Dan Murphy: A Crisis of Character

September 20, 2018 01:30 PM
Nobody disputes that America faces serious challenges to its continuing prosperity, although everybody disagrees about how to respond. Maybe we should examine the origins of the problem.

If I were forced to explain the cause of our contemporary political divide, the increasingly bitter partisanship that has created warring factions of Americans pitted against each other, I’d summarize it in a single phrase: Life’s gotten tougher for most people over the last couple generations.

The roots of that development are easy to explain to people, but incredibly difficult to convince them of the veracity of the explanation.

A prescient work of historical research first got me engaged in this line of thinking nearly 40 years ago. Titled, “The Great Frontier,” the book was the serious treatise written by historian Walter Prescott Webb. I can’t recommend it as a “great read,” because it’s a lengthy, often turgid work of academic density that isn’t exactly easy to skim.

I had to read it to pass a college history class; I doubt many people other than captive undergraduates like me and my fellow classmates ever picked it up to enjoy summertime beach reading.

Yet Webb’s thesis is a potent one, and forgive me for distilling his detailed scholarship into just one sentence: The American identity we cherish — that we’re self-made achievers, rugged individualists endowed with a can-do spirit — has little to do with innate character traits, and everything to do with geography.

Webb argued that the Europeans who landed on the shores of North America 500 years ago encountered an entire continent of utterly unprecedented potential, a wealth of land and resources unimaginable to people who’d endured a millennium of exactly the opposite in their native countries and kingdoms.

As Webb explained, the discovery of a vast, untapped frontier of seemingly limitless expanse — after the Native tribes were conveniently “removed,” of course — shaped Americans’ perceptions and behaviors in profound ways that have resonated down through the centuries right up until the present era.

Do we tell our children “Anything is possible if you work hard enough”? That’s the result of generations of farmers, homesteaders and business people who were able to do exactly that in frontier America, Webb posited, not because we’re a blessed people endowed with special talents, but because we had millions of acres of “free” land where hard work did indeed translate into economic success.

That wasn’t the case in the feudal societies of Europe.

As a society, we are often accused of casual indifference to ecological threats – climate change being the most current one, but only one in a line of species extinctions, dust bowls and horrendous examples of egregious air and water pollution?

That’s the consequence of generation after generation being able to cut down the forests, plow up the prairies and exhaust the soil, then simply pack up and move further West to virgin territory. Three hundred years ago, who would have believed that we would someday struggle with how to preserve our best farmland in the face of rapidly expanding urban populations? In the 1700s, the struggle was to actively recruit enough farm families to somehow exploit the acreage that once seemed limitless.

Fruit Picked — and Eaten
The Great Frontier details all that and more in excruciating detail — historians are adept at delivering length and depth in their theses — but a more recent book spins a similar theory in a more accessible manner. Titled, “The Great Stagnation” (note the similarity to Webb’s title), it was written by George Mason University Economics Professor Tyler Cowen back in 2011 as the nation was recovering from the Great Recession.

Cowen, a prolific author and blogger best described as a libertarian, but with a practical, non-doctrinaire bent, arrived at a similar place, sociologically speaking, as Webb did, as the subtitle of his book summarized: “How American ate all the low-hanging fruit of modern history, got sick and will (eventually) feel better.”

Cowen wrote, “America is in disarray and our economy is failing us” (to which I would add, and also our educational and healthcare systems). He listed the various metrics supporting his contention, as economists are wont to do — nonexistent wage growth, declining standards of living, mounting public and private debt; you get the picture — and acknowledged that “something is wrong with today’s politics.”

After condemning both political parties for what Cowen termed their shortsighted and equally unproductive responses to the malaise noted above, he cut to the chase.

“All of our problems have a single, little-noticed root cause: We have been living off the low-hanging fruit for at least 300 years,” he wrote. “We have built social and economic institutions on the expectation of low-hanging fruit, but that fruit is mostly gone.”

As is the frontier that Webb postulated as the source of both our unrealistic expectations of perpetual growth and progress, as well as our ingrained belief that Americans have some unique, intrinsic talent for achieving success and prosperity that isn’t available to other countries and other nationalities.

No, what we had, and no longer have, was access to a bounty of land and natural resources such as humanity had never before encountered and will most likely never again experience, barring some Star Trek-like discovery of an entire galaxy teeming with untapped wealth just waiting to be tapped.

Our unique historical destiny provided us with unprecedented opportunity, which we have utilized with amazing vigor, but it’s also saddled us with what’s best described as a national character flaw that now threatens to cripple our ability to put aside political ideology to deal collectively with the serious challenges of modern society.

No more frontier to exploit. No more low-hanging fruit to fall into our laps. No more ever-expanding economic growth to sustain the illusion that we can borrow and spend our way to never-ending prosperity.

As Americans, as citizens, our failure to understand and accept that reality looms as the biggest threat to the American Dream we’ve ever encountered.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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