Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Big Five: America’s Make or Break Challenges. By Walter Russell Mead.

The Big Five: America’s Make or Break Challenges. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, May 5, 2013.


So far, 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.

So the 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.

In 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.

So what are the Big Five?

First 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.

Second, 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.

It’s 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 well.

Third, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

But 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 cohered.

For all 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.

There 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?

The 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.

Finally 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.

There 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.

These 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.

Syria: Obama’s Own “Problem From Hell.” By Walter Russell Mead.

Syria: Obama’s Own “Problem From Hell.” By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, May 5, 2013.

Is Assad winning in Syria? By Jonathan Spyer. Jerusalem Post, May 3, 2013.

Dying in Space: An American Dream. By Megan Garber.

The envisioned Mars One colony in 2025.

Dying in Space: An American Dream. By Megan Garber. The Atlantic, April 29, 2013.

Prospect of one-way Mars trip captures the imagination. By David Shukman. BBC News, April 30, 2013.

Is Mars One’s one-way mission to the Red Planet just science fantasy? By Stephanie Dube Wilson., April 3, 2013.

Mars One: Reality Bites. By Conrad Steenkamp. Mail and Guardian, May 1, 2013.

Buzz Aldrin: Mission to Mars. YouTube.

Buzz Aldrin’s Case For A “Mission To Mars.” Interview with Neal Conan. NPR, May 9, 2013.

Get to Mars within 20 years. By Buzz Aldrin. CNN, May 7, 2013.

Could he be the first man on Mars? Buzz Aldrin reveals scheme to colonise the red planet by 2035. By Victoria Woollaston. Daily Mail, May 9, 2013.

Neil Armstrong: one giant leap into the dark. By Michael Hanlon. The Telegraph, August 27, 2012. Also find it here.

Mars One website.

Mars 2023: Inhabitants Wanted. Video. MarsOneProject, April 22, 2013. YouTube.

Mars One Introduction Film. Video MarsOneProject, June 6, 2012. YouTube.

Niall Ferguson Briefly Humbled By Dead Gay Economist. By Walter Russell Mead.

Niall Ferguson Briefly Humbled By Dead Gay Economist. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, May 5, 2013.

Harvard Professor Trashes Keynes For Homosexuality. By Tom Kostigen. Financial Advisor, May 3, 2013.

Niall Ferguson’s “unqualified apology” over gay comments. By Claire Duffin. The Telegraph, May 4, 2013.

An Unqualified Apology. By Niall Ferguson., May 4, 2013.

Keynes Was Gay — Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That. By Jonah Goldberg. National Review Online, May 4, 2013.

Ferguson’s Blooper on Keynes. By James Pethokoukis. National Review Online, May 6, 2013.

Morsi’s Egypt and the Lessons of History. By Seth Mandel.

Morsi’s Egypt and the Lessons of History. By Seth Mandel. Commentary, May 3, 2013.

The “Moderate” Muslim Brotherhood and the Jews. By Michael Rubin. Commentary, May 3, 2013.

Salman Rushdie: Tsarnaev Brothers Are Losers.

Rushdie: Losers a better label than terrorists for Tsarnaev brothers. Video. Fareed Zakaria GPS. CNN, May 4, 2013.

The End of the Illusion: America Finally Learns Its Limits. By Jacob Heilbrunn.

The End of the Illusion: America Finally Learns Its Limits. By Jacob Heilbrunn. The Daily Beast, April 30, 2013.

Palestinians Are the Threat to Peace. By Gil Troy.

Bibi’s Right: Palestinian Rejectionism Threatens Peace. By Gil Troy. The Daily Beast, May 3, 2013.

The Internet Battle Over Israel-Palestine. By Bethany Mandel. Commentary, May 5, 2013.

The Palestinian Shadow Game. By Jonathan S. Tobin. Commentary, May 2, 2013.

What Netanyahu Understands About Qatar. By Seth Mandel. Commentary, May 2, 2013.

Tsarnaev Conspiracy Central. By Philip Jenkins.

Tsarnaev Conspiracy Central. By Philip Jenkins. Real Clear Religion, May 1, 2013.

The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society. Pew Research Poll.

The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, April 30, 2013. PDF.

Huge Flaw in Pew Survey on Muslim Views about Sharia. By Andrew C. McCarthy. National Review Online, May 1, 2013.