The recent note on American madness produced one request to be dropped from my list, several accusations that I had turned against the homeland that nurtured me, claims for the superiority of American freedom and opportunity, an often-repeated accusation from a die-hard Democrat that I am a mad Israeli, one "Amen," and several responses that mixed bits of applause with reservation.
One close friend with whom I have collaborated on professional research urged me to recall the analyses that we had both made about the United States. He emphasized the demographic and cultural features of the country, as well as wide open spaces that explain its fascination with personal freedom, lower taxes, and lower scores on public service than can be found in other western democracies.
One lesson of social science is that there is no useful information without comparison. It is essential for knowing how individuals and countries differ from one another, as well as understanding why they differ. Medicine, policy analysis, and simple conversation is not worth much without knowing how things differ or resemble one another.
Economics is a major element in explaining what countries do. It is no surprise that rich countries have better services. They also tend to tax themselves heavily, and to have smaller gaps between rich and poor.
What is distinctive about the United States is its lower service scores and a higher incidence of inequality than other well-to-do countries.
Beyond economics, another explanation of why countries differ is culture. What people think about public affairs is passed on from parents to children, and the parents got theirs from the previous generation. Political tendencies continue even as personalities and conditions change. History has its weight.
American notions of personal freedom and opportunity ring strong in its culture, despite the closing of the frontier 120 years ago. The Census Bureau announced after looking at the data it collected in 1890 that the spread of settlement throughout the west meant that "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." The ability to find empty land, and the freedom of the Wild West were disappearing.
Claims of freedom and opportunity had attracted migrants to what became the United States beginning in the 17th century, and continue to pull them from poor places to the south and east. Since World War II, however, Western Europe has been the equal of the United States on personal freedom and opportunity. Individuals from well to do countries continue to migrate from place to place due to personal considerations, but there is no wave of western Europeans going to America to find what they could not have at home.
Explanations for the preference for low taxes and a minimum of government that prevail in the United States say as much about demographics as a preoccupation with personal opportunity. Among the distinctive traits of the United States is a large underclass. Read that to mean African Americans who have been in the country since slavery, plus Hispanics and others who have come recently at their own initiative. Despite the presence of the Obama family in the White House, there still is lingering racism. It does not appear so much as blind hatred of Blacks or foreigners, but in a disinclination to help the poor, the poorly educated, residents of slums, and people most likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
I know enough about culture and politics to realize that I will not convince patriots that their country is not the best. If some would look beyond warm feelings for their homeland, however, comparison with other places would let them know what they are missing.
Would it be possible to remake America into something more like Western Europe?
Students of culture should have modest expectations. Great change may require massive destruction and chaos. The best explanation of Europe today is the destruction of World War II. In several countries, social services were already far along. They had done in the 19th century what the United States began only in the 1930s. European politics changed after World War II, most notably in Italy and Germany. Dictatorships disappeared in Western Europe, even while government remained stronger than in the United States. Higher education spread far beyond the elite, most notably in Britain.
Anyone wanting evidence for the holding power of Americans'' disinclination to big government need only look at the list of items featured on the web site of the New York Times on the morning after the mid-term elections:
Democrats Outrun by a 2-Year G.O.P. Comeback Plan -
Political Times: Republicans Face a Fundamental Choice in How to Oppose-
Outside Groups on the Right Flexed Muscles in House Races -
In Rubio, Some See Rise of the ‘Great Right Hope’ -
The Road Ahead Turns Right -
Political Memo: G.O.P. Expands a Base From South to Midwest -
Palin’s Endorsements Lay Base for a 2012 Run-
A friend offers the following points on the election from his perspective as an economist:
" . . . the current economic landscape includes a large number of people worse off than they were a few years ago - the unemployment, the underemployment, the loss in house value (whether or not the value is below their mortgages), the experience of having taken on too much debt (and the bewilderment that the federal government is so blithe about doing so). And, there is a sense of a harsher world and greater anxiety about the future. . . . the administration’s penchant for extensive new regulatory powers, as in Obamacare and the financial regulation bill, has really increased business uncertainty and has discouraged new hires – so it may have contributed to the sluggishness of the recovery. . . . I think a good part of the anger at Obamacare relates to it being a new entitlement in the face of the longer term fiscal unsustainability of existing entitlements; Obama’s obfuscation about it (“not one dime” etc.) also contributed to that anger."
What comes next?
Domestic policy will depend on how--or whether--the President and the divided Congress work together. Foreign policy will depend more on the President alone. But the "bully pulpit" that Barack Obama tried to use during his first two years will be less weighty, and it did not produce much when he could claim to have America behind him. Not a few Israelis are applauding the Republicans, and expecting less pressure from the White House. Any admiration apparent in the Arab media has been dropping since the Cairo speech. The President''s domestic embarrassment will cost him dearly among people who value strength.
I would not write finish to the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. However, its best chance will come not from efforts at manipulation by the White House, but the continuation of economic development in the West Bank, and the political moderation of Palestinian leaders.