What Doesn't Work in America

The story of a can’t-do nation.

| Thu Jan. 7, 2010 2:09 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Lately, I've been studying the climate-change induced melting of glaciers in the Greater Himalaya. Understanding the cascading effects of the slow-motion downsizing of one of the planet's most magnificent landforms has, to put it politely, left me dispirited. Spending time considering the deleterious downstream effects on the two billion people (from the North China Plain to Afghanistan) who depend on the river systems—the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya and Tarim—that arise in these mountains isn't much of an antidote to malaise either.

If you focus on those Himalayan highlands, a deep sense of loss creeps over you—the kind that comes from contemplating the possible end of something once imagined as immovable, immutable, eternal, something that has unexpectedly become vulnerable and perishable as it has slipped into irreversible decline. Those magnificent glaciers, known as the Third Pole because they contain the most ice in the world short of the two polar regions, are now wasting away on an overheated planet and no one knows what to do about it.

To stand next to one of those leviathans of ice, those Moby Dicks of the mountains, is to feel in the most poignant form the magnificence of the creator's work. It's also to regain an ancient sense, largely lost to us, of our relative smallness on this planet and to be forcibly reminded that we have passed a tipping point. The days when the natural world was demonstrably ascendant over even the quite modest collective strength of humankind are over. The power—largely to set an agenda of destruction—has irrevocably shifted from nature to us.

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Another tipping point has also been on my mind lately and it's left me no less melancholy. In this case, the Moby Dick in question is my own country, the United States of America. We Americans, too, seem to have passed a tipping point. Like the glaciers of the high Himalaya, long familiar aspects of our nation are beginning to feel as if they were, in a sense, melting away.

The eight years of George W. Bush's wrecking ball undeniably helped set our descent in motion. Then came the dawning realization that President Barack Obama, who strode into office billed as a catalyst of sure-fire change, would no more stop the melting down of the planet's former "sole superpower" than the Copenhagen summit would stop the melting of those glaciers. After all, a predatory and dysfunctional Washington reminds us constantly that we may be approaching the end of the era of American possibility. For Obama's beguiling aura of promise to be stripped away so unceremoniously has left me feeling as if we, as a country, might have missed the last flight out.

And speaking of last flights out, I've been on a lot of those lately. It's difficult enough to contemplate the decline of one's country from within, but from abroad? That—take my word for it—is an even more painful prospect. Because out there you can't escape an awareness that what's working and being built elsewhere is failing and being torn apart here. To travel is to be forced to make endless comparisons which, when it comes to our country, is like being disturbed by unnerving dreams.

In the past few months, as I've roamed the world from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Beijing to Dubai, I've taken to keeping a double-entry list of what works and what doesn't, country by country. Unfortunately, it's largely a list of what works "there" and doesn't work here. It's in places like China, South Korea, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, and (until recently) the United Arab Emirates—some not even open societies—that you find people hard at work on the challenges of education, transport, energy, and the environment. It's there that one feels the sense of possibility, of hopefulness, of can-do optimism so long associated with the US

China, a country I've visited more than 100 times since 1975, elicits an especially complicated set of feelings in me. After all, it's got a Leninist government which was not supposed to succeed; and yet, despite all predictions, it managed to conjure up an economic miracle that, whatever you may think about political transparency, the rule of law, human rights, or democracy, delivers big time. When you're there, you can feel an unmistakable sense of energy and optimism in the air (along with the often stinging pollution), which, believe me, is bittersweet for an American pondering the missing-in-action regenerative powers of his own country.

As I've been traveling from China's gleamingly efficient airports to our chaotic and all-too-often broken-down versions of the same, or Europe's high-speed trains to our clunky railroads, I keep that expanding list of mine on hand, my own little version of what works and what doesn't. Over time, its entries have fallen into one of three categories that I imagine something like this:

1. Robust, full of energy, growing, replete with promise and strength, the envy of the world.

2. Alive and kicking, but in a delicate balance between growth and decline.

3. Irredeemably broken, with little chance of restored health anytime soon.

And here then, as I imagine it, is the shape of America today in terms of what works and what doesn't, what's growing and what's failing:

1. Bio-technology, developing dynamically and delivering much of the world's most innovative technological research, thinking, and ideas; Silicon Valley, which still has enormous inventiveness, energy, and capital at its disposal; civil society which, despite the collapse of the economy, still seems to be expanding, still luring the best and brightest young people, and still superbly performing the ever more crucial function of being a goad to government and other established institutions; American philanthropy, which is the most evolved, well-funded, and innovative in the world; the US military, the best led, trained, equipped, and maintained on the planet, despite the way it has been repeatedly thrust into hopeless wars by stupid politicians; the fabric of much of small-town American life with its still extant sense of cohesiveness and community spirit; the arts, both high-culture and pop, boasting a still vibrant film industry that remains the globe's "sole superpower" of visual entertainment, and the requisite networks of symphony orchestras, ballets, theaters, pop music groups, and world-class museums.

2. Higher and secondary-school education, in which America still boasts some of the globe's preeminent institutions, though the best are increasingly private as jewel-in-the-crown public systems like California's are driven into the ground thanks to devastating, repeated budget cuts; a national energy system which still delivers, but is terminally strung out on oil and coal, and depends on a grid badly in need of some new "smartness"; environmental protection, which compares favorably with that in other countries, though always under-funded and so, like our extraordinary national park system, ever teetering above the abyss; the court system, overburdened and under-funded, but struggling to deliver justice.

3. The federal government, essentially busted; Congress, increasingly paralyzed and largely incapable of delivering solutions to the country's most pressing problems; state government, largely broke; the Interstate highway system and our infrastructure of bridges and tunnels, melting away like a block of ice in the sun because maintenance and upgrading is so poor; dikes, water systems, and many other aspects of the national infrastructure which keeps the country going, similarly old and deteriorating; airlines, some of the sorriest in the world with the oldest, dirtiest, and least up-to-date planes and the requisite run-down airports to go with them; ports that are falling behind world standards; a railroad passenger system which, unlike countries from Spain to China, has not one mile of truly high-speed rail; the country's financial system whose over-paid executives not only ran us off an economic cliff in 2008, but also managed to compromise the whole system itself in the eyes of the world; a broadcast media which—public broadcasting and aspects of a vital and growing Internet excepted—is a grossly overly-commercialized, broken-down mess that has gravely let down the country in terms of keeping us informed; newspapers, in a state of free-fall; book publishing, heading in the same direction; elementary education (that is, our future), especially public K-12 schools in big cities, desperately under-funded and near broke in many communities; a food industry which subsidizes sugar and starch, stuffs people with fast-food, and leaves 60% of the population overweight; basic manufacturing, like the automobile industry, evidently headed for oblivion, or China, whichever comes first; the American city, hollowing out and breaking down; the prison system, one of America's few growth industries but a pit of hopelessness.

As you may have noted, category one is close to a full list, category two, close enough, while category three is just a gesture in the direction of larger-scale decline. Unfortunately, it seems ever expandable. You'll undoubtedly be tempted to add to it yourself. (I have the same impulse every time I'm elsewhere and see some shiny new industrial or designer toy we don't make or even have.) When I told a friend about this tallying obsession of mine, he suggested that it might turn out to be a great website. (See the vigorous world of the Internet in category one above.) And so it might—a kind of electronic stock market Big Board where the world could weigh in and help track all those things people find encouraging or discouraging about the US and other countries.

The initial impulse for my list, however, was self-protective. I was searching for "things that work" here, the better to banish that dispiriting sense of an American decline into the sort of can't-do-itive-ness that Congress has come to exemplify. Consider my exercise some kind of incantatory ritual—a talisman—meant to hold off the bad spirits just as, when I arrive in Beijing in winter and find the mercury near zero (an increasing rarity these last years) or stumble into a snowstorm in New York City, I'm relieved. For me, such manifestations of real winter are signs that nature may not yet have totally surrendered to us, that global warming is still being challenged, and that things may not be as far gone as I sometimes fear.

And yet that list of can-do's remains so unbearably short and the cant-do's grows by the trip. I'd love to be convinced otherwise, but like the ice fields of the Greater Himalaya melting before our eyes, American prowess and promise, once seemingly as much a permanent part of the global landscape as glaciers, mountains, and oceans, seems to be melting away by the day.