Americans want it all.
And why not? We had it all, for more than a half century.
Now that we increasingly don’t, we’re tearing at one another like rats on a seaworthy luxury liner. I wonder how the child in sub-Saharan Africa sees that; she without medicine or running water; we volleying complaints via Twitter.
There’s supposed to be truth telling going on these days. But I don’t hear it. Not really. Maybe the truth is unpleasant to face. Maybe it’s too obvious to see.
The fact is that America has ruled the roost since the end of the First World War — especially since the close of the Second — for a simple reason: the rest of the industrialized world was pulverized into dust or constrained under the yolk of crazy Marxists for many of those years.
Who but Americans could make cars, kitchenware and television sets while Europe and Asia lay in ruins from war? Who but our farmers could feed the world as the vast Soviet and Chinese bread baskets were laid waste by central planning?
But all that changed. Europe eventually rebuilt. So did Japan, in our image and with our help. South Korea and other nations followed, most notably mighty China. It went from burning Western musical instruments under Mao’s Cultural Revolution to mass producing them for Wal-Mart.
For the latter half of the 20th Century America scored touchdown after touchdown without facing any real opponents. We spiked the ball nonetheless. It became a great American tradition and an intrinsic American belief — we can’t lose.
That’s how I saw things growing up anyhow. Most of my friends did, too.
It didn’t make us and other Americans bad people. But it did make us demanding and perhaps a little naive. The standard of living in the United States kept going up, blessedly, and we never thought it would stop. At the same time, our local, state and federal governments grew exponentially to tend to our every want and whim. Millions of Americans went onto their payrolls, and on their increasingly generous (but underfunded) pension plans.
Then reality hit, gradually at first and then seemingly at once: Workers abroad began making the same things we did at a fraction of the cost. And you know what? We loved their cheap products, even as our factories were shutting. Unemployed U.S. workers were supposed to adjust to this new economy, but they didn’t. The cost of their labor was undercut at every turn and in every market. So their families began falling behind.
It’s a depressing analyses, grossly oversimplified. But isn’t it pretty much where we are today?
We’re losing the international trade war, but we don’t want to work for less money (who does?). Our government is massively in debt, but we’ll only vote for candidates who promise us more benefits. Children across the world, inspired by historic opportunities, are studying like mad to get ahead. We’re pushing kids through school who can barely read and write.
At our elite universities, we teach business classes with names like, “Capitalism and gender exploitation in a browning America.”
What happened to Economics 101?
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s solution is to churn working-class resentment into a frenzy, point fingers at scapegoats and threaten tariff wars we’ll almost certainly lose. Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, want to grow government ever larger, promise voters more and churn ethnic and gender anger into votes.
Neither tact is especially helpful.
America is a blessed nation. We have an embarrassment of strengths and resources, and our workforce can compete with any other, especially in innovation. But if we’re truly going to move our standard of living forward, we have to be honest about our liabilities. And we have to address them. What we’re doing now is not going to cut it.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.