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America's Urgent Challenge

Re "Are America's Best Days Behind Us?" [March 14]: Fareed Zakaria has put a finger on what may be the most formidable obstacle to America's enjoying a future as bright as its past--the rooted belief that ours is an exceptional nation morally superior to all others, a light to the world. As a consequence, we are self-satisfied at a critical juncture in history when we should instead be engaged in clearheaded self-assessment.


Isn't it amazing that the top 10 most prosperous countries are those typically reviled by the right wing as "socialist" or "welfare" states? Many of them have publicly funded guaranteed health care, generous unemployment benefits and social-security systems, and social safety nets. The conservative right has maintained that this level of social welfare increased taxes and destroyed jobs, individual character and self-reliance. The proof may be in the pudding.


Zakaria summed it up with a single sentence lost amid a lot of statistics: "Americans simply don't care much." That's true: Americans have never worried about being No. 1; they were too busy building a country, perfecting democracy and trying to stay out of European wars (though eventually deciding them). America just became No. 1, and most of us don't care.


Unlike in the past, when the U.S. rose to the challenge of the space race, the rise of Japan and other global pressures, today there is a sense of entitlement--a sense that our problems will just take care of themselves because we are exceptional. Politicians enable this delusion by invoking exceptionalism while avoiding substantive solutions. I hope we become restless again now, when it counts most.


The cover stories by Zakaria and David Von Drehle ["Don't Bet Against the United States," March 14] should be required reading for Americans, including those holding political office, who choose to believe it is acceptable to exclude the major components of our deficit--Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid--from the debate. We should not allow Congress to dabble with cuts to discretionary spending and limit investment in the drivers of long-term economic growth: education, alternative energy, science and infrastructure.

Ernie Bourassa, ANNANDALE, N.J.

As I was reading Von Drehle's story, I was reminded of a statement attributed to H.L. Mencken about presidential aspirants with a talent for "swathing the bitter facts of life in bandages of soft illusion."

Leon W. Zelby, NORMAN, OKLA.

Von Drehle tells us that U.S. schools "aren't lagging across the board. Where they struggle is in educating poor immigrant and minority students." That's rather like noting that if our unemployment rate is only about 10%, it follows that some 90% of our workforce is indeed employed, so what's all the fuss about?

Sally Celestino, MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.

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