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The American Dream: Down, but Not Out

April 2011
The American Dream: Down, but Not Out According to a February poll by Rasmussen Reports, 48 percent of Americans believe that the country’s best days are behind us. Mirroring the mood, Time magazine recently ran a cover story that was a forum of two opposing views. Esteemed journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria weighed in with a piece titled, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” The foil, “Don’t Bet Against the United States,” came from David Von Drehle, a veteran journalist. Both essays were convincing; both scenarios—of further decline or resurgence—seem almost equally plausible.

In the seventies and eighties, when so many of us emigrated here from India, the contrast between the two countries in terms of opportunities and a standard of living could hardly be overstated. Moving to the U.S. was not only a heady status symbol, but also perhaps the most powerful panacea for middle class woes in India. It is no longer so. In the nineties the fabled American dream was on steroids. Twenty-somethings were becoming millionaires almost overnight; a 15 percent annual return on investments was considered a yawn; and the U.S. treasury was flush with surplus.

So it is hardly believable that today we are living in an America that is fighting for financial solvency and facing concerns that many Third World nations routinely face. Who could have imagined public libraries in this country would have to cut back hours (and days), and that governments, both local and federal, would face shutdowns, all due to budget cuts?

Surely the decline of America is unprecedented and in our face. While India, China, and the rest of the world are investing in education, infrastructure and other strengths, America seems stuck in a political morass that Zakaria deftly likens to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

And yet, does it mean it is all over for America? Is it now going the way of an “also ran” in the global community of nations? Is America’s decline etched for the foreseeable future?

While I wholly empathize with the concerns that Zakaria and many others highlight, I side with Von Drehle on this debate, but not entirely for the reasons he cites, which are: the resilience of America and overblown symptoms. I don’t believe there is anything overblown about close to 10 percent unemployment, or a national deficit and debt being in numbers that are hardly comprehensible by humans. Rather my anecdotal experiences and observation, and my immigrant sensibilities, tell me that despite the trajectory that is surely alarming, some of the ground realities of this nation still seem light years ahead of most countries in the world, and surely ahead of India and China.

Take for example, operating a small business—what many pundits believe to be the engine of the economy. In my frequent conversations with a cousin in Mumbai who runs a web-hosting company with about 50 employees, I get a sense of his increasing frustrations with the multiple daily headaches that have very little to do with the operation of the business, but everything to do with harassment and even extortion from officials of various government agencies. Within his network of vendors and peers, several have been “visited” by officials with police in tow looking for minor regulatory infractions and even trumped up charges. When he recently fired an employee for poor morale, she came back the next day with Shiv Sena activists, demanding outrageous remedies and monies. Such are the daily realities of his business, he says. The powerful nexus of organizations such as the Sena with their bully pulpits, along with rapid inflation, has, according to him, made the scenario depressing in an otherwise booming economy.

In contrast, starting and running a business in the U.S. continues to remain largely trouble-free. The only recurrent complaints I have heard over the years are from restaurant start-ups who are often overwhelmed with the number of clearances needed. But rigorous as the requirements may be, they seem to be in the interest of public health.

Take infrastructure as another example. India’s may be improving while America’s may be deteriorating. And yet, the latter still offers smooth driving from coast to coast, while in India, despite the many miles of new highways, driving cross-country is an exercise in stressful depletion of energy.

When I see new concepts such as Groupons stimulating the American economy, and cutting-edge gadgets such as the iPad that are birthed in this country, I get a sense that similar creativity and innovation is not prolific in countries like India and China. Yes, India is pursuing innovation (as opposed to China’s pursuit of efficiency), but the larger environment of corruption, volatility and scarcity of core essentials such as clean air and water are definite hurdles.

Creativity, innovation, initiative, strong work ethics (on Main Street if not on Wall Street) and an entrenched sense of law and order are the strengths of this country that may not lend well to statistical analysis, but have a potential to resurrect the country—if we can overcome our fancies for our so-called exceptionalism, political in-fighting, complacency, and our addiction to debt and instant gratification.

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