America the Shrunken

Frank Bruni, New York Times, May 4, 2014

Not long ago I asked a good friend of mine–one of the smartest men I know, and one of the most devoted dads–if he thought that his children would live in a more prosperous America or at least enjoy the same bounty of opportunities that we had.

His response was instant and unequivocal. No.

“How do you make peace with that?” I said.

He shrugged, laughed bitterly and answered, “I’m hoping to leave them a lot of money.”

The American dream, 2014 edition: Squirrel away nuts for a leaner tomorrow. The worst is yet to come, so insure yourself against it if you’re among the lucky few who can.

I was reminded of my conversation with him when I read last week about a fresh projection, from a branch of the World Bank, that the Chinese economy might overtake ours by the end of this year, finishing our century-plus reign as the world’s wealthiest nation. What a run we had! It was great while it lasted.

And it will probably last much longer than another few months. The projection relied on disputed arithmetic. These matters aren’t neat and clean.

But our slide to No. 2 nonetheless seems inevitable, so much so that most Americans think it has already happened. For the last six years, when the Gallup Poll asked them which country was the world’s “leading economic power,” more answered China than said the United States. This year, the spread was an astonishing 52 to 31 percent. Fewer than one in three Americans puts us on top, even though we actually remain there.

More and more I get the sense that we’ve lost it, and by “it” I mean the optimism that was always the lifeblood of this luminous experiment, the ambition that has been its foundation, the swagger that made us so envied and emulated and reviled.

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In a lengthy memo that he shared with Politico late last year, the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik assessed what he called “a decade of anger and disaffection,” noting that for 10 years in a row, according to polling by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, the percentage of Americans who believed that the United States was on the wrong track exceeded the percentage who thought it was on the right track. That’s a change in the very character of the country.

“At the core of Americans’ anger and alienation is the belief that the American dream is no longer attainable,” Sosnik wrote. “For the first time in our country’s history, there is more social mobility in Europe than in the United States.”

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American schoolchildren aren’t anywhere near the head of the international pack, and American adults, according to one recent study, lack the technical skills that peers in many other developed countries have.

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We seldom build big things anymore. We just talk about building them and usually decide to take a pass or to wait, whether it’s a high-speed train in California or another tunnel between New Jersey and New York. And while each of these demurrals has a reason, the sum of them has an inescapably defeatist bent. We’re tentative. Timid.

My Times colleagues David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy recently reported that the middle class in America, which had long been the world’s most affluent, wasn’t anymore. Canada had overtaken us.

My Times colleague Nicholas Kristof wrote about America’s rank on a new “social progress index” that includes 132 countries. We’re 39th in basic education, 34th in access to water and sanitation–access to water and sanitation!–and 16th over all, just two spots above Slovenia.

And my colleague Maureen Dowd marveled at the “reduced expectations” and “truculent passivity” of Barack Obama’s presidency, which may be a crystalline mirror of the nation itself, aptly humbled and eerily fatalistic.

These three stories are threads in one tapestry, a faded panorama of American possibility. We’re contemptuous of the federal government. We distrust interventions abroad. The fertility rate is down. And we’ve gone from “Sex and the City,” with its fairy-tale lilt and candy-colored palette, to “Girls,” with its infinite shades of gray.

My friend isn’t alone in his worry for his kids. The “Heartland Monitor Poll”by the National Journal and Allstate last September showed that only 20 percent of Americans expected today’s children to have more opportunities to get ahead than their parents had, while 45 percent expected them to have fewer. That was the most downbeat finding since the poll first broached the question in 2009.

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A thoughtful college junior I know told me that while he didn’t envision a richer American economy in his future or a mightier American role in the world, he looked forward to a country with a warmer embrace of diversity, including gay marriage in every state. He itched to be a part of its creation.

Still, I worry. Can a nation so long defined by its faith in an expansive frontier accept limits so easily? If we become convinced that the pie won’t grow, do our politics degenerate into endless squabbling over the slices? And isn’t pessimism a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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