Are You Optimistic or Pessimistic About America’s Future?
This Symposium was made possible by a generous grant from the Gale Foundation.
I am pessimistic. Let me count the ways!
First of all, there is our government: no longer merely dysfunctional, it has now entirely ceased to operate in a coherent manner. The sorry spectacle of the impasse on Capitol Hill over the summer disgusted the American electorate, a majority of whom now believes Congress should simply be dismissed. It has become all too apparent that, with a few valiant, struggling exceptions, the members of Congress no longer represent their constituents and have been bought and paid for by various corporate powers and financial institutions. Perhaps we should require them all to wear uniforms with logos, like NASCAR drivers, so that we can identify their corporate sponsors. The fact that a significant majority of American voters would like to raise taxes for the very rich and to preserve Medicaid and Medicare, while Congress is swinging in the opposite direction, is proof enough that they’ve stopped representing us.
And what about our national debt? Congress can bicker over limiting “entitlements” all they want, but the problem cannot be resolved without overhauling the health-care system and radically reducing military engagements—issues that our government’s corporate and military-industrial sponsors will not allow onto the table. The total price tag for the Bush/Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is now estimated at something between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion, if one counts the medical costs of caring for maimed and traumatized veterans.
As for unemployment: even if our Democratic president came up with a truly brilliant jobs program and our Republican-led Congress actually passed it, we would still be dealing with the basic facts that industrial and manufacturing jobs are disappearing and much of the American workforce is not prepared for the new information-technology jobs that are coming along. Workers in India and other offshore sites are just so much cheaper, and so much better educated.
Which leads me to one of the root causes of my long-term pessimism: the state of American education. We are constantly confronted with dismal statistics on test scores, our students’ performance relative to other developed nations, etc. But what is the reason for this, and what is the solution? It’s not an answer, I think, to throw more money at the problem. As the parent of college students and as a teacher of college students, I’ve noticed that kids from “good” high schools (both public and private) are often as ill-prepared as any others. The problem seems to me a deep-seated one: we simply have no consensus as a nation, no unified philosophy of what an educated person should know. Perhaps this relates to the breakdown of government; we have arrived at no consensus as a nation about what a government should do.
As he took office in 1789, George Washington admitted in private that he doubted the Union would last for more than two decades. It has lasted, if dysfunctionally, for more than two centuries. But it is no longer a nation he would recognize, and its government is certainly not one he’d be proud of.
Brooke Allen is the author, most recently, of The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels Through Syria (Paul Dry Books).
Twelve years ago, I was asked by First Things to write my predictions for America in the new millennium. I decided to look at the question from the perspective of an ancient Roman in the year 0 trying to predict his city’s own next millennium. Self-confident Rome in many ways resembled self-confident America in late 1999: it was robustly prosperous, the world’s lone superpower, heir to a vast and rich storehouse of Western civilization, and overwhelmingly dominant culturally. The Roman world stretched—or was on the verge of stretching—from nearly all of Western Europe well into Central Asia. I observed that Rome might have seemed invincible in the year 0, but by the year 1,000 its Western European heartland was in shambles, there was little left of its empire, and the world had changed in ways that would have shocked that ancient Roman. I wrote that America’s future was equally unpredictable, and that by the year 3000 we might well be yet another long-vanished civilization whose downfall will be puzzled over by archaeologists and historians.
What I could not predict was how quickly the downward slide would come. As with ancient Rome, the signs were already present: the barbarians at the gates (9/11 was months away); the demographic implosion of populations of European descent; the cultural decadence; and, worst of all, the drastic loss of national self-confidence and self-direction. And now, the statistics everywhere you look are ghastly: an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent; all-time-record-setting foreclosures; a 40-percent out-of-wedlock birthrate; uncontrollable illegal immigration (12 million illegals currently living in the United States, compared with 5 million in 1996); a Federal Reserve that seems to be aiming at Weimar Republic–level inflation; swollen, immovable unionized bureaucracies at every level of government; a K-12 education system that is one of the worst in the industrialized world; and an entitlement burden that eats up half the federal budget. Over all this looms the colossal black shadow of our $14 trillion national debt—an amount so massive that we can’t even imagine what the number really means, let alone figure out how to repay it.
Lone superpower? Tell that to China. Or for that matter, natural resources–rich Russia. We seem unable to deal firmly with militant Islamists—one group of people that is not demographically challenged and is systematically replacing Europe’s declining population. It is a horrifying sign of the decline of our national will that not only has 9/11 not yet been properly avenged, but public authorities are pushing a plan to build a mosque on one of the devastated sites that, until a public-relations makeover, bore the Islamic-triumphalist name “Cordoba House.” Another sign of national weakness: ObamaCare. Not only because it’s an expensive, wasteful, intrusive health-care scheme, but because enough Americans were willing to turn health care over to the government in the first place, ending our proud and longtime resistance to socialized medicine, a resistance that once helped make American medical care the best in the world.
Some of these problems may be temporary. We can elect a better president and a better Congress whose ideas about curing the recession do not consist solely of raising taxes, further bloating the government, and crippling us with even more debt. I don’t know what we can do about everything else. What is called for are deep cultural changes that may come too late. I hope not. But I have to remember that Rome did disappear. And one of the driving forces behind the disappearance of its last Eastern remnants was militant Islam.
Charlotte Allen has a doctorate in medieval studies and is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard.
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.
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.
Arthur C. Brooks:
Recent statistics about America’s levels of debt and tax burden make for depressing reading. Our national debt has increased from 42 percent of GDP in 1980 to 100 percent of GDP today. Government spending (27 percent of GDP in 1960) is 37 percent of GDP now—and is set to hit 50 percent in 2038. Between 1986 and 2008, the share of federal income taxes paid by the richest 5 percent of Americans has risen from 43 percent to 59 percent. At the same time, the number of Americans who pay zero or negative income taxes has risen from 18.5 percent to 51 percent.
Numbers like these have led some to despair that there are really only two possible scenarios for America’s future. In one, we finally hit a tipping point where so few people actually pay for their share of the growing government that we embrace European-style social democracy. (Think France.) In the other scenario, our growing welfare state slowly collapses under its own weight, and we get some kind of permanent austerity once the rest of the world finally realizes the depth of our national spending disorder and stops lending us money at low interest rates. (Think Greece.)
These are not, however, the only two choices. We can make the hard choices as a nation to consolidate fiscally in a way that cuts government spending and stops penalizing entrepreneurs. But the way to achieve this is not the way conservatives typically advocate, which is doubling down with scary data about terrible economic growth and distortionary taxation. Instead, what conservatives must do is turn to the moral case for free enterprise: that it allows individuals to flourish as they earn their own success, is fundamentally fair in rewarding merit, and is the best way to give opportunities to the less fortunate.
This prescription would hardly sound foreign to our Founders, who in the Declaration of Independence asserted our right to pursue happiness instead of the mere possession of property. On the other side of the Atlantic, the father of free-market economics, Adam Smith, was articulating a soulful defense of human liberty in which every man “is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way.” He wrote these words 17 years before penning The Wealth of Nations.
How is it that today’s free-enterprise warriors have forgotten how to use the language of morality? Statists may talk about fairness and “social justice,” but free marketers seem content to console themselves with the language of economic efficiency and productivity. They are right about free enterprise being good for economic growth, but their arguments rarely move the soul. Yet it is the moral, cultural case for free enterprise that America most needs to hear today if it is willing to make sacrifices for the future.
Rather than making the business case, free-enterprise advocates must stop talking about dollars and cents and start talking about what is written on their hearts. They must talk again about why America is an exceptional nation and about what its system of free enterprise offers—the possibilities of self-realization, matching our skills with our passions, and pursuing happiness in whatever way we choose to define it.
If we do this, then Americans may help us change course before statism changes our nation for good.
Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute.
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).
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).
James W. Ceaser:
There is no sadder sight than an American pessimist. Americans—Jean de Crèvecoeur told us—are born a free and hopeful lot, “a new race of men,” blessed with a bounteous land and a moderate government. Lincoln called Americans an “almost chosen people,” a designation bound to leave many readers of this magazine wondering at the divine improbability of being selected not once, but twice. Optimism, by nearly all accounts, has been an integral part of our national DNA.
What, then, is one to think of opinion polls today showing that, by a margin of almost 4 to 1 (77 percent to 20 percent), the public considers the nation to be on the “wrong track”? Malaise of such Carteresque proportions might easily be interpreted to mean that Americans have lost faith in themselves and in the future.
I am not so sure. Contrary to initial impressions, the real pessimists today are probably to be found among the “right-trackers,” clinging stubbornly to the change they once believed in. Having put their dream team on the floor, under the leadership of one touted to be the greatest political talent of our era, these die-hards have little choice now but to put on a grim public mask of hopefulness. For two years (2009–2011), we enjoyed by their reckoning virtually unchecked government of the best, by the best, and according to the best theories.
Yet things have not panned out. The outcome is being blamed on the difficulty of the challenge, on fate, or on severe headwinds, but doubt must certainly be creeping in that the fault is theirs. Right-trackers today are a desperately dispirited group, filled with dread that their opponents will take over and fail or, much worse, succeed.
One segment alone of the right-trackers seems upbeat: the so-called foreign-policy realists. For decades, intellectuals of this persuasion have yearned for a much less assertive America on the world scene. They have a president who agrees. Now, with constraints imposed by our current indebtedness as the rationale, these thinkers insist that America has no choice but to cede leadership to others. Blessed is the nation in decline, for it shall disinherit the earth.
And what of the almost four-fifths of Americans who think the nation is on the wrong track? Many, perhaps most, in this group have not lost hope. Dismayed almost to the point of despair at where the nation is now heading, they nevertheless see a path to revival and restoration by a change of direction. They reject a no-growth economy as the “new norm,” affirm a return to more limited government, and back a vigorous foreign policy. Their rallying cry has been American exceptionalism, a concept vague in its content but expressive of a strong, almost defiant, spiritedness.
Whether optimism or pessimism prevails will not by itself determine the outcome to the crisis the nation now faces. Far more will depend on the soundness of our leadership and the wisdom of the policies it adopts. The prophet, not the prognosticator, alone can know the future. Still, only a nation that possesses an underlying confidence that it can shape its own destiny is prepared for greatness.
James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
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.
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.
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).
Pessimist? Optimist? Why not go all out and embrace the great American tradition of the jeremiad? Given the slightest excuse, we Americans rend our garments, fill the air with lamentations, and prophesy doom. The end is approaching; strap on your seatbelts; we are going to hell. Evidence can be found everywhere: harvests wilting, prices rising, oil spills gushing, banks defaulting, Congress stalemating, and the economy threatening to collapse.
From my corner of the world (I am a professor and a university librarian), there is a lot to lament, beginning with the use of language. Students’ papers contain phrases such as “between you and I.” Deans say, “going forward” instead of “in the future.” And a corporate idiom has invaded everything. We deal in “trade-offs” and “takeaways” and can’t pursue a course of action without issuing “mission” and “vision” statements, preferably in color and with arrows pointing to boxes meant to show where we are headed and how we intend to get there.
I take the language as a symptom of something more serious: the commercialization of the world of knowledge. Learning never was free, and research libraries are complex organizations, which require business plans. But how can we balance our budgets when the price of scholarly journals, set by monopolistic publishers, has spiraled out of control? The average institutional subscription price to a journal in physics is now $3,368 a year, and several journals cost $30,000.
It once seemed as though Google would democratize access to knowledge by digitizing all the books in our research libraries. But when Google struck a deal with the authors and publishers who had sued it for breach of copyright, it turned its digitizing operation into a commercial venture; the prices it could charge libraries for subscriptions to its database could have escalated as badly as the prices of journals did. Fortunately, a New York court declared the deal unacceptable because it threatened to eliminate all competition, and now we have an alternative to Google Book Search.
I refer to the Digital Public Library of America, a project to digitize millions of books and to make them available free of charge to everyone in the world. Far from being a utopian dream, this plan is doable. A coalition of foundations will provide the funding, and a coalition of libraries will supply the books. We will announce its details at a conference in Washington, D.C., on October 21, and we expect it to begin providing books and all kinds of digital material to the public within three years.
Despite my lamentations, therefore, I look forward to a promising future, at least insofar as ordinary people will have access to their cultural heritage. Am I an optimist? Yes, but not a cockeyed optimist.
Robert Darnton is the Carl. H. Pforzheimer University Professor and university librarian at Harvard. He is the author, most recently, of Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Belknap).
Can I just say that each morning I look at the paper and grow increasingly despondent? Back in the 19th century there was a Know-Nothing Party, but I never thought I’d see its revival. We now have elected hicks who have apparently spent their lives reading nothing but Ayn Rand and the King James Bible, who express grave, very grave reservations about evolution and global warming, and who would like to rescind any social or economic law of the past century that helps the working class.
Some days, I say to myself, that it was ever thus. Nearly a hundred years ago, H.L. Mencken described the America of his day:
Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.
Mencken had no children, so he could afford to be entertained at what he viewed as a carnival of bunkum. But I have sons, just starting out in life, and I weep at the state of this country and the gimcrack, meretricious mall-world of the 21st century. As a child of the frequently maligned 1960s, I grew up on dreams of, on the expectation of, a better, more equitable and peaceful world. Progress was made, no question. Yet, look back on this past decade and what stands out? Suicide bombers and a forever war, the economic destruction of our country by venal plutocrats, and our young blithely sedated by the addictive distractions of their digital toys.
Americans are taught to believe that somehow our country is uniquely indestructible, that we can bounce back from anything. But in 1911 the British Empire—the one upon which the sun never set—felt and believed exactly the same. Forty years later, it was gone. These United States of America are, of course, absolutely exempt from such a possibility. We’re special.
As for literature, my own field: I worry that e-book culture actually inhibits serious reading. A work of art requires a slow, steady interaction between a reader and a text, a contemplative frame of mind, a kind of immersion in a poem or novel’s waking dream. Screens, however, are all about speed, the quick retrieval of facts, the gathering of data. But the getting of information is not the same as the getting of wisdom or aesthetic delight. Will an e-book user slow down enough to appreciate the great and sometimes demanding books of the past?
I really hope I’m dead wrong about the future of America and about the negative consequences of screen technology. Maybe, just maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow or the next day and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. That Dirda, such a dreamer.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning literary journalist whose books include four collections of essays, the memoir An Open Book, and the recently published On Conan Doyle (Princeton).
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.
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.
I remain optimistic in general terms about the United States. Despite all the troubling economic, political, and social trends, I still trust the energy and common sense of the average American. However slowly and painfully, the country will eventually sort out its most pressing problems.
I am far less confident, however, about the nation’s cultural and intellectual future. There has been a vast dumbing down of our public culture that may already be irreversible.
There can be no doubt from the many detailed and reliable studies available that Americans now know less, read less, and even read less well than they did a quarter century ago. These trends have measurable consequences in lowering academic achievement and economic productivity. They also demonstrably diminish both cultural activity and civic participation. We live in a society addicted to constant electronic entertainment—mostly done by individuals at home, isolated not only from their communities but increasingly even from their own families.
Our public culture consists mostly of low-level entertainment and advertising (often intermixed), which is now ubiquitous—filling not only television, radio, the Internet, and print, but also restaurants, bars, airports, and even gas stations and elevators. Media saturation is no longer voluntary but mandatory for anyone entering public spaces. The goal is to fill every moment of human consciousness with paid commercial content. Perhaps this is good to stimulate economic consumption, but it cannot be good for human thought and reflection. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”
Cultural vitality has fewer advocates than do wealth and prosperity. When the arts and humanities break down, the outer signs are less immediately visible. There are no sophisticated monthly measurements to track their progress or decline. But their collapse has human consequences as devastating as material decline, even to a society that may have forgotten why they once mattered.
Dana Gioia is a poet and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
James K. Glassman:
The big question is whether America can continue to lead the world.
If we can’t, our future looks awfully grim. Either the world slips into chaos or another country—China?—takes the lead. Imagine that within the next decade, North Korea threatens Japan or Iran gets set to attack Israel or Pakistan falls completely apart. Will the United States be able to decide what to do—and have the authority to do it, with or without a coalition of the willing?
Global leadership has two requirements: one moral, the other economic. On the moral side, America’s will to lead seems to be slipping away, with the growing attraction of isolationism (to both parties); and on the flip side of that coin, multilaterism for its own sake. The superficial success of the lead-from-behind strategy in Libya doesn’t help. Waiting for the Arab League or the United Nations to step out first could easily become American custom and policy, especially at a time when we’re so preoccupied with domestic economic matters. The moral requirement for leadership is, of course, a function of desire and priority in a nation’s leader. But the zeitgeist counts, and right now, it bodes ill.
Which brings me to the second requirement of leadership. Today’s moral and political atmosphere is heavily determined by the state of the economy, and, in the short term, the U.S. economy is lousy. Typically, the economy snaps back like a rubber band: bad recessions are followed by strong recoveries. That hasn’t happened. But even worse is the long-term picture. Economists forecast growth in the 2-to-2.5-percent range as far as the eye can see. That’s a full percentage point lower than the post–World War II average. Living standards will still rise, but at a snail’s pace. The danger is that we won’t have the wealth to lead or, worse, we won’t have the confidence, in a crisis, to believe that we should spend what we must now, with the certainty that we can pay for it later, as we did in World War II.
The trend lines for both the moral and economic imperatives of leadership are heading down, but they can both be raised. The moral side needs inspiration and purpose from policymakers and intellectuals, who should dedicate themselves to the project of its revival. The economic side needs a clear goal to which policy can be directed. The Bush Institute suggests 4 percent sustainable economic growth—perhaps a bit aspirational, but we can certainly get close with a consumption tax, cuts in wasteful spending and regulations, a sensible immigration policy that beckons the best, and policies to produce domestic energy production.
America can no longer get very far on momentum alone. The physics of inertia are kicking in. Yes, our comparative advantages in technological imagination, entrepreneurship, and good business management remain unmatched, and animal spirits haven’t been snuffed out. Will America continue to lead the world? I say yes, but right now that’s a judgment based more on faith than reason.
James K. Glassman, formerly undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute.
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.
Jonah Goldberg, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor-at-large of National Review Online.
Richard N. Haass:
It is tempting to be glibly optimistic and quote Winston Churchill’s observation that “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”
But this would be, well, glib. There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons for optimism: America’s many excellent institutions of higher education; its relative openness to immigrants; the availability of venture capital for promising innovations; its fundamental political stability; a rich endowment of minerals, energy, and water; and the absence of a powerful peer competitor akin to Germany in the first half of the 20th century and the USSR in the second.
At the same time, there are reasons for genuine concern: a debt larger than GNP; persistent high unemployment; low economic growth; a K-12 educational system that is not preparing most Americans for a competitive, dynamic world; aging infrastructure; a rising China; and a polarized political system that is beholden to special interests and increasingly unable to act in behalf of national interests.
So, confident or pessimistic? The best reason for optimism is that we can identify policies that will help: raising the retirement age; means-testing entitlements; simplifying taxes, reducing tax rates, and eliminating certain tax deductions; cutting use of oil through regulation, taxation, or both; combining near-term economic stimulus with long-term deficit reduction; expanding trade.
Changes also need to be made in how we do things: allowing more talented immigrants to remain in the country, reforming health care so the incentive is not always to increase treatment, curbing the power of public-service unions, resisting wars of choice where the interests at stake are less than vital or where policies other than military intervention promise to yield acceptable results.
But none of this will just happen. It will take real leadership, defined here as a willingness to advocate policies that are inconsistent with the narrow interests of many groups and individuals but that would be good for the society and the country as a whole. It will require leveling with the American people about the consequences of not meeting our challenges and what it will take to meet them. It will require taking on numerous sacred cows.
There are three alternatives to real leadership. One is drift. Business as usual, though, would likely bring about the second alternative: crisis. It could come in the form of domestic unrest or economic disaster imposed by a world that tires of lending us dollars. A third alternative—faux leadership, essentially populism that would deepen social divisions without fixing problems—would be the worst of all worlds.
It may not be realistic to do what I am calling for and survive, much less thrive, politically. It may not be possible within either of the two existing parties; it certainly won’t be easy given our 24/7 Internet and media environment.
Still, I am hanging on to my optimism, if only barely. I could just as easily be a pessimist who has not given up. Either way, it is too close a call for comfort.
Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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.”
Hugh Hewitt, is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host.
Kay S. Hymowitz:
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.
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).
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.
Peter Augustine Lawler:
Any modern country is about narratives of change. Our conservative view, found everywhere from the Tea Party to professors of political philosophy, is that our country’s recent history has been a turn away from the limited government based on the natural rights of free individuals toward bigger and bigger government based on a progressive devotion to History. From this view, our country has been getting worse as it slouches toward the serfdom Friedrich von Hayek described or the soft despotism Alexis de Tocqueville imagined.
This narrative contains some truth, of course, but it’s clearly becoming less true. Big government is now in retreat on two fronts, national and state. The entitlements that have structured our welfare state are eroding or even imploding. The movement is from defined benefits to defined contributions, with risk being transferred from the government or the employer to the individual. The good news is that free people are going to have more opportunity to exercise personal responsibility. The bad might be that elderly Americans will have less reason than ever to believe that their money will last as long as they will. The Tea Party is wrong to believe that what its members regard as a new birth of freedom will ever actually be popular.
As every reader of Commentary knows, our country’s always ambiguous and now seemingly temporary use of big government as a way of redistributing income and eradicating poverty started to fade in the late 1960s. Big government has continued to gradually get bigger, but more because of inertia than any ideological enthusiasm. (What about the Progressive Obama? His vision for change is already discredited, and ObamaCare just won’t work.) Today, most Americans know that a bigger nanny state can’t provide any effective remedy for what really ails them.
In the same 1960s, the Supreme Court began its very successful war against big government understood as the moral regulator of the state. Our Court now thinks it’s adhering to the Founders’ view that the single word liberty in the 14th Amendment is a weapon every generation of Americans can wield to achieve unprecedented individual liberty. It makes a strange kind of sense, from this view, to say that same-sex marriage didn’t used to be an individual right, but it’s become one over time. Soon enough the Court might discover it makes sense to say that the entitlement of marriage itself is unjustified oppression, because it arbitrarily privileges what married people do at the expense of the dignified autonomy of single individuals.
So change over the last generation has been progress in the individualistic sense of John Locke. But some of it has been change Locke himself didn’t anticipate. It didn’t occur to Locke, it seems, that so many free persons would become so self-absorbed—or that contraceptive technology would work so well—that we’d be stuck with a “birth dearth.” Sophisticated Americans have not so much transferred their dependence from family to government as they have chosen to thwart nature’s intention for them by staying around as individuals for an indefinitely long time. If I’m not planning on going anywhere, there’s no need for me to generate any replacements.
If it weren’t for our demographic crisis, nobody would be talking much about reforming or eliminating Social Security and Medicare. We’re going to be stuck more and more with too many old and unproductive people and not enough young and productive ones. That change can be accounted for as a product—both good and bad—of our creeping (and sometimes creepy) individualism or libertarianism. The change has wrecked the progressive dream of an expanding social democracy humanely enveloping us all.
There are some reasons to be confident about America’s future. The road to serfdom, it turns out, never gets to serfdom. The downsizing of the welfare state and the accelerating progress of technology demanded by free individuals will likely be good for prosperity. There is, of course, also reason to worry about people so unwilling to think of themselves as parts belonging to wholes greater than themselves—as parents, children, citizens, friends, and creatures.
Peter Augustine Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and executive editor of the scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science, is the author, most recently, of Modern and American Dignity (Intercollegiate Studies Institute).
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.
Yuval Levin is the founding editor of National Affairs and a Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Michael J. Lewis:
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.
Michael J. Lewis is professor of art at Williams College.
Herbert I. London:
McLandburgh Wilson once observed, “Twixt the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll: the optimist sees the doughnut, but the pessimist sees the hole.” Since a diet of doughnuts can be deadly, I describe myself as a guarded optimist. The adjective saves me from the charge of being a Pollyanna. As I see it, there are two reasons for hopefulness.
One, pessimism is not a policy prescription. If the world were going to hell in a handbasket, most people would, ostrich-like, put their head in the sand and yield to forces they cannot control. My fear is that pessimism can easily morph into despair.
Two, empirical evidence provides some justification for guarded optimism. 1979 was a terrible year politically: the Iranian revolution deposed the shah and set loose Islamic fanaticism; the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan; the Grand Mosque in Mecca was captured by Wahhabis who were able to extract extortion payments from the House of Saud; the United States was living through a period of double-digit inflation; and the nation was saddled with a bungling president whose only response to the Soviet military action was boycotting the Olympics.
The Cassandras warned of even more dire days ahead. But in 1980, an actor from California who became the state’s governor was elected president of the United States. He exuded hope about the future, and that hope was infectious. Ronald Reagan described the Unites States as a shining city upon a hill and, despite his many detractors, lifted the nation out of doubt.
Analogies are usually faulty. Surely this moment is different from 1980, but it would be a mistake to underestimate national resilience and the role a leader can play in elevating the spirit in the body politic. There are days when gloom is a mist in the country’s air. I understand why so many are convinced the best of times are in our past, but I don’t buy this line.
Paul Valéry was right when he said, “the future isn’t what it used to be.” Alas, the future is what we make of it. An inspirational leader can awaken a dormant national esprit. Notwithstanding all the problems we face, the United States is still a model of liberty for people across the globe.
When those courageous Chinese freedom fighters jammed Tiananmen Square in 1989, they didn’t build a statue of Muhammed or Chairman Mao. They constructed a Statue of Liberty. It is our liberty that they wanted to emulate. From the condition of liberty we often take for granted springs our strength and our endurance.
Yes, I am an unapologetic optimist, admittedly guarded. But my view is grounded in reality. As I see it, in a world of manic pessimism, my realism seems like manic optimism. I wonder if that could be a bumper sticker.
Herbert I. London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president emeritus of the Hudson Institute.
The 1990s were a decade to make you believe there was no such thing as an intractable problem. We had defeated the Soviets. We won in the Persian Gulf War in a matter of weeks and quieted ancient ethnic furies in the Balkans. At home, we beat back crime. Welfare reform was a success. We seemed to have the business cycle figured out. It wasn’t really until the financial crisis of 2008 that we were reminded of what it means for things to be utterly out of control. It was a calamity for which no remedy presented itself; and, even if we made the best decisions, it might still have ended in catastrophe. Everything since—the spiraling debt, the persistent unemployment, the sense we might be on the precipice of another collapse—has been a great humbling.
I still tend to be an optimist about most of what dominates our public debate. Over time, the economy will recover. One way or another, we’ll bring the deficit under control. We’ll reform entitlements, inadequately and clumsily, but reform them nevertheless. Our international power will diminish, yet we’ll still be far ahead of any competitor. The American public has shown an admirable resistance to the vast designs of the Obama administration, and I expect President Obama to be either defeated or even more hemmed in during a second term than he is now.
What makes me pessimistic about our future is what nearly no one talks about: the breakdown of marriage and associated bourgeois institutions and virtues in what sociologist Brad Wilcox calls “the solid middle”—those Americans, representing 58 percent of the adult population, who have graduated from high school but don’t have a four-year college degree. Illegitimacy started its corrosive march from the bottom decades ago, but it has steadily crept up the income scale. Among those without a high school degree, the rate is 54 percent; among the solid middle, it’s 44 percent. Marriage and traditional sexual mores have made their last stand among the highly educated (people with a four-year degree or more), reversing everything we thought we knew about the supposed decadence of the elite. Their illegitimacy rate is only 6 percent, and they are less likely to divorce or commit adultery. The solid middle is becoming de-institutionalized. Its members are less likely to go to church or get involved in civic institutions than they were 30 years ago. The middle is thus losing crucial stores of social capital just as—in an interrelated trend—the economy offers fewer ready opportunities, especially for its men. We are witnessing a slow-moving social catastrophe that is mostly ignored, especially on the right.
It has become a mantra among conservatives—echoing a point originally made by Charles Krauthammer—that decline is a choice. But this social decline is not. Even those sounding the alarm about these trends offer few plausible answers for how to check them. How do you recover a culture of marriage once it’s been lost? How do you counteract the baleful side effects of globalization and automation? We seem to be heading inexorably in a direction that threatens our identity as a mass middle-class society. We’ll become more stratified and less mobile, with long-term political consequences that are impossible to predict, except that they can’t be good. William Dean Howells said that Americans love a tragedy so long as it has a happy ending. This is a tragedy that won’t end well.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.
Heather Mac Donald:
In Seoul, South Korea, thousands of people sequester themselves for months and years at a time in “Exam Village” to study for grueling professional tests. In China, tiger parents push their children relentlessly to succeed. American teens are definitely good at socializing.
As waves of Asian engineers and computer scientists lap at our shores, it’s hard not to despair at the educational apathy of many American students. Placing all the blame on schools for our listless academic performance ignores some unpleasant truths. Yes, the reign of progressive pedagogy means that American students spend much of their time in dopey “group learning,” allegedly creating their own knowledge (translation: talking about last weekend’s parties), rather than interacting with a teacher who demands attention and conveys hard facts. Yes, America’s fear of not being “inclusive” has redirected focus away from high achievers to the bottom rung. But if you dropped a Chinese student into a mediocre American classroom, my guess is that he would still learn, and he would certainly outlearn his peers, at least until he succumbed to the anti-intellectual student culture.
One of the reasons why educational effort is so fierce in the Far East and Southeast Asia, however, is that economic opportunities are more constricted there. Corruption and crippling red tape in many exam-driven cultures make it far harder to start a business, resulting in bottlenecks of talent. Americans take for granted the absence of endemic corruption in our political system, but it represents one of the great triumphs of Western civilization. However oppressive it can seem to comply with the Clean Water Act or the California Coastal Commission, at least an entrepreneur usually doesn’t have to pay off his local environmental inspector and other parasites to get a building permit. And while the thousands of regulations that pour out of federal agencies every year absorb senseless amounts of a businessman’s time, they are miracles of efficiency and minimalism compared with the Indian bureaucracy.
So for the moment, let’s be optimistic—if the United States can expand its deep-seated advantages of the rule of law and a culture of entrepreneurship. In the long run, however, if the rising economies in the East can reform their corrupt and backwards governments, the discipline of their populations in the fanatical pursuit of knowledge could well leave the United States as a pop-culture-addicted also-ran. It’s time to junk the communitarian agenda of progressive education and to embrace competition and grouping by ability in schools. Vocational training should be rehabilitated from its unjustified ignominy, and the idea that everyone is capable of and should pursue a college degree should be recognized as the fantastical pipe dream that it is. Most important, however, we should acknowledge that learning requires focused, disciplined work to master a body of knowledge that exists independently of a student’s overrated need for self-actualization.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.
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.
Harvey Mansfield, a recipient of a 2011 Bradley Prize, is professor of government at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Wilfred M. McClay:
The answer can’t be arrived at by reason alone, for there are always as many reasons for pessimism as for optimism. In addition, history is full of surprises and unexpected potentialities, like a board game in which new pieces are constantly introduced. What gives one heart, though, is the recognition that challenging events have in the past called forth unsuspected strengths in the American people, a lesson that both Imperial Japan and Osama bin Laden learned to their dismay.
In the end, everything depends on the character of the American people. About that, one simply can’t be sure, although one’s faith is better placed in the people than the elites. One can be encouraged by the astounding upsurge of sheer dogged resistance from ordinary Americans to the statist agenda of the Obama administration. No one would ever have predicted such a thing in 2007 or 2008. Yet one also can be appalled by the foolishness and gullibility of the American people in electing such an unknown and ill-prepared man to the presidency, and investing such preposterous hopes in him. Which qualities of character will predominate at the polls when the question is something difficult but essential, such as the dramatic reform of Medicare and other entitlements?
There is one tectonic shift, however, that may make a positive response more likely than anyone might have thought possible even five years ago. For most of my lifetime, advanced minds have tended to advertise themselves in the United States by delivering national chastisements beginning with the following words: “The United States is the only major nation in the developed industrialized world that does not have…” The relevant noun was always some feature of the all-embracing social-welfare state that so many European nations adopted over the course of the 20th century. Universal health care, generous paid maternity leave, indexed pensions: the list went on and on. The blood and treasure of the United States may have saved European democracy, but, as the tut-tutting admonishment was meant to remind us, Americans remained seriously backward in comparison with the European social-democratic model.
Well, given the highly visible and accelerating problems of what has now proven to be an unsustainable model, there is a new way to complete the sentence. The United States is now the only major nation in the developed industrialized world that does not face inevitable decline, caused by the enormous and insuperable barriers to growth and prosperity imposed by an impossibly expensive social-welfare apparatus saddled on feeble economies supported by ever-diminishing populations. America has a chance to avoid this fate. And if we do survive and thrive, it will be because of our resistance to the very advanced ideas that have condemned our cousins in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to a future of steady, grinding diminishment.
Obama was educated by those who have lived according to the motto “America is the only developed industrialized country that does not have…” and he was their dream candidate. With his ascent to the presidency, and his muscling-through of cardinal pieces of state-aggrandizing legislation, it seemed that America was finally on the verge of shedding its unwanted exceptionalism. Yet world-historical timing has worked against Obama, and his moment has already passed. It has never been clearer, thanks to the inescapable empirical examples across the Atlantic, that America should not go that route. Far from being the heralded prophet of a new America, Obama represents yesterday’s visionary of tomorrow, the last gasp of dated and fatally flawed ideas.
Wilfred M. McClay is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.
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).
It has become common to contrast the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, with the pessimism of our current president, Barack Obama. “Morning in America” versus disbelief in American exceptionalism. This is too simple a contrast, of course, and I do not, in fact, believe that pessimism about America is Obama’s problem. His problem is the condescension and arrogance with which he too often approaches his fellow citizens. In any case, I want to approach the optimism/pessimism contrast from three different angles.
First, and answering the question most directly, I am optimistic about America as a political community but rather pessimistic about America as a cultural community. Contrary to the constant calls that we hear for an end to partisanship, partisan politics serves us well. Disagreement and argument are essential to the health of a free people, and, unfortunately, many of those most given to regarding diversity as an undoubted good are the least willing to tolerate disagreement. But as long as we remain free to argue about our political aims and policies, I suspect we will not go too far wrong. Nevertheless, it does take a certain kind of citizen to engage in American politics, and too many of our children are growing up in a culture of failed marriages and broken homes. Such cultural disintegration does not produce the trust or trustworthiness that democratic politics requires. How the political and the cultural interact will in large measure shape our future.
Second, claiming a measure of agnosticism seems to me the right way to respond to this question. America’s future is finally in the providence of God, not in our hands. In the greatest political speech ever given in our country’s history, Lincoln—while fondly hoping and fervently praying that the bloody Civil War might cease—left the question of its duration up to the true and righteous judgments of the Lord. That seems right to me. What we need is not so much optimism or pessimism, but a willingness to carry out the public and private tasks set before us with care and devotion: “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” The results can be left in the hands of those more knowledgeable than us.
Finally, we can grant that there are plenty of political reasons for pessimism: an economy in which many people may be permanently unable to find work, the racial divide that has burdened our entire history and still does, the threat of Islamism around the world but especially in the Middle East, an aging population that is setting us up for a clash of generations. What we need in the face of such difficulties is not optimism but hope, and they are not the same. As G.K. Chesterton noted, external conditions can never—in good times or bad—give sufficient reason for hope. We need the virtue of hope precisely when circumstances seem to offer no grounds for optimism. “For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly when hope ceases to be reasonable, it begins to be useful.” Which means that the question that most needs our reflection is: How does one elicit, nourish, and sustain the virtue of hope?
Gilbert Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.
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).
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 in Democratic 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.
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).
Americans remain intoxicated by the possibilities of the future, untrammeled by economic convulsion, and undeterred by the persistence of enemies. While indicators have declined during this corrosive recession, nonetheless, only 31 percent of Americans polled by Pew last year were pessimistic about the next 40 years. Consider that the same poll also found that most Americans believed we would face another world war in the next 40 years and that there would be a major terrorist attack on the United States involving nuclear weapons by 2050. In other words, despite bets on a probable world war or nuclear terrorist attack on our nation, most Americans think life for their family, our country, and the U.S. economy will be better. A little odd, no?
But it isn’t really odd. Too many think of the nation’s founding as a desperate escape from the onerous bonds of a greedy monarch; for the Founders, however, the notion of America was much more. Indeed, the description of America as a “shining city on a hill” did not begin with Ronald Reagan but with John Winthrop, at the founding of the Massachusetts colony. Americans have long regarded themselves as being in the vanguard of human history, destined for greatness. The Virginia colonists immodestly set their western border at the Pacific Ocean. When the White House extols the virtues of “leading from behind,” it swims against four centuries of the American tide. And most Americans still hold a firm conviction that their country is something special; that their children’s lives will be better than their own; that come what may, the country will explore new frontiers and expand what Thomas Jefferson called the “empire for liberty.”
If there is any nation that can resist the siren song of retreat and decline, it is this one. A country that continues to believe that life will be better after a nuclear attack is a country that believes in its own future. That belief remains the foundation of America’s power. To be sure, the edifice needs a little work. Our government now wastes “the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them,” as Jefferson warned it might. A political culture of exceptionalism and individual rights has given way to one of apology and group grievance. We seem embarrassed still to be the “sole superpower” and impatient for the “rise of the rest.”
Such lassitude will not last. Americans have always found within themselves the strength to rise from adversity, to take, as with Lincoln at Gettysburg, “increased devotion” to the “great task remaining before us.” America is forever “an unfinished work,” one “nobly advanced,” but with greater nobility ahead.
Danielle Pletka is the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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.
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).
I sit down to ponder whether there’s cause for optimism about America’s future on a day that brings proofs, as the days regularly do, that a significant number of Americans—Americans of all ages—live lives bereft of any sense of identification with the nation, with all that it has been and all that it is. This is not a cause for optimism. True, that sense of identification still lies entrenched in the hearts of most Americans, but there is no missing the fact that it would not have been necessary to make grateful note of that point, say, 40 years ago. Decades of revisionist history taught as revealed truth in high schools and universities have taken their toll, decades in which students have learned, at the hands of politically progressive instructors—there are precious few of any other kind in most institutions of higher learning—to view their country as a rapacious exploiter of the poor and the oppressed, and fierce enemy of justice and truth.
But we know all this. We’ve known it for a long time—books galore have been published and conferences held on the transformation of our campuses into centers of indoctrination and thought reform. What we’ve not quite grasped are the insidious consequences of decades of this learning, which has sent countless graduates into the world armed with a degree and an education shaped by poisonously distorted views of their nation, its history, and its values. These are the graduates who now people our media, of course. It was from the political swamplands of such learning that the current president of the United States came as well. No need to ask why the members of our media took so easily to candidate Barack Obama: they had gone to the same schools and shared the same assumptions.
The more dramatic impact of this learning comes in the form of views that most Americans, fortunately, still look upon as aberrations. Few people take the 9/11 Truthers seriously, and rightly so—but that their view has taken even as much hold as it has is altogether telling. These middle-aged and older Americans have found in this deeply held faith—that American leaders arranged to have 3,000 American citizens slaughtered—an outlet for their fixed idea that the U.S. government is a source of evil and an enemy to fear. To encounter any Truther in standard mode is, of course, to witness psychological disturbance of a familiar kind—a kind not far different from the sort found in people who believe that the CIA has implanted radio transmitters in their teeth to control them.
What is significant about the Truthers is the reach of their views: all sorts of Americans can now be found entertaining the possibility that America could well have been responsible for 9/11. Academics, entertainers—too many are now drawn to a view that would have been limited to the clinically deranged 50 years ago. The belief that the United States planned the 9/11 attacks testifies to an unparalleled hostility toward the nation, not just its government. And such belief can now be pronounced aloud and considered an acceptable—indeed distinguished—viewpoint.
So it happened that I could hear, the week I write this, Tony Bennett’s views, offered on Howard Stern’s radio show. Bennett said that the United States, which had bombed other countries, had “caused” 9/11. He let it be known, as well, that we—not the people who flew the planes into the buildings—were the terrorists. We hear voices like this regularly these days. They’re worth noting because of what they represent. So, too, if we’re looking for a bright side, are the splendid tides of outrage with which Americans respond to this preening pathology.
Dorothy Rabinowitz writes on politics and culture for the Wall Street Journal.
Paul A. Rahe:
We live at the end of an era—at a time when the old order can no longer be sustained and a new set of arrangements has yet to emerge. It is a time fraught with discomfort, distress, and anxiety. Millions of Americans are looking for work; millions more have given up the search; and further millions are underemployed. All of them are having trouble making ends meet, and those fortunate enough to have steady work fear that a market collapse, rampant inflation, or a government desperate for revenues will deprive them of their savings.
This is also, however, a time of unparalleled opportunity. It helps that Americans are no longer in denial. They now know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that the entitlements regime begun under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, vastly expanded under Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society, and expanded again, at least in prospect, under Barack Obama’s New Foundation is unsustainable. It is now possible for a presidential candidate to describe Social Security as a gigantic Ponzi scheme without ruining his prospects, because everyone understands that the money in the so-called trust fund was spent by Congress long ago, and hardly anyone under 50 seriously expects to get Social Security upon retirement in his mid-60s. Everyone is aware, moreover, that Medicare is insolvent, that we cannot pay for Medicaid, and that the cost of health care is soaring; and most Americans recognize that Obama’s attempt to expand the sphere of public provision will, if not repealed, make matters considerably worse.
The presumptions that sustained the administrative state have also been exposed as lies. The experts on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and those in charge at the Department of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board have repeatedly been proven wrong. When the president of the United States consulted his advisers and claimed in early September that his “jobs bill” would reduce unemployment and that it could easily be paid for, hardly anyone, even in his own party, believed a word. Distrust in the federal government is at an all-time high.
All of this is a blessing in disguise. As a people we were far worse off when we were prey to the illusion that we would be better off if we outsourced provision for our welfare to an administrative elite empowered to manage every detail of our lives. Our liberation from this illusion means that we can begin to dismantle the administrative entitlements regime; that we can return to the states and the localities the functions that are properly theirs; that we can refocus the federal government on the limited but vitally important tasks that the Constitution reserves for it; and that we can restore to individuals and families the obligations, responsibilities, and liberties that are properly theirs. The transition will be painful, but prosperity and low unemployment will return if we limit the burdens that public provision and administrative regulation place on private initiative and if we create a legal regime favorable to entrepreneurship—and morally, in taking responsibility for our own well-being and those of our families, we will be much better off.
Paul A. Rahe is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author, most recently, of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift (Yale).
Mark me down as an American optimist. True, we face many challenges: the fiscal crisis of the modern welfare state, the end of American military super-hegemony, an elite culture bent on dismantling the Judeo-Christian moral consensus. Add our present economic woes, which seem intractable, and only a naif can but conclude that we face real problems posing real threats. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that America will remain a vital, attractive, and immensely powerful nation in the coming decades.
The overwhelming majority of Americans—elite, middle class, and working class—are visceral patriots. We’re critical, we find fault, we anguish over our racist past, but the Declaration of Independence continues to express what we believe. This fact about America—the fundamental, deep, and rock-solid legitimacy not only of our system of government but also and more important of our common myths and civil religion—gives us an incalculable strength over and against any of our competitors on the global stage.
The American myth, moreover, has a remarkable—an unprecedented—absorptive power. It reabsorbed a defeated South after the Civil War. It absorbed and still absorbs waves of immigrants, even the children of ex-slaves, whose suffering and humiliation should have made them eternal enemies. A decade ago at my church, one of the elderly black members wept as he watched a documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots in World War II who had to endure Jim Crow while training in the South. “How,” he said to me afterward, “could our country have been so unjust to those men?”
Our country! I defy anyone who understands the anguish of that man (who had himself grown up under Jim Crow!) to be anything other than an American optimist. Deficits, unemployment, new international threats, the fraying moral fabric of society—has any generation, any nation not faced these or similar challenges? A country doesn’t “solve” these sorts of problems but rather meets, ameliorates, and endures them. In these times of threat (and we certainly live in such a time), a nation is only as strong as its common culture, and ours is very strong, very strong indeed.
It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. My elderly friend at church is a rock-ribbed Democrat, and I have little doubt that he disagrees with me about how to solve our present fiscal woes. Other friends think me a religious fanatic in my opposition to same-sex marriage, easy divorce, and abortion on demand. Still others have dreamy ideas about global conflict, the United Nations, and international law. They take the Rodney King approach to national defense: “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Their views and those of others on the left are wrongheaded, and if they control our national future we’ll suffer accordingly. But a nation hobbled by its own stupidity is almost inevitable. What makes us great is the fact that underneath our political and moral debates we have a healthy, robust common culture, a backstop, a bottom line.
Osama bin Laden was stupid enough to imagine that America’s all too real and obvious corruptions—our wanton hedonism, our empty materialism, our reality-TV political culture, our supine, bleating efforts to placate enemies with our vast treasure rather than meet them with military resolve—constitute our national essence. He was very wrong. As we face and fight these corruptions, let’s not make the same mistake.
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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.
In 1993 I helped William J. Bennett assemble The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, which provided an empirical assessment of the social condition of American society. It provided a comprehensive statistical portrait of behavioral trends over the previous 30 years, and the results were alarming: a 500 percent increase in violent crime; more than a 400 percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; a doubling in the divorce rate; and a drop of almost 75 points in SAT scores.
I believed at the time that these exploding social pathologies might lead to the decline and even the collapse of our republic.
It was right about that time that the United States, as if at once, began to turn things around. And within a decade and a half, significant improvements were visible in the vast majority of social indicators, with progress in some areas, such as crime and welfare, taking on the dimensions of a sea change.
It was a stunning, encouraging, and wholly unexpected recovery. And I learned my lesson: do not underestimate the recuperative and regenerative powers of America.
This does not mean that success is preordained or that optimism is always warranted. And we shouldn’t for a moment downplay the challenges we face, which include reforming public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century. Our health-care and entitlement system, tax code, schools, infrastructure, immigration policies, and regulatory regime are outdated, worn down, and insanely out of touch with the needs of our time. This has impeded economic growth, impaired the creation of human capital, and put us on the path toward an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Each of these public institutions needs to be improved and modernized, requiring structural reforms on a scale that right now seems nearly impossible to achieve.
It’s not. The necessary first step toward reform and renewal is a massive ballot-box repudiation of President Obama, his progressive agenda, and those who have supported it. That needs to be followed by the emergence of political leaders with concrete plans to replace the liberal welfare state and who possess the skill to rally the public to their cause. “Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln said. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”
This is no easy task. Fundamental reforms, especially when it comes to entitlement programs, will require (carefully) changing settled ways and settled assumptions. On top of that, right now Americans are anxious, unnerved, and unusually pessimistic. A recession and a failed presidency will do that to a nation. But we also continue to possess enormous strengths, economic as well as military, and great resiliency. We can take some comfort in the fact that at every important moment in American history—our founding, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II, the civil-rights struggle, the wreckage of the Carter years—America has produced political leaders who were up to the challenge. I’m betting it shall again.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a managing director of e21.
The year I was born, the nonviolence champion Martin Luther King Jr. was slain by an assassin’s bullet, touching off race riots in more than 100 American cities that left 46 people dead and a trail of physical destruction still visible to the naked eye. It was the deadliest year for the United States in the Vietnam War, with more than twice as many servicemen dying than have succumbed, combined, in every U.S. military action since. Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, Americans elected a future crook as president, and most right-thinking people were convinced by Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, that “hundreds of millions of people” would soon “starve to death,” particularly in India.
The year I turned 21, elite anxieties had moved on to Japan’s imminent takeover of the U.S. economy. Entire American cities (including New York City) had been given up as lost causes, Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner in apartheid South Africa, and then all at once the world as we thought we knew it fell on its head. As predicted by no one, imperial Communism collapsed largely without a shot, proxy superpower wars all over the globe gave way to fragile but lasting peace, and a decade of unparalleled prosperity and freedom tumbled happily forth.
The year I write this may prove to be the most momentous for human freedom since that annus mirabilis of 1989, with one authoritarian regime after another in the Islamic world coming under intense pressure from decentralized protesters demanding more liberalized lives. Even before the Arab Spring, we had already seen the number of “free” countries, as rated by Freedom House, rise from 29 percent in 1972 to 45 percent in 2010 (and “partly free” countries rise from 25 to 31 percent) and 44 new sovereignties enter or reenter the family of nations. Former mass-starvation candidates India and China are now producing yet another wave of American neuroses over competing with Asiatic foreigners, even though U.S. per-capita income, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since 1968.
It requires a surplus of myopic self-regard to gaze upon this undeniable and thrilling human advancement and proclaim a wasteland of impending decline, but we Americans have always had a difficult time distinguishing between our market share of global responsibility and the overall health of the world.
The apparently uncomfortable truth is that people everywhere are, on balance, seeking more and more freedom, and they don’t necessarily need or even want heavy American involvement in that quest. Which is fortunate for us, because we can no longer afford to take care of ourselves, let alone the rest of the world.
Like it or not, the near future will be marked by a relaxation of American geopolitical control and a resurgence in local and regional responsibilities assumed by the people who actually live there. For those of us who truly believe in the virtues of responsibility and competition, and who have an enduring faith in the irresistible lure of freedom, it is the very best of times to be alive.
Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents (Public Affairs).
James Q. Wilson:
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.
James Q. Wilson teaches at Pepperdine University and is the coauthor of American Government: Institutions and Policies (Wadsworth).
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.
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).
The Case for Pessimism
By Mark Steyn
In September 2009, Barack Obama and Muammar Qaddafi both addressed the United Nations. It is a pitiful reflection upon the Republic in twilight that, when it comes to the transnational mush drooled by the leader of the free world or the conspiracist ramblings of a pseudo-Bedouin terrorist drag queen presiding over a one-man psycho-cult basket case, it’s more or less a toss-up as to which of them was the more unreal.
Qaddafi spoke for 90 minutes, and in the midst of his torrent of words, his translator actually broke down and cried out, “I can’t take it anymore.” The colonel gravely informed the world body that the swine flu was a virus that had been created in a government laboratory, and he called for a UN inquiry into the Kennedy assassination on the grounds that Jack Ruby was an Israeli who killed Lee Harvey Oswald to stop the truth coming out about Kennedy being killed to prevent an investigation into the Zionist nuclear
facility at Dimona.
On the other hand:
“I have been in office for just nine months, though some days it seems a lot longer,” President Obama mused. “I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world. These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted, I believe, in a discontent with the status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences.”
Now, forget the first part, which was just Obama’s usual narcissistic “but enough about me; let’s talk about what the world thinks about me” shtick. It was the second part of Obama’s remarks that reveals the danger we find ourselves in, two years later, even with Qaddafi toppled and in hiding and Jack Ruby’s Israeli roots
The thing is, for better or worse, we are defined by our differences, and if Barack Obama didn’t understand that when he was at a podium addressing a room filled with representatives of Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Venezuela, and the whole gang of evil, the rest of the world certainly did as soon as Qaddafi appeared. Obama and Qaddafi may both have been the heads of state of sovereign nations, but if you’re on an Indian Ocean island when the next tsunami hits, try calling Libya instead of the United States for help and see where it gets you.
The global reach that enables America and a handful of other nations to get to a devastated backwater on the other side of the planet and save lives and restore the water supply in a matter of days isn’t a happy accident or a quirk of fate. It is something that derives explicitly from our political system, our economic liberty, our traditions of scientific and cultural innovation, and a general understanding that societies advance when their citizens are able to fulfill their potential in freedom.
In other words, America and Libya are defined by nothing but their differences, even though the very thought of “differences” seemed to pain the president on that day. “No nation,” he announced to the assembled warmongers and genociders, both actual and would-be, “can or should try to dominate another nation.”
As far as I’m aware, neither Qaddafi’s translator nor anyone else screamed “I can’t take this anymore” and fled the room. But someone should have. Whether or not any nation should try to dominate another, they certainly can. And they have. Nations have sought to dominate others and have succeeded at it with ease all over the planet and throughout human history.
So who’s next? According to the International Monetary Fund, China will become the planet’s leading economy in the year 2016.
If the IMF is right, in five years’ time, the preeminent economic power on the planet will be a one-party state with a Communist Politburo and a largely peasant population, no genuine market, no human rights, no property rights, no rule of law, no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of association. It will mark the end of a two-century
Anglophone dominance, and—even more civilizationally startling—for the first time in a half millennium the leading economic power will be a country that doesn’t even use the Roman alphabet.
Whether or not this preeminent China should dominate other nations, it certainly can. And it certainly will.
If you think like President Obama and believe nations are not defined by their differences, then China’s great leap forward is not that big a deal. But if you think, like someone who has given it a moment’s thought, that nations are defined by their differences, it is a very big deal. Most immediately, it means that the fellow elected next November will be the last president of the United States to preside over the world’s leading economy. This should be a source of shame to every American. It is not. Not yet. Instead, we battle over trivialities.
Washington spent most of the summer of 2011 gripped by the debt-ceiling showdown. Cable-news correspondents stood outside the White House and the Capitol all day long, reporting the comings and goings of the movers and shakers. Everyone was agog as to whether the president and the administration would reach a deal before the clock chimed midnight on August 2, whereupon the president’s lavishly weaponized Canadian-manufactured black coach in which he toured Iowa would turn back into a pumpkin.
Now, just to put this so-called debt-ceiling battle, in which the Republicans were supposedly battling to secure budget cuts that would destroy the social safety net, in perspective: there was a dispute between Speaker of the House John Boehner and the Congressional Budget Office about the so-called scoring of the plan that eventually passed and was signed by the president. Boehner said the plan called for $7 billion in cuts for the 2012 budget. The CBO said the plan only reduced the 2012 deficit by $1 billion.
Which of these numbers is correct?
The United States government currently spends one-fifth of a billion dollars that it doesn’t have every hour, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Ramadan. A fifth of a billion dollars every single hour—so the $7 billion that John Boehner calls “a real enforceable cut for financial year 2012” represents what the
government of the United States currently borrows every 37 hours. In the time between the Friday announcement of the plan and the Sunday morning talk shows’ discussion of it, the government borrowed back every dime of those painstakingly negotiated savings.
On the other hand, if the CBO’s scoring is correct, and it reduces the 2012 deficit by just $1 billion, then the cut represents what the United States borrows every five hours and 20 minutes. Don’t bother waiting for the Sunday talk shows, because the savings will all be borrowed back in the time it would take you to read this issue of Commentary. But let’s give John Boehner the benefit of the doubt and concede that for a month of shuttling back and forth between the Capitol and the White House, he got a “real enforceable cut of $7 billion.”
In September, the president swanned into Congress for a nationally televised address on jobs and proposed, off the top of his head, another $477 billion in spending—a half trillion dollars we don’t have, that the world has no desire to lend us, and the majority of which will be “electronically created” by the United States Treasury selling its debt to the Federal Reserve under the policy called “quantitative easing.”
The politico-media class of this country seems to think it entirely normal that we should spend two months in tense, difficult, painstaking negotiations over how to go seven billion steps forward—and then breezily spend 20 minutes going 447 billion steps backwards. The inconsistency between the bottomless pit that supposedly awaited us on August 2 and the airy coverage of September 8 tells us a great deal about the unlikelihood of meaningful course correction in this country.
The other day a friend of mine watched the film The People Versus Larry Flynt, which tells in part of the battles between the title pornographer and a conservative activist named Charles Keating, who owned Savings and Loan. The film’s final card portentously informs us that “Charles Keating was part of the Savings and Loan scandal that cost American taxpayers $2 billion.” The People Versus Larry Flynt came out in 1996. That was a mere 15 years ago. And yet, just as we find it hard to comprehend that the average peasant in medieval England had to get by on six pennies a day, we now find it difficult to imagine an age lost in the myths of antiquity when there were scandals that cost American taxpayers a mere two billion dollars.
What a primitive society that must have been, barely advanced out of subsistence agriculture! Today, the government of the United States borrows $2 billion every 11 hours. We could have 220 Savings and Loan scandals for the cost of the Obama jobs bill. We could have 500 Savings and Loan scandals for the cost of one Obama stimulus package. We could have 850 Savings and Loan scandals for the cost of this year’s budget deficit. We could have vast armies of Charles Keating clones rampaging across the fruited plain, and they would barely make a dent in America’s finances.
Here’s another example of the kinds of dollars that are being thrown around now. The Obama administration’s $38.6 billion clean-technology program was supposed to “create or save 65,000 jobs.” Half the money has been spent, $17.2 billion, and we have 3,545 jobs to show for it. That works out to an impressive $4,851,904.09 per green job created. A world record! People say America can’t be number one anymore, but mister, we’re number one at this. The previous world record was held by Spanish taxpayers who subsidized every job on a solar panel assembly line to the tune of $800,000 per post. I’ll bet Spain thought that record was safe for a couple of years. Not so fast, amigos. The American taxpayers took it and sextupled it—not $800,000 per green job, but $4,800,000 per green job. I’d like to see those cheeseparing Spaniards reclaim that record any time soon!
Nobody spends like this. Nobody except us.
Nobody uses the T word—trillion—except us. It’s easy to look at debt-to-GDP ratios and conclude there’s nothing to worry about, but when you’re squandering $4.8 million per artificial non-job, it’s not the comparative numbers that will kill you. It’s the sheer dollar sums.
There were three great citadels of Western civilization: Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. It took a fourth, London, Washington’s immediate predecessor as the dominant power, to disseminate the ideas of Athenian democracy and Roman law and the Hebrew Bible to the farthest corners of the earth. America has signs of decline that follow the examples of all four.
Rome once built aqueducts, and then it stopped building aqueducts, and then the aqueducts it had built started to decay. At the dawn of big government, in the 1930s, we built the Hoover Dam. Then we stopped building dams. In September, in the town of Port Angeles in the state of Washington, there commenced the destruction of two century-old dams in order to “liberate” the Elwha River. So now we’re dismantling dams.
You can see this at work—or rather, not at work—every time you’re on the isle of Manhattan. The Empire State Building was put up in one year and 45 days in the middle of a depression. Ground Zero is still a building site after a decade. 9/11 is something America’s enemies did to us. The 10-year hole in the ground is something we did to ourselves.
Now consider the people who went rampaging through the streets this summer in London. These are the children of dependency, people who have been marinated in stimulus within an inch of their lives, and they’re good for nothing but lobbing concrete through store windows so they can steal the latest models of electronic toys. They tore apart a city that, within living memory, governed a fifth of the earth’s surface and a quarter of its population. When you’re imperialist on that scale, you make a lot of mistakes. But nothing the British did to any of their subject peoples in far-flung corners of the globe compares with what they did post-imperially to their own population.
These are the great-grandchildren of a tiny island that stood alone against the Germans during the Blitz in that terrible year after the fall of France. If those Britons of mid-century were to come back, they would assume they had landed in some bizarro alternative universe—until, like Charlton Heston rounding the corner and seeing the shattered Statue of Liberty poking up out of the sands, they realize that the Planet of the Apes is their own. The evil of big government is not that it is a waste of money, but that it lays waste to people.
In Israel in the mid-1990s, an idea called normaliut seized hold of its populace. What it meant was that Israel wanted to live like any normal Western society. That was the real attraction of the 1993 Oslo peace accords. In a sense, it offered not merely a treaty negotiated in Oslo but the possibility to be Oslo, the chance for Israelis to live as Norwegians, to live as any other advanced Western nation. Instead, Israelis are on the military call-up list until 55—or about the age a Greek hairdresser gets to retire on full salary. Israel’s example suggests that if you think you’re an advanced Western democracy, but you don’t get to live like one, eventually the conflict between what you are and what the difficult circumstances ensuring you are not obliterated from existence require of you, you get worn down over time.
Israel implemented the terms of the Oslo accords, and in return Israelis got an Arafatist terror squat on their Eastern flank, suicide bombers on their buses, Iranian proxies to their north and west—and, in the wider world, isolation, demonization and delegitimization accompanied by a resurgent and ever more respectable anti-Semitism. The dream of normaliut didn’t work.
In 2008, the U.S. electorate also voted for normaliut. Americans voted to repudiate the previous years, dominated by terror attacks and Code Orange alerts and anthrax scares, and thankless semicolonial soldiering in corners of the map no one cared about. They were under the sway of a desperate hope that wars can simply come to an end when one side decides it’s all a bit of a bore. In reality-TV terms, the Great Satan wanted to vote itself off the island.
But as Israel understands by now, sometimes who you are is more important than anything you do. And sometimes who you are is an offense to those indifferent to anything you might or might not do. America will discover, as Israel did, that a one-way urge for normaliut will lead to a more dangerous world.
When you have government on the scale Europe enjoys and America has moved toward, there are hard choices to be made: as postwar Britain came to understand, you can have Scandinavian-style entitlements or a military of global reach, but you can’t have both. The current “supercommittee” or the next will find it easier to cut military commitments for which the public has little appetite than to shrink in any meaningful sense an ever more deeply ingrained transgenerational dependency culture.
And without a military or global reach, we will find the spaces in the Pax Americana left unoccupied like an underwater house in a Nevada real-estate
development quickly filled by anti-American menaces. Last year, Die Welt reported that on a recent visit to Tehran, Hugo Chavez had signed an agreement to place Iranian missiles at a jointly operated military base in his satrapy, Venezuela. That’s how it begins. In the years ahead, distant enemies of this country will seed new proxies in Latin America as Iran did to Israel with Hamas and Hezbollah.
It starts with the money, but it doesn’t stop there: as all dominant nations learn, when money drains, power drains.
Nowhere can we see the effects of that truth better than in East Asia. China is already the world’s biggest manufacturer. It is already the world’s biggest exporter. It is the postcolonial patron of resource-rich Africa. It is the post-downturn patron of cash-strapped Mediterranean Europe. It is the biggest trading partner of India, Brazil, and other emerging powers. We should not be surprised that in such a world, getting on with America will matter less and less.
There have been moments, without question, when this has proved to be unexpectedly good news for us. Washington and its geriatric EU allies wanted the Copenhagen climate change deal in 2009, the biggest exercise in punitive liberalism ever mounted, an embryo exercise in global government. Brazil and India joined with China to block it. It’s a mark of the perversity of the age that it takes the Politburo to save global capitalism.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so good. In 2010, the Royal Australian Navy participated in its first naval exercises with Beijing. A few weeks later, Britain and Germany declined to support the United States in its efforts to get China to increase the value of its currency. Why would they? Even for America’s closest allies, the dominance of both the Pentagon and the almighty dollar has become conditional.
We will not like this post-American world, which will not even bring us normaliut. America will discover, as Britain has in twilight, that, long after imperial grandeur has faded, imperial resentments linger. We will not be left alone to fade into second-rate status. We will be taunted and humiliated and haunted and chased on the way down.
And yet, even in my deepest and most pessimistic vision, I can see a different future for the United States. For as the past few years have taught us, the great thing about the United States is that it is not Europe. When the economy headed south in 2008 and 2009, everywhere around the planet, people besieged their parliaments, asking them, “Why didn’t you, the government, do more for us?” They did it in Iceland. They did it in Bulgaria. They did it in Lithuania. They did it in Greece. They did it in the United Kingdom. They did it in France.
The United States is the only country in the world where a mass movement took to the streets in 2009 to say we could do just fine if you, the government, stayed the hell out of our pockets and the hell out of our lives. That fact, that populist refusal to be Europeanized, represents the best hope for this country. Those now-caricatured, much-maligned Tea Partiers moved the meter of public discourse significantly back in the direction of sanity. And that includes Barack Obama.
In 1975, Milton Friedman said this: “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.”
Just so. Every time Barack Obama stands at his teleprompter and is forced to pretend that he’s interested in deficit reduction, we have taken a step toward that Milton Friedman reality. You have to create the conditions, as the Tea Party and the town hall meetings did, whereby the wrong people are forced to do the right things.
One cannot wait for the great leader to descend from the heavens to do the work for us. Every glamour boy, from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney to Rick Perry, proves to have feet of clay. It’s more important that tens of millions of ordinary citizens move the meter on public discourse and force the wrong people to do the right things.
But we don’t have much time to force them. If we don’t turn this thing around by mid-decade, if we let China become the dominant economic power in a world where the Iranians are nuclearizing and where Russia is making whatever mischief it can, we will see something new in world history. Something terrifying. This will not be like the transition from Britain to America, from a crucible of liberty to its greatest exponent. This will be the greatest step backwards for the civilization that built the modern world and spread its blessings across the map. There will be no new world order. There will be no world order.
The only way to prevent it is to act, and act quickly. Otherwise, it’s over. In 1969, in a poem about the end of the British empire called “Homage to a Government,” Philip Larkin wrote: “Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home/For lack of money…/We want the money for ourselves at home/Instead of working.” The narrator keeps saying that “this is all right,” but he concludes with this: “The statues will be standing in the same/Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same./Our children will not know it’s a different country./All we can hope to leave them now is money.”
We Americans can’t even hope that. And our children will know their reduced America was not the America that should have been theirs by right.
The Case for Optimism
By John Podhoretz
There is a growing propensity to place the blame for the disastrous fiscal and economic condition of the United States on the supposedly damaged spiritual condition of the American people. President Obama himself, inclined these days to blame the nation’s economic woes on his predecessor and on millionaires and billionaires, stepped on his own storyline recently when he told a Florida TV reporter that the American people had “gotten a little soft.” By saying this, he was echoing the view that something had gone wrong inside the body politic over the past decade or longer. The American people wanted benefits they didn’t want to pay for; they borrowed money they didn’t have; they refused to make tough choices. “The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want,” Michael Lewis, the most influential financial journalist in America, writes in his new book Boomerang. “The boom in trading activity in individual stock portfolios; the spread of legalized gambling; the rise of drug and alcohol addiction—it is all of a piece.”
This secular-Calvinist argument has achieved standing because it seems to take seriously the most nagging aspect of the past 10 years: the role we should assign to personal responsibility when we attempt to understand what happened, how to keep it from happening again, and how to deal with the pressing matters ahead of us. It is also alluring because it spreads the blame far and wide, which seems appropriate for a cascading series of events that developed over decades and then all came crashing into each other.
No other theory of wrongdoing draws a straight line from the expansion of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1995, which led to the growth in subprime lending that helped create a new market in derivative products from that lending, to the seemingly unrelated pension and medical-care crises afflicting state and local governments now and that will soon overwhelm the federal government if the spending trajectory isn’t altered. The fault lies not in Democrats, nor in Republicans, not in unions or cosseted banks; the fault, dear Brutus, lies in ourselves. We are the constant: the overindulged, overindulgent, overweight American people, wanting things heedlessly, getting things hedonistically, and ruining things wantonly. We are $14 trillion in debt because we ate the debt.
It is a powerful argument. But it is wrong. And by understanding the ways in which it is wrong, we can see the contours of the case for optimism about the American future taking shape. Americans made entirely rational choices in the years leading up to the crisis in 2008; they responded properly to a series of incentives created over the preceding decades by politicians who meant well but were satisfying the interests not of the public as a whole but of constituent groups that stood to benefit far more than the ordinary voter from the creation of those incentives. Just as Americans responded to the realities of the time before the crisis, they will respond to the realities of the United States in which we now live. And the nation will come out the stronger for it.
When you are living in the heyday of a bubble—and we’ve been through two in the past 15 years, one involving the Internet and the other real estate—you are presented with two opposing realities. The first is that something miraculous is going on around you, something so transformative it seems almost magical. And you know it is real, because the miracle workers are everywhere you look, peering at you from the covers of magazines, confident and smiling and looking like a billion bucks. To become like them, you need to take the steps they took; and because they took those steps and benefited, following in their footsteps doesn’t really seem risky at all.
The former CEO of Citigroup, Chuck Prince, notoriously said, even as he saw the housing collapse coming: “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” That remark has been taken as proof of his bank’s malfeasance and that of all Wall Street firms, and there is some of that in it; but it also describes perfectly the psychological condition of almost everyone during bubble time. If you’re not in, you’re out. Better to be in than out. At least you have skin in the game.
The other, contradictory reality is this: you know (because how can you not) that what you are seeing is not real, that something akin to a violation of the elementary laws of physics is happening before your eyes. When a piece of property that seemed overvalued at $250,000 costs $500,000 three years later, but nothing else has changed much—the economy isn’t growing all that quickly, you’re not all that much better off than you were, and your friends aren’t either—the cognitive dissonance should be overwhelming.
You know all this, but the anesthetic effect of the bubble’s music means that you don’t feel it. And when a mortgage broker tells you that you can afford a $500,000 mortgage on a salary of $52,000, you know for sure that someone is getting screwed as part of the deal, since that’s what happens when deals are too good to be true. And you know, what’s more, that it might be you who will be getting screwed; but what was true for Citi is true for you as well. The music is playing. You’ve got to get up and dance.
The point is that ordinary people didn’t just get up and dance because it was fashionable. They were presented with powerful motivations to do so, mostly in the form of lowered interest rates that not only made borrowing cheap but also allowed them to cash out the equity they had invested in their own homes without having to sell. People drained their own future wealth by spending it in short-term ways, but given the fact that housing prices were rising, it appeared they would make up for the lost equity in increased value. People didn’t believe falsely, or greedily, or hungrily, that money was free. Money was free. And the incentive to participate in this free-money game was general. America’s politicians have recently found it convenient to rage at the mortgage brokers and banks that were handing out subprime loans so cavalierly, but they too—and those who borrowed from them—were also acting in accord with incentives created by the Federal Reserve and federal government policy.
Lending money, borrowing money, creating derivatives from the mortgages—these were all entirely understandable acts based on the realities of the time. The only true failure was believing the notion that somehow there was little or no risk involved. There is always risk in any financial transaction. But the anesthetic quality of Chuck Prince’s music dulled the anxiety that should accompany any kind of risk-taking—the very anxiety that functions as a counterweight to the thrill, the still small voice that warns against doing something that poses a long-term danger.
The music ended, and now we are in the fourth year of life in the crushing silence that followed. And the odd thing is this: the emotional psychology of the silence is very similar to the emotional psychology of the music. Almost no one is up on the dance floor, and in part for the same reasons that everyone was up on his feet as long as the tinny piano was playing. It is part of human nature to extrapolate from the condition of the present moment to the limitless future; just as we could not feel that there would be an end to the bubble, we cannot feel that there will come a time when we will rise from the mire of the Slough of Despond.
The image of the “slough of despond” comes from John Bunyan’s 17th-century allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. As Bunyan’s hero, Christian, travels toward his redemption, along the way he is trapped in a bog where “scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run.” Getting mired in it is an element in Christian’s redemption, because “as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place.”
Christian’s “many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” are mirrored in the way we think about the problems facing the United States. We fear we cannot make our way back, we doubt the resilience of our political system, and we have apprehensions about a future in which health-care entitlements will swallow our economy whole unless we change course. And when we think about what it will mean to change course, we are all discouraged. It can’t be done.
Of course it can.
The evidence that a change in trajectory is more than possible can be found in the American political system over the past few years. The electorate has demonstrated a remarkable, almost unprecedented taste for shifting direction. Control of the House of Representatives, held for 40 uninterrupted years by the Democrats and then for 12 uninterrupted years by the Republicans, has switched hands twice since 2006. Democrats won 32 seats in a landslide in 2006 that George W. Bush called a “thumpin’”; Republicans won 63 seats in a landslide in 2010 that Barack Obama called a “shellacking.”
Republicans won control of the Senate in 2002, lost it in 2006, went some ways to winning it back in 2010 and will probably do so in 2012. At the presidential level, the conservative Republican won 51 percent of the vote in 2004, and in 2008 the liberal Democrat won 53 percent. Independent voters, obviously the most likely to bounce between the parties, preferred Obama over John McCain by 17 points—and then, in 2010, preferred the Republicans to the Democrats by 8 points, a 25-point shift in only two years.
Voters were not being flighty or silly or stupid. These dramatic shifts were substantive, the result of inarguable policy failures. Bush’s failure to win in Iraq and to handle Hurricane Katrina competently caused the 2006 Congressional thumpin’; the Republican party’s failure to manage the financial meltdown competently led to Obama’s easy victory in 2008; Obama’s failure to generate the recovery he had promised with his stimulus and his swelling of government caused the 2010 shellacking. Voters took a chance that Obama could bring about the change he had promised; the bet didn’t pay off, to put it mildly; and they tore up their tickets. If the 2012 election follows the same form, and at this moment there is no reason to think the dynamic will be different from what it has been since 2006, it will not go well for him.
Somehow, we still think of the United States as a young country, and in comparison with the other great nations of the Earth it is; but its political and social system is now among the world’s oldest. Indeed, the amazing durability of the American system over 235 years is the primary reason for optimism about the American future. The glory of the United States does not reside in the untold wonders of its people—that is politician-speak—but rather in the flexibility of the American system. The nation has weathered crises far worse than the present crisis and come out the better for them eventually because the spine of the American system is at once sufficiently ironclad and sufficiently flexible to bend, but not break—the exception, of course, being the Civil War, when that spine was fractured and, at enormous cost, put into traction and forced back into alignment.
That system, the direct outgrowth of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, extends beyond the country’s political structures to an idea that courses through all its public and private institutions—the primacy of the individual. The centrality of the individual over the collective in the American system has not been cost-free for this nation and its people. Taken to extremes, it can destroy communities and induce a hunger for the material and a taste for the superficial that can corrode the character of the nation’s citizenry. Still, the American system has functioned because its revolutionary acknowledgement of the primacy of the individual also confers on the individual a sense of responsibility for himself, his loved ones, and his community that is unique in history.
Finding the balance between liberty and license has been a national challenge for centuries. So has finding the balance between the freedom of the individual and the common needs of the larger society. Everyone, from right to left, seems to feel that the nation’s equilibrium has been lost in the past few years, that we are out of balance politically, socially, fiscally, and culturally. This is what undergirds Michael Lewis’s contention that Americans are fat, greedy, sloppy addicts who got themselves into all kinds of trouble knowingly and without forethought.
But that impressionistic sense is not borne out by the realities of life in the United States. There are surprisingly few signs of social instability even as the financial crisis enters its fifth year, and even when, as one census report suggests, household incomes have fallen dramatically throughout the country. Crime continues to decline; divorce rates are not rising; dropout rates are not rising; hospitals are not reporting an increase in domestic violence.
The American people do not seem unhealthy (though they could stand to lose a few, as could I). The political system does. But not because debates are ugly, and not because it is too partisan, and not because some fools call Obama a Kenyan or because Joe Biden, also a fool, dubs the Tea Party “terrorists.” These are all transitory unpleasantnesses, and they have their parallels in every era. The political system is uniquely unhealthy at the present moment because of twin temptations to which politicians at every level and in both parties have succumbed—temptations whose consequences were not all that visible during the boom times but have been cast in stark relief by the bum times.
The first temptation has been to direct the behavior of the citizenry through the manipulation of the tax code, which (over time) creates a system of perverse incentives. It may seem, for example, that the mortgage-interest deduction is a vital tax break, but it is an accident of history, a holdover from a time before modern levels of federal taxation when all interest payments were deductible. Its continued existence has undeniably had an inflationary effect; the result of its disappearance would be a revaluing of all property downward in equal proportion. The transition would be complicated and confusing and would require careful management, but the end result would be a more honest valuation. The real benefit of the home-mortgage deduction over time has been to the industries that compose the real-estate sector, because having the government favor ownership over renting has created greater demand for home construction and home flipping than would otherwise be the case.
The moral argument for favoring home ownership is that owners are better citizens than renters, and therefore that it supports a greater common good. But we have now seen the damage that can be done by driving people into home ownership who had no business making—and might even have had little desire to make—that kind of long-term commitment. If ownership is a good in itself, people will pursue it without the incentive of the tax break. Indeed, even as the value of the deduction grew in the post–World-War II period while income tax rates rose and more brackets were created, the level of home ownership remained startlingly constant, just over 60 percent of households. It was not until the push to broaden the numbers of borrowers began in the mid-1990s that the rate began to jump to nearly 70 percent.
The second temptation is to secure long-term control over public office by creating a constituency among public-sector workers through contracts that have, over time, made those in the employ of the government or those receiving retirement benefits from the government twice as wealthy as the people who are employing them. We are told, by Michael Lewis and others, that these problems are due to the fact that people want big government but do not want to pay for it. But what actual evidence, other than big government’s failure to shrink in size, is there for this contention? States and localities are beginning to go bankrupt due to pension obligations and absurdly generous deals with public-sector unions. When a firefighter in Vallejo, California (Lewis’s example), can join the ranks at 45 and retire at 50 with a full pension on the public dime—a case that sounds extreme but is replicated in many localities in many states—what benefit does the taxpayer get?
Of course, the most popular benefits are national ones—Social Security and Medicare. Medicare is far more dangerous to the public weal, especially with the baby boomers beginning to retire. And certainly the case for controlling the costs of Medicare (and to a lesser degree, Social Security) is vastly tougher than the case against the public-sector workforce. But the unjust transfer of wealth from the young to the old—something that has been an impossible subject to raise in political life over the past several decades—will be an inescapable reality in very short order. If it is not halted or redirected, it will, as Yuval Levin has put it simply, “leave us with a national debt larger than our economy in just a decade and twice as large in the 2030s.”
If the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight wonderfully concentrates the mind, as Dr. Johnson said, the fortnight is about to begin. And for the first time, in 2011, politicians have begun to address the crisis seriously. House Republicans passed Rep. Paul Ryan’s revolutionary budget outline, which eliminates the Medicare entitlement in favor of a voucher system. And even Barack Obama is using the term “tax reform,” though he surely doesn’t mean by it what it really means—a radical simplification of the tax code that largely reverses the long trend toward using it as a means of designing a social order in keeping with the wants and interests of politicians.
The American people are already witness to one possible future now playing itself out in the implosion of Europe. That ongoing nightmare is providing hard evidence to anyone with eyes to see that the United States must take a different path in relation to government spending and conduct before it is too late. That is true not only of the entitlements but also the incentives that dominate the tax code, including the home-mortgage deduction; right and left are finding surprising common ground in the notion that these incentives are dangerous distortions, little more than corporate welfare that supports banks and energy producers and home builders as well. Reducing or eliminating them is the work of the next decade—complicated and grueling work that will require a complete restructuring of the tax code and an alteration in the very notion of a government “benefit,” how it is received, and how it is paid out.
The battles over all this will, to some extent, dominate our politics henceforward. We got a glimpse of the nature of the fight over the debt ceiling in July, and the 2012 election will pivot on it. I say “to some extent” because unexpected events, probably in the realm of foreign policy, will surely come along to complicate the picture. But when it comes to matters of their own fiscal health and the country’s, we can be confident in this: the American people have made rational choices in the past, and there is no reason to believe they will cease making rational choices in the future. And you don’t have to be all that much of an optimist to see that the choice between national suicide and national salvation isn’t really all that difficult.