Voice

Chicken Little is full of pompous baloney

There seems to be a general consensus that the world is in lousy shape. There is also a pretty widespread belief that the U.S. is a mess. Also that Washington is a cesspool of corruption and incompetence. In fact, there is a prevailing view that times are pretty dire here in America. The president and the Republican candidates speak ominously of the threats we face and speak wistfully of the past or inspiringly of better tomorrows. It's no wonder that Midnight in Paris was one of the past year's signature films. Everyone is suffering from golden age-ism, yearning for anything but what we've got.

But what if the premise is wrong? What if these are actually the best of times? What if we are living in the best moment in U.S. history and we are not even enjoying it?

One of the few certain facts I have learned since I left the fine public schools of Union County, New Jersey is that into every life come good developments and bad developments, but that we seldom know the difference while they are unfolding. It is only years later that we can tell whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to get or lose a job or a date or make a move to a new city.

I wonder if it goes further and we just don't know a good thing when we see it.

For example, I got an email today from a friend who lamented the state of Washington (not the one with Walla Walla in it, but the condition of our federal government). She earnestly offered up the conventional wisdom that things have never been worse. But read any history of Washington and there was just as much bickering and conniving and in-fighting and stupidity and sometimes there was much more. From the innuendo-driven personal scandal swirling around Alexander Hamilton to cane fights on the floor of the House in the 19th Century to machine politicians cutting sweet deals while ignoring the deplorable state of civil rights in America during the 20th, there has always been plenty to complain about. People wax on about the comity of the good old days, but for all the comity the good old days were periods in which women, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and other minorities weren't given a seat at the table and during which powerful pols managed to coax reporters into looking the other way over scotch and soda at a Georgetown cocktail party.

Or look at U.S. history. Sure, we're going through a tough economic time now. The downturn is the worst since the Depression. But the Great Recession was not a depression, and it was a recession starting from a much much higher standard of living then in the 1930s, and people today live longer, healthier, happier lives with shorter work weeks, more conveniences, and more information at their fingertips than ever before. And then there's the history itself. This may well be the least precarious moment in U.S. history. The first decades of our existence were the fragile stuff of a start-up and there was no certainty we could make it. We were at war with Britain again within three decades or so of the revolution. The first half of the 19th Century the country was increasingly torn apart over slavery culminating in the bloodiest war the world had ever seen as we tried to work out the issues of what kind of a union if any we wanted to be. The years after the Civil War saw further wars with the people from whom we stole the continent, the rise of rapacious megacompanies, and the birth of the KKK and a new racial divide in the South. Think we're facing a tough economic transition? At the end of the 19th Century the vast majority of folks in the U.S. worked in agriculture. We had to change-over our entire economy to manufacturing, and in the 20th century, the percentages of agricultural jobs actually flipped in the course of 100 years.

Then came the rest of the 20th Century, marked by two world wars and then the Cold War's threat of oblivion. And then after that came the recklessness and risks associated with the delusion that we were the world's hyperpower, the one country that had to be active everywhere and could impose its will anywhere.

But that's passed. We're still the richest and most powerful nation on earth and we will be for the foreseeable future. No other nation comes close to matching our military or economic might. But there are no existential threats out there on the horizon. We are no longer tilting at the windmill of a global terror threat that actually turned out to be much less than we spun it up to be. We are resetting our priorities in a sensible, more inward-looking way. We are pulling in our oars a bit to restore things at home. We're debating how to do that but there is very little debate that it ought to be done. We're working better with others, more cognizant that we need multilateral solutions and thus better international relationships in order to succeed. The biggest rising power is also hugely dependant on its trade with us and does not pose any direct threat to us for many years to come. There are problems out there but they are nothing compared to the wars or threats of the past. We have challenges at home, but for most of our history we have faced much greater risks, much more precarious times. And then there's the Voltaire-ian icing on the cake: it could be that this is the best of all possible times and we might as well appreciate it for what it has to offer.

I suppose by the time Monday rolls around I may have a different view. (In fact, I'm sure of it.) But it's the weekend and you might as well roll this one around in your head for a while and have a good time.

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David Rothkopf

The State of the Union…and the state of this blog

For those of you who missed the president's State of the Union message, let me sum it up for you: Our enemies in the Middle East are dead or on the run. Our new enemies are Wall Street, big oil, and Congressional obstructionism. We can be the America of 1945 again if we restore fairness to our society.

Ok, that's a little cynical. But in short strokes, that's it. We want to be good old America, the place where the little guy has a chance and no one wants to mess with Uncle Sam. Oh and we love the military. Oh and Osama bin Laden is still dead.

That said, it was a pretty good speech as these things go, had a few interesting ideas in it, a few sound if retread notions masquerading as interesting ideas, and it was well delivered.

Grading it, we'd have to conclude the following:

  • Compared to the paintball game that the GOP primary debates have become, this was Churchillian in its oratory and Jeffersonian in its vision. If we were grading on the curve therefore, against the body politic as a whole intellectual wasteland that it is, the speech gets 10 out of 10, an A.
  • Compared to the usual State of the Union address, speeches that drone on, offer little in the way of new ideas, sometimes stirred up by a line or a notion or a moving moment or a controversy, this was not bad. The speech was pretty good, the delivery was pretty good, the core idea of asserting that government has a role to play in supporting America's recovery and ensuring our strength was sound, and there was a lovely moment of the president hugging Gabby Giffords that was the highlight of the evening. By this metric, the speech gets an 88, a solid B.
  • Compared to the Obama addresses of the past, his campaign triumphs and the hopes many had for the president, this was still a bit of a let-down. The idea that it included a hard look at the root causes of the mortgage crisis four years after that crisis began sure felt like closing the barn door after the horse got out. It's notable that the president began and ending with national security success stories as few would have predicted that three years ago. It's good he took credit for his export successes, silly that he re-announced a trade enforcement operation that has been announced and formed periodically in the past, and kind of poignant that he adopted the "indispensable nation" language of the Clinton years. Indeed, as Obama speeches go, this was a pretty good homage to Clinton, or as they say in hip-hop, it include a lot of "sampling" of Bubba's Greatest Hits. For reasons like this, you could easily give the speech a 75 or a C.
  • In terms of what is going to actually happen based on this speech -- even in terms of the perfectly good ideas it contained like more equitable taxation, government streamlining, focusing on harnessing American energy in a responsible, efficiency-focused way, making American more attractive to investors, focusing on creating jobs at home -- we are, unfortunately, going to have to give it a D. Because this hopeless Congress, frozen in the dark amber of its own bile, will do precious little and no one expects any more, including the president which makes the whole thing a painful charade.

So, there you go. Pick the grade you like the most, ignore the others, and move on. Because these things matter little, except in political terms and even then not much because no one is going to remember January come November.

Having said all that, let me add one more thing. You may have heard that I am graduating from blogging to being the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. What this means among other things is that I will no longer be blogging daily. (Pause to allow you all to get a hanky and daub your eyes.) Instead, I'll be writing a Monday web-column (like a blog, only crunchy) and a regular back-page column in FP, the magazine. Oh sure, I'll also tweet…and I suppose when I can't help myself I'll throw in a blog every so often. So, I'll still be around, still spouting off -- but doing so slightly less frequently -- allowing you all the more time to read better writers and me a little more time to think about what I write (which wouldn't hurt.) Thanks for following the blog and please look out for the column, beginning week after next.

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