A Foreign but Friendly Critique of America (2)

This is Part 2 and the conclusion of my blog A Foreign but Friendly Critique of America.

WQSpring09Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, wrote what he considered to be a friendly and loving critique of American government policies,  Can America Fail?  in  THE WILSON QUARTERLY Spring 2009.   I briefly commented what he listed as the first two American policy failures in the first blog.   Mahbubani continued: 

The third systemic failure of American society is its failure to see how the abuse of American power has created many of the problems the United States now confronts abroad. The best example is 9/11. Americans believe they were innocent victims of an evil attack by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. And there can be no doubt that the victims of 9/11 were innocent. Yet Americans tend to forget the fact that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were essentially created by U.S. policies. In short, a force launched by the United States came back to bite ­it.

Mahbubani believes ill conceived U. S. foreign policies have pushed some Islamic people to see America as their enemy, not ally.   The world can see America’s blindness on this issue, but it is a fault Americans cannot see about themselves.   He thinks Americans totally fail to see how the suffering of the Palestinian people does win them the sympathy of the Islamic world which in turns blames America for the suffering of Palestinians.  He thinks this will also continue to feed an anti-Israeli hatred among Muslims, which cannot be good for Israel.   Americans seem unable or unwilling to see how their own policy causes Islamic anger toward Israel.   He feels instead of America blaming the Muslim world, we should look at how our own policies exacerbate Mideast tensions and end up threatening Israel, our ally.

Because, according to Mahbubani,  Americans tend to think that all of her own problems come from outside of America, they rarely think about how what they are doing as a nation impacts themselves or the world.   Americans also are so often focused on the immediate, and favor instant solutions and instant benefits, that they do not think about the long term impact of their current policy decisions.   This is just another form of entitlement – we are entitled to good things now, we can’t worry about how these will be paid for in the future or what the price will be.   This too is an American blind spot regarding itself.

In democracies, the role of government is to serve the public interest. Americans believe that they have a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The reality is more complex. It looks more like a government “of the people, by special-interest groups, and for special-interest groups.” In the theory of democracy, corrupt and ineffective politicians are thrown out by elections. Yet the fact that more than 90 percent of incumbents who seek reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives are ­re­elected provides a clear warning that all is not well.

How is it that incumbants become so protected that they rarely get voted out of office?   To some extent it is because special interests prefer it that way and they pay to keep current office holders in power.   Special interests rather than public interests have become protected by U. S. policy and they use congressional redistricting as a way to keep their favorite politicians in power.    President Obama noted:  “These days, almost every congressional district is drawn by the ruling party with ­computer-­driven precision to ensure that a clear majority of Democrats or Republicans reside within its borders. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that most voters no longer choose their representatives; instead, representatives choose their voters.”

 Mahbubani points out other issues which the rest of the readily sees about America but which Americans fail to notice or discuss.   According to him studies show that the ability to be upwardly social mobile in America has been declining and in many nations in Europe it is far more likely that someone born into the lower class might move to the middle class than it is in America.   Additionally the gap between the wealthiest Americans and poorest Americans continues to widen.  The top 20% of Americans, who complain that they bear too much of the tax burden, earn 15 times what the poorest 20% earn –  “$168,170 versus $11,352.”   And the wealthiest 20% expect the poor not only to live on their meager incomes but to shoulder a tax burden which goes to fund programs that protect the wealth of the top 20%.

The U.S. education system produces children who in the world “ranked 24th in mathematics and 17th in science. It should come as no surprise that though the United States ranks second among 177 countries in per capita income, it ranks only 12th in terms of human development.”   Does our prosperity blind us to these national shortcomings?  We are the wealthiest and military-wise the most powerful nation on earth.   Does this cause us to ignore our domestic troubles and make us blind to the future in which other nations might overtake us because they focused on education and equality?

cemeteryWe may neither like nor agree with Mahbubani’s analysis of America nor with his offered solutions for us.  However, friendly criticism is not “friendly fire” – it is not deadly.  It gives us opportunity to see something about ourselves that we may not be able to see.   Mahbubani feels the one word American politicians always want to avoid is “sacrifice.”  He optimistically feels there are solutions to our nation’s problems, but Americans, especially in the realm of economics, must abandon entitlements and accept sacrifice to solve some of our economic, health care and retirement problems.   He thinks Americans are creative enough to come up with solutions for these problems, but it will require a willingness to make personal sacrifice for the common good.

One thought on “A Foreign but Friendly Critique of America (2)

  1. This is very well written and expressed. Thank you for the time you put into it. Seems to me that the verbal commitment to equality in the US has always been matched with an unverbalized commitment to elitism. What matters is where we let the fulcrum stand that makes a difference.

    Writing in this combox… I’m afraid of letting myself go into a rant. So I won’t. I think many of these things are cyclical. I also think that it is very difficult for us to separate a view of ourselves from comparative stats to see how we should use them – not as a measure of how we’re doing against other countries – but how effectively we are serving the interests of the people in this land. My own sense… and where I descend into rants sadly well supported by economists who study… can I say criminology and control theft… is that our democracy is in deep doo. No one is to blame… except to the extent that we don’t do anything about it. Complacency.

    If our jails were seen as a measure of passive-agressive reaction to an ineffective political system rather than a measure of social turmoil or violence or crime.. then we would see how troubled we are.

    The good news is I have great hopes that as the Baby Boomers pass along and immigrants step up to control what they’ve built here… renewal will spread rapidly. It’s not a one way street. That’s a view supported only by the status quo… and I suspect that given a decade or so… as the demographers breaking things down by generation corroborate… things will look very, very, very different.

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