Anxiety and the American Spirit
the movie “Seabiscuit,” the racehorse’s owner Charles
Howell is fascinated with the future. But in the non-fiction story, the
future took a bite out of Howell’s life when the Northern California
car mogul’s son was killed in an automobile accident. Howell’s
purchase of Seabiscuit and the horse’s romantic romp through the
Great Depression era and into American sporting lore redeem Howell’s
love of life and zest for the future. Howell is not a man who fears.
the lens of post-9/11 America, the movie couldn’t help but bring
a strong sense of nostalgia to audiences wanting a simpler, less dangerous
world. Director Gary Ross provides a panoramic view of the Golden State
in the 1930s depression, making it feel like the Golden Age of America.
Yes, a simpler time.
in the 1930s was not as romantic as Ross portrays some 65 years later.
In 1938, the future that Charles Howell so eagerly contemplated would
include a World War that in seven years would take the lives of 50 million
people. And the depression itself looked more like John Steinbeck’s
novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” than the romantic, leisurely
world of Charles Howell and his horse Seabiscuit.
Americans, trudging through what is now the fourth year of the “War
on Terror,” now view the often soulless but “go-go”
’90s with nostalgia. It is the future that Americans are anxious
about, and more often since 9/11 have come to view pessimistically. This
is a mistake. Because the case for Howell’s optimism, if the American
spirit is up for it, is stronger today than it was in the ’30s.
before the election, Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal wrote
about the future—and the challenges America faces beyond the war
on terrorism. Henninger begins with China, although he could have started
with India, where 400 million people have in the last decade risen from
poverty to middle class—thanks to an American invention called the
computer (this is the side of globalization that the media never bothers
to tell you about).
changed its economic policies to make them appropriate to the world as
it existed, not as China wished the world would be…India the past
five years has similarly broken with its longtime statist past. Brazil
is attempting a similar transformation. All three are huge countries in
the process of rapidly creating a smart, globally relevant business class.
This country’s biggest problem isn’t “Halliburton”
but the realization, just sinking in, that internal U.S. labor costs are
being set by a suddenly thriving, truly global marketplace. This is the
real cause of the famous “middle-class squeeze,” and it’s
a force more powerful than any one person sitting in the Oval Office.
Two days later Tom Friedman of The New York Times weighed in with a ditto
theme about the future:
group of boomers barreling down the highway are the young people in India,
China and Eastern Europe, who in this increasingly flat world will be
able to compete with your kids and mine more directly than ever for high-value-added
shoppers: The Chinese and the Indians are not racing us to the bottom.
They are racing us to the top. Young Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs
are not content just to build our designs. They aspire to design the next
wave of innovations and dominate those markets. Goods jobs are being outsourced
to them not simply because they’ll work for less, but because they
are better educated in the math and science skills required for 21st-century
When was the last time you met a 12-year-old who told you he or she wanted
to grow up to be an engineer? When Bill Gates goes to China, students
hang from the rafters and scalp tickets to hear him speak. In China, Bill
Gates is Britney Spears.
shouldn’t be afraid of the future. After all, we invented it. But
as Michael Barone warns in his book, “Hard America, Soft America—Competition
vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future,” the
country is developing a growing culture that fears the hard work and hard
choices of global competition.
CEO of FEI, an international company based in Hillsboro, Ore. that manufactures
nanotechnology tools, has noticed. Sarkissian believes there is no safe
place to hide in the world economy, no place for a growing but dangerous
entitlement culture. Societies either compete or they watch their standard
of living shrink. Sarkissian, like Howell, sees the future. Because he
does, he isn’t sympathetic to American outsourcing complaints. As
he told this magazine last month, “People will gravitate toward
the lowest level cost production area, no matter what. Water flows downhill.
The world is an open competitive place. Jobs go where things can be done
better. It is a globalized world no matter what you say…and it is
dangerous to look for entitlements.”
11 shook America’s confidence not just because of the tragedy and
the ensuing “War on Terrorism,” but also because Americans
wonder if the country’s character is solid. Or as solid as it was
in past generations. Comparing one generation of Americans to another
really misses the point because it misses the opportunity the future holds.
Throughout the lifetimes of American baby boomers, the majority of the
world lived in under-developed nations. In the future, starting now, the
majority of the world’s population will live in the growing developed
world. It is a staggering accomplishment, and though it comes with many
problems—pollution, AIDS, a “war on terrorism”—it
also comes with tremendous opportunity should America be up for the contest.
It is a coming age that Charles Howell would be only too eager to embrace.
BrainstormNW - Nov 2004