On his weekly show on CNN, GPS: The Global Public Square, Fareed Zakaria has a segment titled ‘What in the world?’ that explores an unusual or unexpected series of events or a unique situation. It is often amusing, usually entertaining, and always educational. I am borrowing from Fareed’s staple and will ask: What the hell is going on in America? Our 235 year old country isn’t at a crossroads as much as it is in new territory. A territory that is filled with economic and geopolitical threats but also great opportunity. The question is whether America can adapt to this new world order and accept its new leadership position.
Over the course of those 235 years, America has been engaged in large scale wars, police actions, skirmishes, a cold war, regional conflicts, and at times imperialistic conquest. Domestically, we have had our own rebellions and fought a bloody civil war to save our precious union. We have had riots, domestic terror, illegal search and seizure, unforgiveable and unforgettable policies, corruption, incompetence, and yet we have compromised, righted wrongs, adapted to the times, lead liberalization, and yes we were that shining city upon the hill.
Today, people are worried that America is in decline and every politician is forced to state that is not the case. America is not in decline and its best years are still ahead. It’s relative. Decline or ascendancy aside, what has happened to America is the world is catching up and the game is a lot faster than we’re used to playing just like the college quarterback who arrives in the NFL. And this is the problem. Since its inception, philosophers such as the French Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville have marveled at the greatness of America, specifically its ability to understand what works and to put into play; simply words into action. The great American Charles Sanders Peirce would later coin the phrase pragmatism to describe what de Tocqueville had observed. But are we as pragmatic today?
A popular polling questions include “Is the country heading in the right direction?” or “Do you think future American generations will be better or worse off?”. These questions are usually answered in the negative and are used by opposition politicians to point ineffective leadership by President Obama. While that is simply political posturing, politics are indeed a critical leading cause if the reduction of America’s competitiveness. While the right and business community love to claim it is because of excessive regulations and our corporate tax rates, the fact is political gridlock and shortsightedness are resulting in atrophy to the critical components of America. We are becoming our own worst enemy.
But is political gridlock really that big of a deal, after all Conservative columnist George Will loves to tell us we have a two party system for a reason. Really? Two party debate is essential to proper governing, but that is not what we have been experiencing for the last three years. In their soon to be published book ‘It’s Even Worse Than It Looks’, authors Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein point out “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.” The authors add “ When one party moves this far from the center, it is extremely difficult to respond to the country’s most pressing challenges.” How do you take on challenges when one side is so unready, unable, and unwilling to compromise? It is so bad that the Republican Party is even walking away from its own positions made as recently as six months ago. The GOP now wants to renegotiate the deal that will result in automatic cuts in the defense budget as part of last summer’s debt ceiling increase and the rise and rapid fall of the vapid Super Committee. This is governing?
The ascension of emerging and developing economies in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America is natural, unavoidable, and necessary. It should be embraced and welcomed as market opportunities to American businesses, not seen as threats. The growing sense of xenophobia was kicked into overdrive soon after 9-11. In addition to the war on immigration in states like Arizona, Alabama, and Mississippi, the growing fear of another attack is hurting us economically. As the aforementioned Zakaria says “Every Visa officer lives in fear he will let in the next Mohammed Atta. As a result, he is probably keeping out the next Bill Gates.” Our brain drain is hurting us economically and competitively.
What can we turn it around? Of course. We can start by refusing to live in the past, by accepting the present, and grasping the future. Harkening back to Reagan may be great debate sound bites, but they are as applicable and useful as an Etch A Sketch to watch your iTunes rented movie. Even, looking back 10 years ago is neither valid nor wise. Venture Capital and risk funding is moving offshore. The Financial Times’ Ed Luce notes “Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s largest venture capital firms, now has eight offices, of which only one is in the US.” On the education front, we are dropping in the global rankings in math and science and in just thirty years we have gone from having the highest percentage of graduates to the SIXTEENTH! So while the likes of Rand and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum propose dismantling the Department of Education and giving the states more autonomy in education, we continue to backslide. We shouldn’t be talking about gutting and cutting education, we should be talking about elevating education to a prominent position and declare it a matter of national security. In the state of Arizona, funding for private prisons has outpaced funding for education by a 6:1 margin. This is insane and just the same thinking that will expedite and accelerate our national demise.
Of course we can do nothing or worse, we can adopt some of the Republican plans that include cutting discretionary spending while reducing tax rates for the richest and not touching defense spending. What will that America look like? The income disparity we are seeing today will accelerate to the point that we will create a dystopia that is best described by Harvard’s Larry Katz, a leading American labor economist, as “We are on track to becoming a country where the top tier remains wealthy beyond imagination, and the remainder, in one way or another, are working jobs that help make the lives of the elites more comfortable.” Katz adds “They will be taking care of them in old age, fixing their home WiFi or their air-conditioning, teaching, or helping with their kids and serving them their food. It is not a very elegant prospect.”
I am often cynical and almost always sarcastic. I am neither a pessimist nor a rose-colored glasses optimist. But I do believe in American greatness. I believe in the pragmatism that Peirce spoke of and I believe the current bout of hyper obstructionism in the Republican party will abate. I believe that a country that could invest in a national highway system, enact successful social programs such as Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, and the Equal Rights Act, and lead the free world in its fight against tyranny will not just survive, bur prosper; prosperity for all of its citizens, not only the elites.
We can start by refusing to live in the past, by accepting the present, and grasping the future.