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America's Mid-Life Crisis

What steps must the United States take to confront a crumbling infrastructure and growing self-doubts?

August 29, 2003

What steps must the United States take to confront a crumbling infrastructure and growing self-doubts?

Some of these feelings were triggered by the events of September 11, 2001 — and reinforced by the great Blackout, which crippled parts of the nation's East Coast and Midwest in August 2003.

These internal and external threats to the nation's self-confidence are akin to a man's recognition of his own mortality, once he reaches his forties.

For the United States as a whole, these experiences also translate into unprecedented existentialist fear on a personal as well as on a national level.

Yet, unlike people, nations have the capacity to reverse the effects of the "aging" process. America can reinvent itself, change course — and prepare the way for greater stability, economic growth and prosperity.

This nation's resourcefulness and creativity have been the main drivers of what made the 20th century "America's century."

President Bush was right when he described the blackout fiasco as a wake-up call. Of course, the President has been consistently wrong. His record to date is distinguished by the pursuit of the most laissez-faire economic policies since the disgraced period of Manchester capitalism during the 19th century.

This unfortunate track record will — in the long term — only further aggravate matters. President Bush's solutions are aimed to serve special interests, simplistic in nature — and generally unrelated to the real problem at hand.

The challenge for Americans today is much deeper and broader. Ever since the Reagan Administration, the American people have been inundated with disparaging comments about government, especially by those who govern them.

Public service, once an honorable ambition, has been converted into a leper ward in the public's mind. To many conservatives, there is no such thing as good "public service."

Only small government is good government. With near religious fervor, most Americans are convinced today of the absolute power and total efficiency of markets. The proverbial "invisible hand" has achieved God-like stature.

Already I can hear the moaning of proponents of this philosophy. In short, they are prepared to pull the old stunts of negative labeling — such as "liberal", "tax and spend" and "death tax." Even many Democrats will dive in for fear of "inelectability."

And yet, this is not an essay in defense of cradle-to-grave European welfare states, which have left these countries with non-dynamic societies and entrepreneurial deficiencies.

My argument is, however, to suggest that there is an alternative to the Bush Administration's ardent pursuit of happiness for the rich by cutting taxes, mortgaging the fiscal future of America's children — and failing to provide for basic services.

Let us remember then that well over 42 million Americans are without health insurance, that privatized and deregulated energy markets have caused brownouts and blackouts on the West and the East Coast.

Let us also recall that U.S. roads have more potholes than there are craters on the moon — because local and state governments lack the funds to repair them.

Let us not forget that New York City's water mains are over 100 years old and poorly maintained and that the city's bridges have structural defects due to lack of maintenance.

The U.S. primary and secondary education system is patchy at best, cementing ever-growing income differentials between the haves and the have-nots. The list goes on and it sounds alarmist — because it is.

In total, this must be viewed as a stunning outcome after a full decade now viewed as another gilded age. But it is the inevitable outcome of the nation's obsession with low taxes — and an almost visceral reaction to government.

But such self-centered glory — reminiscent of the shallow self-centeredness of a Sturm-and-Drang youth as was characteristic of the United States of the 1990s — does not come without a price. Over the next 20 years, America will experience a series of collapses in its physical infrastructure and in its social order, unless fundamental changes are made.

The reasons for this neglect are both cultural as well as political. The nation is solidly rooted in a belief system that cherishes individual freedom — and that is highly suspicious of government intervention.

However, this belief system was seriously challenged during the Great Depression when President Roosevelt recognized the need for community response and responsibility in designing the New Deal.

Over the last quarter of a century, conservatives have successfully chipped away at the body of the New Deal. They have been able to convince many Americans to adopt that the concept of "the survival of the fittest" is at the core of America's raison d'être.

In doing so, they have also created broad-based consensus within society to deny the sheer existence — or need — of public goods. They were helped in their efforts by the dismal failure of Western Europe's over-the-top welfare states.

It remains to be seen whether the Great Blackout of '03 shock will mark the beginning of an effort to rethink America. But it certainly provides an excellent opportunity to promote the idea of public goods. Health care is a public good, electricity and water are public goods, adequately maintained infrastructure is a public good — and education is a public good.

To define these services as public goods does not mean automatically that they must be provided by the public sector, i.e. government. This is an important distinction from the Western European model.

It does mean, however, that we must design mechanisms to assure the fair, equitable, affordable and reliable delivery of those services. This may be done by the private sector — with or without regulation or by joint private/public sector efforts.

In those cases, where the fair, equitable, affordable and reliable delivery of these services cannot or will not be delivered by the private sector, however, government must intervene.

Americans must undertake a long-term cost/benefit analysis. How will society be served best? What is the price to pay in terms of taxes — compared to eventual infrastructural and social chaos? The case has to be made that taxes are nothing else but payment for services rendered.

Nobody questions the need to pay their grocery bill. Why then is it so hard to comprehend that providing health care too has a price?

It is interesting and disturbing at the same time that many Americans feel entitled to receive public goods (hence they still have an subconscious understanding of their existence), but that they are unwilling to pay for them. It will be a tremendous challenge, therefore, to de-demonize taxation.

In the end, Americans do not need new commissions to tell them what they already know, at least instinctively. Bill Richardson's remark post-blackout that the United States is a superpower with a Third World grid applies to much of the country's physical and human infrastructure.

The American people have an important choice to make. On the one hand, they rightfully want to safeguard their past accomplishments — and secure a role in the world. On the other hand by weight of tradition, they favor a balanced approach to economic growth.

This can only be accomplished when Americans are once again proud to serve the public — but not only through the nation's armed forces.

Teachers, health care providers and guarantors of the nation's water and electricity supply are equally vital. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness will flourish in a society that protects individual freedom, while it accepts community response and responsibility.

If the United States once again embraces these core values, then it will emerge rejuvenated from its current midlife crisis slump. But if it continues on the present path, the United States will sink ever deeper into a cycle of self-doubt and unfulfilled promises to itself.

It is up to Americans to decide the future direction their country will take.