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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Op-Ed -- The Nation of Futurity

November 26, 2009

By DAVID BROOKS, Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
November 17, 2009

When European settlers first came to North
America, they saw flocks of geese so big that it
took them 30 minutes to all take flight and
forests that seemed to stretch to infinity. They
came to two conclusions: that God’s plans for
humanity could be completed here, and that they
could get really rich in the process.

This moral materialism fomented a certain sort of
manic energy. Americans became famous for their
energy and workaholism: for moving around,
switching jobs, marrying and divorcing, creating
new products and going off on righteous crusades.

It may seem like an ephemeral thing, but this
eschatological faith in the future has motivated
generations of Americans, just as religious faith
motivates a missionary. Pioneers and immigrants
endured hardship in the present because of their
confidence in future plenty. Entrepreneurs start
up companies with an exaggerated sense of their
chances of success. The faith is the molten core of the country’s dynamism.

There are also periodic crises of faith. Today,
the rise of China is producing such a crisis. It
is not only China’s economic growth rate that
produces this anxiety. The deeper issue is
spiritual. The Chinese, though members of a
famously old civilization, seem to possess some
of the vigor that once defined the U.S. The
Chinese are now an astonishingly optimistic
people. Eighty-six percent of Chinese believe
their country is headed in the right direction,
compared with 37 percent of Americans.

The Chinese now have lavish faith in their
scientific and technological potential. Newsweek
and Intel just reported the results of their
Global Innovation Survey. Only 22 percent of the
Chinese believe their country is an innovation
leader now, but 63 percent are confident that
their country will be the global technology
leader within 30 years. The majority of the
Chinese believe that China will produce the next
society-changing innovation, while only a third
of Americans believe the next breakthrough will
happen here, according to the survey.

The Cultural Revolution seems to have produced
among the Chinese the same sort of manic drive
that the pioneer and immigrant experiences
produced among the Americans. The people who
endured Mao’s horror have seen the worst life has
to offer and are now driven to build some secure
footing. At the same time, they and their
children seem inflamed by the experience of
living through so much progress so quickly.

"Do you understand?" one party official in Shanxi
Province told James Fallows of The Atlantic, "If
it had not been for Deng Xiaoping, I would be
behind an ox in a field right now. ... Do you
understand how different this is? My mother has bound feet!"

The anxiety in America is caused by the vague
sense that they have what we’re supposed to have.
It’s not the per capita income, which the Chinese
may never have at our level. It’s the sense of
living with baubles just out of reach. It’s the
faith in the future, which is actually more important.

China, where President Obama is visiting, invites
a certain sort of reverie. It is natural, looking
over the construction cranes, to think about the
flow of history over decades, not just day to
day. And it becomes obvious by comparison just
how far the U.S. has drifted from its normal
future-centered orientation and how much this rankles.

The U.S. now has an economy shifted too much
toward consumption, debt and imports and too
little toward production, innovation and exports.
It now has a mounting federal debt that creates
present indulgence and future hardship.

Americans could once be confident that their
country would grow more productive because each
generation was more skilled than the last. That’s
no longer true. The political system now groans
to pass anything easy -- tax cuts and expanding
health care coverage — and is incapable of
passing anything hard — spending restraint, health care cost control.

The standard thing these days is for Americans to
scold each other for our profligacy, to urge
fiscal Puritanism. But it’s not clear Americans
have ever really been self-disciplined. Instead,
Americans probably postponed gratification
because they thought the future was a big
rock-candy mountain, and if they were stealing
from that, they were robbing themselves of something stupendous.

It would be nice if some leader could induce the
country to salivate for the future again. That
would mean connecting discrete policies --
education, technological innovation, funding for
basic research -- into a single long-term
narrative. It would mean creating regional
strategies, because innovation happens in
geographic clusters, not at the national level.
It would mean finding ways to tamp down
consumption and reward production. The most
pragmatic guide for that remains Michael Porter’s
essay in the Oct. 30, 2008, issue of Business Week.

As the financial crises ease, it would be nice if
Americans would once again start looking to the horizon.
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