Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Cassandra Syndrome – Part II

Now follow this timeline: The deadline for article submission for the November issue of this newspaper was October 24 th. That edition was actually delivered on or about November 15 th. You may (hopefully) recall that in that issue this column incorporated information related to “the disappointing start of what was supposed to be the second coming of the American Century, questioned whether America is in decline, and then defined the term American Exceptionalism, concluding that “It seems the concept of American Exceptionalism has been severely weakened.”

The next relevant date is November 19 th––four days after Viewpointe was delivered–– when a headline appeared in the op-ed section of The New York Times, stating, “Decline of American Exceptionalism.” Would you consider that a scoop for Viewpointe?

The Times article was somewhat different from that in Viewpointe in that the author, Charles M. Blow, is well-known for his use of statistics to validate his opinions. Here are his opening sentences: “Is America exceptional among nations? Are we, as a country and a people and a culture, set apart and better than others? Are we, indeed, the ‘shining city upon a hill’ that Ronald Reagan described? Are we ‘chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world’ as George W. Bush said? This year, for the first time, most Americans did not say yes.”

He then elaborated, “According to a report issued on Thursday [November 17 th] by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, when Americans were asked if they agreed with the statement “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others,” only 49 percent assented. That’s down from 60 percent in 2002, the first time that Pew asked the question. If there is any consolation, Germany, at 47 percent, Spain at 44 percent, Britain, at 32 percent, and France, at 27 percent did even worse. But don’t be too quick to commiserate with each other. He then quotes from a Time Magazine/ABT poll that found, “71 percent of Americans believed that our position in the world has been in decline in the past few years.” That closely agrees with the 70 percent number quoted from another poll on the same subject in last month’s article.

But there is even more evidence, more Cassandra–like forecasts related to America’s decline. In March of this year, Psychology Today reported on the issue by stating, “Predictions have been made before about the decline of America. But there is good evidence now that makes the prediction more likely. What is the evidence for a decline, if there is one? Here are some very convincing facts which come from the United Nations, the OECD, The Legatum Institute, The U.S. National Intelligence Council, Congress and other respected institutions.” [Bear with me on this since the list is long.]:
  • After leading the world for decades in 25-34 year olds with university degrees, the U.S. is now in 12th place.
  • The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. at 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction in 2010.
  • Nearly 50% of all graduate students in the sciences in the U.S. are foreigners, most of whom will be returning to their home countries.
  • The U.S. ranks 27th for the health of its citizens; life expectancy is below average compared to 30 advanced countries measured by the OECD and obesity is the highest in the U.S. among all those countries.
  • An annual "prosperity index" ranks the U.S. 9th, five notches lower than last year.
  • The U.S. poverty level is the third worst among advanced nations according to the OECD. Only Turkey and Mexico are worse.
  • The U.S. ranks 13th in terms of well being according to the United Nations Human Development Index, and ranks 11th in the OECD's measure of "life satisfaction."
  • According to the OECD, 15 year olds in the U.S. rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. The U.S. ranks 12th among developed countries in college graduation, and 79th in elementary-school enrollment.
  • Ten years ago the U.S. was ranked first in terms of average wealth per adult. In 2010, it fell to 7th
  • In 2001 the U.S. ranked 4th in the world in per capita broadband Internet use. Today it ranks 15th.
  • The U.S. has lost over 40,000 factories since 2001.
  • The U.S. has lost 32% of all its manufacturing jobs since the year 2000.
  • Manufacturing employment in the computer industry in the U.S. is at the same level in 2010 that it was in 1975.
  • Median household income in the U.S. has declined between 2009 and 2010, the second year in a row of decline.
  • 25 percent of the federal budget is spent on the military. The cost for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is now creeping up to $10 trillion.
  • The U.S. ranks 23rd in the world in terms of infrastructure, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. The American Society of Civil Engineers prepared a report card on the state of America's infrastructure-roads, bridges, dams etc. In the latest version the overall "GPA' for the U.S. was a "D," and the cost of bringing all systems up to adequacy, not an "A", was estimated at $2.2 trillion.
While there is more, not mentioned are the current shameful, scandalous, disgraceful actions (or is it inactions) of our elected politicians, especially, but not exclusively confined to Congressional members. In the past, sensible, rational, patriotic legislators devoted themselves to acting for the well being of their country, not as today, solely for the sake of insuring their own reelection, and unconditionally, to advance their party’s dogma.

Nowadays, politicians have become infamous for maintaining inflexible, ideological theories; for attempting to mandate legislation predicated on religious beliefs; for bowing to the dictates of an unelected individual who seems to control the tax policy of the nation, and for spending at least 50 percent of their time soliciting campaign contributions, otherwise known as legalized bribery. (In 2001 John McCain differed on this. On a Bill O’Reilly interview he said, “I don't think it's bribery; I think it's extortion. Bribery, you know, is when the person that's giving the money does it voluntarily. What it is in Washington is extortion because they [the politicians] all ask for the money.” Both definitions are correct.

When the word “compromise” becomes anathema to politicians, polarization is the result, and dysfunction rules. That is one of the reasons this question was raised. “What happened to the America I thought I knew?” That perspective seems to apply to all of the above, and is the first sentence in a new book entitled The Time of our Lives by the legendary TV journalist Tom Brokaw. That sentiment also mirrors the title of another new book by the NY Times columnist, Tom Friedman: That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. Few know that the source of the title was Barack Obama who said at a press conference, “We just learned that China now has the fastest computer on earth; that used to be us.” That reaction to the announcement by China typifies the underlying problems that America is facing.

The book attempts (and succeeds for the most part) to analyze four major challenges: globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation’s chronic deficits, and our pattern of excessive energy consumption. Unfortunately, it is weaker in its proposed solutions to the myriad of problems these challenges raise. The frightening scenario is that perhaps there are no resolutions, at least none that can be resolved while a dysfunctional Congress exists. Next month’s column will continue to examine the book, and whether the country can remove the effects of the Cassandra Symptom and revert back to the way Friedman portrays “us” as we used to be.

Author’s Note: I expected to fully review the Friedman book in two segments, but it is too rich in content to do so. Because of space constraints, it is necessary to extend this in next month’s issue to a series of three articles.


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