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Phil-osophically Speaking - July 7, 2010

America’s Future Can Still Be Brighter Than Its Glorious Past


It is the morning of July 4, 2010, America’s 234th birthday. As a nation we’ve been around for a while although not nearly as long as many European and Asian countries. In 1987 Paul Kennedy, a Yale history professor, published his influential book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers in which he saw parallels between America and the Roman and British empires in their twilight.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, time gives us some perspective on Kennedy’s thesis. So as we move deeper into the 21st century, the question of whether America is ascending or descending among the world’s great powers is a tantalizing inquiry. Although shaken by the great recession and two protracted wars, America is still by far the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

The problems of immigration, assimilation, race issues and a debt of colossal proportions are indeed daunting challenges. In the past, America’s economic engine and its capacity to create enormous wealth enabled it to take population groups, many thought inassimilable, and not only make them part of the American tapestry but also a success story of upward mobility.

While the emergence of the welfare state has undoubtedly dampened America’s absorptive powers, it’s still a magical land of opportunity, a new beginning and a bettering of one’s station in life for those willing to work hard. These facts remain as imperishable as ever. When one looks at the simmering divisions in caste, religion and ethnicity in those powers ready to claim the mantle of global primacy, America looks like a principality unto itself, a Gibraltar of comity and friendship.

Two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson defined America’s strength not coming from conquest but in principles of compact and equality. Today we can still see in our townships and villages that singular quality that caused Jefferson to refer to them as “our little Republics” that embody the ideals of our democratic republic. Meanwhile, gerontocracies, anachronistic and stultifying economic institutions and internecine conflicts remain gnawing afflictions in many parts of the world.

China is often spoken about as a future economic giant, an Atlas balancing the world upon its mighty shoulders, poised to supplant the United States sometime in the second half of this century. But unless things change rapidly such an eventuality is strikingly implausible. By 2050, at least 30 percent of China’s population will be over 60. With their state enforced one-child per family the population will continue to age while still being saddled by a centralized economy. Conversely, the relatively youthful demographic of the United States, in an economy of free exchange, is salutiferous for it radiates energy, optimism and ignites innovations that are the very seeds of economic growth.  A nation governed by such favorable forces is always at the cutting edge, pushing the frontier of impossibilities ever further back.

Of the major economic powers, America has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. Fifty percent higher than Russia and greater still than Japan Germany, Italy and virtually all Eastern Europe. Even India’s growing population shows signs of substantially leveling off. During America’s Great Depression birthrates plummeted and then skyrocketed during the post war boon. Fertility is an unmistakable sign of a people being sanguine about their collective future; it shows a confidence that tomorrow will be better than today.  

The one caveat, and it’s not an insubstantial one, is that fertility is greatest in lower-income families, according to the United States Census Bureau. One of the contributing causes for the decline and fall of Rome was that the middle and upper classes were not having children. Affluence and wealth, at least in Western societies, have had the unfortunate influence of depressing the birth rate of these groups even while the underprivileged are statistically more procreative.

In light of these demographics, it becomes even more important that our economic polices are oriented toward growth. Reckless spending, high and ubiquitous taxation and failure to invest in the future (all troubling trends in today’s economy) will have a retrograde effect on upward mobility perpetuating an ever larger and permanent underclass. It doesn’t have to be that way and it shouldn’t be.

The percentage of the population that was poor when America was 300 million strong was slightly less than it was when it stood at 200 million. Will the same be true when our population surpasses 400 million? I stand unwavering in my belief that America has the potential to provide an even higher standard of living for a hundred million or more Americans but only if it does not tax itself to death or improvidently spend away its bounty. The prospect of prosperity, after all, instills national loyalty and an economic environment that allows its citizens to grow wealthier will never lack investors in its future.

I remember reading a little vignette from H.G. Wells witnessing, around the turn of the 20th century, a little immigrant boy saluting the American flag. Wells was deeply moved by that image seeing it as emblematic of the American dream. The fact is a part of America’s past is fading; racial and ethnic barriers continue to break down as evidenced by recurring interracial interaction on so many domestic fronts. In 1965, moviegoers were scandalized by Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which featured a star-studded cast reacting to a mixed marriage. In 1967, some states still had laws against interracial marriage and such couplings were ominously labeled as miscegenation.

Today, fears over such unions are downright risible. Polls show that 60 percent of American teens say they have friends of different racial and ethnic groups and 57 percent say they have dated someone of a different race. Nine out of 10 teens say they have no problem with someone in their family (a brother, sister) marrying someone of a different race. This would have seemed unimaginable just a generation or so ago. It shows America is becoming one society, e pluribus Unum: Out of many, one. And that’s a good thing provided the idea of assimilation is submerged in the unifying ideals of the American Creed.

As I see it, the loins of America are roaring with potency and fecundity if we would but unleash it. We still produce the largest number of scientists and engineers, possess the greatest intellectual capital and have, at our disposal, the most powerful capitalist system of the world if we don’t unduly fetter it with centralized constraints. America’s future can still be brighter than its glorious past if we can but recapture the values and ideals that both forged and sustained our national heritage.