Day By Day

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Real State Of the Union [And Of the World]

Excellent piece by Michael Lind over at Prospect. An excerpt:
Anyone who reads the serious press about the condition of the US might be excused for believing that the country is headed towards a series of deep crises. This impression is exacerbated by economic slowdown and by the presidential primaries, in which candidates announce bold plans to rescue the country from disaster. But even in more normal times there are three ubiquitous myths about America that make the country seem weaker and more chaotic than it really is. The first myth, which is mainly a conservative one, is that racial and ethnic rivalries are tearing America apart. The second myth, which is mainly a liberal one, is that America will soon be overwhelmed by religious fundamentalists. The third myth, an economic one beloved of centrists, is that the retirement of the baby boomers will bankrupt the country because of runaway social security entitlement costs.

America does, of course, have many problems, such as spiralling healthcare costs and a decline in social mobility. Yet the truth is that apart from the temporary frictions caused by current immigration from Latin America, the US is more integrated than ever. Racial and cultural diversity is in long-term decline, as a result of the success of the melting pot in merging groups through assimilation and intermarriage—and many of the country's infamous social pathologies, from violent crime to teenage drug use, are also seeing improvements. Americans are far more religious than Europeans, but the "religious right" is concentrated among white southern Protestants. And there is no genuine long-term entitlement problem in the US. The US suffers from healthcare cost inflation, a problem that will be solved one way or another in the near future, long before it cripples the economy as a whole. And the long-term costs of social security, America's public pension programme, could be met by moderate benefit cuts or a moderate growth in the US government share of GDP. With a linguistically united, increasingly racially mixed supermajority and a solvent system of middle-class entitlements, the US will remain first among equals for generations to come, even in a multipolar world with several great powers.
Read the whole thing here.

Lind is absolutely right about the stunning improvement in the human condition in the past two decades. My only disagreement with him comes when he identifies what he considers to be the remaining problems facing American society -- intractable inequality, the rising cost of health care, and imperial overstretch. None of these, I would argue, is nearly as problematic as Lind seems to think. Rather, they are simply perennial left-wing peeves.

Lind is a "Progressive" writing for a liberal readership, but his general argument is mirrored in this article by conservatives, Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin, writing in Commentary. [here] They too see a dramatic improvement in the human condition since the early 1990's and they, too, have concerns about problems not solved -- the violence and insensitivity of popular culture, the continuing decline of the family. But these, like Lind's concerns, are more a matter of ideological pique than a description of real threats. This essential agreement among scholars approaching American society from radically different perspectives is impressive and accords well with other studies by international organizations. [here], [here], [here], [here], [here], [here]....

The evidence is incontrovertible. We are blessed to be living in the best of times ever in the history of the world and all the major trend lines are positive. But most people are convinced that we are in a period of steep or imminent decline. So broad is this perception that politicians can campaign on nothing more than a vacuous promise of "change".

The stubborn determination of many educated people to interpret everything as evidence of impending doom is a constant amazement to me, as it is to any serious student of American history. Things have never, ever been as good as they are now, both domestically and internationally. Yet many educated people persist in believing that we are living on the edge of catastrophe.

Somewhere around 1990 the world changed for the better. Unprecedented levels of peace and prosperity broke out. Analysts disagree as to the causes, but two major factors stand out. With regard to peace the most important factor would seem to be the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire. With regard to prosperity the major factor would seem to be the collapse of protectionist regimes and a consequent rapid globalization. These positive trends have been sustained through both Republican and Democrat regimes in the United States, and through both center left and center right regimes in Europe. There is no compelling reason to wish for radical or even substantive political change. But the Henny Pennys continue to run around screaming that the sky is falling.

Ignore them, and give thanks that you are living in this, the best of all times.