Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bigness and Its Many Independent Parts

James K. Glassman of the American Enterprise Institue writes:

Yes, the United States has problems. A good rule--call it the Rule of Bigness--is that in any economy where 100 million families generate $12 trillion in GDP, there are bound to be problems somewhere--enough to fill many hours of woe on nightly news programs.

Congress still hasn't addressed the coming crisis in Social Security and Medicare. Iraq is consuming lives and tax dollars. Terrorism looms. Interest rates and producer prices are rising. Real estate bubbles have puffed up in some urban areas and resorts. Many consumers have borrowed too much, and poverty hasn't been eradicated.

But, on the other hand, the Rule of Bigness requires you to look at all the aggregate numbers, not just selected ones and convincing anecdotes...

I find the first line of this quote instructive. The U.S. is a big country. Not just in land area but in the number of people and its infinite variety of ethnicities. To compare the U.S. in all its complexity to smaller like, say, Costa Rica is almost like comparing apples to oranges. As a whole the U.S. can accomplish quite a lot, but among its many parts, it becomes clear that not all work equally. Some sectors of the American economy are thriving, like retail and financial services, while others are not doing as well, like manufacturing. American universities are regarded as the far and away the world's best, but its grade schools are in many major cities embarassing. Some cities have the most healthy inhabitants imaginable, others seem dedicated to decadent indulgence, obesity and early death. The safest areas often have the highest density of legal gun owners, while the most dangerous are in places where guns are banned. Some of the most politically liberal towns are the least culturally and ethnically diverse (San Francisco, Austin, Boulder), while many conservative cities accommodate with teeming but energetic immigrant populations (Dallas, Phoenix, Houston).

More than to point the obvious contrasts in America, I present them to remind others that when making comparisons with America, it is important to have some perspective of what you are dealing with. It ties in with my recent post about why the U.S. can never become a Scaninavian socialist superstate, in which I emphasize that America's demographic diversity challenges the necessary unified social norms that are instrumental to a successful welfare state. It's not just the people, but also its very structure and size. There's no other country where its federal structure has developed into fifty states that have near autonomy on its legal system, form of legislative government, and state militias. Each state does not depend all that much on the capital city, like far-flung Siberian cities to Moscow. If the U.S. as we know it were to politically disintegrate tomorrow, fifty states would be ready to move forward on their own indepently. Though each state's economic vitality varies from one another, in not one would a person's standard of living be visibly lower.

As Glassman reminds us, America has its sore spots as well as its problems. It is a blessing that our culture is among the most self-critical in the world. As difficult as it is for foreigners to believe, Americans rarely talk at length about how great they are. That kind of talk is reserved for one day of the year, on the 4th of July. For all the other days, we are bombarded with all that's wrong with us somewhere in some part of the country. And our media organizations make sure that if there is something wrong about another country, it's because America has failed to do the right thing over there. Glassman notes that negative local stories and heartfelt anecdotes belie the broader national statistics that paint a better picture about the state of the nation. Sure the statistics provide a much needed sense of perspective about what is actually going on, but this overriding belief that not all is good contibutes to an ethic of improvement embraced by most Americans.

Americans can take it because their country is big enough to realize that it can't be perfect.

In any case it's an opportunity for self-improvement, which itself is a big business in the U.S. We're into personal reinvention, and the term 'rebirth' is used for all sorts of ways to describe permanent change. It's a way of looking to the future, realizing that life could be totally unlike what we imagine today. Such dramatic change is expected by Americans, since we're mindful that immigrants in the past and present had to make remake themselves into completely new people to become Americans. Many solutions to the nation's problems will not be the tried and true from elsewhere, but more likely will seem radical and novel. From school vouchers to private retirement accounts, America's special circumstances require imaginative reforms that can engage all the country's many parts. It's foolish to believe that all parts can act equally in harmony. The very messiness, exagerration, and extreme expression that is American culture makes for its seductive international appeal, does it not?

hat tip: Expatriots United

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