Commentary Magazine


Topic: symposium

Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Yuval Levin

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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On the face of it, our time should be high tide for American pessimism. The economic calamity of 2008 has been succeeded by a precarious stall. Growth is anemic. Unemployment remains very high. The public is in a sour mood. Our president seems to yearn for a low-profile America. And those charged with looking forward tell us that things will get even worse: the aging of our society combined with the imprudent design of our entitlement programs promises to inflate our national debt to twice the size of our economy by the mid-2030s. We have never seen debt on that level, and there is reason to think such debt would make it very difficult for America to be as strong and prosperous as it has been since the Second World War. The stench of decline is in the air.

And yet, my answer to the editors’ question is that I am decidedly optimistic about America’s future. How could I be? Because the list of woes laid out above describes not the demise of the American order but the demise of the liberal welfare state, and we must be very careful not to conflate the two. The economists’ impossibly grim projections only describe what will happen if we don’t change course, and they therefore make it clear that we will change course.

Granted, that will be no simple matter. The liberal welfare state and the vision of social democracy that underlies it have given shape to our public life for a century—providing a roadmap for the left and a foil for the right. Viewing capitalism as an effective but morally dubious engine of wealth, it sought to balance economic prosperity with economic security through technocratic management of key sectors of the economy combined with all-encompassing programs of social insurance. It seemed to work while our population was booming and our postwar growth was strong. But it undermined both of those preconditions for its own success, while also undermining the traditional family, the moral underpinnings of American working-class life, and the dynamism of our economy to boot. Read More

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?

_____________

On the face of it, our time should be high tide for American pessimism. The economic calamity of 2008 has been succeeded by a precarious stall. Growth is anemic. Unemployment remains very high. The public is in a sour mood. Our president seems to yearn for a low-profile America. And those charged with looking forward tell us that things will get even worse: the aging of our society combined with the imprudent design of our entitlement programs promises to inflate our national debt to twice the size of our economy by the mid-2030s. We have never seen debt on that level, and there is reason to think such debt would make it very difficult for America to be as strong and prosperous as it has been since the Second World War. The stench of decline is in the air.

And yet, my answer to the editors’ question is that I am decidedly optimistic about America’s future. How could I be? Because the list of woes laid out above describes not the demise of the American order but the demise of the liberal welfare state, and we must be very careful not to conflate the two. The economists’ impossibly grim projections only describe what will happen if we don’t change course, and they therefore make it clear that we will change course.

Granted, that will be no simple matter. The liberal welfare state and the vision of social democracy that underlies it have given shape to our public life for a century—providing a roadmap for the left and a foil for the right. Viewing capitalism as an effective but morally dubious engine of wealth, it sought to balance economic prosperity with economic security through technocratic management of key sectors of the economy combined with all-encompassing programs of social insurance. It seemed to work while our population was booming and our postwar growth was strong. But it undermined both of those preconditions for its own success, while also undermining the traditional family, the moral underpinnings of American working-class life, and the dynamism of our economy to boot.

Now the bill is coming due, and a growing segment of Americans can see that the liberal welfare state is a failure. But those voters still want some other way to achieve the goal of the welfare state: balancing growth and prosperity with economic security and compassion for the poor. That means they would be open as never before to a conservative approach to achieving that goal, but they are not open to abandoning that goal—they have not become libertarians. The right kind of conservatism—one that sought to make the benefits of democratic capitalism available to all—could thrive in this moment of challenge and could help America thrive again, too.

The nation, therefore, need not share the liberal welfare state’s grim fate. We have the world’s largest economy, tremendous untapped (and indeed repressed) growth potential, far rosier demographic prospects than those of our competitors, by far the world’s largest and most able military to protect us, and a tradition of economic drive and growth.

A public-policy agenda that sought to encourage such drive and growth would go a long way toward helping us thrive again, and such an agenda is easily imaginable—indeed, it is gradually emerging on the right. If we’re lucky, it could even help us turn things around before a monumental debt crisis, rather than after. And we’re Americans, so we already know we’re lucky.

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Yuval Levin is the founding editor of National Affairs and a Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Eric Ormsby

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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When America’s future looks grim—and it’s seldom looked grimmer—I take no comfort in the splenetic pronouncements of talk-show hosts or the equivocations of pundits, all of whom reinforce a stubborn sense of despair. It takes bloody-mindedness to be an optimist. Optimism is a bit like religious belief—a faith in things unseen. But such faith is meaningless if it doesn’t take a hard look at things seen. No harder look has ever been cast on our republic than Walt Whitman’s in the years following the Civil War.

Whitman believed fervently in American spiritual energy, in that astonishing capacity we possess for ceaseless reinvention of ourselves. He had no rosy illusions. America, he warned, could yet prove to be “the most tremendous failure of time.” He wrote inDemocratic Vistas, that scathing prophecy of 1871:

Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings) nor is humanity itself believed in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, etc., the most dismal phantoms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. Read More

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?

_____________

When America’s future looks grim—and it’s seldom looked grimmer—I take no comfort in the splenetic pronouncements of talk-show hosts or the equivocations of pundits, all of whom reinforce a stubborn sense of despair. It takes bloody-mindedness to be an optimist. Optimism is a bit like religious belief—a faith in things unseen. But such faith is meaningless if it doesn’t take a hard look at things seen. No harder look has ever been cast on our republic than Walt Whitman’s in the years following the Civil War.

Whitman believed fervently in American spiritual energy, in that astonishing capacity we possess for ceaseless reinvention of ourselves. He had no rosy illusions. America, he warned, could yet prove to be “the most tremendous failure of time.” He wrote inDemocratic Vistas, that scathing prophecy of 1871:

Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings) nor is humanity itself believed in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, etc., the most dismal phantoms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable.

I’ve lived abroad now for some 25 years, and my perspective on America may be skewed. But it isn’t the obvious dangers that America faces—terrorist attack, fiscal collapse—that most get me down but something humbler, less catastrophic, and yet more insidious. I think of it as the death of discourse. Nowadays, even among friends, a dissenting opinion is met not with rebuttal or debate but with stony silence or Whitman’s “melodramatic screamings.” The purpose of conversation on any serious topic is no longer a “mass of badinage” but an occasion for sniffing out “deviant” views and affixing labels.

I grew up in the South in the bad old times. During Sunday dinners, my family, all Atlanta-born, refought the Civil War, sometimes bitterly. My mother and brother and I displayed disagreeable “Yankee” tendencies: we proclaimed segregation evil. When I went so far as to praise William Tecumseh Sherman, a mighty rumpus ensued. Still, we voiced our beliefs, we raged and we wrangled, and in the end we were reconciled in mutual affection. What has happened in America that no common ground—the simple assumption of good faith, if not of affection—seems open for civil discourse?

If I remain optimistic about the future of America, even against the odds, it’s because I share Walt Whitman’s belief that we still provide “full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” But for that to occur, we need to learn how to listen to one another once again.

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Eric Ormsby is a writer in London whose most recent books include Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place (Porcupine’s Quill) and The Baboons of Hada: Selected Poems (Carcanet).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Dennis Prager

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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I am both optimistic and pessimistic regarding America’s future. Here are my reasons for pessimism: first, the unique American values system, what I call the American Trinity, is under assault. These three values are announced on every American coin: Liberty, E Pluribus Unum, In God We Trust. The left has declared war on all three. It seeks to replace Liberty with equality (of result), E Pluribus Unum with multiculturalism, and In God We Trust with secularism. America is being transformed—candidate Barack Obama’s favorite word for what he sought to do to America—into another Western European country, the left’s model of a great society.

Second, the primary purpose of high schools and colleges—and increasingly, even elementary schools—is to turn the students into secular leftists. Many of these graduates know what the climate will be like in 2080 but don’t know who Stalin was, let alone who Cain and Abel were. They are proficient at using condoms and recycling, but little else. They have been taught nothing of American exceptionalism and would likely find the term incomprehensible, if not repulsive. They would save their dog before a human they didn’t know because morality is a matter of feelings, and they feel more for their dog.

Third, the expansion of the state has produced a new American. This American believes in rights more than in obligations and that the state should take care of him, his parents, his children, and his neighbor. Read More

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?

_____________

I am both optimistic and pessimistic regarding America’s future. Here are my reasons for pessimism: first, the unique American values system, what I call the American Trinity, is under assault. These three values are announced on every American coin: Liberty, E Pluribus Unum, In God We Trust. The left has declared war on all three. It seeks to replace Liberty with equality (of result), E Pluribus Unum with multiculturalism, and In God We Trust with secularism. America is being transformed—candidate Barack Obama’s favorite word for what he sought to do to America—into another Western European country, the left’s model of a great society.

Second, the primary purpose of high schools and colleges—and increasingly, even elementary schools—is to turn the students into secular leftists. Many of these graduates know what the climate will be like in 2080 but don’t know who Stalin was, let alone who Cain and Abel were. They are proficient at using condoms and recycling, but little else. They have been taught nothing of American exceptionalism and would likely find the term incomprehensible, if not repulsive. They would save their dog before a human they didn’t know because morality is a matter of feelings, and they feel more for their dog.

Third, the expansion of the state has produced a new American. This American believes in rights more than in obligations and that the state should take care of him, his parents, his children, and his neighbor.

Fourth, the melting pot of Americans has been replaced by a patchwork quilt of Latinos, African Americans, and other identity groups, all of whom are victims of an oppressive sexist, racist, intolerant, Islamophobic, xenophobic society.

Fifth, half or more of the Jews and Christians who attend synagogue or church are more likely to be led by a priest, minister, or rabbi who preaches not about their sins but about America’s.

Sixth, civilization’s single most important institution, marriage, is increasingly regarded as pointless and is being redefined for the first time in history to include members of the same sex. Why? Because the notions that marriage is sacred and that men and women are intrinsically different—a difference that carries unique significance—are depicted as patriarchal, anachronistic, and sexist.

And seventh, most American Jews are on the wrong side of this American divide. They do not even understand that an America that abandons her unique values will join most of the rest of the world in abandoning Israel. And many, incredibly, do not even care.

Now, my reasons for optimism:

Many Americans have finally awakened to the threat posed by leftism. They understand that the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen; that the death of God leads to the death of objective moral standards; and that the Marine Corps, not the Peace Corps, are the greatest force for world peace. And they are fighting to reassert small government, Judeo-Christian values, American exceptionalism, and a strong military, and to undo the Balkanization of America.

If these Americans win the next presidential election, I will be optimistic…about America. But the world is another matter.

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Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. His next book, Still the Last Best Hope (HarperCollins), will be published in 2012. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: James Q. Wilson

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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Many years ago, I confidently published an essay in which I made a prediction. It was hopelessly, embarrassingly wrong. Since then I have embraced the view that social scientists should never predict; leave that job to pundits. If you doubt me, make a list of the economists who predicted the 2008 recession, political scientists who predicted the Arab Spring, or criminologists who said that this recession would be accompanied by falling crime rates. A few names may make the list, but very few.

Historians may do a better job than other scholars in making generalizations, but that is because the good ones never predict, they generalize from past experiences. Those experiences suggest that this country has been extraordinarily lucky, and they hint at some reasons for that good fortune: an adaptable government, an optimistic national character—and extraordinary good fortune (we won the Revolutionary War against a superior enemy, defeated the Confederacy despite a series of terrible northern generals, overcame the Great Depression because the Second World War increased the demand for goods and services, sent transports to confront Germany just at the time when the Nazi code had been broken, confronted an armed Japan that made every conceivable tactical mistake, and defeated Saddam Hussein by discovering that he was an incompetent military leader). We had some bad luck as well (racism and Vietnam, for example), but the good outweighed it. Read More

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?

_____________

Many years ago, I confidently published an essay in which I made a prediction. It was hopelessly, embarrassingly wrong. Since then I have embraced the view that social scientists should never predict; leave that job to pundits. If you doubt me, make a list of the economists who predicted the 2008 recession, political scientists who predicted the Arab Spring, or criminologists who said that this recession would be accompanied by falling crime rates. A few names may make the list, but very few.

Historians may do a better job than other scholars in making generalizations, but that is because the good ones never predict, they generalize from past experiences. Those experiences suggest that this country has been extraordinarily lucky, and they hint at some reasons for that good fortune: an adaptable government, an optimistic national character—and extraordinary good fortune (we won the Revolutionary War against a superior enemy, defeated the Confederacy despite a series of terrible northern generals, overcame the Great Depression because the Second World War increased the demand for goods and services, sent transports to confront Germany just at the time when the Nazi code had been broken, confronted an armed Japan that made every conceivable tactical mistake, and defeated Saddam Hussein by discovering that he was an incompetent military leader). We had some bad luck as well (racism and Vietnam, for example), but the good outweighed it.

It is easy to understand why Commentary would ask whether one is optimistic or pessimistic. We remain in the depths of a major recession, the nation’s deficit grew by more than $4 trillion in the first three years of the current administration, our military faces unjustified cuts in its budget, many people who want to vote against President Obama feel they lack a suitable Republican alternative, the federal government (except for the military) lacks any public confidence, and most Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

It would be easy to be grumpy, but it also would not be hard to be optimistic. We face serious problems, but this recession like all before it will end, something will probably be done to reduce the growth in the deficit, international reality will require the maintenance of a serious military force, and somebody will run against Obama and may well defeat him. Dislike of government institutions will no doubt persist (but without any reduction in American patriotism), and the meaning of answers to the poll question about whether the country is on the right track will remain, as it is now, obscure. Take your pick.

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James Q. Wilson teaches at Pepperdine University and is the coauthor ofAmerican Government: Institutions and Policies (Wadsworth).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: John Yoo

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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Optimism is the very lodestar of the American experiment. We are a nation of immigrants who left behind everyone and everything we knew to take a chance for a better future. Pessimists stayed home in Europe or Asia, pulled by a history of thousands of years of living in one place as one people. Those who became Americans leapt toward a dynamic society that rewards individual talent and hard work—not social class, religion, racial differences, or proximity to government power.

We as Americans have optimism programmed into our DNA. Where others might see cause for doubt, we see opportunity. Even as the economy remains mired in recession, entrepreneurs continue to conjure forth inventions that bring the knowledge of the Library of Congress to our fingertips, cure once deadly diseases, and deliver almost any product to our doorstep in days. Even as our elected leaders overreacted to the downturn with massive spending programs and the nationalization of financial firms, car companies, and the health-care sector, a great political movement rose up to shake the establishment with demands for a return to frugality and modesty. Even as our armed forces have encountered stiff resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have killed off the leadership of al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden), midwifed an Arab democracy in the center of the Middle East, and hastened the overthrow of despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Despite the rise of China and the return of Russia, the United States protects the peace among the great powers, keeps the channels of global commerce open, and spreads the freedom to think and worship to distant lands. Read More

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?

_____________

Optimism is the very lodestar of the American experiment. We are a nation of immigrants who left behind everyone and everything we knew to take a chance for a better future. Pessimists stayed home in Europe or Asia, pulled by a history of thousands of years of living in one place as one people. Those who became Americans leapt toward a dynamic society that rewards individual talent and hard work—not social class, religion, racial differences, or proximity to government power.

We as Americans have optimism programmed into our DNA. Where others might see cause for doubt, we see opportunity. Even as the economy remains mired in recession, entrepreneurs continue to conjure forth inventions that bring the knowledge of the Library of Congress to our fingertips, cure once deadly diseases, and deliver almost any product to our doorstep in days. Even as our elected leaders overreacted to the downturn with massive spending programs and the nationalization of financial firms, car companies, and the health-care sector, a great political movement rose up to shake the establishment with demands for a return to frugality and modesty. Even as our armed forces have encountered stiff resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have killed off the leadership of al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden), midwifed an Arab democracy in the center of the Middle East, and hastened the overthrow of despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Despite the rise of China and the return of Russia, the United States protects the peace among the great powers, keeps the channels of global commerce open, and spreads the freedom to think and worship to distant lands.

It is harder still not to be an optimist during this, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. When president-elect Abraham Lincoln left his home of Springfield, Illinois, for Washington, D.C., seven Southern states had already seceded. Acknowledging that he “had a task before [him] greater than that which rested upon Washington,” Lincoln still declared, with the “assistance [of God], I can not fail” and called upon a thousand well-wishers to “let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.” Four years later, after a bloody civil war that cost 600,000 American lives, Lincoln was still an optimist. At his second inaugural, Lincoln could report his “high hope for the future,” though he would venture “no prediction” on the war’s final outcome. Still, he finished with an optimistic vision of the nation’s character:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

After the most devastating war in our nation’s history, Lincoln could foresee the national greatness that lay just beyond the horizon. With this example before us, we the living can overcome temporary setbacks to continue the American experiment.

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John Yoo is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is coeditor of Confronting Terror (Encounter).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Harvey Mansfield

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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On the whole, I am optimistic about America’s future. But I do not take “optimistic” to mean that things are bound to get better, or even that they have a tendency to do so. Rather than try to predict, it is better to understand things as open to prudent improvement and thus be opportunistically hopeful of America’s prospects.

A big choice lies ahead for America, in which the entitlements we have voted for ourselves now threaten us as if they were our unchosen fate. They are called entitlements because they were supposed to have been chosen for good, past recall, and thus put “beyond politics.” What you are entitled to will no longer be subject to dispute. Now it appears we cannot pay for them, and not just arguably but indisputably. Democrats, who first proposed them, are beginning to agree on this point with Republicans, who at first opposed them. Very few want to abolish entitlements; most Republicans want only to change their terms so as to make them affordable. Still, to change them at all robs them of their character as entitlements and sets a precedent for future changes that might restrict them further. They become mere benefits without the security of special protection in the sanctuary of nondiscretionary payments.

Democrats established entitlements to provide “social security” against the risk that people would not save enough voluntarily to provide for their retirement. This was security against our citizens’ lack of the virtue of thrift. Yet if you did save enough, your savings might be lost or reduced through the uncontrollable action of the market, “market failure.” Recourse to government is the cure for risk arising from personal or impersonal forces that people feel impotent to control. But government has transformed itself from an instrument of control into an uncontrollable force of its own, unwieldy, with its own inertia and mindless direction. Its public servants serve themselves first; setting the example for the rest of us, their security comes ahead of the country’s. A mountain of debt testifies to the inability of government to control itself. People have lost confidence in their instrument and therefore in themselves. Self-government looks like it doesn’t work.

The need to recover control, most evident in domestic matters, is paramount. In foreign affairs America has been moderately successful, due in good part to its military prowess, whether employed with gusto by Republicans or apologetically by Democrats. The entitlements are the problem. The mentality they produce is just what President Kennedy decried in the line “ask not what your country can do for you.” A controllable government needs to be both limited and energetic: limited to benefits that do not make dependents of our people and energetic when it must act. With this goal we can reasonably look to America’s future with hope.

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Harvey Mansfield, a recipient of a 2011 Bradley Prize, is professor of government at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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?

_____________

On the whole, I am optimistic about America’s future. But I do not take “optimistic” to mean that things are bound to get better, or even that they have a tendency to do so. Rather than try to predict, it is better to understand things as open to prudent improvement and thus be opportunistically hopeful of America’s prospects.

A big choice lies ahead for America, in which the entitlements we have voted for ourselves now threaten us as if they were our unchosen fate. They are called entitlements because they were supposed to have been chosen for good, past recall, and thus put “beyond politics.” What you are entitled to will no longer be subject to dispute. Now it appears we cannot pay for them, and not just arguably but indisputably. Democrats, who first proposed them, are beginning to agree on this point with Republicans, who at first opposed them. Very few want to abolish entitlements; most Republicans want only to change their terms so as to make them affordable. Still, to change them at all robs them of their character as entitlements and sets a precedent for future changes that might restrict them further. They become mere benefits without the security of special protection in the sanctuary of nondiscretionary payments.

Democrats established entitlements to provide “social security” against the risk that people would not save enough voluntarily to provide for their retirement. This was security against our citizens’ lack of the virtue of thrift. Yet if you did save enough, your savings might be lost or reduced through the uncontrollable action of the market, “market failure.” Recourse to government is the cure for risk arising from personal or impersonal forces that people feel impotent to control. But government has transformed itself from an instrument of control into an uncontrollable force of its own, unwieldy, with its own inertia and mindless direction. Its public servants serve themselves first; setting the example for the rest of us, their security comes ahead of the country’s. A mountain of debt testifies to the inability of government to control itself. People have lost confidence in their instrument and therefore in themselves. Self-government looks like it doesn’t work.

The need to recover control, most evident in domestic matters, is paramount. In foreign affairs America has been moderately successful, due in good part to its military prowess, whether employed with gusto by Republicans or apologetically by Democrats. The entitlements are the problem. The mentality they produce is just what President Kennedy decried in the line “ask not what your country can do for you.” A controllable government needs to be both limited and energetic: limited to benefits that do not make dependents of our people and energetic when it must act. With this goal we can reasonably look to America’s future with hope.

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Harvey Mansfield, a recipient of a 2011 Bradley Prize, is professor of government at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: David Gelernter

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 future is both dark—the problem isn’t debt but dependency—and bright, because the real achievement of the Internet will be a return to the one-room schoolhouse.

Public debt will be brought under control—a clear majority wants it; but once America crosses the tax-dependency threshold, the future swallows hard and gets heart palpitations. The total number of Americans who live off tax revenues is hard to figure out: government workers and their families, teachers, staff at government contractors, the military and so on. It’s not dishonorable to be a tax client, but disinterested voting is tricky for such people, and it requires much civic virtue—which isn’t always available.

Remember, Wisconsin ought to be a theme of every conservative campaign next year: the danger is not that tax clients will become a majority but that they will increasingly make common cause, gain arrogance and swagger, and become a danger to democracy. Read More

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?

_____________

The future is both dark—the problem isn’t debt but dependency—and bright, because the real achievement of the Internet will be a return to the one-room schoolhouse.

Public debt will be brought under control—a clear majority wants it; but once America crosses the tax-dependency threshold, the future swallows hard and gets heart palpitations. The total number of Americans who live off tax revenues is hard to figure out: government workers and their families, teachers, staff at government contractors, the military and so on. It’s not dishonorable to be a tax client, but disinterested voting is tricky for such people, and it requires much civic virtue—which isn’t always available.

Remember, Wisconsin ought to be a theme of every conservative campaign next year: the danger is not that tax clients will become a majority but that they will increasingly make common cause, gain arrogance and swagger, and become a danger to democracy.

In Wisconsin, voters elected a Republican governor to get control of a large state budget deficit and a huge unfunded state-worker pension liability. The governor suggested, among other far-right ideas, that state workers should pay into their own pension funds. Mobilizing union and establishment support from across the country, Wisconsin’s privileged minority of state workers (who earn more, on average, than do ordinary citizens) did its best to commit armed robbery against the population. Democratic state legislators actually walked out on democracy—ran away and hid. The Detroit Symphony, which also happened to be on strike, sent commando squads to entertain Wisconsin state workers with solidarity anthems and inspirational chamber music. Well-funded recall attempts against several Republicans were fended off with difficulty, like shark attacks. The Democrats are lucky they failed, or they might have faced actual public wrath.

Enlarging the tax client state-within-a-state is increasingly dangerous to the republic.

On the other hand, sometime within a decade or so, a new and refreshing type of building will rise somewhere in suburbia: a one-room schoolhouse with seats for 30-odd students, computers and headphones for each, some printers, a desk and flag in front and a playground outside.

The 30 students who attend this “school” are of assorted ages; each is enrolled in a separate set of online courses chosen by his parents. The children could learn at home, but spending time at school is good for them, their parents, and the community. The adult sitting up front doesn’t need an education degree or any other degree. She only needs to be known in the neighborhood as sensible, reliable, and good with children. She calls the school to order, takes attendance, leads the Pledge, announces recess, and handles any child-type emergencies. These new micro-schools are so cheap, we can build as many as we like.

It goes without saying that American public schools, and most colleges and universities, are now on the long, slow ride to the gallows. Their high costs, obvious political agenda, and gross incompetence mean that eradication is their only conceivable fate. Online schooling is a far-from-perfect alternative, but it’s the one we have. To balance its obvious disadvantages, it has enormous potential for good—beyond the decent education it provides. If we are imaginative about this new kind of public institution, these little red Internet schoolhouses, much good may yet emerge from the wreckage of American public schools.

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David Gelernter is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale) and a forthcoming book about the American Cultural Revolution.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Linda Chavez

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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There is much to warrant optimism about the future of the United States, given the nation’s history of resilience in the face of adversity. But one social trend, the supplanting of the American family by government as the major source of economic security from cradle to grave, may prove more destructive to America’s future than any previous threat, foreign or domestic.

The problem begins with the dramatic change that has taken place in the family. An estimated 60 percent of all American children will spend at least some of their childhood in a single-parent household primarily as a result of divorce and rising out-of-wedlock births. The most recent figures show that, overall, 4 in 10 children in America are now born to single mothers. But among blacks the number is more than 7 in 10; and among Hispanics, fully half of all births occur out of wedlock.

In 1965, the late scholar and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that the rate of illegitimate births among blacks was responsible for “a tangle of pathology” that included high crime rates, poor performance in school, and high unemployment, especially among black men. At the time, 24 percent of black births were to single women, a rate lower than the current 28 percent illegitimacy rate for white women. “There is one unmistakable lesson in American history,” he said. “A community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.” But as trenchant as his analysis of the problem was, his solution—more government programs—did not alleviate the disaster taking place in the black family but accelerated it. Worse, dependence on government assistance spread to ever-larger segments of the American population. Read More

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?

_____________

There is much to warrant optimism about the future of the United States, given the nation’s history of resilience in the face of adversity. But one social trend, the supplanting of the American family by government as the major source of economic security from cradle to grave, may prove more destructive to America’s future than any previous threat, foreign or domestic.

The problem begins with the dramatic change that has taken place in the family. An estimated 60 percent of all American children will spend at least some of their childhood in a single-parent household primarily as a result of divorce and rising out-of-wedlock births. The most recent figures show that, overall, 4 in 10 children in America are now born to single mothers. But among blacks the number is more than 7 in 10; and among Hispanics, fully half of all births occur out of wedlock.

In 1965, the late scholar and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that the rate of illegitimate births among blacks was responsible for “a tangle of pathology” that included high crime rates, poor performance in school, and high unemployment, especially among black men. At the time, 24 percent of black births were to single women, a rate lower than the current 28 percent illegitimacy rate for white women. “There is one unmistakable lesson in American history,” he said. “A community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.” But as trenchant as his analysis of the problem was, his solution—more government programs—did not alleviate the disaster taking place in the black family but accelerated it. Worse, dependence on government assistance spread to ever-larger segments of the American population.

Uncle Sam has largely replaced fathers in poor, single-mother-headed households, providing the food on the table, the roof over the family’s head, and the income to put clothes on their backs. And the expansion of the welfare state is no longer confined to the indigent but has now extended to the middle class as well. Middle-class parents have less incentive to save for their children’s college education when the federal government makes low-interest loans and grants available. Adult children, even those who are well off, are less likely to help support their elderly parents when government programs take on that responsibility. A study from the University of California, Davis, looking at welfare use among elderly Chinese immigrants in California in the 1990s, for example, showed that, despite cultural traditions that encourage children to provide for elderly parents, 55 percent of elderly Chinese were receiving welfare; and the great majority of these lived in households whose income was above the national average, often substantially so.

Even Social Security and Medicare, which most Americans think they’ve paid for through payroll taxes during their working years, have become a form of government subsidy. On average, even wealthier Americans will receive substantially more in benefits than they have contributed through payroll taxes. And the list goes on, including federal guarantees for home mortgages, interest rates that have been kept artificially low by the Federal Reserve, and mandated universal health care.

We are fast becoming a nation of takers, increasingly dependent on government through income transfers from the wealthy. Families made up of responsible, self-sufficient individuals who pay their own way and save for the future are fast disappearing. Unless we can reverse this cultural shift, the future of America is at risk.

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Linda Chavez is the chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Her most recent contribution to Commentary, the short story “Afterbirth,” appeared in the May issue.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Hugh Hewitt

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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Our abundant national energy, unrivaled technological genius, and history’s most powerful military ought to leave me and everyone else an optimist about our country’s future.

There is simply no better place or time to live than America at the end of 2011, even with the most incompetent president since the discovery of electricity, even after a horrific decade of tears and sacrifices made by the innocent at home and the best and brightest of America on battlefields across the world.

The widespread tentativeness, the gnawing doubt felt by all parents and grandparents, is due to government never having been this large, with burdens so sclerosis-inducing in all aspects of national life. Read More

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?

_____________

Our abundant national energy, unrivaled technological genius, and history’s most powerful military ought to leave me and everyone else an optimist about our country’s future.

There is simply no better place or time to live than America at the end of 2011, even with the most incompetent president since the discovery of electricity, even after a horrific decade of tears and sacrifices made by the innocent at home and the best and brightest of America on battlefields across the world.

The widespread tentativeness, the gnawing doubt felt by all parents and grandparents, is due to government never having been this large, with burdens so sclerosis-inducing in all aspects of national life.

Out here in California—once the best place of all when measured by freedom and creativity, plentitude, and sheer exuberant living—the arteries have already closed, and the political class seems simply incapable of doing anything to reverse the disease. Asking the California legislature to repeal what must be repealed and slash the tax burdens that must be slashed is akin to asking a third-grader to do calculus.

There simply isn’t the capacity. Jerry Brown knows it. We all know it. The goose is on life support.

The California disease, like the deadly “greyscale” sickness in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, spreads slowly and inexorably across the country. Stupidity and power is a bad combination, and it seems as though the country has now touched the bottom California hit long ago. Again and again, interviews of people with power, from both parties and across all three branches, reveal they simply don’t read, think, or analyze.

They don’t know anything. And most of the media that covers them knows less.

Epic incompetence didn’t matter so much when government was smaller. Now, penetrating every aspect of the economy and encroaching on what had previously been the private sphere, government incompetence is poisoning everything. Of all the hats I wear—law school professor, practicing lawyer, broadcaster, and writer—my experience practicing law before federal regulatory agencies, witnessing the defense of businesses against trial lawyers with absurd claims, constitutes the wellspring of my pessimism.

There are so many destroyers of wealth and productivity, legions of dim-witted and credentialed bullies, that even the sunniest optimist may eventually pull down the blinds.

But…young people loathe government. Many millions who fell for Obama have learned a hard and necessary lesson.

Amazing veterans of the wars are returning to take up public life. They are smarter than can be imagined, wise beyond their years, courageous, and ready to lead in politics as they have in combat.

And the relentless hum of technology mixing with freedom, still vastly more prevalent here than anywhere else, is at work 24 hours a day in every corner of the country, from the tiniest hamlet to New York City, all linked by a net of astonishing power.

If upcoming elections deliver the rebuke to the tenured overlords of government, media, and academia, it will be enough to salvage the situation, just as the election of 1980 did 32 years ago.

If not, well then, I offer another George R.R. Martin reference: “Winter is coming.”

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Hugh Hewitt, is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Max Boot

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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Whether someone is optimistic or pessimistic is usually more a product of his temperament than external conditions. My own outlook is generally optimistic, so it should be no surprise that I am bullish about the prospects of my country. But there is also good reason to have faith in America’s future.

Look at how far we have come since the start of the War of Independence in 1775: from 13 beleaguered colonies with 2.5 million inhabitants perched precariously on the eastern seaboard to a continental nation of 307 million that is wealthier and more powerful than any other in history.

There was nothing foreordained about our rise. We had to surmount numerous challenges—from the initial revolution to the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War—that could have done us in, or at least vastly reduced our standing. Just look at how other megastates such as China and Russia, or potential megastates such as Europe and Latin America (both of which have long dreamed of unification), have sabotaged their own prospects with suicidal political and economic policies. That could have been us. But it wasn’t. Read More

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?

_____________

Whether someone is optimistic or pessimistic is usually more a product of his temperament than external conditions. My own outlook is generally optimistic, so it should be no surprise that I am bullish about the prospects of my country. But there is also good reason to have faith in America’s future.

Look at how far we have come since the start of the War of Independence in 1775: from 13 beleaguered colonies with 2.5 million inhabitants perched precariously on the eastern seaboard to a continental nation of 307 million that is wealthier and more powerful than any other in history.

There was nothing foreordained about our rise. We had to surmount numerous challenges—from the initial revolution to the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War—that could have done us in, or at least vastly reduced our standing. Just look at how other megastates such as China and Russia, or potential megastates such as Europe and Latin America (both of which have long dreamed of unification), have sabotaged their own prospects with suicidal political and economic policies. That could have been us. But it wasn’t.

The reasons for our success surely include a favorable geography that provides us lots of natural resources and few nearby enemies and allows us access to both Europe and Asia; a political system that makes the state stable and flexible; a legal system that guarantees property rights and minimizes corruption; an entrepreneurial culture that encourages innovation and economic growth; an openness to immigrants that allows us to assimilate newcomers better than any other nation in the world does; and a civic spirit that leads citizens to serve when called upon—whether in 1861, 1941, or 2001.

I have no reason to think that we have lost any of these fundamental strengths. None of our “near peer” competitors is so lucky.

Europe must deal with chronic disunity, economic stagnation, an aging population, a sclerotic welfare state that cannot be cut back without riots in the streets, an influx of immigration that threatens traditional culture, and puny military capabilities. Japan’s population is aging even more rapidly—it’s in a demographic death spiral. The same goes for Russia.

China is facing its own demographic issues: its population is predicted to decline after 2020. It will age so rapidly that there will not be enough workers to support hordes of retirees. China must also deal with the fundamental illegitimacy of its unelected government, its lack of civil society, pervasive corruption, environmental devastation, and paucity of natural resources. (Almost all its oil must come from the Middle East along sea-lanes controlled by the U.S. Navy.) India, as a fellow democracy, may have greater potential to knock us off our perch, but given how poor it remains, that is unlikely to happen in this century.

We have our own urgent problems to address—especially too much federal spending and too little economic growth—but they are hardly unsolvable. Ronald Reagan dealt successfully with similar issues in the 1980s. All it will take is a political change in Washington, which is becoming more likely as Obama’s popularity wanes. There is no reason the 21st century cannot be another American Century.

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Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in national-security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a regular contributor to Commentary’s Contentions blog.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Jonah Goldberg

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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Example is the school of mankind,” Edmund Burke counseled, “and they will learn at no other.” By that standard, America has undergone quite a schooling in the last few years.

In 2008, the assembled forces of liberalism—and not only the pundit classes, but academia, business elites, and, of course, Hollywood—were convinced that America was not only on the cusp of a transformative and realigning liberal-left presidency, but also at the dawn of a new New Deal. Perhaps even a generation-spanning new Progressive Era. More than a few conservatives felt the tectonic plates moving and repositioned themselves accordingly.

Across the liberal firmament, those inflated expectations have been lowered like a Thanksgiving Day parade float put back in the box. It’s safe to say that no serious-minded liberal anywhere still holds out hope for any of that, at least not in the near term (and many of those migrating conservatives have quietly trudged back home, refugees from a lost cause). Read More

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?

_____________

Example is the school of mankind,” Edmund Burke counseled, “and they will learn at no other.” By that standard, America has undergone quite a schooling in the last few years.

In 2008, the assembled forces of liberalism—and not only the pundit classes, but academia, business elites, and, of course, Hollywood—were convinced that America was not only on the cusp of a transformative and realigning liberal-left presidency, but also at the dawn of a new New Deal. Perhaps even a generation-spanning new Progressive Era. More than a few conservatives felt the tectonic plates moving and repositioned themselves accordingly.

Across the liberal firmament, those inflated expectations have been lowered like a Thanksgiving Day parade float put back in the box. It’s safe to say that no serious-minded liberal anywhere still holds out hope for any of that, at least not in the near term (and many of those migrating conservatives have quietly trudged back home, refugees from a lost cause).

Obviously, liberals are right to chalk up some of their problems to mere human error, as it were. Had President Obama and the Democratic leadership pursued different tactics in 2009—a different kind of stimulus, a smarter approach on health care—liberalism’s fortunes might be a bit rosier now. But his supporters would go further, arguing that the evidence against Obama’s core philosophy is entirely circumstantial. Keynesianism, like liberalism proper, never fails; it’s simply never fully tried. But as David Thoreau said, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

Simply put, Europe’s financial calamities combined with the failures of America’s efforts to import the European model have had a profound teaching effect. No, the country hasn’t been converted wholesale to the Church of Milton Friedman, but Obama’s bromidic “Yes, we can” and “Sputnik moment” rhetoric has next to no purchase with the American people today.

This creates a moment for optimism that did not seem nearly so plausible in 2008. America is poised to deal with its myriad problems in ways we haven’t seen since 1981.

What about the “big issues”: China, globalization, climate change, and the other grotesques in the usual parade of horribles? Some are very serious, others not so much. China will get old before it gets rich. The entry of hundreds of millions of inexpensive workers into the global labor force is a short-term challenge, but the massive growth of the global middle class is a long-term opportunity. Climate change may indeed be a threat, but the greater danger lies in how we respond to it. A few years ago, it looked like the generations-old Malthusian effort to manage scarcity had finally got from climate change what it always wanted from other scares like overpopulation. Now, around the globe, that approach is a nonstarter.

Yes, America faces grave challenges, but it always has. I was more pessimistic three years ago when it seemed Americans had given up on themselves, preferring a long self-indulgent slide into European social democracy. Now, with the power of example guiding us, there’s reason for hope.

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Jonah Goldberg, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Kay S. Hymowitz

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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If there’s one domestic problem that should be keeping us believers in American exceptionalism up at night, it’s the ailing middle class. Labor economists sometimes call ours an hourglass economy. The top bulge of the hourglass refers to a large population of educated workers earning good money, accumulating significant wealth, and living comfortable, optimistic lives. The bottom bulge holds another large group, living paycheck to paycheck, whose houses, if they have them, are under water and whose children’s futures look as dim as their own. Meanwhile, the middle, the once dominant, stolid, quintessentially American class, is wasting away.

There are two related causes for this, and neither of them suggests an easy—or for that matter, any—answer. The first cause, itself the consequence of technology and globalization, is the earnings gap between knowledge-based jobs and everything else. Clichés about the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs are true as far as they go, but any routine work is at risk of being automated or outsourced. That means the spoils now go to the specialized and the educated. Over the past 50 years, wages and wealth have risen markedly for those with a college diploma and even more dramatically for those with a graduate or professional degree. Whereas the college-educated earned 40 percent more than those with a high school degree in 1980, today they earn 75 percent more. It goes without saying that the gap for those without a high school degree—and remember, more than half of high school students drop out in many of our largest cities—is even worse. The current economic crisis is intensifying the problem. Unemployment rates are triple for those with only a high school degree compared with the college-educated and six times that of dropouts. Edward Wolff, of New York University, estimates that the net worth of the middle fifth of the country declined 26 percent over the past two years alone.

The other reason for the wasting away of the American middle class is the breakdown of families. Not so long ago, middle-class family life was defined by stability and child-centeredness. No more. According to the National Marriage Project, there’s been a sharp rise in divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing among the less-educated middle class, those with a high school diploma and perhaps a year or two of college. Only 58 percent of the 14-year-old daughters of moderately educated mothers are living with both parents. Not only is that down significantly from 1982, when the number was 74 percent; it is appreciably closer to the 52 percent of the daughters of the least educated than it is to the 81 percent of the girls of the college-educated. Forty percent of American children are born to unmarried mothers, almost all of them with little or no college education. Read More

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?

_____________

If there’s one domestic problem that should be keeping us believers in American exceptionalism up at night, it’s the ailing middle class. Labor economists sometimes call ours an hourglass economy. The top bulge of the hourglass refers to a large population of educated workers earning good money, accumulating significant wealth, and living comfortable, optimistic lives. The bottom bulge holds another large group, living paycheck to paycheck, whose houses, if they have them, are under water and whose children’s futures look as dim as their own. Meanwhile, the middle, the once dominant, stolid, quintessentially American class, is wasting away.

There are two related causes for this, and neither of them suggests an easy—or for that matter, any—answer. The first cause, itself the consequence of technology and globalization, is the earnings gap between knowledge-based jobs and everything else. Clichés about the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs are true as far as they go, but any routine work is at risk of being automated or outsourced. That means the spoils now go to the specialized and the educated. Over the past 50 years, wages and wealth have risen markedly for those with a college diploma and even more dramatically for those with a graduate or professional degree. Whereas the college-educated earned 40 percent more than those with a high school degree in 1980, today they earn 75 percent more. It goes without saying that the gap for those without a high school degree—and remember, more than half of high school students drop out in many of our largest cities—is even worse. The current economic crisis is intensifying the problem. Unemployment rates are triple for those with only a high school degree compared with the college-educated and six times that of dropouts. Edward Wolff, of New York University, estimates that the net worth of the middle fifth of the country declined 26 percent over the past two years alone.

The other reason for the wasting away of the American middle class is the breakdown of families. Not so long ago, middle-class family life was defined by stability and child-centeredness. No more. According to the National Marriage Project, there’s been a sharp rise in divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing among the less-educated middle class, those with a high school diploma and perhaps a year or two of college. Only 58 percent of the 14-year-old daughters of moderately educated mothers are living with both parents. Not only is that down significantly from 1982, when the number was 74 percent; it is appreciably closer to the 52 percent of the daughters of the least educated than it is to the 81 percent of the girls of the college-educated. Forty percent of American children are born to unmarried mothers, almost all of them with little or no college education.

These two forces—the knowledge economy and the loss of stable family life among the less educated—create a negative-feedback loop. Children are far less likely to succeed in school if they don’t grow up in stable, child-focused families. Yet a college education is now a necessity for achieving upward mobility. In sum, the loss of a middle class threatens to turn America into a rigid and cynical caste society, the very opposite of its dynamic and optimistic self.

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Kay S. Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys (Basic Books).

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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. Read More

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?

_____________

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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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Michael Medved

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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Optimists foresee a future that brings Americans better options, while pessimists insist we will use those options to make worse choices.

Hope merchants assume that the relentless pace of technological advancement and globalization will inexorably foster more opportunities for entertainment, education, and employment, while gloom peddlers worry that the new possibilities will paralyze the populace or else appeal to destructive instincts that send society toward a downward death spiral.

Consider, for example, recent developments in the elemental area of fast-food cuisine: last-generation greasy hamburgers and watery milkshakes used to be the only options, and now shopping-center food courts provide a constellation of exotic offerings, including Thai, Indian, Mediterranean, Cajun, and aromatic coffee from multiple sources. Awash in these appetizing alternatives, consumers show an unfailing preference for unhealthy food, fueling an “obesity epidemic” that alarms public-health authorities. Read More

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?

_____________

Optimists foresee a future that brings Americans better options, while pessimists insist we will use those options to make worse choices.

Hope merchants assume that the relentless pace of technological advancement and globalization will inexorably foster more opportunities for entertainment, education, and employment, while gloom peddlers worry that the new possibilities will paralyze the populace or else appeal to destructive instincts that send society toward a downward death spiral.

Consider, for example, recent developments in the elemental area of fast-food cuisine: last-generation greasy hamburgers and watery milkshakes used to be the only options, and now shopping-center food courts provide a constellation of exotic offerings, including Thai, Indian, Mediterranean, Cajun, and aromatic coffee from multiple sources. Awash in these appetizing alternatives, consumers show an unfailing preference for unhealthy food, fueling an “obesity epidemic” that alarms public-health authorities.

Or review trends in electronic entertainment, where the iron tyranny of the three broadcast networks gave way to a dazzling array of enriching selections on cable, the Internet, and in educational video games. A disproportionate segment of the audience nonetheless spends leisure time in regular communion with The Jersey Shore or Dancing with the Stars. Meanwhile, young adults confront a titillating menu of intimate arrangements, including blended families, same-sex marriage, single parenting, and premarital, postmarital, or extramarital cohabitation. In response to these novel choices, at least one-third of American children grow up in unstable living arrangements with predictably bad consequences for the kids and society. As the great philosopher Janis Joplin once warbled, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

In the long run, however, good news will overwhelm the bad because new opportunities inevitably influence everyone, while destructive or beneficial choices vary according to the segment of society or moment in history. My son, for instance, recently made a sound selection for his first car: an inexpensive, fuel-efficient, safely engineered marvel from the Hyundai Motors of South Korea. The very idea of top-flight automotive production in Korea remains an amazement, considering the utter devastation in that formerly underdeveloped country after Japanese occupation and an unspeakably bloody civil war.

And the Korean miracle, like most other positive developments of the last hundred years, stemmed from American sacrifice (39,000 of our finest young men) and imported American ideals to such an extent that skeptics now see countries we once rescued as outdoing us in virtues traditionally associated with the United States: entrepreneurial energy, social mobility, technological and cultural innovation.

This rise of formerly blighted societies in Asia and Latin America may indeed produce new competitors and a far more multipolar world (especially in comparison with the near universal devastation that surrounded us after World War II), but there’s no evidence of a looming replacement for America’s role as international leader and the planet’s single indispensable power. Visions of Chinese dominance ignore inherent instabilities in Beijing’s authoritarian government and contradictions within their economic model. Fifty years ago, Americans worried about being displaced by Khrushchev’s “We will bury you!” Soviet Union, and 30 years ago prophets of doom anticipated the global supremacy of “Rising Sun” Japan. More recently, serious observers saw united Europe as the coming global superpower, but European unity today looks not only like a dubious blessing but also a questionable reality.

For all our problems, America retains more sources of national resilience than any potential rivals do: a growing population, continuing attraction for immigrants, natural resources, a durable sense of mission, and robust political institutions. Even the much-derided gridlock in Washington provides an example of American vigor rather than decadence: the emphatic push-back against Barack Obama’s desired transition toward a European-style welfare state shows our system operating in the way our founders intended, and avoiding sudden, wrenching change in either a leftward or rightward direction.

The best news about America over the past decade involves what didn’t happen, rather than what did. In the decade following the September 11 attacks, we experienced neither a major terror assault nor a meaningful loss of civil liberties. The Christian right’s theocratic takeover, so widely feared by some, never materialized; nor did the collapse of religious faith, as secularists ardently desired. The United States defies conventional logic by remaining both the most religiously engaged society of the West (2011 figures suggest 40 percent still attend services weekly) and the most accepting of even novel and exotic forms of faith. Most notably, surveys show that ordinary citizens maintain a hearty sense of American exceptionalism and cherish their country’s distinctive blessings and positive role, despite several decades of political correctness meant to foster national guilt.

The case for American optimism remains unshakable, because worldwide multiplication of personal possibilities remains unstoppable. Yes, many people will elect to abuse new chances by making foolish choices, but freedom and opportunity represent important values in and of themselves, and Americans will almost certainly continue making better choices than most.

_____________

Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show and is the author, most recently, of The 5 Big Lies About American Business (Crown Forum).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: William Kristol

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?

_____________

As Yogi Berra pointed out, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Even more so if, to quote Yogi again, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

What the future used to be—or at least what it used to seem to be—was intelligible. The liberal account of the future was generally optimistic, and the optimism was based on a belief in the ineluctable course of history, or on faith in the victory of enlightened leaders and progressive movements over reactionary forces and premodern prejudices. There were basically two conservative accounts of the future. One was pessimistic, judging the distempers of modernity too powerful to resist successfully for long. The other was more optimistic, looking to the possibility of some sort of conservative restoration or awakening.

Today, who knows? Post-9/11, and postfinancial crisis, and post-postmodernism, the range of possible outcomes seems amazingly wide and the odds on any of them strikingly indeterminate. I suspect our thinking about the future isn’t yet radical enough, either analytically or prescriptively. “A new political science is needed for a world altogether new.” But saying that is one thing. Thinking with the breadth and depth of a Tocqueville about our present condition is another. Read More

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?

_____________

As Yogi Berra pointed out, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Even more so if, to quote Yogi again, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

What the future used to be—or at least what it used to seem to be—was intelligible. The liberal account of the future was generally optimistic, and the optimism was based on a belief in the ineluctable course of history, or on faith in the victory of enlightened leaders and progressive movements over reactionary forces and premodern prejudices. There were basically two conservative accounts of the future. One was pessimistic, judging the distempers of modernity too powerful to resist successfully for long. The other was more optimistic, looking to the possibility of some sort of conservative restoration or awakening.

Today, who knows? Post-9/11, and postfinancial crisis, and post-postmodernism, the range of possible outcomes seems amazingly wide and the odds on any of them strikingly indeterminate. I suspect our thinking about the future isn’t yet radical enough, either analytically or prescriptively. “A new political science is needed for a world altogether new.” But saying that is one thing. Thinking with the breadth and depth of a Tocqueville about our present condition is another.

So should one be optimistic or pessimistic? God knows. But I do know that conservatives—indeed all friends of political liberty and American greatness—should, in the short term, be agonistic. They need to fight. Fight to defeat President Obama in 2012. Then fight in 2013 to repeal ObamaCare, to rebuild our defenses, to restore U.S. credibility abroad, and to establish fiscal, regulatory, and monetary sanity at home. That’s all difficult—but relatively simple.

Then the agenda gets more ambitious and less determinate. But more interesting.

_____________

William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Bret Stephens

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?

_____________

Readers of Commentary surely need few reminders that pessimism about America’s future is as old as the republic. “We shall soon see the country rushing into the extremes of confusion and violence,” wrote historian and playwright Mercy Otis Warren—in 1788. Forecasts of decline and fall have been a recurring staple of our political discourse ever since. They have always been wrong. They are wrong again today.

What is it about the present moment that inspires so much gloom? Previous generations of Americans have endured deeper recessions, waged costlier wars, suffered worse social maladies, incurred larger debts (at least as a percentage of GDP), faced tougher foreign competitors, and made graver policy mistakes. And elected worse presidents: nothing Barack Obama has done in his 33 months in office quite matches the malfeasance of James Buchanan or the obtuseness of Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter. And like those presidents, Obama looks increasingly like a one-termer—assuming, that is, that he has a competent opponent next fall.

Americans might also take comfort in the fact that Obama’s record as president so far amounts to a remarkable mix of defeats, retreats, and Pyrrhic victories. His bid to impose a cap-and-trade carbon-emissions scheme went nowhere, as did his union-friendly card-check legislation, as did the public-option piece of his health-care plan. He abandoned his efforts to close Guantánamo and try terrorists in civilian court. He gave up on trying to woo Iran and bully Israel. He agreed to an extension of his predecessor’s tax cuts. He made stimulus a dirty word. ObamaCare is the most unpopular legislation in memory and may soon be overturned by the Supreme Court. He led Congressional Democrats to a historic midterm defeat. Read More

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?

_____________

Readers of Commentary surely need few reminders that pessimism about America’s future is as old as the republic. “We shall soon see the country rushing into the extremes of confusion and violence,” wrote historian and playwright Mercy Otis Warren—in 1788. Forecasts of decline and fall have been a recurring staple of our political discourse ever since. They have always been wrong. They are wrong again today.

What is it about the present moment that inspires so much gloom? Previous generations of Americans have endured deeper recessions, waged costlier wars, suffered worse social maladies, incurred larger debts (at least as a percentage of GDP), faced tougher foreign competitors, and made graver policy mistakes. And elected worse presidents: nothing Barack Obama has done in his 33 months in office quite matches the malfeasance of James Buchanan or the obtuseness of Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter. And like those presidents, Obama looks increasingly like a one-termer—assuming, that is, that he has a competent opponent next fall.

Americans might also take comfort in the fact that Obama’s record as president so far amounts to a remarkable mix of defeats, retreats, and Pyrrhic victories. His bid to impose a cap-and-trade carbon-emissions scheme went nowhere, as did his union-friendly card-check legislation, as did the public-option piece of his health-care plan. He abandoned his efforts to close Guantánamo and try terrorists in civilian court. He gave up on trying to woo Iran and bully Israel. He agreed to an extension of his predecessor’s tax cuts. He made stimulus a dirty word. ObamaCare is the most unpopular legislation in memory and may soon be overturned by the Supreme Court. He led Congressional Democrats to a historic midterm defeat.

None of this has done more than contain the damage Obama’s presidency might otherwise have wrought. But it tells us important things about America. It turns out that the cult-of-personality style of politics that served Obama well as a candidate quickly lost its charm once he was in office. It turns out that the pride we felt in electing a black president didn’t translate into guilt when it came to criticizing his policies. It turns out that a political moment that supposedly heralded the death of conservatism was nothing of the sort. It turns out that Americans have an innate suspicion of loose monetary policy, intrusive government regulation, bullying unions, socialized medicine, and runaway deficit spending.

In short, America’s political culture remains in excellent health, free and frank and largely unencumbered by the shibboleths and taboos that paralyze Europe and Japan. And a healthy political culture is what, after the inevitable fits and starts, will ensure that we return to a growth economy, contain the entitlement state, loosen the death grip of public-sector unions, fund a military adequate for our strategic purposes, assimilate immigrants, and so on.

Now, if we can just bomb Iran’s nuclear sites….

_____________

Bret Stephens is deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal and the paper’s columnist on foreign affairs.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Joseph Nye

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?

_____________

Polls show widespread pessimism about America’s prospects. Such moods reflect the slow growth and fiscal problems that followed the 2008 financial crisis, but they are not historically unprecedented. After Sputnik, Americans thought the Soviets were 10 feet tall; in the 1980s, it was the Japanese. Now it is the Chinese.

The United States has very real problems, but the American economy remains highly productive. America remains first in total research-and-development expenditures, first in university rankings, first in Nobel prizes, first on indices of entrepreneurship, and fourth in the World Economic Forum’s list of the world’s most competitive economies (China ranks 27th). America, moreover, remains at the forefront of such cutting-edge technologies as biotech and nanotechnology. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decline.

Some observers worry that America will become sclerotic like Britain, at the peak of its power a century ago. But American culture is far more entrepreneurial and decentralized than was that of Britain, where the sons of industrial entrepreneurs sought aristocratic titles and honors in London. And despite recurrent historical bouts of concern, immigration helps keep America flexible. In 2005, foreign-born immigrants had participated in onw of every four technology start-ups in the previous decade. As Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once told me, China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States can draw on a talent pool of 7 billion and recombine them in a diverse culture that enhances creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.

Many commentators worry about the inefficient American political system. It is true that the Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances to preserve liberties at the price of efficiency. America, moreover, is now going through a period in which party politics have become very polarized, but nasty politics is nothing new and goes all the way back to the Founders. American government and politics have always had problems, and, though it is hard to remember in light of the current melodramas, they were sometimes worse than today’s.

The United States faces serious problems regarding debt, secondary education, and political gridlock, but one should remember that they are only part of the picture. In principle, and over a longer term, there are solutions to current American problems. Of course, such solutions may forever remain out of reach. But it is worth distinguishing problems for which there are no solutions from those that could, in theory, be solved.

Whether Americans seize the available solutions is uncertain, but Lee Kuan Yew is probably correct when he says China “will give the U.S. a run for its money” but not pass it in overall power in the first half of this century. If so, the gloomy views reported in the latest polls will turn out to be as misleading as those in decades past.

_____________

Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power (Public Affairs).

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?

_____________

Polls show widespread pessimism about America’s prospects. Such moods reflect the slow growth and fiscal problems that followed the 2008 financial crisis, but they are not historically unprecedented. After Sputnik, Americans thought the Soviets were 10 feet tall; in the 1980s, it was the Japanese. Now it is the Chinese.

The United States has very real problems, but the American economy remains highly productive. America remains first in total research-and-development expenditures, first in university rankings, first in Nobel prizes, first on indices of entrepreneurship, and fourth in the World Economic Forum’s list of the world’s most competitive economies (China ranks 27th). America, moreover, remains at the forefront of such cutting-edge technologies as biotech and nanotechnology. This is hardly a picture of absolute economic decline.

Some observers worry that America will become sclerotic like Britain, at the peak of its power a century ago. But American culture is far more entrepreneurial and decentralized than was that of Britain, where the sons of industrial entrepreneurs sought aristocratic titles and honors in London. And despite recurrent historical bouts of concern, immigration helps keep America flexible. In 2005, foreign-born immigrants had participated in onw of every four technology start-ups in the previous decade. As Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once told me, China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States can draw on a talent pool of 7 billion and recombine them in a diverse culture that enhances creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.

Many commentators worry about the inefficient American political system. It is true that the Founding Fathers created a system of checks and balances to preserve liberties at the price of efficiency. America, moreover, is now going through a period in which party politics have become very polarized, but nasty politics is nothing new and goes all the way back to the Founders. American government and politics have always had problems, and, though it is hard to remember in light of the current melodramas, they were sometimes worse than today’s.

The United States faces serious problems regarding debt, secondary education, and political gridlock, but one should remember that they are only part of the picture. In principle, and over a longer term, there are solutions to current American problems. Of course, such solutions may forever remain out of reach. But it is worth distinguishing problems for which there are no solutions from those that could, in theory, be solved.

Whether Americans seize the available solutions is uncertain, but Lee Kuan Yew is probably correct when he says China “will give the U.S. a run for its money” but not pass it in overall power in the first half of this century. If so, the gloomy views reported in the latest polls will turn out to be as misleading as those in decades past.

_____________

Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power (Public Affairs).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: David Brooks

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?

_____________

During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives issued warnings about the decline of American culture and American values. We learned in the ensuing years about the danger of these sorts of sweeping prognoses. Far from sliding to Gomorrah, America experienced a cultural renewal—lower crime rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates, less domestic violence, more community service, and on and on and on.

Many of those positive trends still hold. After the disruption of the 1960s, we are living in a period of social repair. But there is one problem, which emerged in those years, that is still with us, worse than ever.

It has to do with the enlargement of the self. The generation reared in the 1930s had a relatively small definition of self. They saw how great historic events could sweep up mere individuals. (“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”) They were raised with the vestiges of the Augustinian warnings about the sin of pride. Read More

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?

_____________

During the 1980s and 1990s, many conservatives issued warnings about the decline of American culture and American values. We learned in the ensuing years about the danger of these sorts of sweeping prognoses. Far from sliding to Gomorrah, America experienced a cultural renewal—lower crime rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates, less domestic violence, more community service, and on and on and on.

Many of those positive trends still hold. After the disruption of the 1960s, we are living in a period of social repair. But there is one problem, which emerged in those years, that is still with us, worse than ever.

It has to do with the enlargement of the self. The generation reared in the 1930s had a relatively small definition of self. They saw how great historic events could sweep up mere individuals. (“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”) They were raised with the vestiges of the Augustinian warnings about the sin of pride.

But then came the psychologizing movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The big danger was not pride, but lack of self-love. That was amplified by the individualizing effects of the political and cultural shifts of the 1960s (morally) and the 1980s (economically). These narcissistic tendencies have been amplified further by Facebook and reality television—the rise of the instant fame culture.

The consequences are grim. They include a rising level of consumption (as people spend on themselves in a matter that befits their station); a rising tolerance of debt (which goes along with a greater confidence in people’s perceived ability to handle it); a greater level of political intolerance (as people lose the sense that they need their political opponents to correct the errors in their own thinking).

And so we wind up with a more consumption-oriented, short-term-oriented, and polarized nation. You can think that the overall culture is strong, but in this one way it is weak.

The question is whether this one tragic flaw undermines all the good things that are going on. I believe in the short term it will. We remain the crossroads of the world, the place where people from around the globe want to come to best magnify their talents. China will never match this. But in the medium term we are headed for a fiscal crackup that is the economic manifestation of a deeper moral shortcoming.

We will endure it, thanks to all the underlying strengths. But it will not be pretty.

_____________

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Social Animal (Random House).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Paul Cantor

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?

_____________

I am not a professional futurologist and am, in fact, profoundly skeptical about attempts to predict something as complicated as the future of America. The problem with predicting the future is that we generally assume that it will be created by people just like us, only living in the future. But the future is going to be the future precisely because it will be created by people who are different from us in ways that we cannot anticipate. We normally ask older people to predict the future, because they have had the time to become experts of one kind or another. We should instead be asking five-year olds. Short of that, I will say something about 18-year olds. As a college professor, I do have some knowledge of America’s youth.

Here I have every reason to be pessimistic, and yet I remain cautiously optimistic. Despite my grave doubts about the direction higher education is taking in the United States, I cannot help being impressed by individual students I encounter, both at my own university and at other campuses I visit. And what surprises me is not so much their schooling as their character. I still see students who are freedom-loving, self-reliant, resourceful, willing to take responsibility and risks, and open to genuine challenges—in short, Americans at their best. This is all the more remarkable when, from what I can tell, our whole world, and especially our educational institutions, are working to make young people weak and dependent. Maybe formal schooling is not as important as we academics would like to think. A look at history suggests that Americans have often achieved great things in spite of their formal education rather than because of it. Among nations, America can pride itself on being the land where high school and college dropouts can not only survive but also sometimes succeed beyond their wildest dreams—and ours.

In looking for factors that are still building character in American youth, I think of several traditional explanations. It really helps when a student comes from a two-parent family, in which both take an active interest in his or her development. Athletics builds character and helps toughen up young men and women. Provided that they do not become in effect professional athletes in high school or college, they can experience in sports one of the few remaining areas where objective achievement is still measured—and demanded. Read More

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?

_____________

I am not a professional futurologist and am, in fact, profoundly skeptical about attempts to predict something as complicated as the future of America. The problem with predicting the future is that we generally assume that it will be created by people just like us, only living in the future. But the future is going to be the future precisely because it will be created by people who are different from us in ways that we cannot anticipate. We normally ask older people to predict the future, because they have had the time to become experts of one kind or another. We should instead be asking five-year olds. Short of that, I will say something about 18-year olds. As a college professor, I do have some knowledge of America’s youth.

Here I have every reason to be pessimistic, and yet I remain cautiously optimistic. Despite my grave doubts about the direction higher education is taking in the United States, I cannot help being impressed by individual students I encounter, both at my own university and at other campuses I visit. And what surprises me is not so much their schooling as their character. I still see students who are freedom-loving, self-reliant, resourceful, willing to take responsibility and risks, and open to genuine challenges—in short, Americans at their best. This is all the more remarkable when, from what I can tell, our whole world, and especially our educational institutions, are working to make young people weak and dependent. Maybe formal schooling is not as important as we academics would like to think. A look at history suggests that Americans have often achieved great things in spite of their formal education rather than because of it. Among nations, America can pride itself on being the land where high school and college dropouts can not only survive but also sometimes succeed beyond their wildest dreams—and ours.

In looking for factors that are still building character in American youth, I think of several traditional explanations. It really helps when a student comes from a two-parent family, in which both take an active interest in his or her development. Athletics builds character and helps toughen up young men and women. Provided that they do not become in effect professional athletes in high school or college, they can experience in sports one of the few remaining areas where objective achievement is still measured—and demanded.

But there are some new forces working to inspire independence in today’s youth: the Internet and social media. These are often accused of corrupting youth, and to the extent that they appeal to a virtual herd instinct, they are creating new forms of dependence. But cyberspace is also the new frontier for the most ambitious and audacious of our youth, and it’s teaching them anew the value of freedom. They resent attempts to censor and otherwise regulate their freedom of expression. They have learned to appreciate new forms of freedom of exchange, and a new generation of cyber entrepreneurs is being born before our eyes.

I am sure to be bombarded with statistics that show how poorly today’s young Americans do on tests and how low they rank compared with students in, say, Finland. To such criticism—aside from asking, “What has Finland done for us lately, besides the newest Rautavaara symphony and some Nokia phones?”—I would reply that standardized exams do not test character, and all they offer are statistical aggregates and averages. I am not talking about the average youth of today or tomorrow. America has never depended on the achievement of average people. What has made America great is that, by and large, it has given the most talented and spirited among its youth a chance to show their stuff. If I am pessimistic, the reason is that this American tradition is being eroded by all sorts of factors, most of them emanating from Washington, D.C. But if I nevertheless remain optimistic, it’s because I still see exceptional young people in my classes and I can feel them straining to do something exceptional with their lives. If only we would get out of their way.

_____________

Paul Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia. His most recent book, coedited with Stephen Cox, is Literature and the Economics of Liberty (Ludwig von Mises Institute).

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Kate Christensen

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?

_____________

I’m an optimist by nature, and a comic writer; all my novels, dark as they are, end with an uplift. I believe in sweetness and light. But there are some very good reasons to be direly pessimistic about the future of this country, which has come to feel like an amalgam of corporatocracy, fascist police state, and mini-mall. I feel by turns overwhelmed and angry and worried about the environment, the food industry, corporate greed, and the ballooning (in both senses) population. There are seemingly so many systemic failures that facing and fixing any of them, let alone all of them, feels impossible.

Where to start? Our great Constitution is simultaneously disregarded, on the one hand, in the fearmongering interest of “national security,” and on the other, iron-fistedly brought to bear on Supreme Court decisions that hinder necessary social progress. Monsanto is taking control of agriculture and the food industry with non-propagating seeds and genetically modified “Frankenplants.” Obesity already affects a third of our population, and will likely affect 50 percent of us by 2030. Our population itself is projected to reach 400 million by 2043, doubling in my lifetime. The pursuit of oil and natural gas to meet the energy needs of this growing population threatens what’s left of our environment. Weather patterns are changing in drastic and undeniable ways and, by all reputable accounts, it’s too late to stop them.

Public education is primarily concerned now with teaching kids how to pass multiple-choice tests. Health care and Social Security are unsustainable; we can no longer afford them. Our all-encompassing “culture industry” has proved Theodor Adorno right: popular art seems increasingly to exist primarily to feed market interests, and any potential counterculture is immediately enveloped by the market. Then there’s the growing disparity between rich and poor—when our only agency lies in the dollar, not the vote, only the rich have any power—the skyrocketing debt, the crumbling of basic infrastructures, and the toxic divisiveness of our political culture. Read More

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?

_____________

I’m an optimist by nature, and a comic writer; all my novels, dark as they are, end with an uplift. I believe in sweetness and light. But there are some very good reasons to be direly pessimistic about the future of this country, which has come to feel like an amalgam of corporatocracy, fascist police state, and mini-mall. I feel by turns overwhelmed and angry and worried about the environment, the food industry, corporate greed, and the ballooning (in both senses) population. There are seemingly so many systemic failures that facing and fixing any of them, let alone all of them, feels impossible.

Where to start? Our great Constitution is simultaneously disregarded, on the one hand, in the fearmongering interest of “national security,” and on the other, iron-fistedly brought to bear on Supreme Court decisions that hinder necessary social progress. Monsanto is taking control of agriculture and the food industry with non-propagating seeds and genetically modified “Frankenplants.” Obesity already affects a third of our population, and will likely affect 50 percent of us by 2030. Our population itself is projected to reach 400 million by 2043, doubling in my lifetime. The pursuit of oil and natural gas to meet the energy needs of this growing population threatens what’s left of our environment. Weather patterns are changing in drastic and undeniable ways and, by all reputable accounts, it’s too late to stop them.

Public education is primarily concerned now with teaching kids how to pass multiple-choice tests. Health care and Social Security are unsustainable; we can no longer afford them. Our all-encompassing “culture industry” has proved Theodor Adorno right: popular art seems increasingly to exist primarily to feed market interests, and any potential counterculture is immediately enveloped by the market. Then there’s the growing disparity between rich and poor—when our only agency lies in the dollar, not the vote, only the rich have any power—the skyrocketing debt, the crumbling of basic infrastructures, and the toxic divisiveness of our political culture.

What did I leave out? Oh yes, the economy. It’s bad.

How is any of this ever going to be reversed when all indications are that it’s entrenched and accelerating? The idea of protesting unchecked corporate power strikes me as futile, like punching the Pillsbury Doughboy in the stomach—all you do is bury your arm in corrupt goo, and then you’re stuck trying to pull it out again before it gets swallowed. And, of course, full-out revolution is impossible. There’s nothing to topple. Our government is impotent, and the multinational corporations whose interests it serves are like mutant super-ivy embedding itself into the planet’s surface with enormous stems and horror-movie tentacles.

In the face of this clear and overwhelming and deeply upsetting evidence that we’re already in the handbasket to hell, I see no alternative but to abandon all hope. This breaks my heart. I remember believing as a kid that this was a great country, that America was free and strong and full of possibility. I would love to be optimistic, in the end, about Americans pulling together to overcome any crisis. But I can’t convince myself, much less anyone else, that there’s anything we can do, given what this country has become and what it is further becoming. All I can do is mourn.

_____________

Kate Christensen is a novelist and the author, most recently, of The Astral (Doubleday).

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