TEN FUNDAMENTAL STRENGTHS OF THE U.S. (with qualifications)
Since I was daring enough to list TEN STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS OF THE U.S. a few days ago, I thought it would only be fair to list TEN FUNDAMENTAL STRENGTHS OF THE U.S.
Frankly, it is not as easy because it is human nature to take the good for granted. Still, here is my best shot.
I added the qualifications with reluctance—I don’t like criticizing a nation that I’m really very fond of—but I felt that intellectual honesty would serve a better purpose that jingoism.
What is noteworthy is that we are careless of our strengths. Almost all are under threat—yet, for the most part, we take them for granted. They need to be nurtured.
THE PHYSICAL U.S.A. I was warned that I would almost certainly be bored while driving across the U.S. from Washington DC to Seattle, WA. In fact, I was fascinated. This is an unbelievably impressive country—well described by the word ‘awesome.’
Unfortunately, the sheer beauty, and striking character of this nation’s landscape, mostly hides the fact that it is heavily polluted and that we are despoiling it in other ways—for instance though monoculture, excessive use of pesticides and herbicides, overuse of our aquifers, contamination of our water in general, fracking, and thoughtless urbanization. In addition the very air we breathe is heavily polluted by coal fired power stations, industrial plants, traffic, agricultural spraying,and too many other sources to name.
THE PEOPLE: The U.S. boasts an extraordinary diversity of people together with a culture that is, essentially, welcoming and friendly. This isn’t to deny the existence of some disturbing attitudes and prejudices, but more to make point that, overall, Americans come across as pretty decent people who, together, possess a truly impressive range of capabilities across the full range of disciplines, from science to agriculture.
People are a nation’s primary resource. Yet the tragedy is that the U.S.—though its current business model, and politically—fails to recognize that. In fact, it actively fosters: the decline of the Middle Class; the growth of poverty; the growth of income inequality; lack of equal opportunity; an inadequate K-12 education system; excessive imprisonment; and much that contributes to the growth of insecurity in the average American family. The majority of Americans are now treated more as prey than as our greatest asset and the greatest source of this nation’s potential. One direct consequence is stress which may partially explain why Americans, generally speaking, have shorter lifespans than the populations of other developed nations.
THE CONSTITUTION: The Constitution was a flawed document from the beginning—particularly because it perpetuated slavery. Nonetheless it has served these United States extraordinarily well despite the Supreme Court institutionalizing some serious anomalies—such as giving corporations the same rights as people. More recently, it has displayed a strong bias favoring capital over labor.
Its great weakness if that it is not updated at regular intervals. Life in the 21st century is drastically different to that of the 18th century. In addition, it is tragic to see it being undermined by way of a corrupt Congress, gerrymandering, and a whole series of initiatives whereby the right to vote is being undermined.
INFRASTRUCTURE: The U.S. is served by a vast, complex, downright Byzantine infrastructure consisting of everything from roads to sewers, to ports to our electric grid—all of which speaks well of the foresight of our ancestors, and which we largely take for granted.
Yet it is a well documented and observable fact that we have neglected our infrastructure for decades, and now face an investment of trillions of dollars to bring us up to standard. In addition, there are substantial costs involved when infrastructure is sub-standard. Vehicles wear out faster, there are water leaks, and excessive power is lost in transmission—and those are just examples. Overall, the list is long, and the costs considerable.
A CULTURE OF INNOVATION: The U.S. has long fostered a quite extraordinary culture of innovation which has, without question, done a great deal to improve the quality of our lives. Look no further than Google or the aviation industry for examples that validate this statement.
Yet me quote from a Time article on the issue of innovation by Fareed Zakaria, dated June 5, 2011
Even more troubling, there are growing signs that the U.S. no longer has the commanding lead it once did in this area. Two reports from the Boston Consulting Group and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) that use hard measures such as spending on research, patents and venture funding as opposed to surveys find that the U.S. ranks not No. 1 but No. 8 and No. 6, respectively. In fact, the ITIF rankings have a category that measures how much a country has improved its innovation capacity from 1999 to 2009, factoring in measures like government funding for basic research, education and corporate-tax policies. Of the 40 countries analyzed, the U.S. came in dead last.
CONVENIENCE: Subject to some exceptions—and if you have money—the U.S. is almost certainly the most convenient country in the world. You can find almost anything here, at the lowest possible price, and have it delivered in the lowest possible time. You can drive or fly most anywhere. Generally speaking, parking is easy. Homes are lavishly equipped with labor saving devices. Educational resources are widely available.
The downside is that there are costs associated with this culture of convenience and instant gratification. These vary from the corruption of core values—greed being one of the winners—to our turning a blind eye to massive pollution. Many of these costs of doing business are not met by those who caused them. They are ‘externalities’ to use the term used by economists. Many are negative.
Air pollution from motor vehicles is an example of a negative externality. The costs of the air pollution for the rest of society is not compensated for by either the producers or users of motorized transport.
UNIVERSITIES: America’s universities are uneven in quality, but at their very best, they constitute an invaluable national resource which not only delivers an excellent education, but which fosters ground-breaking research which then leads to the development of some truly remarkable innovations.
The tragedy is not just that we need more universities of such world-class quality, but that third-level education is rapidly becoming unaffordable for many. Also, we are launching such graduates into the workplace deeply into debt—which has ramifications which ripple through the economy.
A NATION OF BOOKS ON EVERTHING: Thanks largely to our better universities, the emphasis on research, and the pressure to publish, the U.S. has extraordinary strengths when it comes to non-fiction books. Virtually every aspect of life here is covered is depth by multiple authors, and virtually every problem is resolved therein (other than politically). To quote a sentence I use often: “The solutions are out there if you are prepared to look.”
Unfortunately, there seems to be a gap between our problem solvers in government, and the vast treasure trove of data and creative thinking, that is available. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that, repeatedly, political dogma is allowed to stand in the way of the logic dictated by the facts available.
CUTTING EDGE MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY: The excessive costs and inadequacies of U.S. healthcare are legendary, but even the most ardent healthcare critic would have to admit that, at its very best, U.S. healthcare, and its related technologies, are world class.
The downside is the overall state of healthcare, which is not only highly variable in quality, but is increasingly becoming unaffordable. It is also clear that in a great many cases, such costs are not justifiable. In effect, our healthcare system—operating largely in secrecy and heavily dependent on restrictive practices—has become a giant system of medical extortion.
MILITARY STRENGTH: The U.S. is currently the dominant military power in the world—by a sizeable margin—and if National Security expenditure is included (which it should be), we spend more on defense than the rest of the world put together. Most Americans would argue that our being the most powerful nation in the world is a good thing—though, unfortunately, are largely unaware of the scale and cost effectiveness of the expenditure (especially in relation to our other priorities).
In addition, it is highly questionable whether we use our military power to best advantage—and it is certain that our vast expenditure on our military encourages and perpetuates an arms race. Certainly, our involvement in WW II was to our great credit (and economic advantage) but after that, we seem to have opted for a whole series of military adventures—both great and small—where our participation was, arguably, very much against the National Interest. Further, we have engaged in such prodigiously wasteful activities in defiance of the Constitution. Only Congress has the right to declare war—and the last time it did that was over WW II. Also, it is salutary to note that investment in the military is singularly less effective at creating jobs and stimulating economic activity than investing in other areas. Finally, it is important to understand that the MICC—the Military Industrial Congressional Complex—is a grossly corrupting influence.