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In Decline

This year's presidential election pits a pessimist against a cynical pessimist.

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Thursday, October 04, 2012

Decline is on my brain. Specifically, the decline of America.

"There's not a country on Earth that wouldn't gladly trade places with the United States of America," President Obama says, denying Republican assertions that the U.S. is in decline.

(I don't know about that. Would sick people in the 36 nations that have better healthcare systems than the U.S. want to switch places?)

Clearly we believe our country is in decline—polls show that Americans think that the next generation will live worse than we do. Pessimism about the future is reflected in a 2011 survey in which 57 percent of the public identified the U.S. as the world's most powerful nation, but just 19 percent thought that we'll still be ranked first 20 years from now.

Now The New York Times reports that life expectancy for white people without a high-school degree fell precipitously between 1990 and 2007. It's shocking news. "We're used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven't improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling," John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, told the Times.

"The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London," reports The Times.

Bear in mind, the study includes the Clinton boom of the 1990s. And it doesn't include the period after 2007, when the global fiscal crisis set off the current depression. It's almost certainly worse now.

Even the two major presidential candidates seem to think that the U.S. doesn't have much of a future. During his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, Sept. 23, President Obama was asked what his big idea was for his next term. Interviewer Steve Kroft mentioned the Marshall Plan and sending a man to the moon as examples of big ideas.

Obama ducked.

"I think there's no bigger purpose right now than making sure that if people work hard in this country, they can get ahead," replied Obama. "That's the central American idea. That's how we sent a man to the moon. Because there was an economy that worked for everybody and that allowed us to do that. I think what Americans properly are focused on right now are just the bread-and-butter basics of making sure our economy works for working people." A nonsensical answer. Yes, we should strive to get back to the lower gap between rich and poor that existed during the 1960s—but lower income inequality didn't create the space program.

All Obama has to offer is a vague desire to restore the American Dream. Sorry, Mr. President, but getting back something we used to take for granted is the opposite of a big idea.

Though depressing, Obama's pessimism is dwarfed by Mitt Romney's.

Romney's 2011 tax returns reveal that not only did he bet against the value of the American dollar—a staggeringly unpatriotic move for a presidential candidate—he received a quarter of his income from investments in other countries.

Romney, putting his money where his mouth isn't, is literally betting his millions that the U.S. economy will head south. That the dollar will lose value. That foreign equities will outperform U.S. stocks. He even bought shares in the Chinese state oil company, which has contracts with Iran.

He's worse than a hypocrite. He's an economic traitor.

Whether better, worse, or the same as today, the U.S. has a future. Who will lead us into that future? The person or movement that can credibly articulate a positive vision of a United States that doesn't stand still, but actually moves forward, as Obama's campaign slogan says. But who and where are they?

This presidential campaign is shaping up as a race between a pessimist and a cynical pessimist, and in such a contest the mere pessimist is likely to win. But it isn't good for us in the long run.

"Never have American voters reelected a president whose work they disapprove of as much as Barack Obama's," observes the Associated Press' Bill Barrow. "Not that Mitt Romney can take much comfort—they've never elected a challenger they view so negatively, either."

Obama has the edge in the polls, partly because he presents a less somber vision despite his lack of big ideas. (It helps that Romney is a terrible politician.)

"This is America. We still have the best workers in the world and the best entrepreneurs in the world. We've got the best scientists and the best researchers. We've got the best colleges and the best universities," said the President in his "not in decline" remarks. (Never mind that there's no point going into debt to attend school if there aren't any jobs when you graduate.)

Well, the United States is rich. Staggeringly so. The problem is that our wealth has become so unevenly distributed that there is no longer enough consumer demand to support the population. It's a like a marriage in which both spouses can make it work—if they change their attitudes. If we begin focusing on the problems of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, as well as rising income and wealth inequality—i.e., economic injustice—and then fix them—we'll be OK.

I don't think we'll be OK.

The U.S. doesn't have to be in decline. Some liberal elites, like Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and investor Warren Buffett, understand the need to redistribute wealth. They're one side of a split in the ruling classes. Unfortunately for the system and for many Americans, they're losing the argument to the greedy, like Romney.

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