presence. Barack Obama invested these policies with peculiar clarity and urgency. Of course they are the very policies that have brought us to this impasse. History may be cruel, but you can’t say that it lacks comic timing. The consequence has been a startling reinvigoration of our political life, of which the Tea Party is but one manifestation, and which shows that (contrary to what we feared) the American public overwhelmingly does not yearn for an endless expansion of an entitlement culture. It shows that the United States retains its culture of personal initiative and self-sufficiency, and capacity for spontaneous civic action—those natural traits of a vigorous colonial culture. It remains the most charitable society (and not merely in terms of private philanthropy) in human history. Even when demoralized, as during the Great Depression, or when savagely divided, as over slavery, it shows a capacity for regeneration and self-correction that is nearly limitless. We are witnessing it again. And this is why I am optimistic about America’s future, more so than in years.

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Michael J. Lewis is professor of art at Williams College.



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