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Outside View: What went wrong; what might go right?

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   May 2, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 2 (UPI) -- One of the most overly abused questions asks whether the proverbial glass is half full or half empty. To a cynic who, after all, is only an experienced realist, an 8-ounce water glass that is half full contains 4 ounces of liquid, no more, no less. Determining optimism or pessimism from that observation is foolish.

Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin had a more relevant tool: contradictions. These contradictions form a sounder basis for assessing the balance between optimism and pessimism in the United States. These contradictions also help explain why things have gone wrong in America and are symptomatic of far deeper societal ailments.

The United States prides itself in its "exceptionalism" and the uniqueness of its political and legal systems. For all of the bluster over democratic values, we are lucky if more than half of the voting public goes to the polls to elect the leader of the free world. We are mindful of individual rights and assuming innocence until proving guilt. However, the United States has one of the largest prison populations in the world and the largest on a per capita basis. We spend more on our penal systems than on educating our youth.

In the war on terror, the United States maintains the strongest military in the world at time when there is no obvious military rival, China withstanding. U.S. outlays on defense amount to nearly as much as the rest of the world spends combined. Unfortunately, the major dangers and threats to this nation aren't all amenable to the use of military force. Concurrently, the president has been granted the license to kill our enemies regardless of citizenship through drone strikes originally intended to disrupt and destroy al-Qaida -- an inherent conflict with due process.

In current or constant dollars, the United States today is the globe's wealthiest nation. Much of that wealth resides in the economic elite, perhaps 5 percent of the population hold well over one-third of that wealth. Republicans argue that tax increases will destroy many of the incentives that create wealth. Instead, substantial spending cuts in the federal budget are the best solutions for economic recovery.

Democrats counter that spending cuts disproportionately harm the less advantaged and the elderly who are dependent on federal healthcare, Social Security and other entitlement programs. Hence, the wealthy should be made to allocate more of their wealth to underwriting and supporting the less fortunate.

These and other contradictions have induced political paralysis and seemingly uncontrollable debts and deficits. At some date certain, the nation will be bankrupted by these fiscal imbalances unless ...

The unless is that until one party wins both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and 60 seats in the U.S. Senate, or, mysteriously, bipartisanship sets in, only a crisis possibly as bad as the depression will impel corrective legislation.

The first lady correctly and forcefully advocates healthy diet. We are told that one-in-six of our children go to bed hungry. Still, the surgeon general reports that upward of two-fifths of our citizens are obese or suffer from obesity -- an interesting and stunning contradiction.

Given the choice of exchanging citizenship with any other nation, Americans overwhelming will stay here. But that doesn't mean America is a more perfect union or that we haven't lost or are losing our way. The conditions for greatness and for exploiting virtually unlimited potential remain. Unfortunately, here are the mother and father of all contradictions.

Our political system is broken. It may not be fixable if government cannot take self-corrective actions. The flaws and causes of this breakdown are cumulative and reflect a coarsening of society. Both political parties have gravitated to the extremes of left and right. Rationality, compromise and objectivity have been exiled to the nether regions by ideology.

How to resolve these contradictions isn't self-evident. Political revolutions won't work. Nor have noble efforts to seek bipartisanship. Political or economic crises will do as much damage as good. And hoping for a great leader to emerge is as naïve as seeing a glass as half full.

Reality is harsh. America isn't in decline per se. It will remain a dominant power indefinitely. But future generations shouldn't plan on better standards of living or rising expectations of earlier generations unless …

The only realistic "unless" is technology. From history, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology was one way out of an economic wilderness. Three-dimensional printing, further revolutions in information, nano and genetic technologies to name four hold great promise. With most governments in irons today, the creative genius of the private sector could be the solace for society.

The critical question determining our future is whether broken government will obstruct, reinforce or stay out of the way of these creative processes that could reverse much of what has gone wrong.

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(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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