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Anxiety in the Empire




 

 

Now and then, a conservative columnist wonders why Americans have grown so sour about the country’s future. After all, unemployment is low and stocks are rising. Sure, there’s anger over the Iraq war and immigration, but things can’t be that bad with the economy humming happily in the background. The implication: There’s little troubling you that a trip to Circuit City couldn’t fix.

Alas, retail therapy will not cure what’s depressing most people – which is the growing sense that America is rapidly losing its national greatness. Up ahead, the public sees enormous challenges and huge threats, and a national leadership that doesn’t care a fig about the communal big picture. They’re witnessing this end-of-empire spectacle, where the powerful grab as much loot as they can before the bottom falls out – all the while diverting the public’s attention with flag-waving and noisy expressions of religiosity.

People are feeling conned as well as poorly led, which is not a pleasant sensation. Small wonder that 70 percent tell pollsters that the country is on the wrong track.

Americans do like to make money and spend it, but they also subscribe to some high ideals. In crises, they volunteer in droves. They risk their lives for strangers. While Americans prize individualism, they clearly value being part of a unique national story.

Thus, they feel vaguely insulted when their political establishment hangs low prices and tax cuts so high on the national altar. The American experience can’t be all about consuming. Am I alone in regarding Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World an undignified setting to swear in new citizens?

Americans see millions of working-class people slipping into poverty, as the super-rich amass astounding fortunes. Globalization deserves much of the blame for these trends, but then why widen the wealth gap – and federal budget deficits – with huge tax cuts for the wealthiest sliver?

The national debt is rising at shocking rates. Federal debt was less than 40 percent of gross domestic product in 2000. Under current tax and spending policies, it will reach 231 percent of GDP by 2050, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of government numbers.

Personal borrowing is also worrisome and to some extent reflects desperate efforts to keep up appearances as real earnings slip. The median amount of credit-card debt carried by Americans is now $6,600. We are falling behind on servicing our consumer loans at the highest rate since 2001, according to a new report from the American Bankers Association.

America grew strong on Yankee ingenuity and scientific progress. Yet three Republican candidates for president question the theory of evolution, a building block of modern biology. The Bush administration’s hostility to embryonic stem cell research is disappointing, but its efforts to talk down its potential are a disgrace. Add to that its public doubting of the science on global warming, then half-hearted measures to address the threat. Something has changed since America put men on the moon.

The Bush administration will occupy its own place of ignominy for several things – first, for trying to wage an unnecessary war on the cheap. At the same time, it left the national cash register open and unattended for well-connected corporate interests, be they oil companies, drug makers or defense contractors.

And so Americans may be pardoned for not celebrating the economic indicators. A country that doesn’t pay its bills, that squanders its blood and prestige on military mistakes, that regards its working people as just another input in the global labor market doesn’t sound like a country with a promising future. Americans sense they are losing what made them great, and that’s why they’re in a rotten mood.

©2007 The Providence Journal Co.

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