Living Life in the Rearview Mirror

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

Roman, Byzantine, British. These are among the great empires of European history, the groups that influenced the development of entire centuries of human existence. Despite all of their glories and riches, they eventually receded from prominence, their power waning in a long struggle against decline. The question of this decade, and indeed so far this century, is a simple one: Will America be added to that list of former powers?

Ask that question to an American today and the response will likely be yes, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. The zeitgeist of the past two years has been clear they say, and their response has been equally strong and focused. The Tea Party movement is a direct consequence of that belief in America's decline, a demand to look in the rearview mirror to the 50s, 80s and 90s and search for the soul of a nation that was once ebullient and prosperous.

Who is to blame them? The future seems to be a tremendously frustrating and depressing venture. The economy I see is undergoing creative destruction, but the emphasis so far has tilted heavily toward destruction. Entire industries have been forced aside, while nascent industries have failed to take hold. It is not a pretty sight.

In the past, graduating college meant entering a world of opportunity and growth. The humanities were flourishing, science and technology were seeing tremendous growth, the social sciences were experiencing fundamental advances and businesses the world over were experiencing flush profits. American dynamism was exhilarating.

Today, few members of my generation will stay with one employer throughout their lifetimes. In lieu of stable employment and some semblance of a social safety net, workers face a nightmarish environment of temporary assignments, pink slips, and eroding wages.

Even getting an advanced degree does not insulate graduates from the vagaries of the market. Law schools are still opening, despite the reality that there are fifty percent more law graduates every year than the market can sustain. Wages for lawyers can barely match loan repayment demands. The answer is similar in medical school, where debt loads are larger than the upper quartile of home mortgages.

For graduate school, the answer is worse. A PhD used to mean all but guaranteed employment at a university or in industry. Today, graduate students in fields as diverse as English, Biology and Political Science cannot even find a stable position that pays better than their graduate stipends (a problem existing well before the economic downturn).

If employment and the economy were the only problems facing America, a little bit of can-do spirit and some creativity may have eliminated the problem. Unfortunately, it is not the only problem, nor is it the primary problem.

Our generation faces a punishing array of issues - enormous national debt, underfunded Social Security, exorbitant health costs, crumbling infrastructure, failing schools, worsening inequality, and poor job prospects, among a host of other ills. Frustratingly, politicians continue to dither about what problems to solve or whether to solve them at all. One generation simply cannot shoulder this burden, not with the environment we face.

I understand the Tea Partiers. Our current situation is pretty damning. However, it can be easy to look at the trends of the world today and conclude that America's time has passed. It most certainly has not. We are too dynamic, innovative, and entrepreneurial to allow that to happen so quickly.

But our resurgence can be endangered. The current anti-government (indeed, anti-everything) response from Tea Partiers is starting to reverse America's strength. Lowering taxes has been a classic American political virtue, but it is deadly in a time of reinvestment. How can one prepare the current and the next generation for the world they face when schools and colleges are getting less funding every year?

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently recognized this in his State of the State address, saying, "Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future. What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns? It simply is not healthy." Too bad that he is a lame duck with little political capital left to spend.

If America is to remain strong in the 21st Century, then this country must invest resources to sustain its power. That means upgrading infrastructure, raising education standards, demanding school choice, controlling health care costs and engaging our allies and enemies. The answer to our problems lies not with the past, but with our future. The Romans, Byzantines and British looked to the past and began a process of malaise and decline. America cannot live life in the rearview mirror.