“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. Indeed, 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.
But 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. Anyone 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.