Our 21st century does not seem to be on course to be described as the "American century," the title indubitably merited for the 20th century. For most of the last 100 years, America was fairly characterized by the Economist as "the lord of all it surveyed . . . convinced of its supreme benevolence, and the engine of a productivity miracle that left Europeans in awe." Of all the great nations that have left their mark on modern civilization, none has matched the United States in both economic and cultural sway over life on the planet.
The rise of America was meteoric. Early in the 19th century, it produced less than 2 percent of global output. Britain's Queen Victoria reigned over a fifth of the Earth's surface and Britain dominated world trade; one third of all seagoing ships were British; of 1,000 tons of cargo passing through the Suez Canal, 700 tons were British, 95 were German, and only 2 were American. Not much more than 50 years later, the United States produced 36 percent of global economic output. Mark Twain captured the mood of this ascendant America: It enjoyed "the serene confidence which a Christian feels in four aces."
Today the aces represent a core competency in creating a populist and upwardly mobile society: We remain first in total R&D expenditures, the first in university rankings and in Nobel prizes, the first on all indices of entrepreneurship.
America is indebted to the philosophers of the Enlightenment and to English law, but American exceptionalism is founded on a freer, more individualistic, more democratic, more open, and more dynamic society than any other. We learned from the past and then we forgot it, as we sought to forge an even better future.
The legal basis is a written Constitution that means what it says. It has prevailed longer than any on Earth and has provided us with the solid rule of law for a republic that evolved into a model of ordered liberty and self-government, with respect for property rights, enshrining equality before the law, and freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and religion. The result is a free market and a clear sense not just of what the government should do, but what the government should not do. We have no five- or 10-year plans formulated by a central power. We are not subservient to some outdated theory or ideology. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, America—after independence—has been able to enjoy the fruits of revolution without really having one.
Culturally, the phenomenon that Henry Luce noted in 1941 became even truer in the 21st century: that the only things every community from Hamburg to Zanzibar recognizes are American music, Hollywood movies and TV shows, electronic games, Google, and consumer brands, which is why U.S. multinationals from McDonald's to Apple book large portions of their revenues overseas.
Our common conviction that America was different—an exception to the rise and fall of nations—was rudely interrupted in 1957 when Sputnik's beeps from 560 miles above the Earth told the world that the Soviets had beaten America into space. President Kennedy famously committed to top that by putting a man on the moon. And we did.
In those days, three quarters of the American public told pollsters they trusted our government to do the right thing most of the time. That confidence inspired generation after generation to make the difficult decisions and, yes, the occasional sacrifices required by their times. Now the confidence has collapsed. Only 19 percent of us are basically content with our government.
There is apprehension that something elemental is changing and eroding the notion of exceptionalism, even perhaps in the national character. The fiscal danger we have imposed upon ourselves is but one symptom of the profligacy of our society reflected in an incompetent and dysfunctional government, no matter which party is in power. [Check out political cartoons about the budget and deficit.]
Americans worry more than ever that their children will not enjoy the opportunities long taken for granted. The declining American leadership role in the world over the last couple of decades may have been obscured by the collapse of the Soviet Union and an early American lead in information technology, but those days are past. Countries that once looked to the United States for guidance on major international issues are now ignoring Washington's counsel and deriding its leadership.
The economic rise in the Asian heartland may well be the central geopolitical fact of our era. News stories increasingly compare America to China and its advantage, but it is not just the shifting of economic power away from the United States. It is a sense we have mismanaged our leadership, unaware of Earth tremors. Our response to the upheaval in the Arab world was muddled, so that now there is the prospect that Egypt might well be dominated by radical Islamists hostile to our ideals and our interests while our longtime ally Saudi Arabia is deeply alienated from the United States. We may yet see what has happened in the Middle East as one of the great strategic defeats in the history of U.S. foreign policy, comparable to the conversion of China to communism. [See editorial cartoons about the Middle East uprisings.]
At home, we face an unprecedented decline in family cohesion, with about one third of American children being raised by a single parent, a condition that often has deleterious effects on their academic achievements, social skills, and even character formation. Nationally, our public education system struggles to overcome the consequences—and fails. We have too many teachers who are unable to meet the challenges.
Here is one reason why we have to reconceptualize immigration: We need the talent. Immigrants have famously contributed to our stock of human capital, a resource that is now even more important in the high-tech, knowledge-based global economy. We exhibit big "Keep Out!" and "Go Home!" signs. We restrict entry of the highly skilled, and immigrants who succeed in coming here are forced out of the country. Roughly one third of all doctoral students are foreigners, yet once they earn their advanced degrees in our top universities, we escort many of them to the border and wish them goodbye as they go on to join our biggest competitors. They should be offered a clearer path to citizenship because they are job creators, not job destroyers, and we should avoid taxing their foreign income until they become citizens.
As to the benefits of immigrant talent, look at Silicon Valley, where over half the science and engineering workforce is foreign-born and where one in four engineering and technology companies have at least one immigrant founder. These companies have generated hundreds of thousands of jobs. [Check out political cartoons about immigration.]
We need them. The American people are enduring the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, stagnating living standards, an economy slow to create jobs, a government saddled by gigantic deficits, and a sense that our politicians, including our president, are not loading the bases for a great recovery. Our politicians remind us of what the Peanuts cartoon character Linus said to Lucy after she asked him why he polished only the fronts of his shoes: "I'm interested only in what people think of me as I enter the room."
It's no surprise that virtually every poll says that America is on the wrong track, in numbers that sometimes exceed 70 percent.
We waste vast amounts of money on subsidies for housing, agriculture, and health, many of which distort the economy and do little for long-term growth, while we spend too little on science, technology, innovation, infrastructure, and education. Who would have imagined that the credit rating of the United States would be put on financial watch by Standard & Poor's? Or that a country of pioneers and self-made men would evolve into a culture of entitlement, where special interest groups take bite after bite out of the total national wealth through special appropriations, earmarks, tax breaks, and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to end?
A new generation is coming of age that looks over its shoulder and sees a government in disarray, unable to make the wise and tough decisions to get things done and instead passing them off to some other body or future generation. Too many of us see a political leadership that lacks the character or capacity to build a consensus for the kind of constructive bipartisan compromise we have known even in fractious political times. We look for someone who fits Harry Truman's definition of a leader: "a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don't want to do and like it."
The public knows that we must find a way to live within our means. Shuffle the numbers as you may, the level of debt we carry is unsustainable. It brings to mind the character in an Ernest Hemingway novel who was asked, "How did you go bankrupt?" "Two ways," he answered, "gradually and then suddenly." That is the course our country is on today. It is no use if our political leaders say they are doing their best. They have to do what is necessary. We understand that politicians and diapers have one thing in common—they should be changed regularly and for the same reason.
These are grave anxieties, and yet it would be un-American to lose hope entirely. Of all Alexis de Tocqueville's judgments, none was truer than this one: "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults." To which I would add: Make haste with the repairs.
- Check out a roundup of political cartoons about the budget and deficit.
- See editorial cartoons about the Middle East uprisings.
- Check out political cartoons about immigration.