Monday, March 7, 2011

Time Magazine: Are America's Best Days Behind Us?

I give my top recommendation to the cover story of Time magazine, written by one of the smartest journalists on Earth - Fareed Zakaria.  Frankly, if you have not been around this site for longer than a year, it could have been an article based off a few hundred blog entries I've written, but offered in a far more eloquent manner than I ever could write.  It deals with everything from the 'short termism' nature of our culture, the dysfunctional crony "capitalism", a bought and paid for political system, the inability for many Americans to believe they can learn one thing from any other country, weakness in education and even healthcare, etc etc.  I especially love how Fareed reminds us how those who use the 'founding fathers' as a crutch for every dogmatic belief, do not realize the founding fathers were flexible, pragmatic folk who evolved and changed (trying to improve) ideas even in their relatively short period of time.  Something those who practice dogma are not practicing at all.

I am heartened to see such prose in such a visible place, because without admitting the problem we cannot even begin to come up with solutions - but I am also pretty sure this will fall on deaf ears by the masses.  Instead the slow boil (with us as frogs) continues - frustratingly.  After all, as long as they give us our circus and bread, it's all good.  Plus we know the pat retort "if you don't like it, then move sucker!"   Learn from Finland on why they are so highly ranked in math and science?  "Screw it you socialist - move there if your going to complain!"  [Dec 7, 2010:  U.S. Students 17th in Science, 25th in Math - Bernanke Offers Solution to Education Crisis via QE6]  Germany finding a way to reduce the social cost of high unemployment?  "Nothing to learn there.... plus have I mentioned you hate America for even bringing it up?" [Oct 1, 2010:  German Unemployment Rate Down to 7.2% after Peaking at 8.7%; Can We Learn Anything?]

What should be absolutely frightening to people is the U.S. was built on socio-economic mobility.... effectively anyone could move from the lowest tranche of society to the highest.  While still possible, it is much less likely than in the past, and we've fallen behind many "socialist" countries in this regard.   Anyhow I could link to about 200 of my own posts for reference points that support Fareed's work [Dec 8, 2007: Do the Bottom 80% of Americans Stand a Chance?] [Sep 27, 2008: What Years of Neglect and Lack of National Policy is Creating], but I'll just point you to the Time piece... must read.

(p.s. there is some sort of special on this topic on CNN March 12th 8 PM EST/PST)

Some snippets via Time:
  • I am an American, not by accident of birth but by choice. I voted with my feet and became an American because I love this country and think it is exceptional. But when I look at the world today and the strong winds of technological change and global competition, it makes me nervous. Perhaps most unsettling is the fact that while these forces gather strength, Americans seem unable to grasp the magnitude of the challenges that face us.
  • Yes, the U.S. remains the world's largest economy, and we have the largest military by far, the most dynamic technology companies and a highly entrepreneurial climate. But these are snapshots of where we are right now. The decisions that created today's growth — decisions about education, infrastructure and the like — were made decades ago. What we see today is an American economy that has boomed because of policies and developments of the 1950s and '60s: the interstate-highway system, massive funding for science and technology, a public-education system that was the envy of the world and generous immigration policies. Look at some underlying measures today, and you will wonder about the future.
  • The following rankings come from various lists, but they all tell the same story. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. American health numbers are stunning for a rich country: based on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we're 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity. Only a few decades ago, the U.S. stood tall in such rankings. No more.
  • Many of these changes have taken place not because of America's missteps but because other countries are now playing the same game we are — and playing to win.  To this historical challenge from nations that have figured out how the West won, add a technological revolution. It is now possible to produce more goods and services with fewer and fewer people, to shift work almost anywhere in the world and to do all this at warp speed. That is the world the U.S. now faces. Yet the country seems unready for the kind of radical adaptation it needs. The changes we are currently debating amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
  • Sure, the political system seems to be engaged in big debates about the budget, pensions and the nation's future. But this is mostly a sideshow.   Only four months ago, the Simpson-Bowles commission presented a series of highly intelligent solutions to our fiscal problems, proposing $4 trillion in savings, mostly through cuts in programs but also through some tax increases. They have been forgotten by both parties...
  • So why are we tackling our economic problems in a manner that is shortsighted and wrong-footed? Because it is politically easy. The key to understanding the moves by both parties is that, for the most part, they are targeting programs that have neither a wide base of support nor influential interest groups behind them.
  • It's not that our democracy doesn't work; it's that it works only too well. American politics is now hyperresponsive to constituents' interests. And all those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future. There are no lobbying groups for the next generation of industries, only for those companies that are here now with cash to spend. There are no special-interest groups for our children's economic well-being, only for people who get government benefits right now. The whole system is geared to preserve current subsidies, tax breaks and loopholes.  (amen)
  • A crucial aspect of beginning to turn things around would be for the U.S. to make an honest accounting of where it stands and what it can learn from other countries. This kind of benchmarking is common among businesses but is sacrilege for the country as a whole. Any politician who dares suggest that the U.S. can learn from — let alone copy — other countries is likely to be denounced instantly. (amen again)
  • If someone points out that Europe gets better health care at half the cost, that's dangerously socialist thinking. If a commentator says — correctly — that social mobility from one generation to the next is greater in many European nations than in the U.S., he is laughed at. Yet several studies, the most recent from the OECD last year, have found that the average American has a much lower chance of moving out of his parents' income bracket than do people in places like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Canada. 
[click to enlarge]

  • And it's not just politicians and business leaders. It's all of us. Americans simply don't care much, know much or want to learn much about the outside world. We think of America as a globalized society because it has been at the center of the forces of globalization. But actually, the American economy is quite insular; exports account for only about 10% of it. Compare that with the many European countries where half the economy is trade-related, and you can understand why those societies seem more geared to international standards and competition. And that's the key to a competitive future for the U.S.
  • American companies are, of course, highly efficient, but American government is not. By this I don't mean to echo the usual complaints about waste, fraud and abuse. In fact, there is less of those things than Americans think, except in the Pentagon with its $700 billion budget. The problem with the U.S. government is that its allocation of resources is highly inefficient. We spend vast amounts of money on subsidies for housing, agriculture and health, many of which distort the economy and do little for long-term growth. (yes, yes and more yes)  We spend too little on science, technology, innovation and infrastructure, which will produce growth and jobs in the future. 
  • The tragedy is that Washington knows this. For all the partisan polarization there, most Republicans know that we have to invest in some key areas, and most Democrats know that we have to cut entitlement spending. But we have a political system that has become allergic to compromise and practical solutions. This may be our greatest blind spot. At the very moment that our political system has broken down, one hears only encomiums to it, the Constitution and the perfect Republic that it created.
  • We have a political system geared toward ceaseless fundraising and pandering to the interests of the present with no ability to plan, invest or build for the future. And if one mentions any of this, why, one is being unpatriotic, because we have the perfect system of government, handed down to us by demigods who walked the earth in the late 18th century and who serve as models for us today and forever.

This next point is SO CRUCIAL!
  • America's founders would have been profoundly annoyed by this kind of unreflective ancestor worship. They were global, cosmopolitan figures who learned and copied a great deal from the past and from other countries and were constantly adapting their views. The first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, after all, was a massive failure, and the founders learned from that failure. The decision to have the Supreme Court sit in judgment over acts of the legislature was a later invention. America's founders were modern men who wanted a modern country that broke with its past to create a more perfect union. 
  • What is really depressing is the tone of our debate. In place of the thoughtful concern of Jefferson and Adams, we have its opposite in tone and temperament — the shallow triumphalism purveyed by politicians now. The founders loved America, but they also understood that it was a work in progress, an unfinished enterprise that would constantly be in need of change, adjustment and repair.

[May 4, 2008: Fareed Zakaria - The Rise of the Rest]

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