End of American Optimism?

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Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece, Foreign observers comment on end of American optimism, which was carried in the July 11, 2011 Tri-City Herald.  The key point of Rutten’s article is captured in a quote of Toby Harnden, U.S. editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “A country whose hallmark has always been a sense of irrepressible optimism is in the grip of unprecedented uncertainty and self-doubt.”  The importance of American optimism is expressed in a quote of Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times (commenting on U.S. cities) “These cities aren’t just crucial to the American economy. They are the engines of globalization…If they are in trouble, then so is the whole model of economic globalization.”

The case for American optimism is the whole point of my (draft) book, We Can Give Our Grandchildren a Better World.  My concern is this reported lack of optimism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The following is an excerpt from the book on why we should be optimistic despite the present myriad of challenges.

To paraphrase a line from Dr. Stephen Covey’s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “The way we look at a problem is often a part of the problem.”

“When competition and enterprise were rising, men thought of the future; when they were flourishing, of the present.  Now…when competition and opportunity have gone into decline, men look wistfully back toward a golden age.”  This was written by distinguished American historian Richard Hofstadter …in 1948.

Here are some examples of how life has improved from Baby Boomer (as a child) to our Grandchildren.  I remember getting one of the first TVs in the neighborhood.  It was a black & white that received two channels.  I believe they were the ABC and NBC affiliates in Seattle.  I remember the third channel (CBS) coming on-line one Saturday morning with cartoons (Huckleberry Hound maybe?).  Our rotary dial phone was on a party line.  How many people under 40 even know what that was?  I remember lining up for polio shots at a department store,(? or school).  And I remember there were two girls in my first grade class with braces on their legs (like Forest Gump, only they never got better).  For them the serum was too late.  I also remember air raid drills and practicing “Duck and Cover” in case a nuclear war broke out.  How will these compare someday with my oldest Granddaughter’s memories of a similar age?  TV-there are at least two color TVs and they get more channels than anyone can remember, much less watch.  Phone – Party Line? She’ll tell her kids about the old days and how crude the first cell phones were.  To quote her, “lol- they were huge bricks.”  Computers-She kind of remembers the internet arriving but she’s essentially grown up with it.  Immunizations have all but wiped out most of the dreaded childhood diseases.  Yes, she does have to worry about terrorism and what the bad guys are planning, but that’s still better than worrying if someone is going to “push the button” and life as we know it cease to exist.

My point here is that in many ways life is better.  The nay-sayers two generations ago were wrong.  That said, a better life is not a guarantee; it’s not a birthright.  It will take a lot of hard work as it always has.  But can there be a more noble cause than giving our children and grandchildren a better life than we have?  Our parents and grandparents did it for us and we can pass it on.  The following points to the future opportunities.

In his book, The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria describes what he calls “The rise of  the rest,” (no doubt borrowed from W.H. McNeill’s epic history, The Rise of the West).  In Zakaria’s book he discusses the increase of affluence in the third word countries.  The most dramatic is of course China, but they are not alone.  India, Brazil, Mexico, and Russia among others are all growing their economies faster than the US, primarily because they were so far behind.  “The rise of the rest” is dramatic because in the 50’s & 60’s the US was the only strong player.  Europe and much of Asia were still rebuilding from WWII;  Latin America and Africa were just starting to modernize.  Zakaria doesn’t describe a world of doom and gloom.  Quite to the contrary, it’s a world of opportunity for those who see the glass half full.  Granted he describes a world in which the U.S. is no longer so preeminent that second place just looks like first loser.  However, he predicts that we will be #1 for some years to come, just not in all categories of business, and there will be strong numbers two, three, and four.  This sounds scary only if we think in terms of a zero sum game.  Then yes, other countries advancing would mean that we are falling behind.  But the world of business is not a zero sum game.  Other countries growing their economies creates a world of new opportunities that we can take advantage of (in a good way).  Two examples: GM and Ford just cut deals worth $1.8 billion for exports to China; Proctor and Gamble already sells $2.5 billion worth of products in China per year.  So let’s roll up our sleeves and identify ways to move America forward.

We CAN hand off a better world to our Grandchildren.

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