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On the Can't-Do Nation

John McQuaid generated one of the better conversations our readers have had recently with his article in Outlook Sunday that suggested that the United States has lost its ability to do anything, or as he put it, "seems to have become the superpower that can't tie its own shoelaces." Among other things he cites falling bridges, the Katrina aftermath, the Middle East situation in general and Iraq in particular. McQuaid is the author of a book on Katrina and a Katrina Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute. His analysis has received few challenges but, predictably in a diverse society, a number of different causes and remedies. Politics, of course: both major parties are blamed by someone, as well as bureaucrats, labor unions, companies, lobbyists, the loss of a God-fearing society, the courts, etc. Here's a sampling.

mnjam said that "The American people have not mutated, genetically or culturally, since the first manned moon landing in 1969. The incompetence, if any, is allowing utterly unqualified parasites to hold high office (the fish rots from the head)...Not surprisingly, a hack president has stocked the government with hacks... In the past, people like Bush, Cheney and [Chief Justice] Roberts would not have even been considered for their positions, much less been elected, nominated or confirmed. We as voters need to get back to requiring basic competence and a record of personal acheivement in our leaders. Then the problems mentioned by the article will largely disappear."

2by2 wrote that "Greed, partisanship, cronyism, criminality, you name it, we Americans got it goin', in a big, BIG, way...The American people are to blame for where we find ourselves today. The citizenry have allowed ourselves to be lulled into complacency, or divided by, in many cases, inconsequential wedge issues... However, until Americans put away the red state/blue state mentality, until we quit allowing ourselves to be manipulated by fear, the downward spiral cannot help but continue. The common good, now there's a concept not much in vogue today. Compulsory national service, certainly a concept most of society shrinks from, cowering from the very idea!... The American people have allowed what is happening today to transpire, and we don't even know it...It must be somebody elses fault."

And newageblues responded, "...I liked your post. An alternative to compulsory national service, which I have mixed feelings about, is to strongly encourage it with incentives, such as considering it a plus in college admissions and aid, and to vigorously promote it."

FergusonFoont had a different analysis. "...As we have adopted what are generously branded as 'conservative' political philosophies, we have deliberately DISMANTLED the ability of our government, and indeed of our whole society, to solve our problems. The 'every man for himself' dogma of American conservatism is antagonistic to solving any problem that requires any kind of concerted effort where we are expected to band together for the greater good. Until we turn our back on the economics of Milton Friedman and the politics of the Republican Party, we will continue our tragic decline. It really is that simple."

claywillis said, "...Since the introduction of socialism with Roosevelt in the 1930's, the people of this nation have come to rely on 'government' to solve their problems... all hierarchical systems -- government and otherwise -- eventually corrupt both the leaders and those who make them leaders. The Democratic Party held the purse strings in this country for more than 40 years and has implemented programs that require larger and larger bureaucracies... whose basic agenda is to expand. Republicans have shown themselves to be corrupt also, increasing government spending and expanding bureaucracies over the past 14 years... Many want to spend more money through government programs and grow this inefficient bureaucracy even more... not enough voters in this country are intelligent enough to learn from history and thus we are bound to repeat the same mistakes."

controlbob said, "What's gone wrong with the USA? It's quite simple - America is not the bible-based, Protestant, Eurocentric nation it used to be."

rat-the said he would love to respond to the article, but "...First I'll need to run it by MY Lawyer, to make sure it is Politically Correct and does not imply any promises on my part or Culpability for any results that might or might not arise therefrom! Then, I'll need to have a commitee do a feasibilty study. Then I'll have to get an OK from the Unions. Then, I'll need to get some H1-B Visa's to hire foreignors to do all the proceedings-they just cost less, don't you know. Then...."

809212876 wrote that "...Politics is the problem. Congress and the Administration and K Street are the problem. Government, per se, is not the problem...politics keeps fear-based hatred alive on red herring issues of gun control, abortion, gay marriage, taxes, stem cell research, birth control, etc... Gullible fools think they can buy a solution to these non-issues so they keep dumping money in the side door of Congress. Congress laughs all the way to the bank... Meanwhile, the kleptocracy in DC keeps raping the Treasury and the taxpayers. We are the laughing stock of the world."

Open1 asserted that "Highway proliferation America can do. When it comes to replacing highways with rail or stopping gun violence and countless other examples, every other advanced nation can do it except America."

rkerg said that "American corporations and their political lackeys, have spent a lot of time and money over the past 20 years demonizing all forms of taxation. The fact is that tax money paid for the building of Americas infrastructure and tax money is needed to keep it in good working condition. Instead of funding futile adventures in Iraq or bridges to nowhere, America needs to take care of itself and the safety of its own citizens."

eskieville suggested that "We need a good dose of nationalism right now--not obnoxious or overbearing to other nations--but a restoration of civic pride and caring about our nation. We need to care about our fellow citizens and their well being. WE need to build a new transportation system. We need to solve the energy problem. WE need to rebuild our military. We need a fairer tax system and WE all pay our fair share.We need a new health care system. WE need to win the war on terror. In my view the private sector has failed us in many ways. We need direction in order to do these things and only the Federal government is in position to provide it. Bye the way, WE also need to be better voters and elect people with proven resumes' of success."

Jazzman7 wrote of the article, "Though a sad comment, to be sure, it is largely accurate... In fact, the failings noted in the commentary are all symptomatic of a larger failing of our vision of and will for our democratic experiment. The concept that it isn't 'them' failing to respond to real local, national, and world needs, it's us is the underlying concept of our Constitution. If we fail, it is us failing ourselves."

All comments on the Can't-Do Nation are here.

By Doug Feaver  |  August 6, 2007; 11:00 AM ET
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Posted by: aysg maiev | August 17, 2007 1:48 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: wdqecavn nwjvc | August 17, 2007 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I read your comments. I'm not an elegant writer, but I will try to express myself somewhat intelligently.
You, Americans, who have more than everyone in the world - complain more than all others combined. Get off your lazy behinds and do something to make a difference. Do something positive. Take your stand to the next level (whatever your position is). We don't scrub our own toilets or pick our own fruit or slaughter our own cows or mow our own lawns or mine or own coal anymore...why is this? We did it a few short years ago - yes, we did. Or did I just dream this while I was growing up here in LA, California? I've lived here most of my 54 years and things have changed for the worse. Getting WORSER and WORSER. I do what I can - write letters of protest to our 'officials' - I vote - I listen to talk radio KABC a somewhat conservative station and I believe that when I read so many of your 'belly-aching' comments that the two best words in the ENGLISH language are "SO" and "WHAT".(not the official language of the US because there in NO OFFICIAL language of the US - as told to me by - just ask her, she'll email you back anytime of day or night from her BlackBerry).
Ending on a little note of political correctness I say "Beheading is not the Answer".

Posted by: DB | August 9, 2007 12:48 PM | Report abuse

We have abducated our responsibility to chose as well as compensate our leader to corporations and other special interests who pay for and control our elections and subsequent winners. These interests can exclude uncomfortable ideas, chose the candidates by selective funding and fragment a common national purpose into a thousand channels of profit for themselves. If a candidate "takes the queens shilling; he (she) must dance the queens tune."
Until there is public funding of elections and provision of TV time to all candidates who meet standards of viability (see French system), as in Europe, we will have politicans who dare not or cannot tie their own shoelaces.
Additionally, to get competent people to run for office we need to compensate our leaders adequately and confine their income to government sources. Ironic that a senator who decides the fate of nations earns a fraction of one percent the income of Tiger Woods (I begrudge Tigers nothing!) That is until the senator becomes a lobbyist.
Pay Senators, representatives and Department Secretaries one million dollars per year....then shoot them if they take another cent from any source!!!!
You'll get competence!!!!

Posted by: james hogan | August 8, 2007 7:20 AM | Report abuse

I agree that lawyers are a huge part of the problem. I disagree that conservatism is the problem. When were the huge ghettos in Chicago, New York, and other cities established ? During the "War on Poverty", under Lyndon B. Johnson. At a time when everyone believed the maximum tax rate should be 72 % for the rich, and that it is o.k. to not work and just collect welfare, if you are a minority. Crime, drug use, and stagnation took off under LBJ. It has been downhill since then. Jimmy Carter basically allowed Islamic terrorism to begin by not backing the Shah of Iran. Our policies since 1980 only allowed it to thrive, based on the principle, "if you hit the U.S., we won't hit back". The only good thing that happened was the Ronald Reagan era. I am old enough to remember it. This country rallied under Reagan, in every sense of the world. Since Reagan, crime went down, poverty went down, etc. In my view, the decline of our country is closely linked with the Democratic Party since 1965. Look at the record. Reagan defeated communism. Reagan rallied our nation. People felt proud to be American again. Our military (almost totally defeated in the 1970s) rallied. Our economy rallied. Entrepreneurs were no longer punished for generating wealth and jobs. Don't blame conservatism and Milton Friedman for the "decline". It would be like blaming the doctor for the cancer.

Posted by: John | August 7, 2007 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Three things have occurred within the last several decades, things contributing to a loss of American competence.

First, the phenomenon I call "deprofessionalization." Doctors, lawyers, teachers, investment advisors, engineers, accountants, etc., were once brought through a lengthy apprentice process to achieve their status. They each had a certain coating of insulation which protected their integrity. Difficult decisions were determined by quiet and behind-the-scenes adherence to proven rules of the professional practice, as opposed to bending to conflicting pressures from nonprofessionals including political forces. Now, the general trend in the professional workplace is to strip off selected tasks and give them to unqualified technical workers, narrowing the professional role into areas that are far too specialized to maintain a perspective. A result is important decisions being determined by totally unqualified influences. Stem cell research issues decided by Congress is one example, although there are countless lesser social effects of evaluations by fools overruling beneficial knowledge (e.g. insurance companies).

Second, and somewhat connected, is the introduction of lying as a sanctioned and rewarded executive and mid-management practice in large corporations. This is in dramatic such contrast to the "my word is my bond" ethic that was once strictly required at all levels in business, military, and community.

Third, the federal judicial system has effectively shut down in terms of its relevance to providing civil resolutions to ordinary citizens. The Constitutional promise of a jury trial is simply not fulfilled. Time, expense, and judicial dismissal of complaints without a jury process means that justice is a luxury good available only to the elite, and favoring those defending misdeeds. Aside from demoralization of any citizen who becomes directly aware of this fact, on a larger scale, the basic institutions in our society no longer get the correcting feedback from the justice system they require to be fair and sensitive to society.

These are the three fundamental changes I pick to illustrate why America is losing competence.

Posted by: On the plantation | August 6, 2007 3:52 PM | Report abuse

The Bush administrations miserable failure is intentional--poor accounting, corruption, and incompetence is a smokescreen for the Largest Robbery in History. From Iraq to Katrina and in every department of the government the rip-off continues. Fascism=Totalitarianism, Corruption,Incompetence,Manipulation, Domination, and Control. Compare all these to the Bush Criminal Enterprise and they all match.

Posted by: ghostcommander | August 6, 2007 2:37 PM | Report abuse

There's a big difference between fixing the infrastructure at home and "remaking" the Middle East. We have failed the worst at the grandiose foreign policy schemes, such as Vietnam and Iraq.

Posted by: Chuck Lane | August 6, 2007 1:34 PM | Report abuse

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