Dec 12, 2007

The Depressed Superpower


By Gabor Steingart in Washington

As frustration takes hold in the land of
optimism, Americans are beginning to resemble Germans. They are
collectively depressed over the Iraq War, the weak dollar and the aging
of the baby boomers. Presidential candidates are left to preach change
to an electorate that is afraid of it.

All it takes to find out why America is in such a bad mood is a look
at the local section of any American newspaper, at the photos of the
smiling faces of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Voters listen to Senator Hillary Clinton at a November campaign rally in Perry, Iowa.


Voters listen to Senator Hillary Clinton at a November campaign rally in Perry, Iowa.

All it takes to discover why Americans are beginning to doubt their own
greatness is to accept an invitation to a dinner hosted by Adrian
Fenty, the mayor of Washington, DC. His vision, says Fenty, is for
students in the District of Columbia to receive their books at the
beginning of the school year, not in the middle. When asked whether he
has other visions, the mayor nods enthusiastically. His goal, he says,
is to improve security in the city's schools. Fenty wants to make sure
students in the United States capital can once again leave the
classroom without facing the threat of violence.

All it takes to understand why the United States, a once-proud
economic power, seems so unsure about itself these days is a walk
through a supermarket with author Sara Bongiorni. In her book "A Year
without 'Made in China': One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global
Economy," Bongiorni describes how even those who call themselves smart
shoppers have mixed feelings when they purchase low-priced,
foreign-made products. "When I see the label 'Made in China,' part of
me says: good for China. But another part feels a rush of
sentimentality because I've lost something without exactly knowing what
it is."

Taking a trip down America's memory lane -- to Gary, Indiana, for
instance -- is a good way to understand why Americans today are so
anxious about the future. In the days when Gary was the home of the
world's biggest steel company, the running joke was that US Steel was
so hard up for workers that it would even hire dead people.

The company attracted workers from around the world, including the
family of future pop star Michael Jackson. Gary's steelworkers pumped
prosperity into America, and the country still retains a sizeable chunk
of the past that once thrived in Gary and other places like it.

Optimism Is Becoming an Endangered Species

But Gary is an ailing city today. US Steel has moved its
headquarters elsewhere and has severely cut back its Gary operations.
Nowadays, the city isn't doing any better than its most famous son.
Both have seen better days, but the difference is that Gary doesn't
even have the money for a facelift.

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