Are America's Best Days Behind Us?

The U.S. is used to being No. 1. But it's going to take a lot more than a few budget cuts and shifting resources to stay competitive in today's global arena. It's time to adopt a whole new way of thinking. Is America ready?

  • Illustrations by Joe Magee for TIME

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    What the Founding Fathers Knew
    Is any of this possible in a rich, democratic country? In fact it is. The countries of Northern Europe — Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland — have created a fascinating and mixed model of political economy. Their economies are extremely open and market-based. Most of them score very high on the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom. But they also have generous welfare states and make major investments for future growth. Over the past 20 years, these countries have grown nearly as fast as, or in some cases faster than, the U.S. Germany has managed to retain its position as the world's export engine despite high wages and generous benefits.

    Now, America should not and cannot simply copy the Nordic model or any other. Americans would rebel at the high taxes that Northern Europeans pay — and those taxes are proving uncompetitive in a world where many other European countries have much lower rates and Singapore has a maximum personal rate of 20%. The American system is more dynamic, entrepreneurial and unequal than that of Europe and will remain so. But the example of Northern Europe shows that rich countries can stay competitive if they remain flexible, benchmark rigorously and embrace efficiency.

    American companies are, of course, highly efficient, but American government is not. By this I don't mean to echo the usual complaints about waste, fraud and abuse. In fact, there is less of those things than Americans think, except in the Pentagon with its $700 billion budget. The problem with the U.S. government is that its allocation of resources is highly inefficient. We spend vast amounts of money on subsidies for housing, agriculture and health, many of which distort the economy and do little for long-term growth. We spend too little on science, technology, innovation and infrastructure, which will produce growth and jobs in the future. For the past few decades, we have been able to be wasteful and get by. But we will not be able to do it much longer. The money is running out, and we will have to marshal funds and target spending far more strategically. This is not a question of too much or too little government, too much or too little spending. We need more government and more spending in some places and less in others.

    The tragedy is that Washington knows this. For all the partisan polarization there, most Republicans know that we have to invest in some key areas, and most Democrats know that we have to cut entitlement spending. But we have a political system that has become allergic to compromise and practical solutions. This may be our greatest blind spot. At the very moment that our political system has broken down, one hears only encomiums to it, the Constitution and the perfect Republic that it created. Now, as an immigrant, I love the special and, yes, exceptional nature of American democracy. I believe that the Constitution was one of the wonders of the world — in the 18th century. But today we face the reality of a system that has become creaky. We have an Electoral College that no one understands and a Senate that doesn't work, with rules and traditions that allow a single Senator to obstruct democracy without even explaining why. We have a crazy-quilt patchwork of towns, municipalities and states with overlapping authority, bureaucracies and resulting waste. We have a political system geared toward ceaseless fundraising and pandering to the interests of the present with no ability to plan, invest or build for the future. And if one mentions any of this, why, one is being unpatriotic, because we have the perfect system of government, handed down to us by demigods who walked the earth in the late 18th century and who serve as models for us today and forever.

    America's founders would have been profoundly annoyed by this kind of unreflective ancestor worship. They were global, cosmopolitan figures who learned and copied a great deal from the past and from other countries and were constantly adapting their views. The first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, after all, was a massive failure, and the founders learned from that failure. The decision to have the Supreme Court sit in judgment over acts of the legislature was a later invention. America's founders were modern men who wanted a modern country that broke with its past to create a more perfect union.

    And they thought a great deal about decline. Indeed, it was only a few years after the Revolution that the worrying began in earnest. The letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as the two men watched America in the early 19th century, are filled with foreboding and gloom; you could almost say they began a great American tradition, that of contemplating decay. Americans have been concerned about the health of their country for much of its existence. In the 1950s and '60s, we worried about the Soviet Union and its march toward modernization. In the 1980s, we worried about Japan. This did us no harm; on the contrary, all these fears helped us make changes that allowed us to revive our strength and forge ahead. Dwight Eisenhower took advantage of the fears about the Soviet Union to build the interstate-highway system. John Kennedy used the Soviet challenge in space to set us on a path toward the goal of getting to the moon.

    What is really depressing is the tone of our debate. In place of the thoughtful concern of Jefferson and Adams, we have its opposite in tone and temperament — the shallow triumphalism purveyed by politicians now. The founders loved America, but they also understood that it was a work in progress, an unfinished enterprise that would constantly be in need of change, adjustment and repair. For most of our history, we have become rich while remaining restless. Rather than resting on our laurels, we have feared getting fat and lazy. And that has been our greatest strength. In the past, worrying about decline has helped us avert that very condition. Let's hope it does so today.

    Restoring the American Dream: Getting Back to No. 1 — a Fareed Zakaria GPS Special premieres on CNN at 8 p.m. E.T. and P.T. on March 6 and airs again at 8 p.m. E.T. and P.T. on March 12 .

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