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The American Prospect

While a fair-minded reader of this gloomy literature may think it cataclysmic—are the education systems in other countries free of problems?—the chief fact is that the literature exists, affecting the national debate about the future. If the average American is poorly educated, does that not also contribute to a trivialization of electoral campaigns, with Reagan/Bush slogans like “Read My Lips,” “Make My Day,” and “Morning in America”? Does an inadequate school system lead to an erosion of proper democratic debate in order to meet television’s demands for quick answers? Is this why little more than half of US citizens vote?58 If the average American has little interest in foreign cultures, and cannot locate the Persian Gulf on a map, how is he or she to comprehend issues of intervention abroad? or to learn about globally driven changes? Is that sort of knowledge to be left to a minority (say, 15 percent of the population, as at the time of the Founding Fathers) consisting of professional-class families whose members did go to the right schools and colleges, and whose standards of living, frequency of foreign travel, and access to the international economy have increased nicely through the 1980s?59


Despite these worrying tendencies, many American commentators stress the positive features of their bustling, variegated society. The United States is still the largest economy in the world (unless one counts the European community as a whole). It is attractive to millions of immigrants each year, and many more who can’t get in. Its popular culture is visible around the world, its language dominant in business, science, and entertainment. Its commitment to liberty and democracy has inspired oppressed peoples everywhere from China to Czechoslovakia. It is the exemplar of the capitalist system, which its ideological foes challenged and lost. Because of its great military power and diplomatic influence, when an international crisis occurs, be it in Kuwait or Somalia, all eyes usually turn to Washington. Americans, according to the unabashed optimists, should be celebrating their triumphs, their culture, their ideology, their way of life, their “noble national experience…the most universally attractive of our era…”60

Even the more cautious “revivalists” may admit that domestic reforms are needed, but argue that the chief danger is that the American people think the country is poor and impotent, when it is in fact rich and powerful. If it can simply shake off its present mood and make certain adjustments, it will be the world’s leading nation in the twenty-first century, just as it has been for the past fifty years. 61

All this presents the United States with a dilemma. Yet apart from a few unreconstructed optimists like George Gilder or Ben Wattenberg, who hold that the country is moving effortlessly upward, recent opinion polls by the early 1990s showed that most citizens felt things had worsened—in the social fabric, race relations, public education, economic performance, the conditions of the average American family—and would be worse for their children and grandchildren. This has led to a demand for changes: some want the tax system altered, others want the schools overhauled, or a transformation in health-care provision, or changes in industrial policy, or an all-out assault on poverty, or on crime. Many Americans would like all of the above. It was this anxiety, surely, that accounted for Perot’s popularity and that, more significantly, tempted voters into the Democratic camp when Clinton emphasized that he intended to take action in precisely such fields as health care, education, infrastructure, and so on.

Reforms that challenge existing arrangements are never easy in a democracy; but the American political structure in particular has offered the most marvelous opportunities to obstruct changes. The constitutional division of powers means that the president lacks the authority of, say, the British prime minister and cabinet to get legislation swiftly enacted. The relative absence of party discipline makes each member of Congress more independent, but the unrestrained costs of electoral campaigning also make that member reliant upon funding from supporters and interest groups (political action committees) and highly sensitive to the threat that a powerful lobby—the pro-Israel coalition, the National Rifle Association, pro- and anti-abortion movements, the groups representing retired Americans—will campaign against a congressman if they are offended by his or her policies. Consequently, efforts to slash the budget deficit, or trim Medicaid costs, or restrict gun sales, usually founder in the “gridlock” of Washington politics. Perhaps this will improve, now that a Democratic president confronts Democratic majorities in both House and Senate; but at the broader national level, a social culture which asserts “Let everyone do their own thing” is not an ideal one in which to push through reforms. The very notion of reforming or retooling American society to make it more competitive is itself a contradiction of the laissezfaire ethos.


How, then, will American society, obsessed about its present condition, deal with the broader forces for global change? How well prepared is the United States for the twenty-first century?

Clearly, the United States is going to be affected in many ways by demographic trends. There will, for example, be many more elderly people by the early twenty-first century. Whereas there were only 16.6 million Americans aged sixty-five and over in 1960, the figure had virtually doubled to approximately 31 million by 1990; after slow rises over the next decade or two, it was until recently forecast to increase to 52 million in 2020 and 65.5 million in 2030, with the numbers of people over seventy-five and even over eighty-five—where the health-care costs per person are disproportionately high—growing the fastest of all.62 This means not only that the political power of retirees’ organizations will be even greater, but also that there could be a further diversion of resources toward elderly care—resources that, economically at least, would be better employed in preventing child poverty or improving infrastructure.63

Over the longer term, however, the most serious consequence will be that the Social Security funds—at present still in surplus, and helping to disguise the true extent of the federal deficit—will simply run out by sometime early in the next century, causing a crisis not only in health provision for the average elderly American, but also in the fiscal system. The politicians then in charge, facing a federal deficit worsened by social security losses, will confront several unpleasant choices: slash Social Security provisions or other forms of federal spending; or vastly increase taxes upon the relatively smaller proportion of “productive” Americans to pay for the swollen costs of caring for the fast-growing numbers of over-sixty-five-year olds. The only other alternative would be to risk enormous federal deficits, and the prospect of financial instability.

Meanwhile, the ethnic composition of the United States is also changing. Although the forecasts are subject to amendment—many earlier predictions of the future population of the United States have been notoriously inaccurate64—demographers are reasonably confident that the white, Caucasian segment will continue to shrink. This is partly due to the expectation of further large-scale immigration, both legal and illegal, chiefly from Latin America and Asia; as “have-not” families stream to “have” societies, America is seen as the most desirable, and accessible, destination to many migrants. The second reason is the differentiated birthrate between white and most nonwhite ethnic groups, which has socioeconomic causes but is also affected by the different roles of men and women, women’s expectations, and access to higher education. In consequence, some demographers refer to the “browning” of America by 2050, as white Caucasians become a minority.65

Other experts forecast that this transformation will be less swift because over time immigrants and minorities will conform to white reproductive patterns.66 Nevertheless, these trends toward the simultaneous “graying” and “browning” of America are going to have lasting consequences. Some writers worry that an aging United States will stagnate economically, and call for increased immigration, reminding readers that successive waves of migrants have fueled the country’s rise in the past; this argument is often accompanied by gloomy prognoses about Europe and Japan’s long-term prospects as they grapple with demographic decline, yet seek to prevent an inflow of newcomers. Others point uneasily to the fact that most of the recent immigrants to America have relatively low educational and skill levels, congregate in the inner cities—few of them help to compensate for the declining populations of Great Plains townships—and impose additional demands upon the social and educational services of the poorest parts of the American administrative structure. Some demographers predict that perhaps 15 million immigrants will arrive each decade for the next thirty years, and calls are now being made to “bar the door.”67

Demographic change can also exacerbate ethnic tensions, as between African and Hispanic Americans (over jobs), or Asian and African Americans (over educational access), as well as stimulate the racial worries of poor whites. Over the longer term, the graying/browning tendency may be setting up an intense contest over welfare and entitlement priorities between predominantly Caucasian retirees and predominantly nonwhite children, mothers, and unemployed, each with its vocal advocacy organizations. California, whose population rose by 30 percent in the 1980s alone, is still the favored destination of millions from south of the border. As a consequence of higher birthrates and continued immigration, half of all children in the state are forecast to be Hispanic by 2030, when whites will comprise 60 percent of the elderly population—a troublesome mismatch.

Even before the triumphant Democrats moved into the White House, The Washington Post was reporting that deep-rooted antagonisms—between blacks and Latinos, education unions and education reformers—would cause fissures in the Clinton coalition.68 Perhaps predictably, some authors now call for a debate about the implications of “bright, well-educated American women” giving birth to fewer and fewer children.69

These outcomes are, at the moment, hypothetical, whereas the political and economic consequences of America’s demographic transformation are easier to estimate. Simply because the regional electoral balances (e. g., share of seats in the House of Representatives) do, over time, reflect population change, there is likely to be a further shift in voting power from the north and east to the south and west, from Caucasian to non-Caucasian districts, from Europe/Israel–centered issues to Hispanic/Pacific concerns. The executive, judiciary, and legislative branches, at present despite recent appointments with only a sprinkling of non-male, nonwhite members, will find it difficult to halt their metamorphosis into bodies containing many more women and minorities. Schools and colleges, already grappling with the demands to teach both “multiculturalism” and “Western civilization.” may come under further social and cultural pressures as the demographic tide advances.70

Demographic change will also affect the American economy, both in the composition of its work force and in the larger issue of American competitiveness in a future which, forecasters assert, will be dominated by knowledge-based societies. According to a common economic theory, the United States rose to world preeminence because of its vast, easily accessible, raw materials (oil, iron, coal) and foodstuffs, giving it an advantage over resource-poor Japan and Europe. Now that ample supplies of raw materials and food are produced throughout the world, that advantage is shrinking; and it will shrink further with the “de-materialization” of production and the many other changes in the way things are manufactured. Moreover, the continued explosion of scientific knowledge will be best exploited by societies that are steadily raising overall educational standards, technical training, and work force skills, and this America is not doing.71

  1. 58

    In that latter connection, see the interesting discussion by S. Knack, “Why We Don’t Vote—Or Say Thank You,” in The Wall Street Journal, December 31, 1990, p. 6; and H. Carter, “We Have Seen the Enemy, and It Is Ignorance,” The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 1988, p. A23.

  2. 59

    This is well traced in K. Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor (Random House, 1990), passim; and Reich, The Work of Nations, chapters 14, 17–18, 23–24.

  3. 60

    M. Novak, “What Became of the Ugly American?” Forbes, April 30, 1990, p. 120. See also, B. Wattenberg, The First Universal Nation (The Free Press, 1990); G. Gilder, “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Forbes, April 4, 1988, pp. 89–93; A. Balk, “America Is No. 1. It’ll Stay No. 1,” in The New York Times, July 31, 1990 (op-ed); and many of the triumphalist pieces (Gilder’s especially) in the September 1990 issue of Commentary, entitled “The American 80s: Disaster or Triumph?”

  4. 61

    Nye, Bound to Lead, passim; Grunwald, “The Second American Century,” passim; “Yes, you are the Superpower,” The Economist, February 24, 1990, p. 11.

  5. 62

    These are the “middle series” estimates: see the table on p. 7 of “Projection of the Population of the United States, by Age, Sex, and Race: 1988 to 2080,” US Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P–25, No. 1018 (1989).

  6. 63

    As long ago as 1987, Congress spent $10,010 per capita on the elderly and only $854 per child (R.D. Lamm, “Again, Age Beats Youth,” The New York Times, December 2, 1990, p. E19). See J. M. Guralnik et al., “Projecting the Older Population of the United States,…” The Milbank Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 2 (1988), pp. 283–308; “On the Economic Implications of Demographic Change in the United States,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 15, No. 2 (June 1989), pp. 379–389.

  7. 64

    In December 1992, the Census Bureau revised its projection of the US population in the year 2050 from 300 million (1988 estimate) to 383 million—a 50 percent increase over the earlier forecast of population growth.

  8. 65

    W. A. Henry, “Beyond the Melting Pot,” Time, April 9, 1990, pp. 28–35.

  9. 66

    S. Thornstrom, “The Minority Majority Will Never Come,” The Wall Street Journal, July 26, 1990 (op-ed).

  10. 67

    D. James, “Bar the Door,” The New York Times, July 25, 1992, p. 21.

  11. 68

    T.B. Edsall, “Cracks in the Clinton Coalition: How Urban Conflicts Undermine the Democrats,” The Washington Post, November 8, 1992.

  12. 69

    P. Francese, “Aging America Needs Foreign Blood,” Wall Street Journal, March 27, 1990 (op-ed); F. Barringer, “A Land of Immigrants Gets Uneasy About Immigration,” The New York Times, October 14, 1990, p. E4; R. J. Herrnstein, “I.Q. and Falling Birth Rates,” The Atlantic (May 1989), p. 73 ff.; D. E. Bloom and N. G. Bennett, “Future Shock,” The New Republic, June 19, 1989, pp. 18–22.

  13. 70

    Henry, “Beyond the Melting Pot,” passim.

  14. 71

    G. Wright, “Where America’s Industrial Monopoly Went,” The Wall Street Journal, December 20, 1990, p. A16.

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