The Two Americas: Which is Exceptional?

images“The Two Americas” was the refrain of a past presidential candidate, contrasting U.S. affluence with its lack; certainly a familiar theme lately. But I have a different point, prompted by something in a recent issue of The Economist that I felt hit the bullseye.

It was in a review of The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success, by Amy Chua (of “Tiger Mother” fame) and Jed Rubenfeld. The “package,” they say, characterizes ethnic groups that excel in business: a sense of superiority, yet also insecurity, and a great capacity for impulse control, especially the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles.

America, the reviewer said, “was once the quintessential triple package nation” – convinced of its exceptional destiny, yet prodded by insecurity (from Eurosnobbery), and with a strong work ethic. But lately, “insecurity and the will to work have all but vanished. What is left is essentially the swagger, complacency and entitlement of a perverted sense of exceptionalism.” (My emphasis)

So true! But not of America’s entirety; though a large part of America unfortunately fits that indictment. This “America 1” does thoughtlessly feel a sense of complacent exceptionalist entitlement: that our workers should earn pay much higher than Chinese or Indians, regardless of whether those can do the same work far more cheaply. images-2Indeed, as though there’s something wrong about their doing it. As though we can somehow protect ourselves against this economic reality by stopping businesses from “shipping jobs overseas.” As though Americans do have some sort of God-bestowed entitlement to these jobs and their high pay, and Bangladeshis do not. As though raising minimum wages and decreeing other employee benefits can magically boost our incomes regardless of global market forces. As though we can moreover have an ever smaller percentage of people actually working and paying taxes while an ever larger contingent collects pensions, unemployment, Social Security, Disability, welfare, Medicare, etc. As though we can continue this while our educational attainment erodes, and our infrastructure degrades from underinvestment, relative to other nations. As though we can have our cake and eat it too.

It’s ironic that the right knocks President Obama for insufficient devotion to American exceptionalism, when he in fact epitomizes some of the wrong-headed exceptionalism I’ve described, so toxic for our future. America was not ordained by God to be the greatest of nations. What we achieved resulted from the kind of people we were, and the things we did. Fail to keep that up and we’ll suffer the consequences. America 1 is rushing obliviously down that path.

images-1But there are still plenty of Americans who, though (like me) considering this a great (even exceptional) nation, don’t feel the world owes them a living in consequence. In this “America 2,” there is still plenty of go-get-’em industriousness, a willingness to take on great challenges, by one’s own mettle, undeterred by obstacles and setbacks.

This America 2 is the one I love. It’s a cliché that immigrants built this country. But in fact America 2 is heavily populated by recent immigrants. images-3Anyone with the moxie to leave behind everything familiar and strike out for a new land, often at great physical risk, makes the best kind of American. It’s these people who can save America from the syndrome described in that Economist review.

But sadly, America 1, mired in complacency and entitlement, doesn’t see it. America 1 actually hates America 2 and literally wants to build a wall against America 2. I wish we could swap out a big chunk of America 1 for more of America 2.





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13 Responses to “The Two Americas: Which is Exceptional?”

  1. EriK Says:

    I agree with much of your post, but personally prefer America 1.5 to either America 1 or America 2.

  2. njmolinari Says:

    Frank, do you get a pension from your years as a judge?

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Yes. If your implication is that that makes me some kind of hypocrite, I EARNED that pension through productive work; not just because it was part of the terms of my employment, but in one case at least, my work saved the people of New York literally billions of dollars!

  4. njmolinari Says:

    Lot’s of people earn well deserved pensions, including you. That’s my point.

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    Sure. Nevertheless, well deserved or not (and SOME pensions ARE excessive — politicians giving away the store to buy union support) — it is a problem for the nation that an increasing percentage of the population is collecting pensions and all sorts of other benefits, while a decreasing percentage is working and paying taxes to fund them.

  6. Lee Says:

    Too much of the nation is working multiple jobs and living below the poverty line. I guess we can call that America 3.

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Very true: as I’ve said repeatedly, we have a real problem of too many people not getting the education and skills to swim successfully in today’s highly competitive and technological global economy. (Good to see Lee back!)

  8. Lee Says:

    Skills are part of it, but there is also the “need to have money to make money aspect” as in, how can I invent the next iPhone if I all my energy goes to working multiple jobs just to survive?

    I am thinking a negative income tax is the way to go. A little supplemental income could give people the time to get the skills they need. It would also give them the freedom to risk some unpaid time to switch jobs, away from oppression or towards a better match for their skills. (And we could eliminate the minimum wage!)

    Or am I simply advocating for more of America 1?

  9. rationaloptimist Says:

    It might discomfit you to know the negative income tax was a Milton Friedman proposal. At least it would be more efficient than the patchwork crazy-quilt of highly bureaucratized and poorly targeted social welfare programs we have now. Including, yes, the minimum wage. (The “progressives” will burn you at the stake for this heresy.)

  10. coppersmith Says:

    Superb blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely confused .. Any recommendations? Thanks!

  11. rationaloptimist Says:

    WordPress is very good. I don’t think you need more unless you are a professional big deal.

  12. Says:

    Heya are using WordPress for your blog platform? I’m new to
    the blog world but I’m trying to get started and create
    my own. Do you require any html coding knowledge to make your own blog?
    Any help would be really appreciated!

  13. rationaloptimist Says:

    No html is required

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