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Brighter Days Still Ahead for the United States

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
With the country mired in debt ($14.3 trillion and counting), entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security running out of money and unemployment seemingly stuck above 9 percent, some wonder if it’s twilight time for the United States.

“I know why America is falling into a cataclysm of debt and can’t get out,” wrote Henry Allen, a former Pulitzer Prize winner, in The Washington Post on June 17. He blames, “a squalor of doom and debt that prompts the best sort of people to spit sarcasms at each other during cocktail hour, to weep and rage the way Congress is doing as the debt limit looms on Aug. 2.”

He writes that, for many families, their best days seemed in the past. “We were not unusual -- in so many families, the money had been made, the money had been spent.” But this is unnecessarily fatalistic. Decline isn’t inevitable. In many ways, it’s a choice, one made by both individuals and governments.

For example, Allen writes that his ancestors “built railroads.” Sadly, people don’t build them anymore, but government policies have a lot to do with that.

If you set out to build a railroad, after all, you’d need to obtain lots of land, and that would require any number of environmental impact statements. Neighbors would use federal and state lawsuits to slow your progress, meaning you’d spend years tied up in red tape before you could lay any track. And besides, the federal government has vowed to build high-speed rail lines hither and yon. You can’t compete with Uncle Sam.

Still, there are plenty of ways a person can succeed. Instead of a railroad, why not start a trucking company? Or get some Segway scooters and begin giving tours of your historic neighborhood? American prosperity is restrained only by American ingenuity, and our ingenuity is virtually boundless.

Allen imagines a very different America, though. “The conversation usually goes this way: proposals for impossible cuts in spending are met by equally impossible refusals to make them. Slash Medicare? Stop saving oppressed foreigners from tyranny? Raise taxes? The rock and the hard place. It’s a question of standards,” he writes.

He sees the country mired in ennui, unable or unwilling to move forward. Instead of doing something, Allen imagines us wringing our hands as problems get worse. However, there are proposals to address our problems. Rep. Paul Ryan, for example, drafted a proposal that aims to fix Medicare -- not by slashing it, but by introducing consumer choice for those under the age of 55. This market-based approach would unlock the power of American creativity and could allow our system to deliver better medical services for less money. It’s certainly worth a try.

The House of Representatives has passed the Ryan plan, while the Senate voted it down. The proposal is likely to loom large in next year’s presidential election, and that’s probably good. It would give Americans a stark contrast upon which to vote. Allen concludes that our decline could mean shoddy treatment even for our nation’s fallen heroes. “Next thing, we’d be tossing the bodies of veterans into common graves, though this has already happened at Arlington National Cemetery.”

He’s correct that the scandal at Arlington is an embarrassment. But the problem isn’t that our government ran out of money to operate the cemetery. Instead, as the Post documented in a series of stories, the federal government poured millions into upgrading a computer system, yet the cemetery’s administrators used pencils and note cards to keep burial records. It’s a case of government waste, not government wasting away.

But all is not lost.

“By every benchmark, this present age should be an American century, here and abroad,” writes Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institute. “New finds of coal, natural gas, oil, tar sands, and oil shale keep growing, not declining.”

And, he adds, “In an increasingly hungry world, American farmland is the most productive on the planet. Our farmers are surely the most gifted and innovative. The United States has inherited a vast, developed infrastructure; our duty is to improve and expand it, not, as our ancestors had to, start from scratch by building a Hoover Dam, intercontinental railroad, or port facilities in Oakland.”

The tools are there. We just need to use them.

It isn’t inevitable that the United States must slide into decline. If it does, it will be because Americans chose to, not because we had to. Let’s make the right choice.

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