In his book, “The World America Made,” Robert Kagan makes a particularly unpopular argument about the current state of America: Everything is fine.

I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on my list), but from the first time I heard Kagan’s argument it’s been stuck in my head. The reason it interests me so much is not related to the quality of his argument or the details of his stance, all of which I’m sure are interesting in themselves. But rather, the reason Kagan intrigues me is because he’s made a name for himself by being the only person who thinks everything is alright.

That begs the question: why is Robert Kagan the only one who thinks everything is just fine?

It’s possible that Kagan is wrong. You only have to watch CNN for a few hours to hear about the terrible state of unemployment, the declining economy, the dire situation with the national debt, troubled relations between the US and multiple middle eastern countries, the rise of “economic threat” from India and China, etc.. Given these obvious issues you’d have to be crazy to think that everything is ok, right?

Well, maybe. But this gets you thinking – when has everything been fine?

Thinking back over the history of the United States, when was there a time when everyone could agree that times were great? WWI and WWII pretty much disqualify the first half of the 20th century; we can all agree those probably weren’t the best times. Before 1900 was probably ok, but remember that medicine wasn’t so great back then. Also, the probability of death in childbirth (~1%) and the infant mortality rate (10%) probably put a damper on most people’s lives.

So what does that leave us with?

What about the so called ‘Golden Era’ of American capitalism? 1945-1973 – those were the days, weren’t they? In hindsight, maybe, but at the time it may have been harder to get people to agree with you. The Korean War (1950-1953), the Cold War (1945-1991) and, notably, The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) probably kept people a little on edge. At one point in the 1960’s my father (who grew up in Washington D.C.) actually packed into his family’s station wagon and drove to Delaware because they were afraid Washington was going to be bombed. I don’t know about you – but that doesn’t sound like a golden era to me.

Imagine for a minute that Kagan is right and right now everything truly is fine (or, at least better than it’s ever been). What does it mean about our country that we can’t stop worrying about 100 issues that we perceive as threatening to us? Why can’t we see the growth of economic power in India and China as the growth of positive economic value that those companies are now providing to the world? Is there some inherent need for adversity present in the human condition that is being spoon fed by the 24 hour news cycle? Are we truly incapable of just being happy?

In some ways, I think unfortunately the answer is yes.

What do you think?

The Current State of America
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  • Simon Dexter

    Yes, your point does sound plausible. It seems that appreciation is only retrospective.

    If you’re into optimism, try ‘The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050’ by Kotkin. On the flip side, try ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ by Michael Rupert.