In response to my “Grumpy Ed” post (earlier this month), I received a response from a reader who gently took me to task for my half-empty view of life generally and of the United States in particular. I replied to him that I would love to have a pair of his rose-colored glasses.
The reader then provided something even better: a beautifully-composed and impressively-detailed review of the greatness of America. He refers to America’s story as “spectacular.” He begins his essay by acknowledging that we aren’t talking about Utopia, but then goes on to defend, most eloquently, a glass-half full (maybe even more than half-full) account of the country’s history.
The writer is Tom James. I’m pleased to provide his essay, unedited except for a few typos I took the liberty to correct. It follows a short bio which he provided at my request.
As always, comments are most welcome, either posted to the blog or sent privately via e-mail. I’ll be happy to forward any personal comments to Tom. (For those unable to access the blog, I’ll be happy to provide a hyperlink. Just send me an e-mail requesting it.)
Please enjoy this holiday gift from Tom James. Rest assured that my next post will be decidedly less cheery.
My hometown is New Haven Connecticut, but I was mostly raised in New Rochelle New York. My father was a public school teacher, and my mother worked all my life. We were strictly middle middle class, or even lower middle class. I have an older sister and a younger brother. I am a product of public education, community college, and state college with an undergraduate degree in business/economics, and a minor in political science. I am 2nd generation descendant of immigrants. My grandparents came here with nothing.
I’ve been married 22 years with a boy 17, and a girl 14. I have traveled extensively in the UK, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. I have close friends in Scandinavia, and a close friend who works in the Middle East.
I worked for a very large iconic global company for 30 years rising to executive management before being laid off unceremoniously in the economic mess of 2008/2009. I’ve enjoyed the time off and I’m now consulting successfully. I’ve been prudent financially all my life and I am relatively well off. Politically I am a conservative, but socially liberal. I challenge the extremists and the fundamentalists on both sides because I think they destroy our chance at informed debate and policy decisions based on fact.
I have always been a voracious reader and a curious student of culture, economics, politics, and many other subjects.
Measured against utopia, we have failed; measured against reality, we have succeeded spectacularly. Far from rose colored glasses, the truth is self-evident.
You and I were born into an incredible society, at the most incredible moment of its life. In what other civilization, at what other time would you have wanted to live? The height of Rome? The height of Greece? How about the last half of the 20th century in the United States? I argue that we are comparable to Greece and Rome, and we are living it.
In the last 100 years, this country has become the leader of the world in almost every way you can think of.
We led the industrial revolution, We invented, and still lead, the information technology revolution. Virtually ALL of the software that runs the world has been conceived, written, distributed and supported by America, and still is. America leads the world in hardware technology for computers, networking, and storage. The entire world is now completely dependent on these technologies. Guttenberg’s press changed the world. We have now produced the Kindle and the iPad. What will that do?
Since WW2, this country has led the world in space exploration, hence better understanding of the universe, and physics. We still lead the world in industrial production. Our economy, despite ups, downs, scandals, crashes, inflation, deflation, stagflation, etc., has been an explosion of wealth creation that has spread globally, and the U.S. economic success has lifted billions of people out of poverty all around the world. Remember, when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. It works the other way around too.
America built the Panama Canal. America saved Europe from the Nazi’s, thereby saving the lives of millions of Jews and other undesirables targeted for extermination. America kept millions from falling under the misery of communism. We have led the world in aircraft production for 70 years and still do. We still lead the world in auto production, not Japan, not Germany.
Since WW2, our military has provided defense for dozens of countries around the world. The U.S. has always been the overwhelming presence in NATO, and we’ve been many other countries’ military forces for many decades. Those countries deployed their treasure and their resources to other things because we have taken on the burden of their defense.
We’ve developed the most prolific and efficient food production per acre the world has ever known, and spread that knowledge all over the world. Our grocery stores amaze visitors from other countries and offer more variety, more products, and safe high quality food that is the envy of the world.
The U.S. develops and manufactures more new drugs and medical equipment than every country in the world put together. Those drugs and that medical equipment are used all over the world to the benefit of billions of people.
Our Gross Domestic Product per capita is the highest, by far, of any country in the world larger than 10 million people. There’s no one even close. Today, the U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s GDP.
Our form of government and economy, despite its faults and failings, has been a very effective structure for standard of living and quality of life. For the last 65 years, despite a population explosion, the U.S. unemployment rate has averaged around 5%. Europe has averaged 8% – 10% with less population growth. At the same time, communism was dismal, debilitating, and destructive for those living under it, with food shortages, and scarcity of nearly everything we take for granted in abundance. Europe struggled under strangling inefficiency and a smothering bureaucracy that the European Union was designed to fix, with results still in doubt. Africa is a failed continent. South American countries have had feast or famine economies and an endless variety of corrupt dictatorships. Only now are some starting to succeed in a sustainable way.
The U.S. gives more money, more aid, and more people power to help underdeveloped countries than anyone else in the world. What other country gave over a Billion dollars to fight AIDS in Africa? When the tsunami devastated Indonesia, it was only America that had the equipment, skills, logistics, and money to help, and we did. America has poured people, supplies, food, water, shelter, medicine, and elbow grease on the ground to help people from Bangladesh to Bosnia, to Somalia, to Haiti, and countless others over the last 100 years.
Every city in America has a Synagogue, a Catholic church, a Mosque, and every denomination of Christian church ever invented, sometimes on the same street. At the same time, we watched Protestants and Catholics killing each other for 20 years in Ireland. More recently, France has just banned Burqa’s and head scarves, and forcibly deported Gypsies. Switzerland just banned minarets from being built anywhere in the country. In Islamic countries, there are few if any Christian churches, and in some countries Christians are killed for being Christian.
Our legal system presumes innocence. It is far from perfect, but it bends over backwards to protect the accused. We read Miranda rights to those arrested and defense attorney’s use any and all tactics to get their clients off whether guilty or not. It produces the correct results in the overwhelming majority of cases. When it doesn’t, guilty people go free far more often than innocent people go to jail. In contrast, the last 100 years has shown us reliably, consistently, and without pause, country after country with little or no individual rights, unfettered search, seizure, and imprisonment, and often with accompanying abuse and torture.
We have free education from Kindergarten through 12th grade, then very cheap community colleges, then affordable State Universities for the final 2 years of an undergraduate degree. Underprivileged people have a wide variety of programs to help them financially or in admissions. Can education be better? Of course, but it’s free K-12, cheap beyond that, with financial aid for anyone who can’t even afford that, and it’s good. Maybe not great, maybe not as good as it should be, but it’s good. I’ve made a very successful life on public education, and I suspect you have too.
The U.S. has been THE leader in consumer rights and product safety. If you don’t believe me, travel in Europe, or consider China. Consider what the world was like for product safety and consumer rights before Ralph Nader nearly 50 years ago.
This country has been the leader on emission standards for cars and the whole world has benefited from that even though many countries have lower standards than we do.
Let’s talk about freedom. Despite bias and incompetence, our press pours out news around the clock, uncensored by the government. That cannot be said for dozens of countries around the world. In the U.S., two reporters from the Washington Post brought down a President for spying on his political opponent and trying to cover it up. The Russians were laughing in disbelief. Every reporter is salivating to get the big story, expose a bombshell, find wrongdoing. It’s an incredible system that has worked for more than 200 years.
Any American is free to speak his or her mind no matter how offensive. Burning an American flag is protected as free speech. In most countries, it is a crime. Radical Muslims stand on a street corner in Manhattan and denounce America calling for our destruction and their right to do so is protected. You write blogs about anything you want. Muslims kill people in retaliation for a Danish newspaper running a cartoon of Mohamed.
We travel freely anywhere in the country. We practice any religion we choose. We make any art we choose. We make and perform any music we choose. We have thousands of radio stations, thousands of magazines, millions of books, thousands of websites to learn about anything we choose, written by people who can say anything they want.
Our problem is a problem of baseline. We do not worry about food and shelter, we worry about self actualization.
While our stomachs are full, we complain that we don’t have more choices of eggs at the supermarket.
We call our health care a ‘crisis’ when pharmacies, supermarkets, and 7-11’s are stocked with endless varieties of over the counter pain medications, antiseptics, sterile bandages, cold remedies, cough syrups, athlete’s foot remedies, vitamins, and everything else you can think of to make us feel better and ease all manner of suffering. In most states, emergency rooms are required by law to admit and treat anyone regardless of their ability to pay. Does it need improvement? Of course.
We fly round trip coast to coast for $300. From New York we are in San Francisco in 5 hours, but we are angry that we wait too long on the tarmac when a plane is delayed, and we ask the government to fix it.
We beat ourselves up over air pollution when our air quality is far, far better than it’s ever been, and while the pollution cloud produced by China is so big, so dense, and so tenacious that it blacks out Japan at some period each year. Our air quality and water quality is superb because we fought to make it that way, no doubt. Another example of how great this system works, how spectacularly we’ve succeeded.
We are slaves to foreign oil by choice. We restrict domestic oil production, we restrict domestic natural gas production, we restrict coal mining and coal power production, and we don’t build nuclear power plants, while the rest of the world allows ALL of those things. Why? Because caribou might be impacted in Alaska. Because every 20 years some fish and some birds die in an oil spill. Because 30 years ago we contributed to acid rain (not anymore). Because a Russian nuclear power plant designed 50 years ago and built 40 years ago, with lower standards than ours, failed. Because 30 years ago there was an accident at 3 mile island which was built 40 years ago. Meanwhile the French are building hundreds of nuclear plants with 40 years of design, science, and technology progress built in.
We lament the “decline” of the middle class while the middle class watches plasma screens with TiVo, drives the safest, most fuel efficient, least polluting cars ever produced, and shops for competitive prices from around the world on their multiple computers, laptops, smart phones, and iPads. We rage that others have done better in comparison while the standard of living for those not wealthy is better than it’s ever been. The average U.S. household has more TV’s than people.
While we are speeding along in our air conditioned cars talking on our cell phones we curse AT&T for dropping our call making us dial again.
We mail packages to anywhere in the world, OVERNIGHT, and at the same time we are debilitated with dismay over our ‘crumbling’ infrastructure.
With overflowing shelves at Costco, Best Buy, and Fry’s, we come to blows over the latest hot Christmas gift, while at the same time we complain about our buying power.
Can it all be better? Of course. Do we fail? Of course. Should we continually demand better on all things? Yes, we should. Should we be satisfied with the current state of things? No, never, no matter who is in power, no matter what the economic conditions, no matter what the standard of living is, not 50 years ago, not 50 years hence. Of course improvements must be made in ALL areas. We must continue to fix inequalities and injustices everywhere we find them.
But to argue that we have not succeeded spectacularly vis a vis the true reality and challenges of the world, is wrong.
It’s quite obvious that America has indeed succeeded spectacularly. We enjoy an incredible standard of living. We have amazing freedoms. We help others. Despite failures and mistakes, we have had a bigger net positive impact on the world than any other country in the last 100 years. Do we have a monopoly on invention, progress, and innovation? Of course not. Sure we can find other countries or societies that do better than we do on one measure or another, but taken as a totality, America, with all its faults and failings, is clearly a spectacular success.
I’ll sum up with an overused Churchill quote, “it’s the worst system in the world, except for all the others.”