Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Is America Broken?

Apparently, Americans have become increasingly pessimistic. After all, if the best our democracy can do for political leadership is Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the rational response is pessimism. 

But, Bret Stephens, now a fully fledged Timesman, responds that we should not feel so bad about America. Everyone else is doing worse. Or so it would appear to Stephens.

After all, how would you like to be a Ukrainian fighting an American proxy war against Russia? America’s leaders have decided to fight to the last Ukrainian. Seeing this manifest display of moral cowardice, what reason would you have to be optimistic.

So Stephens opens, with a fair and balanced assessment. Everyone is pessimistic:

The pessimism comes in many flavors. There is progressive pessimism: The country is tilting toward MAGA-hatted fascism or a new version of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” There is conservative pessimism: The institutions, from primary schools to the Pentagon, are all being captured by wokeness. There is Afropessimism: Black people have always been excluded by systemic, ineradicable racism. There is the pessimism of the white middle and working classes: The country and the values they’ve known for generations are being hijacked by smug, self-dealing elites who view them with contempt.

There is also the pessimism of the middle: We are losing the institutional capacity, cultural norms and moral courage needed to strike pragmatic compromises at almost every level of society. Zero-sum is now our default setting.

If we were dealing with the stock market, where negative sentiment is often a sign that things are about to get better, then perhaps one can make a case for optimism. Then again, when the stock market collapses the way that the NASDAQ has, the tide does not really turn until we see capitulation. As long as people like Stephens have not capitulated, the likelihood is that things are going to get worse.

Anyway, Stephens makes a good case for the notion that pessimistic Americans are making a rational assessment of their country.

These various kinds of pessimism may reach contradictory conclusions, but they are based on undeniable realities. In 2012, there were roughly 41,000 overdose deaths in the United States. Last year, the number topped 100,000. In 2012, there were 4.7 murders for every 100,000 people. Last year, the rate hit an estimated 6.9, a 47 percent increase. A decade ago, you rarely heard of carjackings. Now, they are through the roof. Shoplifting? Ditto. The nation’s mental health was in steep decline before the pandemic, with a 60 percent increase of major depressive episodes among adolescents between 2007 and 2019. Everything we know about the effects of lockdowns and school closures suggests it’s gotten much worse.

One understands that our intelligentsia blames it all on social media, and especially the ubiquity of the iPhone. And yet, unless social media has done as much for other countries around the world, I for one will not hop on the blame-the-gadget bandwagon. It is simply too easy to shift the blame.

In truth, Julie Jargon reports in the Wall Street Journal this morning that a recent study has shown something that I, on this very blog, have long suspected. America’s tattered social fabric, especially as it manifests itself in child neglect, has produced conditions that have made children especially susceptible to the Siren Song of social media.

Mental-health professionals and researchers who study social media’s impact on teens and young adults have long wondered why some develop unhealthy relationships with social media while others don’t.

An emerging body of research suggests that bonds formed with caregivers early in life shape online interactions along with real-life ones. People with the hardest time regulating social-media use also tend to be those who didn’t form trusting bonds early in life, recent studies have found.

“If you can’t connect with the person you really need connection from, social media offers a substitute,” said Phil Reed, chair of the psychology department at Swansea University in Wales, who summarized the latest research in a recent article.

However, social media can’t fully replace deeper relationships, he said. “You’re feeling anxious and lonely and you think social media is going to help, but it doesn’t, so you feel worse, and you use social media more,” he said.

Of course, this implies, without anyone saying anything about it, that parenting in America is seriously deficient. Add to that Zoom classrooms and school lockdowns-- and children across the country are in serious psychological trouble.

And, for all the talk about primary caregivers, we can be slightly unwoke and notice that much of this problem derives from the fact that mothers are too often too occupied to bond with their children.

So, if Americans are pessimistic, they have good reason for their assessment of the current state of the American mind.

Now, under normal circumstances, and with a more sensible thinker, we would start thinking of ways to solve our problems. Stephens is not immediately inclined in that direction. Instead, he offers up a rather lame rationale, namely, that our competition has it worse.

Take Russia, for one:

This week brought two powerful reminders of the point. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin gave his customary May 9 Victory Day speech, in which he enlisted nostalgia for a partly mythical past to promote lies about a wholly mythical present, all for the sake of a war that is going badly for him.

Putin is belatedly discovering that the powers to humiliate, subvert and destroy are weaker forces than the powers to attract, inspire and build — powers free nations possess almost as a birthright. The Kremlin might yet be able to bludgeon its way to something it can call victory. But its reward will mainly be the very rubble it has created. The rest of Ukraine will find ways to flourish, ideally as a member of NATO and the European Union.

Of course, Russia is reducing Ukraine to rubble. That country did not flourish before the Russian invasion, and one does not quite understand why its willingness to allow Russia to destroy it will bring about a grand renaissance.

One understands that free Ukraine was the poorest country in Europe. Its people lived in misery before Russia invaded. Clearly, if Ukraine joins NATO, Russia will destroy whatever is left of it.

So, bright-eyed Bret Stephens is trafficking the propaganda line, to the effect that Ukraine is winning the war. For the moment, there is not a lot of the Eastern part of the country left, so if we wanted to be really optimistic we can say that Ukraine did not lose quite as quickly as expected, but that is not the same as winning. 

Besides, with Joe Biden in charge do you really have cause for expecting a positive outcome?

And then there is China. As you may know China has advanced rapidly over the past four decades. No one is allowed to say it any more but China, which had an extreme poverty rate over 80% in the late 1970s has wiped out extreme poverty. The country produced more wealth in a shorter period of time than any country before or since. It is not nothing. Yet, Stephens dismisses it as an illusion. 

And, let us not forget that the tech workers who are running Silicon Valley companies are invariably Chinese. The American educational system and American parenting practice cannot produce the personnel that these companies need. 

Anyway, Stephens begins with the current lockdown in Shanghai. One tends to agree with him, but one feels compelled to notice that both New Zealand and Australia enacted similar, not quite as draconian lockdowns, and many people thought that they were doing a great job.

Meanwhile, in Shanghai, more than 25 million people remain under strict lockdown, a real-world dystopia in which hovering drones warn residents through loudspeakers to “control your soul’s desire for freedom.” Does anyone still think that China’s handling of the pandemic — its deceits, its mediocre vaccines, a zero-Covid policy that manifestly failed and now this cruel lockdown that has brought hunger and medicine shortages to its richest city — is a model to the rest of the world?

Stephens is not finished with talking trash about China:

For all its undeniable progress over 45 years, China remains a Potemkin regime obsessed with fostering aggrandizing illusions: about domestic harmony (aided by a vast system of surveillance and prison camps); about technological innovation (aided by unprecedented theft of intellectual property); about unstoppable economic growth (aided by manufactured statistics). The illusions may win status for Beijing. But they come with a heavy price: the systematic denial of truth, even to the regime itself.

Systematic denial of truth-- whatever does that rhetorical infelicity portend. At the least, we ought to recognize that talking trash about China, defaming its achievements and attacking its reputation does not produce good relations. It seems to produce a major back up of cargo ships in the port of Shanghai.

China does not want to rule the world. It does want to be respected for what it has accomplished. As long as we and much of the West cannot bring itself to recognize achievement when there is achievement, then China will certainly not be a friend and ally.

For now, China is gearing up to receive the Russian energy that the West has cavalierly cut off. And it is about to sign a new agreement to buy oil from Saudi Arabia, and to pay for it with yuan, not with dollars.

And we should not ignore the fact that for all the gauzy dreams of freedom and democracy, our country is run by manifest fools and incompetent imbeciles. It’s one thing to extol freedom and democracy. It’s quite another to sell the world on leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Anyway, Stephens does recognize that we need to come back. He is more optimistic than yours truly:

Which brings me back to the United States. Just as dictatorships advertise their strengths but hide their weaknesses — both to others and to themselves — democracies do the opposite: We obsess over our weaknesses even as we forget our formidable strengths. It is the source of our pessimism. But it is also, paradoxically, our deepest strength: In refusing to look away from our flaws, we not only acknowledge them but also begin fixing them.

We rethink. We adapt. In bending, we find new ways to grow.

We have a demonstrated record of defanging right-wing demagogues, debunking left-wing ideologues, promoting racial justice, reversing crime waves, revitalizing the political center and reinvigorating the American ideal. Our problems may be hard, but they are neither insoluble nor new.

Those without our freedoms will not be so fortunate.

And how precisely are we going to fix the American educational system, which has recently gone from bad to worse. How are we going to fix the inadequate parenting we offer to our children? How are we to fix Gen Z, that does not want to work, that does not want to go to the office, that treats management with disrespect, and that functions as a bunch of ill-mannered louts.

The Stephens solutions do not begin to address America’s problems, especially its shredded social fabric.


David Foster said...

"And, let us not forget that the tech workers who are running Silicon Valley companies are invariably Chinese."

Here is the group of executives who run Apple:

I don't see any preponderance of Asians, and the only Chinese person among them is the managing director for China.

David Foster said...

Looking at some other SV companies...Dropbox:

Apparently no Chinese people in the top tier.


The only apparently-Chinese person is the lawyer

Flexport (very interesting digital freight forwarder):

Chief Technology Officer is Chinese; Founder/CEO and the COO, who are the shipping industry experts on the team, are American and Dutch, respectively.

No question that American education is mainly doing a lousy job, a catastrophic job, but no need to overstate the problem.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Apparently, you missed this post. And it is not the only one--

Anonymous said...

In my first assignment in the USAF, there was a Ukrainian in the office across the hall (LO!, those many years ago). His first name was Ihor. His wife was Polish.

Randomizer said...

Saying America is broken sounds too final, better to say that it's running rough and needs an overhaul.

I am a recently retired high school physics teacher who was nudged toward the door. I was highly regarded by the students intent on a tech field, and thought of as hard, but fair, by the non-technically minded. The administration wants to go in a different direction. My colleagues were more outraged by my treatment than I was, and at least partly because they know this new direction doesn't bode well for rigorous and accountable education.

Much of the fault for the decline in public education goes to Ed colleges, administrators and society in general. Parents made a mistake in trusting us, but they are now paying attention. That gives me hope, but wonder if by the time the corrosive elements are cut out, any veteran teachers will be left who understand how education used to work.

David Foster said...

Stuart, my definition of 'running Silicon Valley' would focus on the people who are actually the key decision-makers. If we were taking about railroads which had a lot of Irish locomotive engineers, would people say "The Irish are running the CSX railroad?"

There is no question that American schools are doing a lousy job teaching STEM (except to specialists at the college level and above), but then they're not doing that great a job with literature or history or fundamental literacy, either

Point is, it doesn't only matter who is good at writing code or designing circuits, it also matters who starts and builds companies and makes them successful over time.

I don't favor underrating competitors, but I don't favor overrating them, either.

Webutante said...

Stuart, I love the true phrase....America fighting a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. Hitting the nail on the
head except I would add the Bidens' proxy war.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

of course, the heads of Microsoft, Google and Twitter are of Indian origin. Tim Cook has explained that America has no where near enough tech engineers to produce what he needs to produce. And then, over 60% of the tech teams at Silicon Valley companies are here on H1B visas.

Anonymous said...

Microsoft and Apple make for poor learning platforms. Big tech has intentionally dumbed down American consumers to milk. Even the Chinese are trying to flush Microsoft.

autothreads said...

China does not want to rule the world.

Tell that to Tibetans and Taiwanese.

At the very least, the CCP wants the world to literally be in its debt. See the Belt & Road project.

Xinhua, China, is usually translated as "Middle Kingdom" but "Center of the Universe" might be more culturally accurate.

Han Chinese make American white supremacists look like pikers. Even David Goldman says that.

IamDevo said...

As with everything in life, China is neither all one thing nor another; it is a combination of things, and as such, it is easy to cherry pick examples that support pretty much any hypothesis. Certainly China has autocratic/totalitarian features--in spades--but it is also a huge place, and the eastern reaches of its territory tend to be quite unlike those of the heavily urbanized eastern part. I recommend the You Tube channel hosted by a chap under the name of "Serpentza" (if I recall correctly) as a pretty good overall portrait of the reality of China. Looking inward it is certainly possible to see America as a time bomb waiting to implode. But it remains also a place where free people still make decisions for themselves and live good, decent and traditional lives. Again, it is the extreme examples of our moral, intellectual and physical decay that grab the most attention, and I do not mean to understate them. But looking at things from a personal perspective, I see my offspring through two generations as hard-working, decent and moral citizens who, given a chance, will see things through. It is well to look at things from a broader perspective, both geographically and temporally. Recall how riven our country was during the decade of the Depression--anyone remember the Bonus Army and its literal occupation of DC? The "Dust Bowl?" Gang wars in Chicago and New York? I could go on, of course, but how that worm turned as a result of the conflict that we subsume under the name, "World War II," from which America emerged as the single most powerful country in the history of the world? I have no way of predicting the future--nobody does--but I believe we are best served to simply try to live our own best possible lives, always remembering that this is not our home, but a mere temporary abode in which we pass our time while awaiting eternity.

Anonymous said...

"But, Bret Stephens, now a fully fledged Timesman, responds that we should not feel so bad about America. Everyone else is doing worse. Or so it would appear to Stephens."

If "Timesman" decodes to a New York Times writer, then I trust NOTHING from the NYT.

The pessimism comes in many flavors. There is progressive pessimism: The country is tilting toward MAGA-hatted fascism... Ahhhh, Mr. TRUMP is inside his head, and the NYT's heads, too. What can't that man DO?

Anonymous said...