Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

I had dinner a couple of weeks ago with a group of Harvard colleagues (and a visiting speaker), and we got into an interesting discussion about America’s future as a world power. Nobody at the table questioned whether the United States was going to remain a very powerful and influential state for many years/decades to come. Instead, the main issues were whether it would retain its current position of primacy, whether China might one day supplant it as the dominant global power, and whether U.S. standards of living would be significantly compromised in the future.

One participant (a distinguished economist), was especially bullish. He argued that the United States enjoyed a considerable demographic advantage over Europe, Russia, and Japan, largely due a higher birth rate and greater openness to immigration. These societies will be shrinking and getting much older on average, while the United States will continue to grow for some time to come. He also argued that the United States remained far more entrepreneurial than most other societies, and a better incubator of technological innovation. Despite our current difficulties, therefore, he was optimistic about the longer-term prospects for the U.S. economy and for America’s position as a global power.

But then came the crucial caveat. After reciting this long list of American advantages, my colleague remarked: "of course, our political system could screw it all up." And everyone around the table nodded in agreement.

That’s my main fear, too. I think my colleague’s catalogue of U.S. strengths is basically correct, although the chronic under-performance of the U.S. educational system and deteriorating infrastructure here at home do not augur well for the future. And we ought to be seriously troubled by the fact that the so-called "Land of the Free" has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. But my economist colleague was surely right in pointing to certain key advantages.

The danger, as my colleagues generally agreed, is the incapacity of the U.S. political system to make timely decisions, except in conditions of absolute crisis, and its tendency over the past decade to make boneheaded decisions that are hard to correct. The Founding Fathers were wary of concentrated power (and with good reason), but the system they created is both filled with veto points (i.e., places where a policy initiative can be stymied), and unusually open to the influence of special interests (especially when they have lots of money). The results are policies that are good for the wealthy few but not for the society as a whole, and an impaired ability to make big policy investments that will pay off long-term.

True, Obama was able to get a significant financial rescue package adopted, but only because the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House and because Americans were genuinely terrified of a further economic meltdown in 2009. A few months later, it took a massive effort to pass a heavily watered-down health care bill. And ever since, the GOP (which should be renamed the "Grand Obstructionist Party"), has been opposed to virtually anything that Obama and the Democrats suggest. Congress couldn’t even pass an energy and climate change bill last year, even though it was the hottest summer on record and there was a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, political discourse in the United States is increasingly dominated by wingnuts whose main goal is to enrich themselves by spouting fact-free accusations, largely as a form of "entertainment." It is hard to believe that our political system can successfully address future challenges when so many prominent politicians and pundits cheerfully spout the purest nonsense, or shamelessly pander to the powerful but narrow interest groups who fund their campaigns.

Given America’s innate strengths, our greatest enemy is neither some emerging "peer competitor" nor a handful of angry terrorists. Rather, the greatest danger lies in the foolish things we are likely to do to ourselves. I don’t think we are courting complete disaster, mind you, for the reasons noted at the beginning of this post. Instead, we are just going to miss a lot of opportunities, cause more trouble abroad than we should, squander money and lives to no good purpose, live less well here at home than we might, and generally fail to live up to many of our cherished ideals. That’s hardly something to be proud of either.

So are you an optimist or a pessimist? Will America’s innate advantages trump its politics? Will the core institutions of the country (including the media), eventually sober up, realize that actions have consequences, and start rewarding responsible behavior and reasoned discourse as opposed to buffoonery and fear-mongering? Or will these same institutions continue to indulge our worst instincts? What do you think?

Update: Via Yglesias, I see that Erica Payne has some similar thoughts over at HuffPo. Well worth reading.