Of all the monikers available to bestow upon the United States, “United” might seem the least accurate these days. To listen to the elevated rhetoric, public opinion, and media messages some might conclude we live in Malaise-ia.
I think identifying problems makes people feel smart. To accurately see through the spin and packaging of policies, products, proposals and personalities, requires a certain amount of insight, analytical skills and acumen. Pundits everywhere seem to make a living identifying the potential pitfalls of legislative activities and government action. Likewise, scouts at the Senior Bowl in Florida are quick to point out the myriad of fundamental flaws in college-football star Tim Tebow’s throwing motion and accuracy, downplaying his chances for success.
Problem identification can be easily substantiated by distracting metrics and becomes the justification for risk avoidance. If Tim Tebow is drafted in the 3rd round and turns out to be a star a la Tom Brady (6th round), no scout will lose his job—look at all the problems Tebow has. If health care legislation somehow gets passed and turns into a remarkable success it won’t be because its faults were eradicated by an efficient legislative process but rather because of the individual efforts of citizens implementing a flawed product.
Optimism and hope, though, are tremendously risky. Personal capital is at stake; reputations on the line; errors in judgment are ascertained to be flaws of ability. Yet it is optimism that has defined this country since its inception. Optimism fuels immigration. Optimism is the oft attributed “secret ingredient” in Ronald Reagan’s successful campaigns and presidencies.
About what, though, have we to be optimistic today? Millions of people are uninsured in a health care system that needs reform. American economic institutions have failed to regulate themselves. American jobs are moving overseas in a globalized economy. China is outpacing the United States in investments in renewable energy generation. The American political system is gridlocked with partisan vitriol for the benefit of its practitioners and at the expense of the common good. Our education system fails too many students and our universities are too expensive. The American electrical grid is insufficient for today’s demand and we spew green house gases from our factories and automobiles at a rate orders-of-magnitude more than any other nation. A Zogby Interactive poll released today (Feb 3) shows only 1 in 3 respondents expressing their belief that their financial situation will improve in the next year. Problems abound. President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech seems ready for a dust-off. ]
Yet we have more reason for optimism than ever, though the quantification of our success has changed. From the 1940s through the 1980s we engaged in a “cold war,” a battle for geo-political ideologies and the global acceptance of the American way of life as the standard. We won that war and today we continue to see the spoils of that victory scattered around the world. Russia has transformed its power base from strictly military to a profit-driven global exporter of its natural resources. China has moved away from its exclusively state-controlled economy and encouraged the rise of capitalist-style local economies and opportunities. India is growing its service sector, taking advantage of the crumbs under the American economic buffet table. Globalization is the new reality made possible by the successful inculcation of American business ideas by peoples and nations looking for tried and true models of economic growth. If our goal was to export capitalism, I’d say that the globalization of the world economy is about as big a trophy as can be offered.
Even as we engage other countries through the State Department and US AID; as we surge troops in Afghanistan and having done so in Iraq to win the hearts and minds of their people, we do so with the intent of creating and growing economic opportunity. The more successful we are in those efforts, the more we must expect that these very same countries will one day compete with us on global markets for goods and services. The same way a successful franchise always robs some customers from the original organization, these burgeoning “little Americas” will infringe on some of our traditional opportunities.
By what measure are we grading ourselves? The American dream has historically been that our kids would have it better than we had it. But this linear improvement can’t continue ad infinitum. And while many Americans still pursue this dream today, as a nation (and for many well-to-do families) it is appropriate at some point to move our dream to something even grander: that our children will one day be better people than we are. Now that’s a dream, and the metrics for success have little to do with GDP.
Despite the diseased oak, the forest is alive and well. America still provides widespread education, freedom of speech manifested by a vibrant press and the occasional Tea Party, the peaceful coexistence of religious and secular Americans, a political system that (in what can only be described as the greatest achievement in human history) every four years peacefully transitions the title of World’s Most Powerful Person from one to another.
We have expanded human rights to women, blacks, gays, Hispanics and the disabled. We remain the most popular destination for immigrants. We have distributed economic and political power throughout the country, and we have a track record of successfully adapting and prospering in a variety of contexts. Ingrained in the American experience is the idea of self-improvement. China has endured for centuries, but they have yet to prove they can handle success. Will the communist party be forced to stifle economic expansion when the seeds of liberty, planted in the soil of globalization, begin to sprout? How will China and India handle the revolutionary fervor we observe in Iran?
Geo-politics is like the Tour de France, with many participants, lots of “races within the race” for riders with varied skills, and plenty of ups and downs that can skew the relative position of the participants. It is inaccurate (and downright depressing) to evaluate a marathon based on a few snapshots.
The emphasis on pointing out the current state of decline in America is in part a result of the increase in information available to us and the increased ability for individuals to communicate which provides for greater expression of discontent. But that same expression of discontent is a manifestation of our strengths: involvement, passion, and free speech.
Viewed through the eyes and ears of TV news and talk radio, our problems might seem insurmountable. But I contend they are a reflection of our extreme success. The health care debate occurs because so many Americans have access to the best health care in the world yet we are conflicted because so many people go without it.
From Thomas Jefferson to the present we have created a broad, free, and excellent education system providing for the diverse educational needs of those with great abilities and disabilities; of the secular and the religious, of the home schooler and the public schooler. Yet we are compelled to make it better, cheaper, more accessible. Some children are underserved and that we find intolerable. Our impatience and intolerance is a credit to our national character.
We have an energy problem because we’ve grown our economy to the point that there are 1.17 cars per licensed driver in America. Our focus has turned to finding ways to mitigate green house gas emissions. Yet global negotiations on GHG emission routinely break down because other countries simply want to provide energy to their people. They can’t be bogged down by the weight of the greater good and the long term effects on the planet. American success creates moral imperatives that are a luxury to the developing world.
We are conflicted about how to use our military: hunt down terrorists that are a nuisance to the global community? Deliver humanitarian efforts to Haiti? Protect the global supply of oil from Sudanese pirates? Most countries aren’t struggling with these debates because they don’t have the means and can’t afford to. (We can’t either anymore, but that’s for another day.)
I’m not worried about America’s long term prospects. I’ll eschew the mounting sense of doom and gloom; I’ll resist the temptation to become a nattering nabob of negativity simply because it’s easy and I can find the “publish” button. I’ll not join the chorus of those who lament Americas decline.
Rather, I’m optimistic and I’m optimistic because most of our problems are not in creating effective systems; most of our problems are in delivering what are already excellent systems to those who still go without.
Those are good problems to have.