Skip to comments.(Vanity) As the World Turns, Part V, or, The Melting Pot
Posted on 03/01/2007 10:57:30 PM PST by grey_whiskers
This is the final in a series on geopolitics, considering the fate of the West (primarily the United States and Europe), and possible successor powers. In the piece (Vanity) As the World Turns, or The Wild, Wild, East , the issue was introduced; in (Vanity) As the World Turns, Part II, or Back to the Future , I considered the threat posed by resurgent Islam; in (Vanity) As the World Turns, Part III, or, The Year of Lipstick on a Pig the strengths of mainland China were considered, and in (Vanity) As the World Turns, Part IV, or The New Dealhi Indias future was considered. This piece looks at the often-unsung strengths of the United States, together with some of the internal threats to the United States primacy. (Yes, I am aware that the other articles treat of the West but its more fun to say good things about the United States just to get the liberals up in arms.)
The main strengths of the United States are things which, like specks on a windowpane, one might not notice unless one specifically is looking for them. The first is the political and economic freedoms allowed; the second is the demographics; the third is the educational system and infrastructure; and the fourth is the culture as a whole. We will look at these one at a time, followed by the weaknesses.
Consider first the political and economic freedoms in the United States. We really do live in a society in which (as Abraham Lincoln taught us) anyone can grow up to be President. On the other hand, this means that (as Bill Clinton taught us, and John Kerry nearly did) anyone can grow up to be President. We the citizens have tremendous power: the political kingmakers can anoint someone to be the heir apparent, but without the people buying into it, the candidate will not go anywhere. And the same holds true of economic poweryes, I know Bill Gates is the son of a doctor and went to Harvard before discovering how to mint money. But Rush Limbaugh was nobody in particular; neither were Googles co-founders.
The importance is this. In many European countries, the impression one gets is of a stratified societythere is not as much churn between class levels; and the upper-classes are acutely conscious of their status. I recall traveling in Europe, and the overwhelming mood among most of the ordinary people I met reminded me of the poor souls stuck in line in the Department of Motor Vehicles in the United States. Present by rote, no hope of advancement, no reason for their fate. And the elites seem to enjoy making the rest of the citizens live like this (for some of this attitude in the States, look at the Kennedys or John we R stuk hear in Irak Kerry). And in the third world, connections appear to be everything. As P.J. ORourke described it in his book (if I recall it correctly) Holidays in Hell:
the endless claims to privilege which mark the Third World. This is a most important journalistic personage! He is having a priority!
In the United States, it certainly helps to be a member of a rich family, or to know the right people. But it is certainly not required. And the knowledge that you can make it on your own efforts tends to spur on the whole of the populace to greater efforts than they would otherwise exert. And from that, the entire economyand through it, the entire world--benefits.
Turning to the demographics of the United States, we seem to be holding our own-barely, and with the help of our Mexican amigos--in the great population race. This is good for several reasons. One, as the rest of the population ages, we will need workers to replace the baby boomers, and taxpayers to support the Social Security recipients. Two, if the population increases, that means there is at least some room for domestic growth for the major corporations in the United States, so that they will not be totally tempted to outsource everything except the executive suites and supermodel executive assistants to China and India. Three, so far at least, it seems to be keeping out the great waves of Islamic workers who are blending in so bloody well in England, France, and Germany. And we have a huge influx of highly skilled immigrants a sort of intellectual All-Star team from other countries. True, we are losing somewhat of our national identity But there have been waves of immigrants before; the question is how much assimilation will occurmore on that later.
The next strength is somewhat more controversial, the educational system. Havent we been told that the United States educational system is failing, failing? For the last thirty years? And that the only cure is MORE MONEYTM? Yes, we have. But there is something odd. Despite the falling test scores, the United States continues to lead the way in innovation, profitability, and the like. There are two reasons for this. One of them is the aforementioned intellectual brain drain from the rest of the worldwhy waste they time teaching our own children to excel, when we can just as easily pay someone elses child to excel? Well just administer or manage and get most of the money, right? But the other reason is that the society, and the working society at that, is changing. The public school systems in the United States came of age during the days of the organization man, the bloom of bureaucracya disproportionate share of the jobs were more or less rote jobs, and so the socialization and subjects taught were a good fit for what industry needed. But now, as there is more and more churn in the workplace, and job roles and categories change ever more rapidly, perhaps flexibility is a more useful skill than memorization. Remember the 80-20 rule, that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. And the cream of the crop in the United States can still kick the stuffing out of any other country on Earth.
Another strength of the United States is a result of its past wealth--the infrastructure. We are blessed with abundant roads, electricity, computers, transport, and electricity (as well as clean food, water, and year-round warm-water access for shipping) --all of the things so sorely lacking in developing countries. And (can you believe it?) even the liberals have helped: without the EPA, the Monongahela might still be catching fire; and Lake Erie one of the major open-air strip mines in the world. This is a boon to creating new businesses, if you dont have to be bribing local officials in order to get a permit to start a new power plant before you can begin building your factory. California and Massachusetts excepted, I guess.
And speaking of the results of past wealth, combining all of the earlier factors together, one should recall the culture of the United States. We have the only pluralistic government in the world, based not on historical accident, but on the crazy notion that government exists mainly to get out of the way. In fact, until the schools started going downhill in the 1960s civics lessons and history books taught the philosophy behind the United States, thereby reinforcing the social fabric and expectations for each incoming generation. And having a common language, and (largely) shared cultural knowledge (the Old West; Judeo-Christian mores in public behaviour; grounding in the Constitution), had a lot to do with expectationsthat of the individual towards society, and of society towards individual members. Rugged individualism is paradoxically a wonderful ingredient of collective success.
So what is the weakness of the United States? Oddly enough, pretty much the same things as its strengths: the land of opportunity allows us to elect some real bozos to public office; the tremendous economic wealth means we can afford to carry a welfare stateand as so many people have been quoted as saying, America will be a great national only until the citizens discover that they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. The free immigration poses a risk of the lack of shared culture--we are going from The Melting Pot where the unique gifts of many arrivals are blended into a resilient alloy, to The Melting Pot in which the very culture which holds us all together is threatening to melt away. The biggest danger facing the United States and thereby the West is that we allow the memory of our abilities and accomplishments to take the place of any desire or need to continue to do great things. Most nations that have fallen, have fallen from within.
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