Peak Country – August 27, 2002

I was talking with my mom tonight on the phone. In the course of our conversation, I asked if she thought the United States has already peaked and is on the decline as a superpower. Personally, I believe it is. Several factors are gradually building to a head.

Retirement – Masses of people who are now in their late thirties to early fifties have saved hardly any money for retirement. Many of them carry credit card debt. They do not have IRAs, their 401(k)s have been hammered by the market, and pension plans have become virtually nonexistent in this country, so most of these mid-career workers do not have them. Is an entire generation that is used to a middle-class lifestyle going to subsist happily on Social Security? I am afraid we are becoming a society in which many people can never afford to retire. I think the phasing out of pension plans is a huge problem that will only become evident over a long period of time.

Health care – It’s not news that health care costs are out of control. But no one seems prepared to do anything about it. Legislators are beholden to insurance companies, so they are unlikely to initiate needed reform, and employers can only pass along so much of the cost of health insurance to employees before employees cease to be able to afford coverage. Health insurance needs to be decoupled from jobs, so that all people have access to at least basic care, with supplemental options for those who can afford them.

Credit card debt – The average American has several thousand dollars of credit card debt. With this kind of debt, it’s very difficult to save money, because interest accrued on savings is probably outweighed by interest accrued at high rates on credit card debt. Credit card companies may be happy with this situation, but who else is benefiting from our credit-crazy culture? Many apparently solvent people seem to be teetering on the brink of financial disaster, just a layoff away from bankruptcy.

As a result of these and other problems, the middle class is slowly shrinking as the costs of buying a home, paying property taxes, paying for college, etc. soar. Our educational system is in dire need of a complete revamp. We sue each other at the drop of a hat. Executives sell out shareholders while cashing out shares. We are at each other’s throats. Who needs wolves?

In contrast with earlier generations, I believe many Americans have grown up lazy, selfish and cowardly. After 9/11, a friend pointed out at dinner the other night, people offered a vast outpouring of sympathy and rediscovered the U.S. flag, but there was no increase in military enlistment, no long-term increase in charitable donations, just a return to bickering and self-righteous posturing. If something catastrophic were to happen, and a draft were instituted, I think there is a good chance that about 50 percent of those called would head for Canada.

It upsets me that I feel this way about my country. The United States is one of the greatest countries in the world — I have opportunities here that I would not have elsewhere, and I treasure them. I love America. But there are times when self-interest stops benefiting society and starts harming it instead. I believe we have reached such a point. With the number and complexity of problems we are currently facing, we need to work together to find workable solutions. I just don’t know if we have what it takes. I wonder what my grandparents would say we are missing.

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