Picking up on the letter by Dr. Hal Sobel in the March 31 issue, I’d like to reinforce one of his key points: the citation of the fictional TV news anchor, Will McAvoy, who questioned in the course of a news panel that America’s ranking among the nations of the world was “7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy…” etc., while we lead in the per capita number of incarcerated citizens and in some other less admirable statistics.
He thereby imposed on his audience the concept that there are some areas in which the U.S. has fallen behind and require effort on the part of the public as well as our political leadership in addressing the shortfalls.
I am deeply grateful to have been born and raised in this country; my patriotic sense of citizenship was reinforced by the experience as an adult of having traveled widely in Europe and Asia as well as having lived in two separate stages in my life in Germany and China.
Nevertheless, for many years I have been disturbed by what seems to be almost a ritual conclusion to the speeches by virtually all politicians who apparently need to convince the voting public of their own patriotism by claiming that America is “the greatest country in the world,” or even more extravagantly “the greatest country the world has ever known.”
Regrettably, those assurances may have led unintentionally to a degree of complacency: since we’re still the greatest, why should we need to exert ourselves to do better?
Yes, in the aftermath of World War II, much of the rest of the world was in rubble.
By contrast, the continental U.S. — which had not only been largely unscathed by the physical devastation, had actually grown wealthy and powerful as the primary supplier of military equipment and material.
Furthermore, after the war, it was able to utilize that wealth to build up our infrastructure — e.g., commercial air travel, the interstate highway system, local transit networks, electric power transmission systems, etc. — and to enhance the wealth and living standards of its population.
Indeed, for most of the second half of the 20th century, America was the envy of much of the rest of the world; our affluence, our culture, our educational system, and our innovative capabilities attracted literally millions of people from abroad who chose to join us and become residents, then citizens, and to contribute materially to our continuing growth.
But we can hardly object to the determination of the citizens of so many other countries, whatever their source of inspiration, not only to replace what had been lost but to build more modern, more efficient facilities in order to lift their living standards to or even above the levels they had come to admire in America.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have seen first-hand the dramatically modern international airports in many cities in Europe, China, Japan, Singapore, or who have ridden on the high-speed railroads in Japan, China, Germany, and France, have to wonder about our aging, and often deteriorating infrastructure.
Reports in the media show our less than sterling scholastic achievements in mathematics, the sciences, and even language skills when compared to students in the schools of many other countries.
Our infant mortality rates are relatively high compared to many other industrialized nations, and our expectable average life span at birth is lower than in some.
In other words, many of those countries whose recovery from the war — and/or other disasters, whether natural or man-made — the U.S. helped finance, have caught up and in some areas even surpassed ours, while complacency on the part of American manufacturing and other businesses led to deteriorating facilities as well as growing dissatisfaction with the nation’s political direction and leadership.
Regrettably, I believe at least as much of the fault lies with American corporate failings.
While the European and other nations’ industries were able to take advantage of the destruction by building new facilities from scratch, too many American companies were loathe to take the write-offs of still productive plant and equipment in order to pay for replacing them with the latest technologies.
The steel industry, often cited in the recent election campaign for the skeletal remains of many of its mills, is a fine example: some technologies, such as continuous casting and (in part) oxygen furnaces, were actually developed in the US, but they were employed by European and Japanese producers who then undercut American prices (despite the transportation costs) and took market share, leading to the disappearance of once-famous names such as Bethlehem Steel, Jones & Laughlin, and many others.
The American auto industry, led by managers fearful of taking risks to introduce brand new technologies and/or to spend what might have been necessary to upgrade the quality of their cars, ceded to makers like BMW, Mercedes and others the high end of the market.
When Japanese producers introduced their cheap models and the American industry appealed to Washington for protection, they were granted an import quota; the Japanese manufacturers promptly upgraded their quality to take market share from the high-volume, standard American models.
Eastman Kodak had a patent portfolio including SLR cameras and digital photography, but they chose not to compete with their own film business, thus allowing Japanese, German, and other producers to dominate that market and, ultimately, to drive Kodak into bankruptcy.
And I’m sure that many, if not most, of the readers of this newspaper will recall when making a copy of a document used to be called “Xeroxing” something; when was the last time anyone saw a Xerox home copier?
I don’t intend to suggest that all of American industry is derelict in its service to the nation and the world; there are many fine companies that compete effectively in the global market.
But it is, in my opinion, a mistake to assume that all of our economic problems are due to poor political leadership, or high taxes, or high labor costs, or currency manipulation by foreign governments.
Some of those problems reflect corporate complacency, but also a degree of public complacency in response to the repeated assurance in political rhetoric that America is “the greatest country in the world.”
In my opinion, it behooves all of us who live here and enjoy the benefits of the democratic system bequeathed to us by the founding fathers not just to sit back and relax, as though we’re simply entitled to it all, but to work hard at continuing to make America better and better — not because there’s a competition for first place in the international ranking, but because we owe it to ourselves and each other and to successive generations to come.
Robert I. Adler