Saturday, November 10, 2012

Cover story of German magazine "Der Spiegel" from November 5, 2012: "The American Patient"

By Patrick

In the past I sometimes mentioned the German magazine "Der Spiegel", which is most likely the most important and influential news magazine in Europe (click here for the English online version). The "Spiegel" became highly influential in the past for several reasons, but first and foremost for its unique style of writing, which could be called "anti-authoritarian" and "brutally objective", although one could of course argue that journalists eventually always write from a subjective point of view. However, one thing is certain: Through the 60 years of its existence, the "Spiegel" has angered and provoked many people due to its "tough" style of reporting, in Germany and abroad - a style originally created by its legendary liberal founder Rudolf Augstein.

The "Spiegel" is not always right, but often the observations, which might prove quite unpopular, are dead-on. The articles can produce harsh reactions, and this is no different with their current cover story: "The American Patient - Notes on the Decline of a Great Nation."

I scanned the cover:

At the moment, we are all still celebrating Barack Obama's great victory as well as the successes of the Democrats in the Senate races. I do not intend to "dampen the mood" with reporting about the current "Spiegel" cover story, but the article is in my view very important.

In my opinion, one of the main problems America faces right now is the fact that there exists a general confusion about "reality." There is a Republican reality, there is a Democratic reality, there is a Libertarian reality and so forth.

On a sidenote, the "Libertarian reality" really defies belief - a quote from the libertarian activist Eric Dondero on the blog "Libertarian Republican", from November 7, after Obama won the election:

Seccession of leave. I say we've got two to three years left before they start rounding up dissenters and sending us off to Nazi-style concentration camps. I've got a little more time, cause I live in Texas.

Arizona is a good place to be for now. But New York, Iowa, Michigan, Massachusetts, PA beware. You're vastly on the road to complete authoritarianism and statism. Grab your guns, protect what few things you have left. You're living in Nazi Germany circa 1933-34.

Yes, sure, Eric, just like Nazi Germany...! Call the doctor, please...

But looking at things as objectively as possible, what is really going on in the USA? What are the challenges? What are the problems? What should the government do right now to get out of the current mess as quickly as possible? Are there even any "quick solutions?" After celebrating Obama's victory, these are some of the questions which now need to be answered.

When I read the article, I thought that I might have to translate parts of it for our readers, but thankfully, the "Spiegel" published the complete article also online in English language.

There is also a comment section, which, unsurprisingly is littered with highly critical comments - as well as some supportive comments. A very critical article about the current sorry state of the USA won't please many people right now - which is understandable, as the Democrats are currently riding on a wave of new optimism, and the Republicans - well, they will be occupied with soul-searching for the next years.

But lets not beat around the bush any longer, here are finally a few excerpts from the "Spiegel" cover story:

After a brilliant century and a terrible decade, the United States, in this important election year, has reached a point in its history when the obvious can no longer be denied: The reality of life in America so greatly contradicts the claim -- albeit one that has always been exaggerated -- to be the "greatest nation on earth," that even the most ardent patriots must be overcome with doubt.

This realization became only too apparent during and after Hurricane Sandy, the monster storm that ravaged America's East Coast last week, its effects made all the more devastating by the fact that its winds were whipping across an already weakened country. The infrastructure in New York, New Jersey and New England was already in trouble long before the storm made landfall near Atlantic City. The power lines in Brooklyn and Queens, on Long Island and in New Jersey, in one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, are not underground, but are still installed along a fragile and confusing above-ground network supported by utility poles, the way they are in developing countries.

Large parts of America's biggest city and millions of people along the East Coast could now be forced to survive for days, possibly even weeks, without electricity, water and heat. Many of the backup generators intended for such emergencies didn't work, so that large hospitals had to be evacuated. On the one hand, these consequences of the storm point to the uncontrollability of nature. On the other hand, they are signs that America is no longer the great, robust global power it once was.

Europeans who make such claims have always been accused of anti-Americanism. But now Americans themselves are joining the chorus of those declaring the country's decline. "I had to catch a train in Washington last week," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose columns are read worldwide, wrote last April. "The paved street in the traffic circle around Union Station was in such poor condition that I felt as though I was on a roller coaster. I traveled on the Amtrak Acela, our sorry excuse for a fast train, on which I had so many dropped calls on my cellphone that you'd have thought I was on a remote desert island, not traveling from Washington to New York City. When I got back to Union Station, the escalator in the parking garage was broken. Maybe you've gotten used to all this and have stopped noticing. I haven't. Our country needs a renewal."

According to the US Federal Highway Administration, one in four of the more than 600,000 bridges in the world's richest country are either "inadequate" or outdated. According to some studies, the United States would have to invest some $225 billion a year between now and 2050 to regain an adequate, modern infrastructure. That's 60 percent more than it invests today.

he country has forgotten the days when former President Franklin D. Roosevelt courageously told his fellow Americans that a collectively supported social welfare system didn't translate into socialism but freedom, a "New Deal" that would strengthen America in the long term. Gone are the days when former President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched bold government programs to cover a country 27 times the size of Germany with a network of interstate highways. Gone are the years when former President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty and enacted federal laws declaring that there could be no second- or third-class citizens, regardless of skin color. And gone is the spirit of renewal after former President John F. Kennedy's visionary promise to send Americans to the moon within a decade, a program that would cost taxpayers billions.

Today America lacks the financial strength, political courage and social will to embark on such large-scale, government-directed programs. The United States has long been drawing down its savings, writes Fareed Zakaria, another American critic of his own country and a respected columnist with Time. "What we see today is an American economy that has boomed because of policies and developments of the 1950s and '60s: the interstate-highway system, massive funding for science and technology, a public-education system that was the envy of the world and generous immigration policies."

"Americans are tired after the war in Iraq and also after Afghanistan," says Obama advisor and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. This exhaustion, when combined with the traumatic terrorist attacks of 2001, has weakened the social glue that held America together in the 20th century. This is only too apparent in the absurd squabbles between Republicans and Democrats during the Obama years.

The president didn't keep his promise to unite the country politically, but for that to happen, the participation of both parties would have been required. Instead, the more Obama sought to accommodate the Republicans, the more extreme their positions and the more hysterical their criticism became, eliminating any prospect of compromise. The three most important pieces of legislation Obama pushed through Congress since his inauguration in January 2009 were achieved with the votes of his fellow Democrats, even though they incorporated key Republican demands.

Obama's biggest economic stimulus package, which provided for government investments of $787 billion, contained substantial tax cuts that the Republicans had demanded and to which the Democrats were in fact opposed, and yet only three Republicans in the Senate and none in the House of Representatives voted for the legislation. All Republicans in both houses of Congress rejected the health care reform that will be viewed as a historic achievement one day. And the financial reform legislation, which turned out to be far more moderate than the Democrats had hoped, received the votes of only three Republicans in each house of Congress.

And when there is also a lack of perseverance on the part of the government -- an accusation that does apply to the Obama administration -- and when important proposals are abandoned in the face of the slightest resistance, the work to shape the future of the United States, which its founding fathers saw as a "work in progress," becomes gridlocked in a very fundamental way.

This gridlock applies to all political spheres. America's schools, for which the country spends more than any other nation on earth, are more like "dropout factories" in big cities like Chicago and the capital, Washington. Some 1.3 million students drop out of high school each year in the US before they have the chance to graduate.

Although many American universities are still among the world's top institutions, they have become unaffordable for many Americans. Every year, universities are forced to raise their already outrageously high tuition levels, partly because of declining government support. In fact, states like California now spend more money on prisons than universities.

Obama's major economic stimulus package, which critics claim is more of a crisis management program than the blueprint for a new beginning, set aside $90 billion to promote renewable energy. This is a lot of money, but because the "green jobs" the program promised didn't materialize right away, the president's adversaries ridiculed the entire project and cited it as an example of his failure. Obama's search for a green future was nothing but a money pit, scoffed the Republican front men, who want nothing to do with environmental protection and ecological progress, because they assume that electricity comes from an outlet and gasoline from a pump.

Solyndra, a promising startup company in the sunny town of Fremont, California, which had a seemingly brilliant idea to make more effective solar panels, became a symbol of the fight over Obama's allegedly failed environmental policy. In March 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, awarded the company a $535 million loan.

"The promise of clean energy isn't just ... some abstract possibility for science fiction movies," Obama said. But that was wrong, at least when it came to Solyndra. The company went bankrupt in 2011, 1,100 employees lost their jobs, the government's money was gone and the Republicans had fodder for the election campaign.

Solyndra was in fact the exception to the rule. Of 63 companies that received government assistance under Obama's green economy programs, 58 were successful and only five went bankrupt -- a 92-percent success rate. But none of that mattered. Obama's opponents, or about half of the American population, ignored the underlying goal of the "green" offensive, which is ultimately to make the entire country more competitive.

Nevertheless, "decline" is a big word, especially for a nation that is still the world's number one economic and military power, and will remain so for at least the next decade. It's also a country whose innovative energy seems unbroken in many fields, and one that, unlike Europe, has balanced population growth and enormous mineral resources. In fact, when it comes to the demise of former world powers, Europe's decline is much more evident than that of the United States.

The upheavals in the Arab world took America's diplomats by surprise, and they ended Obama's offensive in the Islamic world. But they also showed how poorly connected and, ultimately, uninfluential the United States is in the region today. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood is now Egypt's president, Iran apparently remains undeterred in advancing its nuclear program and the situation in Israel is more precarious that ever. These are all signs that America has far less influence than many Americans still want to believe.

This is not solely attributable to an American decline, but also has to do with various shifts in the global power structure. The unique role the country enjoyed for a short period after the collapse of the Soviet Union is gone. There was a moment, at the time, in which the apologists for American greatness had already declared the end of history, because they felt that there was now proof that there could only be one model of governmental organization: the Western, economically liberal democracy based on freedom. But that moment is over.

According to official government sources, the country could face a "significant recession" unless it finds a solution to its budget problem. The economy, which is predicted to grow by at least 2.5 percent next year, could shrink instead, leading to an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent. It's a nightmare scenario that even the International Monetary Fund, normally a proponent of drastic austerity programs, warns against. Behind the fiscal cliff is a gaping abyss into which all hopes for America's future could disappear.

Perhaps it is already merely a question of controlling the problem and making preparations for the post-American age.

The "Spiegel" also mentions in the article the following clip from "The Newsroom", written by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin:

Part of this cover story is also a very interesting interview with Madeleine Albright.

So, what do you think? Too harsh? Bloody European socialists at work? Or journalists who try to look through the propaganda and through the "different realities" and try to paint an objective picture?

The article met some fierce opposition in the comments. See for example the comment by the reader Ernest Yates:
The Unites States is--

--number one in the degree of political, economic, and social freedom claimed by its citizens

--number one in the number of museums and libraries

--number one in the number of Nobel prizes won

--number one in the number of Olympic medals

--number one in GNP

--number one in the number of major colleges and universities

--number one in the number of books published, musical recordings produced, world-wide cinema attendance; hence

--number one in world-wide cultural power

--number one in military power

--number one in--oh hell, i could go on, but you get the gist.

Europeans are not noted for congratulating Americans on their ongoing achievements. (It's also very easy to find Americans who support any particular point of view.) The writer confuses episodes (storms, political uncertainty) with ongoing irreversible trend. Or is this just wishful thinking? If so, how ungenerous! How uncharitable!

I guess he watches Fox News a lot.

Barack Obama has been re-elected, but the problems won't go away quickly. In my view, the USA should now try to come to a consensus about the exact nature of the problems which face the nation - and then try to tackle them. The USA certainly cannot afford to fail, and workable solutions are needed. Can the nation come together again? The future will depend on it.

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