Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reports of America's death much exaggerated

Dec 4, 2011
By Michael Dee

As an avid reader of The Straits Times Review pages, I have witnessed a decided concern and hand-wringing about the future of the United States which often reads like an obituary.

As Mark Twain said upon reading that he was dead: 'Rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated.'

While I too am concerned about America's current path, my response has been to read more American history in order to refresh the context of the broad sweep of the American experience.

An America in decline is not the America I know and thus I feel compelled to offer three points to put the current situation into a broader context.

First, the current political and economic situation is not unusual in the history of American politics and is likely not even in the top 10 of American crisis periods. Historically, over the last 235 years, America has dealt with much bigger problems such as invasions, civil wars, natural disasters, depressions, World Wars and overall nation building.

Aside from debilitating crises, America has always had to deal with conflicting internal visions as to the nature of American society and its governance. This nature regularly changes in ebbs and flows over time with transitions not too dissimilar to today's. However, despite such challenges, the American resilience and optimism, along with the ability to dynamically reinvent itself while adapting to new conditions, is the greatest strength of the country.

It is compromise that America lacks at this moment but, again, we've been there many times before. The short-term vision of just a few years or even decades is not enough to fully appreciate what has come to be known as American Exceptionalism. While some will debate the point, I believe America is exceptional for the very reason that its citizens do have conflicting visions and they are allowed the candour and forum for the expression of those ideas, which are vetted and then voted upon.

In the short term, it looks messy from the outside, but only because all points of view can be heard and the process is highly transparent and often very loud. But think about it, when was the last time you heard a debate among Chinese Politburo members? In the grand sweep of history, 'Of the people, by the people and for the people' are sweet words indeed, words worth fighting and dying for.

Second, competing visions are healthy and are part of the reason America is the global leader it is. Competition is what drove our species from cave drawings to space travel in the blink of an evolutionary eye. At times we compete and at times we cooperate; this is our nature. One without the other is less efficient.

The America the world sees now is facing two conflicting visions of the world and its future. The fierce independent streak of the American psyche must reconcile itself with the compassionate nature of its people. The wealth and influence allowed to the most successful of its citizens must reconcile with the broader needs of social justice and upward mobility. An America which has only recently built its own nation must now seek to find its place in a newly dynamic world.

To some, America's government is a force for good yet, for others, less is more. Each has a point. The federal government is controlled by the 545 Americans of the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court, who will naturally struggle to reconcile the desires and visions of a free people 55 thousand times larger amid the cacophony of special interests.

Third, the American people are ultimately in control of their fate and should be trusted to resolve its issues in due time with peaceful elections, but not without fierce debate. America was established to balance power. The American people are not wussies. Americans will fight for what they believe in. Americans do not build statues to committees. Americans look for leadership and have proven time and again that they will change direction as needed under inspired leadership.

Americans and their government will make mistakes but will then correct those mistakes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, with each successive American election in many ways a reflection of the one that preceded it.

Foreign pundits who speak about America are most often not speaking to Americans, but rather to their own domestic citizens for their own agendas. While that is as it should be, we welcome the critique and appreciate the global importance attached to the moral, economic and political stability that the US brings to the world stage.

We strive to do our best, yet let's not forget that the American taxpayer foots a large portion of the military expense, development aid and humanitarian relief globally to create a peaceful and just world. Until foreign governments step up and agree to share the fiscal cost and burden, their voice will be held in context.

The American people are in control of America's future and, as a nation, we will do what we as a people believe is the right thing to do. We seek to form a consensus or at least a majority to reconcile our differences.

In the meantime, enjoy the musical beauty of the arguments for it is the sound of freedom, and there is no better sound in the world.

The writer, a Singapore permanent resident, is a former regional CEO for Morgan Stanley and former senior managing director of Temasek Holdings.

[To be sure, SG would like to the US to recover and continue to provide stability in the region and in fact, the world. But the antics of the US govt, is unlikely to inspire confidence.

The cacophony of voices and views is not unusual, Dee claims. So we are supposed to be assured that eventually the voice of reason will be heard above the cacophony and commonsense will prevail. How do we know that the cacophony is the process by which the voice of reason emerges, or that in all those other times, reason emerges in spite of the cacophony, not because of it?

America has faced many challenges in the past and prevailed in spite of their entrenched process of thesis-antithesis. But this time sheer momentum will make China the largest economy in about 15 years (give or take) regardless of what the US does. In other words, in the past, America was its own worst enemy. Now the challenge is from the outside. The centre is shifting, regardless of America's doing. And the sad part is, instead of facing up to the challenge, America is business as usual, and deluding itself with concepts like "American Exceptionalism".

The reality may simply be that in the new world order, the muddling ahead, the back-and-forthing, the Washington two-step may not be responsible enough.

The fact is political expediency has trumped vision and inspiration. Yes, America has been blessed with inspired leaders in the past, but in the present, the media and the internet has effectively crippled if not emasculated the political leadership. No US leader can say anything, without the media dissecting and disparaging any and every word spoken.

Before any leader can inspire, he is already disparaged. Yes, America needs an inspiring leader. Unfortunately, the system has precluded the prospect of any such leader.

e pluribus unem? More like e pluribus nihilum.

So yes. America needs to do better. But to do better, it needs to make the tough choices. But the tough choices are not politically palatable.  And the politicians don't have the guts to make those choices and sell those choices to the people, the voters.  Or before they can sell those choices, their opponents are already tearing apart their idea for political gain.

Or the politicians have already sold their votes to big corporations for short term capitalistic gain.

Where is the infrastructural  investment necessary for America's economic growth? Where is the investment in education and training to prepare young Americans for jobs of today and the future?

Maybe Dee is right and America will get around to it.  But they don't seem to be ready to do so. Oh they are ready to talk about it. And yell at each other about it. And maybe even vote on it. But that's a long way from doing anything about it.]

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