An America in Decline, or the Spiegel’s judgment of the United States

An article in this week’s Spiegel Magazine, Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation, has it that America is in decline, now more than ever.

The Spiegel editors write that, ‘at the beginning of the 21st century, this American dream, which consisted mainly of confidence and optimism and envied the world over, is failing. It began to fail around the turn of the millennium, with the crash landing of the New Economy, and it imploded altogether in 2008, when Wall Street became the epicenter of a global financial meltdown, and when millions of Americans lost their homes and jobs. In some polls, almost half of Americans today say that the country’s best days are gone.”

Are the “country’s best days” gone? As evidence for their conclusion the Spiegel editors cite in their article a number of “facts,” some a lot more factual than others, but together making up a substantial indictment that the dream is no more.

1. Prisons. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. In 2009 7,225,800 adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) — about 3.1% of the adults living in the U.S. In California more of the state’s resources are spent on the prisons than on higher education. Decline?

2. Schools. Some 1.3 million students drop out of high school every year. Or about one third of those starting high school will not finish in four years.

3. Infrastructure. It’s collapsing, falling apart, because of years of neglect. One in four of the more than 600,000 bridges in what is still the world’s richest country are either inadequate or outdated. Power lines in Brooklyn and Queens, on Long Island and in New Jersey are not underground, but are still installed along fragile and confusing above-ground networks supported by utility poles, the way they are in developing countries, all of which contributed substantially to the huge bill for damages from the hurricane, Sandy.

4. Government. There doesn’t seem to be any. In any case the U.S. Congress is at a standstill, largely due to the inability of the opposing sides to reach a compromise. Obstructionism is the rule, especially the behavior of one group within the Republican Party known as the Tea Party. What is their agenda? Get rid of Obama, that’s about all they have in mind. The filmmaker Adam Sorkin claims that the coalition of Tea Party members with other ultraconservatives has become an “American Taliban,” no less extreme, no less destructive of the wider community that is the country.

“These people,” says Sorkin, “view Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as the stuff of the devil, homosexuals as diseased and women as subordinate to men. And of course they oppose contraception and are so filled with hate in their efforts to ban abortion that they don’t even seem to object when violent anti-abortion activists burn down the offices of liberal doctors.”

5. Political Parties. They’re simply not addressing real problems, not discussing what needs to be done. The divisions and differences among them are greater than ever. The country’s political parties have always been divided over economic policy, over the size of government, the relative merits of socialism and capitalism. Now “they’re even more deeply divided over social policy— for example, the whole regressive God-invoking push of the Republican right against a woman’s right to abortion, gay rights, marriage equality and so on.” (Roger Cohen)

6. The best and the brightest. One third of the graduates of America’s top college, Harvard, choose careers in investment banking or such in order to get rich quick? pay back college loans (present student loan debt is over $1 trillion)? In any case our best and brightest are not thinking about what they might do to best serve their community and country. And foreign students here at our universities, upon completion of their studies instead of remaining in the U.S. and pursuing the no longer viable American dream, are choosing more and more to return home, many of them to our competition in India and China.

7. Clean energy and the future. Less that two decades ago the U.S. was making more than 40 percent of solar technology sold worldwide. Today it’s just over 5 %, China’s share of solar technology during the same period increasing from 5 to 54%.

8. Liberal Democracy’s future. And of course there is our country’s failure to export liberal democracy to the likes of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Iran and the countries of the so called Arab spring. And faced with repeated failures to export our values, we’re now abandoning the ground out there to others, less inventive, imaginative, entrepreneurial, less liberal, and less tolerant. Then, and we’re still just in the Middle East, there are Syria, Saudi Arabia, and yes, Israel, the latter two under our supposedly liberal and liberating influence during two or more generations, who haven’t changed in the slightest their harsh manner of governing subject minorities, and in certain instances their treatment of women.

9. The indictment. Let me give the last word of the Spiegel article to Adam Sorkin, “There’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined.”

Now that’s the substance of the Spiegel judgment of the United States. I don’t believe it. I think they’re wrong, that they have left much too much out of their consideration. But I’ll have to tell you why I don’t accept their judgment in another Blog.

A homeless man on the streets of Los Angeles

Pictured here is the I-35W, a bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed in 2007.

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