What happened? Who could see it coming? Remember when America was riding high, leading the world in this area or that category. We weathered the Great Depression without major disruption to our society. We defeated Japan and helped bring down Hitler’s Germany in World War II. We assisted Europe in getting back on its feet and stood up to the Soviet Bloc until it disintegrated. Our major companies went on to straddle the world and at home an expanded middle class emerged, a good portion of which moved out to suburbia and into their own homes. Our system seemed to work well and we had much to show for it. In one important measurement after another America led the world. We were #1 (or so we were told).
And then it changed. Just look around, check it out. Consider the abundant data and comparative figures ranking the nations of the world. In most instances we’ve lost our edge, dropped out of first, often ending up in the middle of the pack – or worse. Our infrastructure continues to deteriorate. Our trains run too slowly along aging tracks, our airports don’t measure up to those overseas, our bridges are rusting, our electric grids overburdened. Our educational system compares unfavorably to many overseas in important categories of performance. Too many of our students are dropping out, not graduating, failing to acquire the education they need to succeed in the job market. The United States, which once led the world in the percentage of college graduates, has fallen behind, and too often those who’ve graduated are deficient, know less than they should. Our health system is insanely costly, our health statistics generally poorer than most advanced countries. Social mobility long the watchword and pride of America has not ended but the lead in this area has passed on to a number of European nations. Same with entrepreneurial activity. It’s still taking place but the pace is greater elsewhere as is small business formation. Large corporations in the U.S. are doing well, but investment in research has slowed and instead of underwriting innovation, companies are spending huge amounts of their capital buying back their stock, which, among other consequences, enhances the wealth of corporate executives. No surprise then that income inequality has grown in the U.S. Not unknown in other advanced economies, the disparities are notably greater in the United States.
Our political system, at least on the national level is deadlocked, unable to respond, unwilling to address the many pressing needs of the nation. Money is flooding into politics giving the wealthy and well connected undue influence over policies and prompting despair and disillusionment among large segments of the electorate. Gun violence continues unabated, the number of weapons in circulation vastly great than anywhere else in the world. Carbon continues to pour into the atmosphere while substantial portions of the population deny that this represents much of a problem. While all this is going on at home, overseas the U.S. seems to have lost its ability to shape events, to restrain the forces of disorder that threaten to engulf extensive regions of the world.
Sure it’s complicated, but can anyone account for this substantial shift in U.S. performance, this slippage across the board? You will hear much speculation and countless theories, but no one has managed as yet to offer a convincing comprehensive explanation. Clearly the rest of the world, following our lead, has caught up, but that doesn’t explain America’s achievement gap..
Are we running out of gas? Does it have something to do with the “inevitable” decline of once dominant nations? Are we in a temporary downturn that will run its course? Will the United States, ever resilient, rebound effectively? There’s no predicting – there are no guarantees.