The Hard Truth About Going 'Soft'

The President got flak for pointing out we're not on top of our game. He's right

  • Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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    The great scholar Daniel Bell once summed up the essence of the Protestant ethic that had spawned industrial civilization: delayed gratification. The ability to save and invest today for a better tomorrow has been at the heart of every society's leap from poverty to plenty. The U.S. was a country marked by this ethic. In the 1950s, household debt was just 34% of disposable income; today it is 115%. Then, the government made massive investments in research, development, infrastructure and education. Today, spending in all those areas is declining. Infrastructure and R&D; spending are each down by a full percentage point of GDP. Federal funding for the physical sciences fell 54% over the 25 years since 1970 and has continued to fall. Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum point out in their new book that 30 years ago, 10% of California's general revenue went to higher education--and the result was the crown jewel of American public education, the University of California system. Just 3% went to prisons. Today, 11% goes to prisons and 8% to higher education, a number that is dropping fast. There are now about as many Americans who work in the prison business as in auto manufacturing.

    Federal, state and local governments now spend less of their money investing for the future. Health care and pensions are devouring budgets everywhere, and whatever their virtues, it is difficult to mark them as producing a more competitive society. The federal government spends $4 on every adult over 65, compared with $1 on every child under 18. That is a statement about our priorities, favoring consumption over investment, the present over the future, ourselves over our children.

    Conservatives used to believe in confronting hard truths, not succumbing to comforting fairy tales. Some still do. In a bracing essay in the National Review, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and a politically active libertarian, describes how America has, well, gone soft. He notes that median wages have been stagnating for decades and argues that the country's innovation culture has been corroded by a widespread search for "easy progress" and quick fixes. "In our hearts and minds," Thiel writes, "we know that desperate optimism will not save us." So when you hear someone like Eric Cantor recite one of these feel-good mantras ("U.S.A., No. 1!"), think of that well-chosen phrase: desperate optimism.

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