Saturday, October 29, 2011

America Looks at Itself in the Mirror

And it should not be happy with what it sees...

At least Umair Haque finds the America he lives in to be less that all it is billed to be.

Here is a bit from a post on his Harvard Business Review blog:
Consider this thought experiment. If you were really, really, really rich — say, not just part of the routinely opulent 1%, but a card-carrying member of the eye-poppingly decadent .01% — what part of your life would be American? If you had the money, I'd bet you'd drive a German car, wear British shoes and an Italian suit, keep your savings in a Swiss bank, vacation in Koh Samui with shopping expeditions to Cannes, fly Emirates, develop a palate for South African wine, hire a French-trained chef, buy a few dozen Indian and Chinese companies, and pay Dubai-style taxes.

Were to you have the untrammeled economic freedom to, I'd bet you'd run screaming from big, fat, wheezing American business as usual, and its coterie of lackluster, slightly bizarre, and occasionally grody "innovations": spray cheese, ATM fees, designer diapers, disposable lowest-common-denominator junk made by prison labor, Muzak-filled big-box stores, five thousand channels and nothing on but endless reruns of Toddlers in Tiaras — not to mention toxic mega-debt, oxymoronic "healthcare," decrepit roads, and once-proud cities now crumbling into ruins. Sure, you'd probably still choose to use Google on your iPhone to surf the web — but that's about far as it'd go.

How did we get here?

The mightiest adversary that snaps great empires like twigs isn't chimerical "globalization" — it's glittering hubris, bedecked in the finery of denial. Hence, if the whispered rumors of our imminent decline are worth leaning in and listening to, then perhaps it's worth trying to diagnose the depth of the plunge and the slope of the cliff before we scrabble for a handhold.

If, as I've argued, we've got a bad case of Reality Deficit Disorder, then it might be time for a gentle reality check. Argue with me if you like, unleash the snarling dream team of Homeland Security, cable news, and Rick Perry's Hair on me if you want, but here's my hypothesis: today, America excels at mediocrity.

After decades of erasing the last luminous wisps of a once awe-inspiring excellence, today, it's perfected the art of imagining, designing, mega-financing, and mass-producing the tedious, humdrum, banal, middle of the road, bland, trivial, forgettable, the less than exhilarating — whose side effects may include unemployment, stagnation, insecurity, distrust, meaninglessness, depression, and dumbification. And it might be that all the preceding is what lurching machine age "markets", "corporations", "finance" and "profit" optimize an economy for — and further, what they shape the minds of a people to come to expect as the limit of the possible (until, of course, a metamovement reminds them that it's not).

Let me be clear. I speak not merely of America's structural current account deficit, sagging trade balance, or dearth of exports — but the possibility that America's greatest export might be the furious pursuit of mediocrity: a set of self-destructive expectations and preferences that, having not been good enough for America — having reduced the people formerly known as the middle class to penury, having rotted Baltimore and Detroit into cities that are beginning to resemble Kabul and Peshawar — probably won't be good enough for the world. Should the world cotton onto the not-so-happy ending of the story of dumb, opulence-driven McGrowth, then that recognition might be the rocket fuel that sends an American decline into liftoff.
What I find amusing is the self denial. The US is well over the crest and is now clearly descending, but the faster it declines the more its politicians become strident about "America #1" and the people in America standing amidst their decaying cities, bankrupt, with one major political party clearly working hard to loot the store before the end comes, proclaiming their love for America "the city on the hill" and a place envied by all. That is the vision that Americans who have never traveled have of their country. But as Haque makes clear. If you have traveled and seen cleaner, better, newer, more functional places, it is depressing to come back to the rundown, dysfunctional, failing cities of America.

Amid all this decay the two political parties in the US compete in shouting declarations of loyalty, claims of "we are #1", and the certitude that America is a special place beloved by God. It is like those shiny American flag pins that are "must have" on every politician whether or not the suit is threadbare and literally falling off the politician. This is the "promise" of America that every politicians sells.

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