America still has the most powerful economy in the world, but these are among the many signs of weakening. Global competition is intensifying, particularly in China, which is making energetic moves to lead in high speed rail, clean energy technology, the control of rare earth metals necessary for defense, and the number of international patents filed.
Part of the problem can be traced to the frenzied financial speculation that changed Wall Street from a place where capital had been mobilized for real economic projects into a sprawling casino of empty bets. This orgy of falsity and greed destroyed trillions of dollars in global value, plunging tens of millions of people into misery.
In the process we lost track of the fundamental idea of investment, which is the setting aside of current forms of wealth to create greater prosperity in the future. A correctly functioning economy would contribute to things that make our nation stronger: jobs, energy, infrastructure, education, and health care. Instead of the endlessly stale conversation about spending, we need a sober conversation about how to use our current national resources to create a stronger nation within a safer, just, and more prosperous world.
Part of the problem is the nature of our politics, where elected officials seek momentary advantage by opposing steps that are in the best long-term interest of the country.
Equally important, however, is the question of the American spirit. Can we rediscover the essential optimism and creativity that has characterized American life from the beginning?
We may be tempted to say that today’s circumstances are so tough that they represent an insurmountable challenge for our people, our institutions, and our government. Anyone who feels this way lacks awareness of American history. The United States has survived profound national crises, wrenching divisions, and the blistering effects of economic depression and war.
Indeed, there have been many times when tensions in America became so great that it was not clear whether the country would survive. Yet each time we were able to reach inside ourselves and find the capacity for renewal — as individuals, as communities, and as a republic.
In this new year, we must not yield to the temptation of despair. Yes, the problems we are facing are difficult. But they are not beyond our capacity to address them. The first step must not be delusion, but determined will. As Edward Kennedy said,
America has a choice. We can continue to be buffeted by the harsh winds of the global economy. Or we can think anew, and guide the currents of globalization with a progressive vision that strengthens the nation and prepare our people to move confidently towards the future.
To establish our direction, we must be able to imagine our destination. A decision to reaffirm a national spirit of courage and creativity would be the best resolution we could make for the year ahead.