What happened to the American Century? I mean, what happened to that faith in the nation’s high purpose and sense of direction that animated successive generations of Americans? They surfed the good times, endured the bad times. They took in their stride spectacular achievements like going to the moon and building the superhighway and inventing such marvels as flight, the Internet, and the biological factories where bacteria were put to work to make new medicines. And these Americans clung to their values and their optimism through the long Depression and wars hot and cold. It is no exaggeration to say the world watched in awe with never a doubt that the American can-do spirit would prevail.
It was exhilarating to watch. Some 50 years ago, approximately 50 percent of the top quartile of the graduating classes of major Canadian universities sought to move to the United States, I among them. We were mesmerized and riveted by the dynamism, mobility, and opportunity in an American culture where it seemed that everyone, if he or she worked hard enough and had talent, could get ahead. To us, America was a country that cared much more about individuals being able to move up the socioeconomic ladder than where anybody started out or stood on it. I still love the land of my birth, but I was proud and thrilled to become an American citizen even though the immigration officer who processed my application asked if I would like to change my surname to a good American one. I was taken aback, and replied that I would like to change my name to Mark. He responded, “Mortimer Mark?” I said, “No, Mortimer Mark Benjamin Zuckerman.” And that became my new legal name.
How much dimmer are the outside views of America today and how deflated Americans themselves feel! Much of the public dialogue is about decline and recession and the dysfunctions of the political processes at all levels, so much so that even the normally buoyant people despair of our capacity to address the major issues of the day.
If there is one symptom of this breakdown of America’s competency and pragmatism, it is the monumental failure to address the exploding deficits and debts. They not only burden the country today but will clearly weigh even more heavily in the future, given the demographics. Today we add $3 billion to our deficits every single day and have to borrow 39 cents of every dollar we spend, according to former Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairman of the bipartisan commission that was created by President Obama to try and get our deficits under control. Instead, the president walked away from their recommendations, even though, as Simpson said, “He was the one who asked us to write it [the report].”
We know that with 79 million baby boomers now beginning to retire, our fiscal future is as dire as our fiscal present. Our situation brings to mind a character in an Ernest Hemingway novel who was asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways,” he answered, “gradually and then suddenly.” We know that given the way we are going, sooner or later the confidence of investors in America will be eroded to the breaking point and the bond and other global financial markets will force an adjustment “first gradually and then suddenly.” Putting us on a path where our national economy and government revenues will be growing faster than the debts we owe is not austerity, it is sanity and leadership. And leadership is what we lack.
We didn’t get into this mess in the last three years. We have been wading deeper into it for a decade. I was hardly alone in worrying that we were going in the wrong direction: I began to bore myself by writing so often, as others did, about the escalating deficits that Vice President Cheney told us didn’t matter. By the time Obama came to office amid a devastating financial meltdown not of his making, every unemployed worker, every bankrupt small business, every broken bank, every voter expected a truly dramatic change of course. True, the emergency rescue efforts begun by President Bush, and maintained by Obama, saved us from another Great Depression (though the Great Recession is no fun), and the banking stress tests helped still more to prevent a total collapse of confidence. Which makes it all the more baffling that the Obama administration should have abandoned confidence-building in favor of demonizing wealth creators. This is now an administration that demeans and discredits the private sector, and we now have a president who seems to worry more about his own political standing than about the country’s future; who spends more of his time campaigning than governing; whose rhetoric seeks to exploit divisions by blaming the rich and positioning them against the rest, as if his government is not part of the problem. He has begun his re-election campaign by stirring up the emotions of fear, envy, and resentment, invoking a class warfare that threatens us all. How far we have come from the rhetoric of hope that was the hallmark of his first campaign. Hope is a good breakfast but a poor supper
The natural ebullience of the American people has evaporated. People feel there is a vacuum at the heart of the country. The president has been enjoying a small rise in his approval ratings, still under 50 percent, but that’s mostly a reflection of unease about the uncertain Republican leadership that can’t make up its mind on the payroll tax relief: No, maybe yes, but make that no. The mood of the country is a mix of exasperation and exhaustion with Washington.
It’s such a stark contrast to the can-do era. According to a recentHill poll, almost 70 percent of respondents say the country is in decline; 83 percent indicated they are very or somewhat concerned about the future of the nation, and more than two thirds see the past decade as a period of decline. A country long celebrated for optimism amid adversity is having trouble finding the spirit that saw it through times that were, in fact, much more menacing. Nothing, you would think, could induce and sustain long dark periods of depression, fear, and anxiety more than the prospect of the annihilation of all human life in a nuclear exchange. That fear was never absent in the 40 years of confrontations with the Soviet Union, yet we are now experiencing the longest bout of pessimism since we began recording the nation’s mood more than a half century ag
There is much about America that ought to cheer us. The United States remains the world’s largest economy. It is still the global leader in the volume of manufactured goods; it is still the world’s technological leader and the largest market for information technology; it is still the world’s most innovative economy and home to 80 percent of the world’s top universities; it is still the magnet it was for my fellow Canadian students and the top destination for foreign scholars, drawing many of the world’s best and brightest to our universities and labs.
It is a chilling commentary on the level of our national confidence that having attracted the brightest and the best, we don’t let them stay and work here. We must reconceptualize immigration as a recruiting opportunity to improve our human capital. It is crazy not to give permanent visas to the young Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and Europeans who are job creators, not job destroyers, and want to stay here. We’ve known it for years, but there isn’t the national will to overcome a xenophobia that has so long frustrated the best efforts of the left and right wings to create a sound immigration policy. Sadly, it was something of a sensation when Newt Gingrich broke Republican ranks to speak up for decent treatment of immigrants long settled here.
We need all the brains we can attract. We have lost our lead in large-scale, high-tech manufacturing and watched almost helplessly as uncontrolled outsourcing to Asia over two decades has hollowed out much of America’s base of suppliers, factory managers, and skilled technicians. This is reflected in the dramatic turnaround in trade in high-tech products, which has gone from a $29 billion surplus in 2000 to a $54 billion trade deficit by 2007. We seem to be indifferent to the state of our manufacturing industry, which has lost some 6 million blue-collar jobs over the last decade. Yes, we have Google and Microsoft and Facebook and Apple, but we are losing the manufacturing of their products to plants outside the country—staffed, too often, by graduates of American colleges denied permission to stay here.
We cannot be unaware of the erosion of our industrial base and the shift of manufacturing jobs to India and China. We cannot be unaware of the shift to a service economy that privileges the better educated, which means that schools are the primary policy instrument for enhancing both social mobility and our competitive position. We cannot be unaware that we must improve our stock of human capital, that the ZIP code you are born into shouldn’t determine your destiny, as it all too often does. We must never lose sight of the fact that education is more closely correlated with upward mobility than anything else and is the best solution to reducing excessive inequality that risks relegating our society into a class system.
Alas, economic policy, as well as social policy, has been suborned by ideology. What was politically possible 40 years ago is now out of the question. The private sector continues to form thousands of start-ups that keep us at the cutting edge of many of the emerging product areas. But the United States is now a nanny state. Well-meaning liberal interventions to protect us from every imaginable risk now impose intolerable delays on enterprise. It takes almost two years on average to obtain the environmental, health, and safety permits to build a modern electronics plant, a lifetime in the tech world. Our patent system, always a great starting point for start-ups, now imposes long delays on inventors and entrepreneurs seeking approvals.
Political ideology, this time from the right, has again interfered with the long tradition of public investment to create the conditions for private industrial growth. The transcontinental railway and the superhighways alike required public investment approved by Republican presidents (Lincoln and Eisenhower) of the kind today’s Republicans would regard as anathema. Without government investment initially, we’d not have had the original scientific breakthroughs such as genomic knowledge, information technologies, and the GPS network, nor the Internet where the Department of Defense led the development long before Google was created.
The public instinctively understands that something is deeply wrong, that liberals refuse to acknowledge that we must live within our means and that government can be part of the problem. Capitalism, after all, has been at the center of our prosperity and economic growth. Conservatives refuse to acknowledge that economic and social imbalances threaten our society and our union and that business can be part of the problem, as Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Government will have to establish a framework that may be anathema to the vested interests of both parties. The public knows we have failed to deal with the problems of education, infrastructure, foreign trade, and industrial policy. It is disheartened at the inertia, at the failure to regain the momentum we had before the lost decade. And it knows with a sinking feeling that for 11 months more we are not likely to get what we need. How can we expect a serious national nonpartisan conversation about opportunity and fairness in a presidential campaign that will likely continue as a reality show of “gotcha” moments. We must approach solving our fundamental problems with a can-do pragmatism and practicality.
Emerson once asserted that Americans should be plain living and high thinking. But if it was plain thinking it was also high living. The United States, along with Europe, is now going to be forced to find new ways to pay down accumulated debt. Nothing can be ruled out, including higher taxes, if social stability is threatened by lingering high rates of unemployment that fall most heavily on the youth, adult males, and the uneducated. Of course, for debt reduction to be feasible, we are going to have to look very carefully at the welfare state, and that means a total review of the costs and benefits of entitlements, especially healthcare delivery.
As we embark on this process of unwinding our excesses and reigniting our economy, the American public is looking for a renewal and a leadership that will eschew the emotional slogans of the extremes, the ideologies of left and right long alien to American life. The president we need should be unafraid to get booed, willing to risk a dip in the polls, eager even to wrestle with issues like immigration and public welfare. The candidate who deserves to win should be the one who will be straight with us. He won’t toe this or that party line, but he will try anything consistent with our values that restores our national belief in ourselves. Winston Churchill said it best: “The Americans will always do the right thing … after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”
Well, they’ve been exhausted.