November 18, 2009
I, too, will be celebrating and giving thanks for America next week. The backward look is pretty darn impressive. But I worry when I look ahead. Chinese leaders beating up on President Obama during his first visit to their country--and his making nice because we owe them so much money, this after he stiffed the Dalai Lama during a recent visit to D.C.--is but the latest symptom of an enormous problem that I am certainly not alone in identifying: The country is in gradual decline. Not only did the “American century” end almost a decade ago but our national prospects continue to dim. It’s not night, but it feels like twilight.
Many people seem oblivious, going about their own affairs without reference to ominous but very gradual trends, rather like the frog that didn’t know it would be boiled because the water in that pot was warming so slowly.
Yet there’s underlying disquiet. On the classic pollster question, “Do you think things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel that things are off on the wrong track?," NBC and the Wall Street Journal reported in late October that just 36 percent of Americans specified “right direction” compared with 52 percent that opted for “wrong track.” Yes, these are fickle numbers that have been much farther up and farther down in recent years. “Wrong track” was a lot higher in the late Bush years--but it hasn’t gone below 43 percent since Obama’s election and I cannot find in such data a huge amount of confidence in the country’s basic course.
Still, my anxiety isn’t grounded in survey results. It arises from seven independent observations that add up, I think, to worrisome signs of national decay.
First are America’s flat education results and sagging international performance. Nearly all our major test-score trend lines have been horizontal for decades--the small upward and downward blips tend to balance out--and comparisons with other lands show us mediocre to woeful. We could once respond that the U.S. makes up in education “quantity” (e.g., graduation and matriculation rates) what we may lack in quality but that’s not true any longer. Half a dozen countries now best us on those measures, too.
Second, I do a fair amount of international travel and it’s clearer every time I go abroad that people in other nations don’t much want dollars any more. Our currency used to be the one that everybody craved, the international medium of exchange, the world’s reserve currency, the trusty greenback. Now, vendors, shopkeepers and taxi drivers say to me, the dollar will be worth less tomorrow than it is today so please pay us instead in Euros, rubles, yen, yuan, even Thai baht.
Third, our national government can no longer make big decisions. Whether the challenge at hand is immigration, excessive litigation, discrepant academic standards, swine flu, financial regulation, hurricane Katrina, mass transit, climate change, Afghanistan--pick your topic--Congress either avoids the problem altogether or kicks the can down the road for someone to worry about later. Or, as in stimulus spending and the current health-care debacle, it concocts a baffling, bulky assemblage of lobbyist demands, interest group enthusiasms, exemptions and porky projects that avoids hard-edged reforms. Once upon a time, lawmakers could figure out a reasonable facsimile of the public interest and make decisions based on it, sometimes even tough decisions. Today that almost never happens.
Fourth, because we’re particularly bad--not just in Washington (check out Sacramento, Albany, Columbus, etc.)--at making tough decisions that result in less of anything for anyone, even when they don’t need it; because everyone lives for what they can grab today rather than a better tomorrow; because nothing ever really goes away, even if it isn’t working; because “reform” therefore means adding something more atop what we already have; and because nobody likes to pay taxes, the debt burden we are passing onward to our kids and grandkids is staggering. It will be almost impossible for them to enjoy good lives in a prosperous land. This turns out to be true even in states and municipalities with constitutions that purport to require balanced budgets. It’s remarkable how clever their budget directors, bankers, and bond attorneys have gotten at finding ways to defer paying.
Fifth, the failures of government are due in large measure to the prevalence in our culture and our politics of polarization, selfishness, and bad manners. Everybody is out for number one; nobody wants to compromise; people wallow in their ideologies; a lot of folks would rather scream than listen; and we seem to take pride in highlighting our differences rather than finding common ground.
Sixth, we don’t fix things that are broken. (That’s true in our private lives, too. Try to get a shaver, toaster, or TV repaired nowadays, or a torn coat mended. People throw them away instead and buy new ones.) We don’t replace the tracks under our trains, the pipes under our cities, the bridges across our rivers, the safety systems on our subways. We don’t fire incompetent people, abolish obsolete institutions, or get rid of failed programs. We don’t “reform” messed-up public services and policies so much as create complex new ones. We don’t renew the dying cities of the old industrial heartland, overhaul the failed practices of Wall Street, or replace our obsolete “emergency alert” system.
Seventh, and finally, we’re giving up on too many of the great challenges and opportunities that we face, including realms where America was once terrific. NASA has pretty much abandoned space exploration, at least the manned kind. We don’t seem even to be trying very hard to extirpate nuclear weapons from Iran. China is turning into the next hegemon. My wife the doctor says that European and Asian countries are more adept and adventurous today in medical research than we are. Airbus is getting a lot more new planes into the air than Boeing. Our domestic auto industry is all but defunct.
Yes, it’s depressing, reminiscent of the slow decline of earlier “empires” (Roman, Ottoman, Mughal, Spanish, British, etc). And I’m not sure it’s reversible. Charles Krauthammer, one of the smartest, sagest folks around, recently declared in The Weekly Standard that “decline is a choice,” not an inevitability, and attributed our present ennui to Washington’s regnant “left-liberalism.” In many policy spheres, he’s probably correct, but the cultural, behavioral, and attitudinal manifestations of declinism seem to me to go deeper than politics.
Hence doing something about it--if anything is to be done--will call for an infusion of moral and spiritual leadership, not just the political kind. Barack Obama was elected in no small part because people saw in him the possibility of a brighter future for themselves, their kids, and their country. It’s possible that he will yet deliver. But we probably expect too much and in many realms his team is making matters worse, not better. Krauthammer sees him channeling Jimmy Carter--and steering us into, rather than out of, malaise. But there’s nobody in sight--not in my field of vision, anyway--who has the moxie, character, and vision to tug us back uphill toward that shining city.