The results of my poll, "Is America Declining?" reveal some interesting results. Perhaps the first one, and most telling, is that I received 19 percent fewer responses to this poll than I did to "What Do You Drink in the Morning?"
Does that mean people are more concerned about their morning coffee than they are about the future of America? Perhaps. Some people have blinders on, and are only interested in what's on their own kitchen table. Others fret that the problems we face are just too big. They throw up their hands and say, "Oh, what the hell ..." And I confess I sometimes find myself in this category. Many people are just complacent. Or they figure, "I've got mine," and they don't care much about what happens to anyone else.
It really does seem that there is a significant strain of what's-in-it-for-me politics these days. It's probably always been there, but seems more pronounced than usual.
Social Security recipients scream bloody murder if someone tries to touch one thin dime of their benefits -- and let someone else fix the funding problems after they're gone. Young people occupy Wall Street to protest that if they have to pay for medical insurance they won't be able to buy the latest iProduct, and their student loans are too big, too expensive, and too much of a burden. And the affluent rant and rail against raising taxes, because they've worked hard for their money and can't bear to see the fruits of their labors go to someone else. A lot of these complaints might be legitimate, but they are are self-interested, not focused on the common good.
And, oh yeah, in the meantime, someone do something about the price of oil, since we want to drive our SUVs 15 mph over the speed limit, because we have to get to work, or get to the mall, or get the kids to their playdate. And meanwhile, as the New York Times pointed out in an editorial today about the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, despite all the best intentions to decrease fossil fuel emissions by 5 percent by 2012, emissions from burning fossil fuels actually increased by 38 percent between 1990 and 2009.
But the good news is that, by a margin of 63 percent to 37 percent, respondents to my poll do not think our problems are insurmountable. They do not believe that America is inevitably on the down slope. That's according to the admittedly unscientific poll conducted in the post "Is America in Decline?"
The consensus seems to think that we have problems, sure, but we've seen problems before, and we've always come out on top. Remember the 1970s and the Misery Index? The index was created by Arthur Okun, economic adviser to President Johnson, and it simply adds the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. It hit 16 in 1974 and 17 in 1975, and crested at 20 in 1980.
But we turned the country around after the dismal 1970s. Economic expansion, the advent of personal computers and the internet, and the end of the Cold War dropped the Misery Index down to a low of 6 by 1998. Since then it's been going up again, hitting 11 last year and topping 12 this year. But if we turned things around after the 1970s, can't we do it again after the miserable early 2000s?.
Several people in the poll suggested the the biggest problem we face today is energy -- how to fuel our economy without choking ourselves to death in pollution and being held hostage by sometimes-hostile oil-rich nations. We faced the same problem in the 1970s. But we went on to make some progress by developing solar panels, wind farms, more efficient homes and cars.
The problem has come back -- big time -- and the easy answers have already been tried. Now comes the hard part: developing new innovations and making hard decisions in terms of alternative energy; cars powered with something other than gasoline; electricity produced with something other than coal. As a first step, Thomas Friedman lauds the recent EPA decision to require auto companies to reach a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 -- up from today's average of 27.5 mpg. But that's just one small step. Many more need to be taken.
A few other respondents pointed out that we got used to unusual prosperity starting in the mid-1980s. But a good part of that prosperity stood on the spindly legs of too much debt, a stock market boom and a real estate bubble. It's unrealistic for us to expect the good times to last, especially when we've been borrowing from the future. We just have to get over that unrealistic view and look forward with more modest expectations.
And that may not be a bad thing, several people suggested. There's more to life than unbridled consumerism. Perhaps our 20-somethings do not have to get their own apartments; and our 80-somethings do not have to move into independent living facilities. As Jono pointed out, many Europeans live in very nice homes, with several generations under the same roof (they also drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars), and they seem to lack for nothing.
Perhaps that's the positive message to take from our current dismal economic climate and fractured political scene. The materialistic mindset that celebrates record-level shopping days does not serve us well. What we need instead, as Nance said, is "the potential for Americans to innovate, to grow ethically as a culture, to employ more of its people."
Or, as Janette from Kansas wrote in to say: "Are we declining? No. Are we changing? I sure am, and so are my adult children. The U.S. continues to be a great place to live."