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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Richard N. Haass

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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It is tempting to be glibly optimistic and quote Winston Churchill’s observation that “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”

But this would be, well, glib. There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons for optimism: America’s many excellent institutions of higher education; its relative openness to immigrants; the availability of venture capital for promising innovations; its fundamental political stability; a rich endowment of minerals, energy, and water; and the absence of a powerful peer competitor akin to Germany in the first half of the 20th century and the USSR in the second.

At the same time, there are reasons for genuine concern: a debt larger than GNP; persistent high unemployment; low economic growth; a K-12 educational system that is not preparing most Americans for a competitive, dynamic world; aging infrastructure; a rising China; and a polarized political system that is beholden to special interests and increasingly unable to act in behalf of national interests.

So, confident or pessimistic? The best reason for optimism is that we can identify policies that will help: raising the retirement age; means-testing entitlements; simplifying taxes, reducing tax rates, and eliminating certain tax deductions; cutting use of oil through regulation, taxation, or both; combining near-term economic stimulus with long-term deficit reduction; expanding trade.

Changes also need to be made in how we do things: allowing more talented immigrants to remain in the country, reforming health care so the incentive is not always to increase treatment, curbing the power of public-service unions, resisting wars of choice where the interests at stake are less than vital or where policies other than military intervention promise to yield acceptable results.

But none of this will just happen. It will take real leadership, defined here as a willingness to advocate policies that are inconsistent with the narrow interests of many groups and individuals but that would be good for the society and the country as a whole. It will require leveling with the American people about the consequences of not meeting our challenges and what it will take to meet them. It will require taking on numerous sacred cows.

There are three alternatives to real leadership. One is drift. Business as usual, though, would likely bring about the second alternative: crisis. It could come in the form of domestic unrest or economic disaster imposed by a world that tires of lending us dollars. A third alternative—faux leadership, essentially populism that would deepen social divisions without fixing problems—would be the worst of all worlds.

It may not be realistic to do what I am calling for and survive, much less thrive, politically. It may not be possible within either of the two existing parties; it certainly won’t be easy given our 24/7 Internet and media environment.

Still, I am hanging on to my optimism, if only barely. I could just as easily be a pessimist who has not given up. Either way, it is too close a call for comfort.

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Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.


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