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The period of ‘American greatness’ is gone. Let’s focus on thriving instead.


Illustration by Kailey Whitman

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

Getting Over Being Great

by Jerry Silberman

Question: Can America ever be great again?

The Right Question: Why would we want to?

Two months ago in this column I pointed out why Donald Trump, like every president since Reagan, will be unable to reverse the decline of the United States economy or the relative power of this country in the world. I noted that this was based on the limits of resources available, particularly oil, and that we have blown through the most phenomenal endowment of natural resources of any comparable area of land on the planet.  

If we are to maintain the current level of consumption, our economy will continue to depend on imports of oil and many other critical resources: While we pride ourselves on having an “information economy,” our entire computer industry—as well as the renewable electricity industry—are utterly dependent on raw materials and manufacturing outside of our borders. Even our food production, despite the fact that we are still a food exporter, depends on imports from across the oceans.

Trump’s rhetoric suggests we can restore our greatness by changing the terms of the “deal” in our favor. His talk of trade wars, exclusion of immigrants and elimination of all types of regulations that restrict business all make sense in this framework. As a man who achieved a huge fortune by manipulating deals (and violating laws) to his personal financial advantage, this is an approach we should expect. But it is as delusional as the view that there will always be enough cheap oil to put an SUV in every garage. Unfortunately, that delusion is shared by the majority of the wealthy elite in this country.

Here’s why: The greatness that Trump pines for—the ’50s and ’60s, when the American dream of unlimited growth in consumption actually appeared to be happening—was based on circumstances that simply don’t exist anymore.

First, when the United States economy dominated the rest of the world, it was thanks to its natural resource base coupled with the massive industrial development spurred by World War II, an event that simultaneously devastated the industrial base of all of our competitors. Related to that condition, the United States was by magnitudes the most powerful military establishment in the world, and, until Vietnam, it was able to impose its will on most of the planet.

Second, by establishing its currency as the reserve currency of world finance, it enhanced the unfair advantage in trade that our military and economic power provided, which enabled the U.S. to isolate and limit participation in the world economy on the part of its enemies—at that time primarily the Soviet Union and its allies.

In short, America became the great country Trump remembers and envisions when it was in a position to drive the strongest deals in its favor, based on objective sources of power.

What Trump and other “America Firsters” have failed to see is that all of those sources of power have been in decline for nearly four decades and are now significantly diminished. American workers will feel that decline reflected in the decline of their real income.

The truth is that our government can no longer strong-arm countries without very severe blowback. Take a look at the labels on the last 10 trinkets, electronics or clothes you bought, and then imagine a trade war with China. Think about the last 13 years of our military adventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

When you’ve got those images in your mind, you may be ready for the next step: letting go of the idea of being great.  

Instead, focus on the goal of having a future that your children and grandchildren would enjoy, which can only happen with some radical changes in expectations, and in the behavior that might make those expectations a reality.

I concluded January’s column by recommending that we lighten our footprint on the earth, build community and not worry about who’s in the White House.

However, not worrying about who sits in the Oval Office doesn’t mean that we can afford to ignore politics. It means that we cannot expect political decisions from the top to solve big problems, and that we need to engage in political action on the local and state levels where we can make a difference. For example, if we know that drastic reductions in fossil fuel consumption are critical to limiting climate change, why do we accept a building code in Philadelphia that fosters car ownership in the city, privileges new building over rehabilitation, allows skyscrapers that use magnitudes more energy than more human-scale buildings, and does not require state-of-the-art energy efficiency in either rehabilitation or new construction?

Philadelphia schools need vastly better funding and local control. But how much thought is the education reform movement giving to a major overhaul of curriculum priorities? To educating our youth about the limits of growth, community values and the practical skills they will need in a shrinking economy, rather than for white collar jobs supported by imports and focused on computer screens?

The challenge is indeed great. The challenge is not to regain some misunderstood past glory, but to adapt and thrive in the changed conditions that we know are coming.

Jerry Silberman is a cranky environmentalist and union negotiator who likes to ask the right question and is no stranger to compromise.

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