Mort Zuckerman: America's Problems Are About Will and Character

The United States is experiencing a cultural and economic crisis, but we can fix it.

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Six years ago, when the global financial crisis first broke, few realized how close we were to a catastrophic collapse of the world order we'd known for six decades. We escaped anarchy by the skin of our teeth. When the Great Recession exerted its grip, we knew we were in for some hard times. We had been through them before: good times, bad times, and then more good times. Yes, that's how it would be.

But it hasn't worked out that way at all. Where there was hope, there is now despair. Where there was conviction, there is now cynicism. Where there was community, there is now division. We don't feel we are inaugurating a new beginning this month so much as enduring the continuation of what we might reasonably call The Long Misery.

This is partly a matter of economics—that despite the largest fiscal and monetary stimulus in American history, we seem to be caught up in a Japanese-style long-term stagnation, in which many Americans are working harder than ever before to compensate for the drop in their real median income.

[Read more from Mort Zuckerman in U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

But there is more to our present discontent than can be relieved by decimal-point changes in the indices. There is a vacuum at the heart of the country. Polling has shown that huge numbers of Americans are anxious about the future of our nation. They look back on a lost decade of decline and, by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, expect their children's jobs, salaries, and benefits to be inferior to their own. At least a third go so far as to say that America's best days are behind it. Just think: The real median income of Americans today, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, those at the top of the pyramid have never had it so good. The United States owns the world's reserve currency. We have most of the best universities. We still account for nearly a quarter of worldwide economic output, and we have easily the best organized, best led, most innovative military force the world has ever known. Yet the confidence that inspired generation after generation to make the difficult decisions and bear the sacrifices has virtually evaporated.

Only 1 in 5 Americans is basically content with our government. No matter which party has the ascendancy, we are burdened by a dysfunctional government. For years we have spent like a big-government country but taxed like a small-government one; as the population ages, our entitlement programs, particularly pensions and healthcare, are gradually bankrupting us. As Harvard's Joseph Nye once noted, the country "lacks the will, not the wallet." Today, the problem of the "wallet" has become as pressing as willpower. Why do we continue to tolerate budgets that underestimate spending while overestimating revenue?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Thus it is that a country long celebrated for optimism amid adversity is having trouble finding the spirit that saw it through past times that were, in fact, much more threatening. The broad sense of unease is due to the fact that we have so mismanaged our finances we have become an "enfeebled" international player. As Henry Kissinger puts it, "The United States cannot afford another decline like that which has characterized the past decade and a half … only self-delusion can keep us from admitting our decline to ourselves."

The Long Misery is marked by a cultural and an economic crisis. Here's one symptom: In the 1990s, California spent twice as much on its universities as on its prisons. Today it spends almost twice as much on prisons as on its universities. We face a significant decline in family cohesion, with about one third of American children being raised by a single parent, a condition that all too often has deleterious effects on their academic achievements, social skills, and character formation. We have many teachers who are unable to meet the challenge of educating our children to the appropriate level. One third of all of our doctoral students are foreigners, yet remarkably, once they earn their advanced degrees we escort them to the border to go and join our biggest competitors. We ignore the benefits of immigrant talent and the experience of Silicon Valley, where over half the science and engineering workforce is foreign-born and where 1 in 4 engineering and technology companies—firms that have generated hundreds of thousands of jobs—have at least one immigrant founder.