Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Cassandra Syndrome – Part III

So far, this series of articles has employed the word Cassandra to indicate a relatively recent and unfamiliar mood that seems to have engulfed a comparatively large portion of the American populace––one that reflects at best uncertainty, and at worst, discouragement, all related to the long term future of the country.

However, while designated Cassandra as the proper word to describe America’s recent melancholic, perhaps even pessimistic disposition, the historic derivation of the word is totally different. In fact, almost a year ago, in March 2011, this column defined Cassandra the person as follows: “Although a human herself, she was loved and desired by the god Apollo who bestowed upon her the power of prophecy with the expectation that she would become his mistress. Cassandra accepted the blessing but then reneged on her agreement. Apollo punished her, not by invalidating her powers, but by ordaining that her prophesies, though accurate, would never be believed. For example, she accurately predicted such events as the fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon, but her warnings went unheeded.”

The Cassandra In Our Midst

It is my impression that we have in our midst a personage who could reasonably be considered as the Cassandra of our time. Thomas Friedman, the three time Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The New York Times, and author of several bestselling books, although not a prophesier, has, over the years, raised critical issues (and in many cases suggested solutions) about any number of our country’s serious problems. Unfortunately, despite the acclaim he has generally received, more often than not his ideas have not been universally accepted or implemented. It is probable that those in his new book will be subjected to the same fate.

His newest book, titled This Used to Be Us, revels in the enormous successes that characterized the United States as “the shining city on the hill,” a phrase identified with Ronald Reagan, however, one that actually originated in the Bible. The book explains American Exceptionalism, and how the 20 th century became known as the American Century. But its most disturbing revelations deal with the vivid contrasts cited between what was then (the successes of the last century), and what is now (the declines of the last decade), and perhaps, unless we act quickly, a continuation of that deterioration for decades to come. Emphasizing this theme, he terms the period since 2000 as “the lost decade,” pointing out for example that there has been zero net job creation since 1999.

It is no secret that there are many who believe the probability of another “American Century” is a remote fantasy, and that appellation will likely be appropriated by China. In fact, a reference to China’s extraordinary progress is related on the very first page of Friedman’s book. He describes a stark contrast between two construction projects, one in China, and the other in America.

The China Syndrome

In September 2010, Friedman attended the World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin, China, a city that until recently was a three and a half hour trip from Beijing. He describes Beijing’s railroad station as “an ultramodern flying saucer of a building with glass and an oval roof covered with 3,246 solar panels.” He boarded what is said to be the fastest bullet train in the world that traveled the 72 miles to Tianjin in just 29 minutes.

After arriving in Tianjin’s equally “roomy, modern train station,” He entered the Tianjin Convention and Exhibition Center that he describes as “a massive, beautifully appointed structure, the likes of which exist in few American cities.” He goes on to explain that “it contained a total floor area of 2.5 million square feet,” and the construction of that convention center took only an astonishing eight months. It’s hard to imagine that a building project of that magnitude, the equivalent size of 43 football fields, was completed in 32 weeks.

Returning to his home in Bethesda, Maryland, neighbors asked if he had been to his subway stop on the Washington Metrorail. Apparently two escalators service the station and both were out of commission causing huge lines and significant delays. Signs were posted promoting the fact that “repairs were part of a massive escalator modernization project.” The good news was that the repair work was on schedule. The bad news was that the effort would take six months to complete.

It took just 32 weeks to build a 2.5 million foot convention center with multiple escalators in China, but 24 weeks to repair two escalators in the United States. This is an obvious metaphor for the problems the United States face, as it must compete, not only with China, but also with a growing list of competitors in what is a new global economy.

The Five Pillars––Under Siege

The book credits the prosperity that America has enjoyed until recently to a formula that consists of five pillars.
  1. The provision for public education that prepares people to exploit new inventions.
  2. The building and continual modernizing of our infrastructure—roads, bridges, ports, airports, bandwidth, fiber-optic lines, and wireless networks.
  3. Keeping America’s door open to immigration.
  4. Government support for basic research and development (R&D), especially in an information age in which innovation will have enormous economic importance.
  5. The implementation of necessary regulations on private economic activity––safeguards against financial collapse and environmental destruction.
Unfortunately, every one of these basic pillars is under siege as well as on very shaky grounds. Public education, measured by graduation rates, and student performance is failing and un-acceptable compared to other nations, with ineffective courses and insufficient students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. It is universally acknowledged that our infrastructure is crumbling and little is being done to remedy this problem. Our R&D as a percent to GDP is seventh in the world, not first. (Interestingly, Israel is number one.) The subject of immigrating is a political nightmare. Governmental regulations are just one more polarizing and poisonous factor that has encouraged the creation of a dysfunctional Congress.

Not the Answers We Expected––Or Wanted

In the book, Friedman mentions these questions: “Have we simply wandered off course, but only temporarily? Or have we allowed ourselves to be so divided that we’re easy prey for hijackers who could steer us onto a path to a crash landing? Wherever I go I am asked, ‘What has happened to us? Have we lost our way?’ ”

He then writes, “One often repeated question is the most troubling of all, because it challenges an American belief so fundamental it might as well be carved in stone on a Washington monument: ‘Will our children and grandchildren have better lives than us?’ ” The current answer is contained in the most recent Gallup poll that disclosed that a minority of only 44 percent believe it is likely that today's youth will have a better life than their parents. This is even fewer than said so amid the 2008-2009 recession, and is the lowest on record for a trend dating to 1983. Fifty five percent answered that a better life is somewhat or very unlikely.

A Radical Solution

The book provides a compelling history of how and why the 20th was the American Century. In stark contrast, it elucidates the superabundance of problems the country currently faces. The weakest part of the book relates to its declaration in its sub-title to inform “How We Can Come Back.” It’s revealing that Friedman clearly has little confidence in our current crop of politicians to resolve our problems. This is evident in the fact that one of his most serious, and most radical solution to the polarization that has consumed our political leaders. In fact, Friedman suggests that, “the United States needs a politics of the “radical center.” He uses this term as a stronger version of what has been called “ moderates” or “ centrists.”

He also argues that currently, “the two major parties act as tenacious guardians of the status quo, but the status quo does not give the country the tools necessary to make the present century, like the previous two, an era of American prosperity.” Elaborating on this theme, he explains, “The only way around all these ideological and structural obstacles is a third-party or independent candidate, who can not only articulate a hybrid politics that addresses our major challenges and restores our formula for success but––and it is a huge but––does this in a way that enough Americans find so compelling that they are willing to leave their respective Democratic and Republican camps and join hands in the radical center. Only that could change a political system that rewards our politicians for postponing hard decisions and blaming the other party rather than making those decisions.”

This concept is typical of the sometimes unconventional and creative ideas that Friedman advances in the hope that serious discourse will follow. The book provides an admiral historic picture of how America rose to the position of power and became the envy of the world. In a sense it is equally ruthless in its criticisms related to what seems to be a decline in many critical and vital area, but as for concrete, politically functional solutions, there are few.

Go Pogo

Ironically, the Friedman book, constituted of some 360 pages, could actually be summarized in nine words. A reader of this series inadvertently pointed this out to me in an email reminding me of a character in a comic strip first published some 60 years ago. The comic strip author/artist was the legendary Walt Kelly, and in the comic strip “Pogo the Possum,” one of the other characters, Porky Pine uttered this most famous statement: “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

While that statement seems to illustrate our country’s current dilemma, another of Kelly’s philosophical observations might give us some hope: “Don't take life so serious, son. It ain't nohow permanent.”


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