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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Saturday, October 01, 2005

In search of the future great United States: Where are "We the People" on this, people?

Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.
George Bernard Shaw

However important leaders, policies, and programs may be, greatness will not come about unless Americans care enough about it to will it into existence.

Alan Wolfe

I get very tired of this battle between the right and the left in the United States: between the neo-cons and the liberals, the Republicans and Democrats. Of course, it is a battle I, myself, perpetuate as a combatant. The fight is tiring, but it is more the weapons used that leave me feeling exhausted by despair. Hypocrisy and spin are the tactical arms on a field of combat in which skirmishes are fought by rhetorical point-scoring rather than by any search for truth. The meaning of “winning” becomes unclear, but for leaving your opponent with a politically bloody nose.

Unsurprisingly, I believe one side to be guiltier of systematic legerdemain with the truth, but perhaps only because I'm a noisome partisan like all the rest. Or perhaps I'm right. Who knows? The battle is so pitched, at this point, it's hard to see for all the smoke, hard to hear for the din.

Yet, though we seem at war with ourselves, I am convinced Americans are of one in what we most want. We want America to be great. To be a great nation. To be a great place to live. To be a great exemplar of the truths we hold to be self-evident. Maybe even to be the greatest country on earth, whatever that means. In any case, and in this way, both sides of the battle are the same.

Much virtual ink is spent drawing the analytical lines that separate the factions. This once, however, let's focus a few paragraphs on Americans' common desire for the greatness of their nation. The political population, even while polarized, shares this, if little else. Some may articulate either an aspiration for America's continued greatness, others a belief that America can be great once again, but there is little difference at the core of the hope.

One of the things that tires me about the left's attacks on the administration, necessary though I believe them be, is that they miss the point. It isn't the administration that deserves our energies, in the end, but the American people. Because the United States is a democracy, the administration is doing what the American people let it do. And, yes, I genuinely believe that. And, no, I don't think it's naïve. Say what you want about money politics. I'm a marketer; I know money can buy market share. But if you're pissed off with the product, you don't buy it again.

Assuming the elections are legitimate, democracy is a popularity contest. The American people get the government they deserve. So, as someone who thinks this administration is doing the country terrible harm, I have to occasionally keep myself honest and wonder what the hell the majority – however slight – of Americans are thinking. (You can argue about the presidential election results all you want; there are still Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.)

So, as a single proud American, I sat down to this screed with the following long-winded question in mind, posed humbly to any other American reading it, and, by proxy, to the American people: You want the country to be great. In recent elections, you focused on looming threats to America's greatness: namely, terrorism (and the broadly defined war against it) and domestic morality. These are real issues. Yet, “greatness” is multi-dimensional. A nation can be great in one or several ways, yet remain mediocre, or even fail, overall. Almost any notion of national greatness is necessarily underpinned by several – not one or two – foundational strengths. We Americans, so universally concerned with our nation's greatness, nonetheless seem almost unconcerned that some of the foundations of our greatness are under threat: under threat, not from any external evil (like Al Queda), nor from internal abstractions (like the relationship of Leviticus to the political realm). My question is simple: With clear threats to America's future greatness, do you care how your government responds? If so, what are your demands of your own government? Which is to say, what are your demands of yourself?

A few examples:

High school education

I think it uncontentious that the United States, to remain great, requires well educated citizens. Fortunately, the nation has 17 of the 20 best universities in the world . It's high schools, however, are, in the words of Bill Gates, broken, flawed, underfunded and obsolete. American universities will not long be able to produce top-class graduates if high schools produce crap. Science education is already particularly bad by international standards and is under further attack by those who want to teach non-science as science. Furthermore, the number of our children that finish high school or college lags behind other industrialized nations. “No child left behind” doesn't make a dent in this, by the way. It only measures the US against itself, not against other nations. Are you content with 7th-rate education? More importantly, can the United States be first-rate great with 7th-rate, not-so-great education?

What do we demand of our government to ensure our children can compete with the best in the world?


A news item from the summer provides a convenient bridge from education to healthcare: “Toyota announced that it would open a new $800 million plant in Ontario. The company turned down hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies in the United States because, when compared to Canadians, US workers are too hard to train, often illiterate, and expensive to insure.” One way of reading this is that our education policies are making us less competitive, and health care policy isn't doing us any favors, either.

As Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote, “One of the great mysteries of political life in the United States is why Americans are so devoted to their health-care system.” Most industrialized nations – all? – have some form of national medical coverage. This is anathema in the US. The cost would be too great, we believe, and the quality of care would nosedive. But if that's true, why, to take an example, does Finland have a higher life expectancy, and an infant mortality rate half ours, while spending only 7% of GDP on medical care while we throw a lavish 15% at it?

The US system suggests people should get as much health care as they can afford, even if that means many get none. It implies that only the well-off should be long-lived. We, and a good portion of our national wealth, are consumed by anxiety over health benefits. As illustrated above, it has gone so far as to make our nation less competitive. In the end, Americans, for all our wealth, get less health care, and are less healthy, than the citizens of many other nations.

What do we demand of our government to ensure that we are healthy enough to compete with nations that are healthier than us?

Energy policy

We sigh with the need to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil. We know. We know. We are tired with knowing as we fill up our SUVs and pickups and Lexi. But there is something else. Oil is running out. Annual oil discovery peaked in 1964. It has been declining since. Oil production will peak – note: that means it will decline quickly thereafter – within a few years. And oil consumption is only increasing with China's demand.

(As an aside: It does not matter whether or not we drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And we will, my lefty friends; we will. Watch how much we care for Caribou when gasoline hits $5 a gallon. Never mind that ANWR will not make enough of a difference in supply to dent the price, nor that most Europeans have been paying prices like that for years.)

Our current energy policy has no answer for this. With its recent energy bill, Washington gave new tax breaks to already-profitable oil companies, marginalized alternative energy research, pushed back mandatory fuel-efficiency standards at American auto-makers' request, and put further faith in coal.

None of this will lower the price of gas, we know. But the threat is much graver. It is not about cars and gas mileage and the price at the pump. It is about the foundation of our economy. There is no scenario for economic growth that doesn't assume abundant, cheap energy. It is this tacit assumption that sustains Wall Street every day.

So, where are we on this? As the last century was dominated by the nation that most effectively mastered petroleum-based capitalism, it is possible that economic prosperity in the near future will rest with those nations that lead the world in the exploitation of non-oil energy. Japan currently has the lead in hybrid technology. China has vowed to develop the first commercially viable alternative energy vehicle within 9 years. France leads in nuclear power generation. (Yes, France.)

Can the United States be competitive if it continues to depend on an increasingly scarce, increasingly expensive source of fuel? Or, alternatively, can the United States be great as a customer of those countries that lead in non-oil energy?

What do we demand of our government to ensure that our nation's greatness will not be gutted by dependence on disappearing oil?

Federal fiscal policy

The United States is the largest economy in the world. It is the richest nation in the world. These are truly measures of greatness. Yet, the United States is now the world's greatest debtor nation, as well. Standard and Poors, no lefty think tank, projects US Treasury bonds will sink to junk status by 2026 unless there is a marked change in fiscal policy. Not great.

Healthcare (which, as the nation of baby-boomers ages, will suck up increasing amounts of wealth), Social Security and taxation are touchstone issues here, because they have such profound impact on federal finances. And it must be acknowledged that these issues are near the front of the current administration's agenda. Yet its approach on both healthcare and social security is to shift the financial burden to individuals. That is possibly a way to reduce government spending. In other areas, however, our government is spending freely. It has chosen to spend more than 4 billion dollars a month occupying Iraq (US Department of Defense) after a war that, it is now obvious, was optional. At the same time, it continues to cut taxes in ways that benefit mostly its rich constituents. (I am a successful expat living in Paris. I got a tax cut.)

More spending on less revenue has meant the United States has turned outside for more money. It has gone into debt by selling US Treasury Bonds, mostly to Japan and China. They are our bankers. They are also some of the largest exporters of goods to the US. So, they are lending us money to buy their goods. That makes the US pretty vulnerable. If you're a home owner, it makes you, personally, pretty vulnerable.

The partisan in me has to point out that while Republicans always accuse Democrats of being the “tax and spend” party, the Republicans turn out to be the “borrow and spend” party. Conservatives advertise themselves as the fiscally responsible ones. We now have the largest Federal deficit in history.

But where are we, Americans, on the topic of America's financial strength? I know most of us hear the word “fiscal” and tune out. But can the US be great when beholden to China for its solvency? Or does US greatness depend on being financially strong and independent?

What do we demand of our government to ensure that our nation's greatness will not erode in a wash of debt?

Moral legitimacy in the eyes of the world
(...and in our own eyes)

Since at least World War II, Americans have been proud that their nation has been a beacon of freedom to the world. At home, those who have died for our freedom are invoked to motivate the better angels of our nature in all manner of things. Globally, we legitimize our actions in the name of free nations, everywhere. But what freedoms, and whose freedoms, do we cherish enough to protect?

In the eyes of the world, the respective answers are, increasingly, not many and mostly just our own. The United States' government has waged pre-emptive war, has tortured its captives, has suspended the Geneva convention, has held prisoners without charge in Guantanamo Bay. The government justifies all of these things, even when rationales strain plausibility. At home, citing the need to protect us from terrorists who attack our freedom, our government has reduced our freedom. The cynically named Patriot Act has rolled back civil liberties and rights to privacy, and extended government's reach into our personal lives.

Does any of this matter? Even viewed solely from the standpoint of self-interest, it may matter a lot. As John McCain points out, when the United States tortures others we invite others to torture us. (McCain's anti-torture legislation is opposed by the White House.) We are not doing unto others as we would have others do unto us. More importantly, in this Christian nation of ours, we are certainly not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Even more philosophically, it matters because, when we dilute “freedom” and “justice” with thin, expedient justifications, they are no longer moral causes worth defending. When we show the world a version of freedom and justice that doesn't appear all that free or just, then our leadership wanes simply because our example is uncompelling. Our influence in the world is compromised. We cannot lead if no one follows. This is no vapid vituperation. Two thirds of Americans perceive that the rest of the world thinks we're a bully.

During spates of national self-doubt, we reassure ourselves with the mantra that the cause of freedom is just. Freedom, fair play and justice are foundations of our national identity. They are the dais of our patriotic pride. They are, for many, the very idea that is America. I assume we believe they must remain foundations if we are to continue as a great nation. Many of us believe we are great because we are free.

But where are we, really, on this freedom thing? Almost 100% of Americans say it is important to live in a country in which they are free to criticize the government, but 68% turn around and, in the same poll, say the government should have the right to limit the press in reporting news. Just as a reminder, the First Ammendment says "Congress shall make no law..." How far can we compromise our own freedoms, even if in the name of security, before the beacon of the United States is irrevocably dimmed? How far are we willing to compromise justice when being just becomes inconvenient?

In short, what are we demanding our government do to uphold and reinforce America's greatness as a free, just nation?

* * *

Issues other than these equally threaten our nation's greatness. I've chosen these because they are so directly under our control. We cannot justly complain that deficits in these areas are caused by others' actions, or by abstract evil. Or, if we do, we should not expect sympathetic ears.

In the end, the position of the American people on issues such as these may be shifting. In March of 2001, President Bush said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” That number appears to be far lower than he believed, given his approval ratings are now lower than Nixon's during Watergate.

While I take some reassurance in that, the questions above will outlive him, his Presidency and his popularity. They will persist. And their answers will determine whether America, as a truly great nation, will outlive us.

* * *

I made my first notes on this topic some months ago. I still don't think I've done it justice. Just this week, I was moved to say something, however unready, after reading a remarkable essay in The New Republic: “ American Idle”, by Lawrence F Kaplan. In it, he uses a phrase I hope to keep close in any political discourse:

“...patriotism as an activity rather than merely a sentiment...”

Comments on "In search of the future great United States: Where are "We the People" on this, people?"


Blogger Steve said ... (3:54 AM) : 

What an honor it is to be the first person to comment on this absolutely amazing post.

I think you're right, Houston, that what we all want here in America is a great country. Not only do I believe that, I'm also attracted to the simplicity of it, and the fact that it unites both the Left and the Right in pursuit of the same thing.

Defining "great" is, of course, a matter of defining one's values, something liberals are notoriously uncomfortable with. And when you reminded us that the last election was won over values, I had a thought.

Earlier this week, Margot and I were watching one of those PBS things on the 60s. What struck me as the story bounced back and forth between highly polarized liberal and conserative voices, was how clear, centered, and value-driven the Left was. And how confused, off-balance, and value-less the Right was. Now, 40 years later, the issues are startlingly similar but the roles are reversed.

In the intervening decades, conservatives found their "value voice" while liberals lost theirs. The story of how this happened for the conservatives has been told a lot recently. But nobody talks about the liberal journey. I wonder what you'd say to this. How did liberalism lose its ideological way? (Or, if you don't feel it did, why do so many people think it did?)

Also, if, as you say, all Americans want to be great (and I think they mostly do); and if elections are won and lost over values (and I think they often are); what do you think liberals have to do to get their "values-voice" back?


Blogger Strange Yeah said ... (2:48 PM) : 

I'm not a citizen of America, and have no wish to be. But as a citizen of the world, I vote Houston.


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