A New Year’s resolution: Don’t accept US decline

The media are full of reports of the worst decade, America in decline, the end of the US century. Actually, much points to a hopeful future.

Can’t quite settle on a New Year’s resolution? How about this: Resolve not to repeat the media’s mantra of America in decline.

The airwaves and netwaves are full of reviews of the decadem horribilis – a decade of terror attacks, two hot wars, hurricane Katrina, a great recession, a record federal deficit, and more.

The common conclusion is that the American sun has set, much like the end of the British, Ottoman, and Roman empires. 

That’s, well, nonsense.

There’s no denying that these past years have been tough for many in the United States, especially military families and the unemployed. But focusing on decline blinds one to the deep well of renewal that has always defined America in difficult times. Accepting a fall as a fait accompli avoids the opportunity to learn from mistakes. It obscures facts that would encourage.

The US is still the world’s largest economy, though fast-growing China moved up to third place in 2009. Despite US trade and fiscal deficits, the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency. The World Economic Forum ranks the US as No. 2 in global competitiveness, and still No. 1 in innovation. That’s hugely important, because new ideas spark new industries and jobs.

Corporate spending on R&D may have slowed, but peek inside engineering schools and home offices. Innovation is humming. The Wall Street Journal reported recently a surge in “tinkering” as plummeting prices on materials and equipment allow individuals to turn their ideas into inventions. Engineering schools are reporting more students wanting to do hands-on work. “Hackerspaces,” where tinkerers can share ideas and tools, are blossoming across the country. 

Financial upheaval in the late 19th century sparked a golden age of independent inventors in the US. Will that happen again? 

It could be that individuals – as opposed to institutions – lead the way into the next decade. That wouldn’t be surprising. Americans are renowned for their can-do attitude and resourcefulness, and the Internet gives them more voice and opportunity. 

Unlike Washington and Wall Street, Americans in general seem to have learned from the Easy Street values that begot the stock market and housing bubbles. Lost wealth jolted them into saving (though whether they’re saving enough is still an open question). They’re also practicing a personal pay-as-you-go policy – choosing debit over credit cards. 

Many jobless Americans are doing their utmost to take responsibility for their lives. A December New York Times/CBS poll of unemployed adults found that over 40 percent had moved or were considering moving to find work. Meanwhile, 44 percent have pursued job retraining or other education. Online learning is growing, making it easier for Americans to improve their skills.

Americans also want to help others. Community service has soared over the last 20 years.

“If you want to feel depressed about the country, think about the government. If you want to [be] really optimistic about the country, look at people under 30,” New York Times columnist David Brooks said recently on PBS’s “NewsHour.” Youth violence, crime, and teen pregnancy are all down. 

Of course, it’s easy to get down about polarized Washington. But don’t give up yet. Both parties back education reform based on performance – a key ingredient for a healthy economy. And the government has made a down payment on infrastructure, essential to moving goods and people and improving competitiveness. 

Concern about the federal debt is mounting on both sides of the aisle. The states, meanwhile, are in the forefront on tough issues like greenhouse gases.

Overseas, America is working hard to win back respectability. Unlike Rome, London, or Istanbul, though, it hasn’t sought an empire. Its interest is the promotion and defense of freedom – the basis of American greatness, but also of world greatness, if countries embrace it. 

That national characteristic hasn’t changed. It’s why applications for US citizenship are still rising, despite much higher fees. Outsiders see the promise. Americans should, too. 

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