Last month, I had mixed emotions as I watched the flight of the “Discovery” space shuttle orbiter on television as it was being retired to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, I was proud of our achievements in space, but on the other, I was sad to realize the shuttle’s mothballing represented an end of an era. Our space program for all intents and purposes has stalled, and we are now dependent on others to get us into space, a service we used to perform with great regularity. This icon from our past made me think how our country has changed over the years. Not too long ago, America was considered the premier engine for business, the model for democracy, and a beacon for hope and freedom in the world. Now, I am not so sure.

In terms of business, America used to be considered a manufacturing dynamo with a “can do” attitude for tackling any assignment, large or small. Now we have slipped to the #3 exporter in the world, our GDP remains in decline, and the “Made in USA” label has lost its luster. Whereas other countries are building massive bridges, dams, buildings, and harvesting their natural resources, America’s infrastructure is crumbling, and we get excited about electronic trinkets and social networking.

Another indication of change quietly occurred in 2008 when, for the first time, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued more patents to foreign entities as opposed to here at home. This indicates a shift in balance regarding inventiveness, from here at home to companies overseas.

There was a time when we dictated the pace of technological developments in the world, thanks in large part to the space race. The United States was the envy of the world. Not only did our technology put us ahead of others; it vastly improved our standard of living, enhanced our educational system, and created numerous jobs and new industries. Today, NASA scientists are seeking employment elsewhere, which probably involves learning the Russian or Chinese languages. It seems odd to me that space, a field we at one time dominated, has been commandeered away from us.

The only industry we seem to be doing well in is entertainment, but then again, “So what?” It’s a pretty sad day when we are more concerned with computer animation, Botox injections, liposuction, and breast implants than being leaders in space, energy, or anything of substance. This makes me believe that American business is doing nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

America’s military is still well respected, and we are often called upon to act as the traffic cop of the world, but thanks to economic cutbacks, we can no longer afford to fight two wars, only one (a significant downshift in strategy.) This means we now lack the means to fight in two arenas simultaneously as we did in World War II (Europe and the Pacific).

Our government, once regarded as a model of efficiency and leadership, is in gridlock and can no longer be depended on to live within its means. Budgets cannot be developed and passed, and our national debt continues to soar out of control. Polls clearly show that the American public no longer has faith in their politicians who are widely regarded as people who can no longer competently tend to the business of the nation.

Years ago, we were proud to pay our fair share of taxes to help the country, but we now have a convoluted tax system that nobody trusts, and is criticized as unfair. It is so twisted that 49% of the people do not pay any taxes whatsoever. A flat tax would simplify everything and force “everyone” to pay their fair share.

Overseas, countries no longer respect us. They quietly grumble and undermine us as they cheerfully take our economic subsidies. While we swing our gates wide open for business, they carefully guard theirs. Instead of being regarded as trusted leaders of the free world, we’re now being portrayed as suckers and saps.

In terms of our people, we’ve gone from being good and patriotic citizens who cared about their neighbor to a litigious society where everything must be settled in a court of law. No wonder our judicial system is overwhelmed at all levels. Our morality and sense of volunteerism is in retreat as indicated by the decline of people attending church and participating in nonprofit organizations. In addition to the politicians, the citizens are divided over ideological differences. It’s like two distinctly different countries somehow living together under the same roof, each deeply distrusting the other. Our perspectives have changed, our values have changed, even our sense of humor is different. Whereas we used to be admired for our ability to unify under difficult circumstances, such as a disaster, today we are more polarized than ever before, and it might even get worse as we approach the 2012 elections.

So, is America still great? I guess it depends on who you talk to. The left says America is structured unfairly and that the rich should pay for the poor; the right says that America has lost sight of the founding principles as expressed in the US Constitution and that our sense of morality is in decay. Frankly, neither side is happy. Americans used to be proud of our history, our national anthem, our monuments, and the pledge of allegiance, but all of that is just symbolic. Frankly, we have an identity crisis; we no longer know who we are or what direction we should be headed. As long as the country remains ideologically divided, and we remain content to do nothing more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, our glory days will be over, just like the “Discovery” (now nothing more than a relic of the past.)

“I do not believe the greatest threat to our future is from bombs or guided missiles. I don’t think our civilization will die that way. I think it will die when we no longer care. Arnold Toynbee has pointed out that 19 of 21 civilizations have died from within and not from without. There were no bands playing and flags waving when these civilizations decayed. It happened slowly, in the quiet and the dark when no one was aware.”

- Laurence M. Gould
President Emeritus
Carleton College

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim’s columns, see:
timbryce.com

Copyright © 2012 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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Photo credit: Roger Smith (Creative Commons)

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