The Big Five: America’s Make or Break Challenges. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, May 5, 2013.
2013 has been a bush league year in American politics. Gay marriage, gun
control and amnesty for illegal immigrants are hot button emotional issues and
they have a lot of practical importance for a lot of people, but the republic
will not stand or fall based on lesbian prenups, gun background checks or green
cards for those immigrants formerly known as illegal. Similarly with the
sequester; if the country is headed toward fiscal bankruptcy the cuts are too
small to save us and if the cuts are unnecessary they are neither large enough
to precipitate a depression or so savage and stringent as to take us back to
the social conditions of the 19th century.
headlines this year have not, exactly, been much ado about nothing, but it’s a
lot of ado about nothing much. That wouldn’t matter if we didn’t have serious
issues to deal with. In quiet times we
could let media cover politics the way the Weather Channel covers storms,
inflating Winter Storms Chutney and Magpie into major world historical events.
But we don’t live in bush league times. The United States has urgent business
before it today and until and unless we get the big things fixed, we’re going
to stagger from one ill-tempered squabble to another even as our underlying
problems become more severe.
Africa people talk about the Big Five, originally the most dangerous animals to
hunt, these days the most awesome to see. The elephant, the Cape buffalo, the
leopard, the rhinoceros and the lion are the Big Five in the game parks;
America’s Big Five are the big make or break domestic issues we face. (I’ll
take a look at the big international challenges in another series of posts.) We
don’t need 100 percent success, but if we don’t get a handle on these five
issues, conditions in America are going to deteriorate painfully no matter how
many gay couples marry or immigrants get green cards. If on the other hand we
do make progress on these issues, we will gradually find ourselves with more
resources and better options as we struggle with the less critical but still
very important choices our country must make.
are the Big Five?
comes the question of jobs: what to do about jobs and incomes as the old
industrial economy continues to shed middle class jobs? The manufacturing
economy is as dead as Prince Albert, at least from the standpoint of providing
middle class incomes and long-term job security for a third of the American
workforce. If America can’t create new, post-manufacturing jobs to replace the
old ones, nothing we do will turn out very well.
there’s the service crunch. The country’s demand for services like education
and health care is growing rapidly, but our ability to produce the quantity and
quality of services demanded can’t match the need. The systems we have to
produce and deliver these services are increasingly dysfunctional. As a result,
we are seeing ruinous inflation in costs like college and university tuition
and the health care system generally. These problems must be addressed; health
care costs are on course to bankrupt the country and education costs have
already saddled the younger generation with crippling debt. These problems
won’t go away on their own; as time goes on the country is going to need more
health care, more education, rather than less, and we also want the quality of
both to improve. Governance, by the way, is one of these crises; a more complex
and densely populated country needs effective and responsive governance at a
reasonable price. In too many ways, all levels of government in the United
States are too expensive, too cumbersome and too clumsy.
both ironic and unsettling that just as the United States is leading the world
towards a new kind of service based economy, our largest and most important
service based industries are so inefficient and poorly organized. We can’t be a
successful service economy until our biggest service sectors start working
there’s the demographic transition. Our system of pensions and social insurance
was built on the assumption that the high birth rates of the mid twentieth
century would continue forever, and that each generation would be so much
larger than its predecessor that the country could make a decent provision for
old people without skimping on the needs of the young. While the United States
fortunately is better placed than many other developed and developing countries
(partly because our birthrate remains higher than in many countries and partly
because a steady influx of younger immigrants increases the number of working
adults), public and private pension systems and entitlement programs face a
variety of challenges, and the competition between retirees and the rest of the
population for resources is getting sharper.
last two areas where the country faces make or break challenges are different.
They are cultural, social and spiritual. They cannot be solved by wonkish ideas
or government policy changes. But they are real, and unless we address them
wisely the country is unlikely to thrive.
first of these non-wonky problems is what one could call a coherence crisis. In
past generations, a less diverse and more hierarchical America was organized
around a set of ideas and cultural values and assumptions more or less brought
over from Great Britain in the colonial era. This was not a monolithic culture;
scholars like David Hackett Fischer have shown how cultural and political
diversity were present in American life from the earliest years of the colonial
period. And non-English speaking immigrants (like the Germans who settled much
of Pennsylvania and the Dutch in New York) brought more points of view.
Africans, free and enslaved, a majority in some states and a large minority in
others, were also part of the mix.
with all the diversity, the country was dominated by a set of values and ideas
that came to us from the British Isles: Protestant and individualistic Christianity,
an attachment to limited representational government, an affinity for
capitalism and a set of ideas and cultural practices around which society
kinds of reasons that old coherence has been lost and cannot be set up again.
Racial, cultural and ethnic differences among Americans have changed who we are
as a people. Social and economic changes have challenged old ideas and
institutions. Economic inequality challenges the idea of a vast American middle
class that shaped national consciousness during the Fordist era.
is no going back to the old days. The genie is out of the bottle, and Humpty
Dumpty has fallen off the wall. But even if the old consensus is gone, the
country still needs something to rally around. What are the values around which
Americans will cohere in the 21st century and will they be both flexible enough
to serve the needs of a diverse and diversifying people and robust enough to
create a deep and abiding sense of common citizenship and linked destiny among us?
problem is becoming more acute not less as American society grows and becomes
more complex. A larger population and a more complex and interdependent
technological base require more collective restraint on individual freedom in
small things and large. Shared values and visions make that restraint seem
natural and reasonable, but we are heading toward a situation in which there
will be more laws and regulations to live under . . . and less agreement about
what those laws should look like, at what level they should be adopted, and how
stringently they should be enforced.
and inescapably, there is the question of virtue. The liberal order of
representative democracy depends more on the virtue of its citizens than other
forms of government do. If most citizens are tax cheats, most politicians are
swindlers, many parents are neglectful and most children are ingrates,
democracy cannot last, much less prosper. If everyone is thinking about what
they can get from the government and no one is thinking about what they give,
and if nobody can be trusted when the lights are out, freedom will shrivel up
and die. Our founding fathers were haunted by the example of the fall of the
Roman Republic; we need to remember that Rome’s fate could be ours.
are many forces working against republican virtue in America today. Consumer
capitalism, as Daniel Bell and others have taught us, breeds attitudes of
narcissism and self indulgence. The crisis affecting mainline Protestant and
euro-Catholic congregations and institutions has weakened one of the chief
props of the kind of self restraint and self governance that democracies need
to survive and it’s not clear what if anything can take their place.
are the Big Five; if we get them largely right, the 21st century in the United
States is likely to see another golden age of freedom and prosperity. If we
largely fail, things will go badly wrong, and this century could see the end of
America as a beacon of hope for humanity. Via
Meadia tries to orient our coverage of the news around these big five
issues; watch this space over the next couple of weeks for some essays on the
most important challenges we face.