Why America Sucks, But (Maybe) Doesn’t Have To

Good piece in the current issue of the Atlantic by Jim Fallows on why the U.S. currently sucks, but doesn’t have to – even if it shows meager sign of stopping or changing. In short, this country is the envy of the world in its ability to assimilate foreign capital, talent, ideas and entrepreneurs; but the butt of jokes in its dysfunctional, creaky, busted and bloated governance and infrastructure. It may be almost too late, Fallows argues, but there is still an opportunity to muddle through.

We could start by being very clear about our strengths, as revealed not simply by comparison with others but also through the pattern of our own rise. The mutually supportive combination of public and private development; the excellence of the universities; the unmatched ability to attract and absorb the world’s talent—these are assets we can work to preserve. We could reflect on how much more attainable our goals are when the world works with us—economically, diplomatically—rather than against us. We could not compel international obedience even if we tried, but everything we care about becomes easier if the American model attracts rather than repels. And a longer-term perspective would mean doing all we can to address the “75-year threats”—the issues for which we’ll be thanked or blamed two or three generations from now. Rebuilding the infrastructure, so that it’s an asset rather than a drag. Reinvesting in research, for the industries our grandchildren will found. Dealing with environmental challenges that will make all the difference in whether the world looks like hell.

America has been strong because, despite its flawed system, people built toward the future in the 1840s, and the 1930s, and the 1950s. During just the time when Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, when Theodore Roosevelt set aside land for the National Parks, when Dwight Eisenhower created the Pentagon research agency that ultimately gave rise to the Internet, the American system seemed broken too. They worked within its flaws and limits, which made all the difference. That is the bravest and best choice for us now.