James Fallows has written a thought provoking article for The Atlantic entitled, “How America Can Rise Again“. It’s long, perhaps best suited to the Labor Day reading stack. Some of our favorite excerpts follow.
On Americans’ unique tendency to bemoan the moral and material state of their society, political system, and economy:
The expectation of jeremiad is so deeply ingrained in Americans’ political consciousness that it might seem to be universal. In fact, most historical accounts suggest this is a peculiar trait of our invented political culture. I recall, from living in both Japan and England, mordant remarks about the fecklessness of public officials, but many fewer “we have lost our country” broadsides of the sort that Americans have long taken for granted.
Most of Fallows’ subjects were careful to point that we shouldn’t blithely assume that things won’t get much worse, simply because we’ve tended to exaggerate in the past [might our apparent need for drama have helped Hollywood attain its global dominance?!]. Fallows himself observes that there have been far worse times in the U.S., and that our jeremiad tendencies have served us rather well overall:
Nearly 400 years of overstated warnings do not mean that today’s Jeremiahs will be proved wrong. And of course any discussion of American problems in any era must include the disclaimer: the Civil War was worse. But these alarmed calls to action are something we do to ourselves—usually with good effect.
On the historical novelty of comparing ourselves to rival powers:
In one important way, the jeremiads I have heard since childhood are not part of the great American tradition. Starting with Sputnik, when I was in grade school, they have involved comparisons with an external rival or enemy…After the Soviet Union came the Japanese and the Germans; and now China, or occasionally India, as the standard whose achievements dramatize what America has not done.
This is new. Only with America’s emergence as a global power after World War II did the idea of American “decline” routinely involve falling behind someone else. Before that, it meant falling short of expectations—God’s, the Founders’, posterity’s—or of the previous virtues of America in its lost, great days. Since [the comparisons to the Soviet Union began in the 1950s], external falling-behind comparisons have become not just a staple of American self-assessment but often a crutch. If we are concerned about our schools, it is because children are learning more in Singapore or India; about the development of clean-tech jobs, because it’s happening faster in China.
And his current frustration with it, which is driven by his optimism about America’s cultural and economic strengths:
…whatever their popularity or utility in other places at other times, falling-behind concerns seem too common in America now. As I have thought about why overreliance on this device increasingly bothers me, I have realized that it’s because my latest stretch out of the country has left me less and less interested in whether China or some other country is “overtaking” America. The question that matters is not whether America is “falling behind” but instead something like John Winthrop’s original question of whether it is falling short—or even falling apart.
…When the Chinese produce one-quarter as much as Americans per capita, as will happen barring catastrophe, their economy will become the world’s largest. This will be good for them but will not mean “falling behind” for us…There is no reason for America to feel depressed about the natural emergence of China, India, and others as world powers.
The American culture’s particular strengths could conceivably be about to assume new importance and give our economy new pep. International networks will matter more with each passing year. As the one truly universal nation, the United States continually refreshes its connections with the rest of the world—through languages, family, education, business—in a way no other nation does, or will. The countries that are comparably open—Canada, Australia—aren’t nearly as large; those whose economies are comparably large—Japan, unified Europe, eventually China or India—aren’t nearly as open.
Fallows’ pessimism about the future is reserved entirely for the federal government:
So what could be the contrary case? It starts with the aspects of relative decline that could actually prove threatening. The main concerns boil down to jobs, debt, military strength, and overall independence…
We could correct all these problems—and that is the heart of the problem. America still has the means to address nearly any of its structural weaknesses. Yes, the problems are intellectually and politically complicated: energy use, medical costs, the right educational and occupational mix to rebuild a robust middle class. But they are no worse than others the nation has faced in more than 200 years, and today no other country comes close to the United States in having the surplus money, technology, and attention to apply to the tasks…the U.S. has in the past decade committed $1 trillion to the cause of entirely remaking a society. We know that such an investment could happen here—but we also know that it won’t.
That is the American tragedy of the early 21st century: a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent, and a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke. One thing I’ve never heard in my time overseas is “I wish we had a Senate like yours.”
He didn’t expound on his concerns about federal debt, unfortunately. We get the impression that he’s as misguided as most on that issue. Still, it’s a thought provoking article, and definitely worth a read.
A short and sweet complement to Fallows’ article is an op-ed that John Kay wrote earlier in the year for the FT. In it, he lays out an interesting hypothesis for why bitter, ideologically driven partisanship has become a prominent feature of U.S. politics, while receding in Britain and Europe:
The collapse of socialism as an important political and intellectual force came… in the 1980s. While in Europe that collapse removed the main issue that divided the political parties, in America, it removed the main issue that united them. That is why European politics was more ideological than US politics then, and US politics is more ideological than European politics now.
Happy Labor Day, a week early!