Saturday, July 14, 2012

Is Ameica Still a Great Nation? 2

All the talk about the European atom smasher finding the Higgs boson adds to the perception of the decline of America.  The US was supposed to have a particle accelerator in Texas, the Superconducting Super Collider, to rival CERN's in France and Switzerland, but we decided in 1993 that we couldn't afford it.  Maybe the world doesn't need two huge accelerators, but the fact is that today Europe has one and the US doesn't.  Two generations ago, the US would have been in the lead.

Today, the US has no manned access to space.  Ironically, we have the International Space Station, but no American way to get people to or from it.  We are dependent on the Russians to transport the crew.  When I was doing science work at American embassies overseas, one of the best selling points we had was NASA.  NASA had a wonderful reputation, mainly build on manned missions like the moon landing and the Shuttle, but also on scientific missions, particular the Hubble space telescope.  The moon landing is now several generations ago, the Shuttle is in museums, and we have no way to service the Hubble, which will eventually die in orbit.  You could see how important manned space activities were when the Shuttles were flown to the various museums that will house them.  People stopped whatever they were doing to watch the Shuttles fly over on the 747 transport.  That greatness is gone.  NASA 20 years ago was what Apple was like before Steve Jobs died.  It was a world leader that caught everyone's imagination.  America has lost its Apple.

After the fall of Berlin wall, the US instituted a number of programs to help the Eastern European nations coming out of Communism.  I went to Poland to run the Maria Sklodowski Curie Fund to help Polish scientists by financing small scientific cooperative projects between American and Polish scientists.  We signed an agreement to maintain the cooperation for five years.  After two years, the Republicans took over Congress in the Newt Gingrich revolution, and cancelled funding for the cooperation years earlier than specified in the agreement.  The US did it under terms of the agreement that were put in for the Poles in case they ran out of funds, saying that the agreement could be cancelled if either party found it impossible to fund it.  The only reason it was impossible for the US was that Congress refused to do so.  It was an enormous contrast to the Marshall Plan that the US funded after World War II.  The US had relatively much more debt, still had some rationing as a result of the war, but we sacrificed to help the Europeans.  The Republican revolution was not that generous.  In large measure, the European Union stepped in where the US failed, and is largely responsible for the current day success of the Poles and other Eastern Europeans.  The contrast between the "greatest generation's" Marshall Plan, and the Gingrich Revolutions selfishness could hardly be starker.

The continual growth of a huge national debt and budget deficit is another sign of decline.  There is nothing wrong with going somewhat into debt sometimes,but going hugely into debt all the time is bad.  Although they agree there is a problem, the US is badly divided on this issue, with Democrats saying that taxes must be raised, while Republicans say expenses must be cut.  The Democrats are in general more willing to put up with debt, but responsible Democrats less so.  The US grew its social welfare programs, like Medicare and Social Security, when its economy was strong.  Now we can't afford as much social welfare as we could a generation ago, but we can't have a civilized debate about how to reduce it, or pay for it.  When you cut benefits, you hurt people.  Today, Republicans, unlike Reagan, are unconcerned about who gets hurt; the taxpayers just want their money back.  So, there is no discussion of how to reduce programs in a way that creates the least harm.  There is more discussion of how to raise taxes, but only because the huge Bush tax cuts that were limited in time have been continued long past their intended expiration date.  The "fiscal cliff" in theory will focus minds on taxes and budget cuts, but in fact Congress will probably muddle through without making a real decision.  That is not the mark of a great nation.

A personal bugaboo for me has been America's hatred of its military since Vietnam.  It's okay to hate the military as long as the nation is not threatened, but when it is, it may be hard to overcome.  A good military requires good people to serve in it.  Currently very few of the best Americans will serve.  The service academies still turn out pretty good officers, but their perspective is somewhat limited.  The military also needs outsiders who will bring a different outlook.  This means you need some good people from Harvard and Stanford, as well a more graduates of good state universities.  But today's generation grew up with parents or grandparents who avoided service in Vietnam, and who often pilloried veterans as psychotic baby killers, rather than praising them as defenders of the nation.  Vietnam veterans probably share the homecoming experiences of Confederate veterans or low-ranking German soldiers who served under Hitler. The 9/11 attack began changing this attitude, because America really was attacked, but it was not a traditional military attack.  Terrorists don't wear uniforms; The 9/11 attack was carried out by a handful of people who all died in the attack, except for Osama bin Laden and a few of his associates.  Thus, it didn't really call for a military response, although that is how we responded.  The resulting mess, getting rid of Saddam Hussein but strengthening the Iraqi regime, has not done a great deal to strengthen respect for the military, although it has helped.  The Afghan war has at best been a wash, with no clear positive result from years of fighting.  The fact that some many troops come home with mental problems has to some extend reinforced the perception that soldiers are psychotic killers, further discouraging people from joining the military.  Without a strong military, the US position in the world is weakened, because it will be less able to respond if it is threatened by another country.

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