How Goes the ‘American Project’? II. The Prognosis

 

Every once in a while we should step back from our country’s everyday problems and look at the bigger picture.  In my last post I pointed out that, while there has been enormous human material progress around the world in the last two hundred years, some prominent thinkers say that the U.S. is now mired in complacency and is at great risk of deteriorating.
In particular, Charles Murray has well described how U.S. society has separated into a new Upper Class (20% of all Americans) and a new Lower Class (30% of all Americans) with totally distinct characteristics and interests. He presents two possible scenarios:

A Hollow Elite, characterized by:

  • The collapse of a sturdy moral code. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values (marriage, industriousness and civic engagement) and preaches only non-judgmentalism instead.


  • Unseemliness. CEOs make increasingly enormous salaries and receive incredibly huge separation bonuses. Also, hundreds of billions of dollars in government funds are up for grabs as contracts or tax expenditures.
  • Drifting towards the European model of more welfare paid for with higher taxes because paying taxes is a cheap price for a quiet conscience.

 

A Civic Great Awakening, characterized by:

  • Watching the European model implode. As publicly financed benefits grow, so do the populations who think they need them, and the fewer people there are in the private sector to pay for them. There is no way out of the self-destructive dynamics of the welfare state and America is watching this happen first in Europe.
  • The increasing obviousness of an Alternative. Mr. Murray proposes that our current welfare state be replaced by a guaranteed annual income of $10,000 (in 2002 dollars) for all, phased out at incomes above $25,000. The idea is that such a proposal will become increasingly desirable as our welfare state becomes increasingly unaffordable.
  • The resilience of American ideals. Mr. Murray believes that a civic Great Awakening will take place among the new upper class. He believes that American exceptionalism has a historical basis and that the qualities of industriousness, neighborliness and self-confidence will reassert themselves and put the ‘American Project’ back on track.

Conclusion. Regardless of the specific details of what he foresees, Charles Murray is an optimist and so am I.

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How Goes the ‘American Project’? I. Background

 

The main topic of this blog is U.S. fiscal and economic policies and especially, how, and to what extent, they are lacking. But every so often I take a broader perspective.
For example, the Swedish economist, Johan Norberg, has described in detail the remarkable human progress of the past 200 years, starting with the industrial revolution.  The British scholar, Matt Ridley, has given a cogent explanation of what brought about all of this progress.  Conclusion: human life, overall, has improved dramatically in the last 200 years and most likely will continue to improve well into the future.
How are things going in the U.S.?  Not so well, relatively speaking, according to the economist, Tyler Cowen.  He thinks that too many Americans are so self-satisfied with enjoying the fruits of prosperity that as a society we have become complacent about many hidden, but very serious, problems, such as debt, deteriorating life conditions for blue-collar workers, and a huge buildup of internet crime.  This complacency is likely to make America less dynamic in the future.


The eminent political scientist, Charles Murray, has weighed in on this issue with his tour-de-force tome, “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010.”   Mr. Murray describes a new kind of segregation which has developed in the U.S. based on socio-economic class, largely fueled by educational attainment and professional status.  The new Upper Class (20% of all Americans) are largely separated from the rest of society not only by the neighborhoods where they live and their professional employment but also because they are more likely to be married, hardworking and engaged in society.  The new Lower Class (30% of all Americans) has just the opposite characteristics of the Upper Class.
Mr. Murray argues that the four sources of deepest satisfaction in life are: family, vocation, community and faith and that these four main sources of satisfaction have become enfeebled for the Lower Class over the past 50 years.  But the Upper Class is also being hollowed out in other ways.
Conclusion. “Great nations eventually cease to be great,” observes Mr. Murray.  Is America doomed to moral deterioration and decay?  Stay tuned!