A Call to Reinvent American Traditions

MORE LIKE US: MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN by James Fallows, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 245 pp., $18.95

JAMES FALLOWS is one of America's best younger journalists. Five years ago, when Esquire asked David Halberstam (one of the country's best older journalists) to write a piece on the most promising scribe of the baby-boom generation, he chose Mr. Fallows.

A Wunderkind from Harvard, Fallows, at 28, was a speech writer for Jimmy Carter (and blew the whistle on the chaos at the White House in 1978). Next, in the enviable job of Washington correspondent for The Atlantic, Fallows wrote brilliantly on the need for American reindustrialization and on issues of insider politics, and even kept readers abreast of new software in the microcomputer revolution of the early '80s. In 1986, he suddenly went to Asia to live and write in Japan and Malaysia.

This, Fallows's second book, is a meditation on one of the prime causes of anxiety in the United States today: the possible loss of preeminence in the world as Americans continue to be economically outperformed by Asians, and to some extent Europeans.

The trade deficit, large foreign holdings in US real estate and stock, poor comparative performance in math and science by American students - all are causes for concern. ``It's time to acknowledge a cultural danger,'' Fallows writes.

The main insight of his book, which begins with a comparison between Japanese and American cultures (and notes a dark, nationalist-racist side to the Japanese), is that if Americans try to outcompete and outsacrifice other countries, they will lose.

What America needs is to rediscover the distinctive qualities in its own character. For Fallows, this is the archetypal American faith in openness and optimism; in the second chance; in fluidity and mobility; in rebirth; in the fair deal for the average guy; in the guts to pack up and head for California, full of hope for the future.

Rather than copy people in other nations, the way for Americans to adjust to a changing world is to be ``more like us,'' Fallows writes.

In a section titled ``Reinvented Lives,'' Fallows offers examples of Americans who typify his ideal.

Buddy Ginn starts a new life as a jack-of-all-trades on Texas oil rigs after leaving behind a series of failures and scrapes in his Indiana hometown.

The Nguyens, an immigrant family of Vietnamese boat people, arrive in Los Angeles in 1979 and work in a water-bed factory for $2.10 an hour. In three years, through frugality, discipline, and sharing, they own a small furniture store and a beauty parlor.

William Westberry, a lowly millwright in a regressive Florida town, takes on city hall and a powerful mill. With the help of Ralph Nader and media support, he manages to stop the pollution of local estuaries - even though it takes him five years.

Despite such stories, new habits are creeping in to ossify the limber structure of American society, Fallows says.

A more rigid class system is developing. The ``yuppie wave'' of the '80s has brought a ``new status system,'' built on an incestuous combination of money, education, taste, and style, as well as corporate values. It is reminiscent of the aristocratic British upper class of the early 20th century, which Fallows says is ``hard for us to see but could become as poisonous.''

Children are weaned to be cautious, their interests narrowed by parents fretful over the right career for their children. Parents ``decide their fate at an early age. It isn't the American way.''

The best and brightest go into law and financial services, rather than into science or manufacturing.

Fallows does offer some policy solutions to reverse the creep toward a stratified America: Shift from social security as ``entitlement'' to seeing it as ``insurance,'' with social security taxes for the very rich.

Give vouchers to underclass families whose children are trapped in ghetto schools, which don't democratically ``mix'' students anyway.

Eliminate guildlike ``credentialing'' across the labor market - especially for teachers, pilots, nurses, and skilled labor - to make competence more important than ``qualifications.''

While this is some of the friendliest public-policy writing you'll find, it's far from enough to satisfy the huge issue it raises (``making America great again''). In some ways, ``More Like Us'' illustrates the limits of a public- policy approach. The book bravely points, in a selfish and cynical age, to the need for a better sense of a collective ``us.''

But point is all it does. The deeper issues of the national spirit and character have to do with questions of history, human nature, the destiny of democracy, faith and moral understanding, illusion and reality. These are essentially religious questions - and rocky earth to plow. Optimism can't carry the freight here.

Not only that, the ``us'' Fallows wants Americans to be more like is primarily economic. The United States seems more a product, in Fallows's book, of the Industrial Revolution and Adam Smith than of the Protestant Reformation and John Adams.

Yet, to be ``great'' again may a desire for the ``greatness of soul'' and the Protestant passion for redemption typical in pre-World War II America.

American competitiveness may have taken a beating over the past decade, but so have concepts such as what is sacred and what is holy. Perhaps to find greatness, America must turn off the TV long enough to confront its conscience.

That's a minority opinion of course. But that's what America has been built on - from the very beginning.

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