And it has created a demoralized public. We worry that our children will not enjoy the opportunities we have taken for granted. We worry that our runaway financial system is broken, that we are losing our technological and business leadership edge in the world, that nobody will have the shrewdness and guts to fix the system of entitlements. We worry that there may be truth in Mancur Olson's contention in his famous book, The Rise and Decline of Nations. One of the consequences of institutional aging, he argued, is the creation of a culture of entitlement, of special interest groups that inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth through tax breaks, special appropriations, earmarks, and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to end, and thus hobble the nation and its future.
Everyone seems to be talking not just about the recession but also about a decline of America's power and status, about an America that no longer leads the world and is faltering in the context of a rejuvenated Asia, especially China. No longer do we seem to have the air of what Mark Twain once described as the serene confidence of a poker player with four aces.
So today we remember fondly "the great communicator" who loved to frame his public policies in such pithy metaphors. "A recession," he explained, "is when your neighbor loses his job; a depression is when you lose yours." And he could be bitingly direct, too. He uttered the most memorable line of the Cold War in Berlin in 1987: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Yet he was ready to form a friendship with the same Mikhail Gorbachev, negotiating agreements, and again bringing forth another pointed slogan: "Trust but verify."
It could be said he was lucky to inherit a crisis near resolution. Minutes after his inauguration, Iran released the 52 American hostages. It remains a controversial subject, but there's little doubt Iran recognized that the man who won the presidency that November could be as tough-minded as conditions would demand: The Iranians were fearful that Reagan might bomb them. Less than three months later, he became a folk hero, the victim of an attempted assassination who could say to the surgeons treating him, "Please tell me you're all Republicans."
So the question remains: How can we evoke Reagan's spirit? Disappointment should not give way to despair. Americans are as well placed to exploit the global economy as we were in the new continental marketplace of a century ago. Yes, we may be challenged in technology, but remember, we spend twice as much per capita on info-tech as Western European firms and eight times the global average. We successfully replaced large, mass-produced consumer products with sophisticated goods derived from intellectual output and knowledge-based industry. We have a unique culture of enterprise and management that stemmed from a market stretching vast distances over mountains, deserts, and rivers in the effort to satisfy diverse populations.
We have a business culture that has nourished individualism, entrepreneurialism, pragmatism, and novelty, along with an abiding respect for the rule of law. American business is dominated by contract and law rather than by kinship and custom; not by primogeniture but by merit, common beliefs, technology, and scientific management.
No other country has a population so given to self-help, self-improvement, and even self-renovation. Maybe Reagan would have the deftness not to offend the Chinese while reminding us that, of the world's top 20 universities, none is in China. Young Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and Europeans come here knowing they will have a level of opportunity beyond what they will have at home (which makes it so stupid, as President Obama remarked, to send them home with their U.S. degrees). [Read: Reagan and Kennedy as Role Models for Obama.]
Yes, we are worried, but worry has always preceded reform in America, which has always bounced back after periods of decline and a loss of confidence. Just think, almost 20 million more Americans were employed at the end of the Reagan years than when he took office.