Sunday, September 6, 2009

American exceptionalism

The Bigger Picture
Published on June 4th in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Since I discussed the current political climate last week, in today’s column I would like to share some more of my observations while I’m here in the states about the current “state of the American economy” as well as some thoughts about immigration.
On the economic front there has been a palpable change in the attitudes of many of my friends and family members as well as the general public since I was last here back in January. At that time most people I knew or met were genuinely scared that the United States economy was going to be in the tank for at least three more years if not longer.
Though most of my friends still had their jobs, everyone knew someone who had either lost their jobs or seen their hours and wages reduced. Within my own family, my sister-in-law was working as an administrator for a small company that was reliant on equipment sales to auto parts suppliers. She had already seen her hours and wages cut due to reduced sales and slower payments from her company’s customers so when things didn’t improve, her and the other three employees were finally let go at the end of March.
Still when I first saw her 2 weeks ago she was in a buoyant mood because she had just begun training for a new job, albeit a part-time one, as a bank teller for JP Morgan Chase, one of America’s largest remaining “solvent” banks. In truth all of America’s banks are still solvent thanks to the intervention of the US Government, but Chase was one of the few large American banks that it now turns out didn’t need any federal money. Several of my other friends who had lost their jobs were similarly optimistic regarding their own future employment prospects even though they had yet to land a new one.
The most amazing aspect of these changes in attitude about the US economy I noticed was that all of my friends acknowledged that they still expected unemployment and home foreclosures in the US to continue to rise through at least the end of this year. In fact the American economy has already shed almost 6 million jobs and seen more than one of every ten home mortgages go into foreclosure since the recession began in the fall of 2007. No one seems to expect much of a recovery in 2010 either as virtually everyone I talk to thinks the US economy won’t really start growing again until 2011.
So why on earth are so many people here in the US becoming more optimistic about America’s and their own economic futures in the face of a continuing rise in unemployment and home foreclosure rates? Well from my perspective there are two primary reasons; the first one is based on economic factors and the second is cultural.
Among other economic factors the most important one has been a renewed confidence in the American economy on the part of private investors. There is a now a belief that America’s financial institutions have finally been stabilized and the worst of the recession is now behind us. This is evidenced by the recent injections of private investor money into American banks and by the stock market’s rebound. Investors have also begun to buy foreclosed homes and distressed real estate properties in the worst hit markets like Phoenix Arizona where bidding wars for some properties have broken out.
Recent consumer confidence reports also support the more optimistic sentiments expressed by my friends and family members. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the American economy, unexpectedly rose by 2.2% during the first quarter and most US retailers are reporting that their sales are no longer falling.
From a cultural perspective, most Americans are raised with the belief that in the American system of democracy it is possible to do anything, even those things which most observers would quite practically consider impossible. Brilliance, genius and wisdom aren’t limited to those who have been raised with particular economic and educational advantages or to great universities like Harvard and MIT. These attributes can also be found just as easily in people who were raised on rural farms or in urban slums as well as in America’s egalitarian community colleges.
Mind you, I’m not saying that America is alone in this regard because such qualities can also be found in people who live in many other nations around the world. Rather, what I think makes America unique is that, unlike virtually all other countries, it is a truly a nation of immigrants. This is the ultimate source of American exceptionalism.
I believe that those individuals, who choose to leave their native lands in search of a better life in unfamiliar surroundings, possess a belief in themselves and optimism about the future that sets them apart from their other countrymen. They need such beliefs to sustain them because they also know that they will have to endure many hardships without being able to draw on the strength and comfort that one derives from familiar surroundings, family and friends. These immigrants then inculcate these same beliefs into their children and grandchildren’s psyches while they are growing up, thus passing this view of life as one being full of possibilities on to future generations of Americans.
This is the kind of American exceptionalism that both I and President Barack Obama believe in. It is America’s single greatest strength and yet it has also proven to at times be the starting place for most of America’s mistakes. In other words, America’s greatest strength can also be its greatest weakness. Some Americans on both the right and the left politically believe that American exceptionalism extends to America’s judicial and political system as well as their own moral belief systems. Therein lies the rub, because it is these perversions of American exceptionalism which lead us to dismiss the views and perspectives of people in other countries. Next week we’ll discuss America’s religions.

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