Remarkably, U.S. analysts worrying about whether the United States faces a Japan-like future often base their concern on the fact that the Japanese stock market, after the boom that came to a rapid end in the late 1980s, has effectively stuck in place.
The Nikkei index reached its record high of nearly 39,000 back in December 1989 — and hovers around 10,000 now. With a stock market performance like that, the implication goes, is all the human toiling even worth it — if we don’t get richer?
For all their challenges, few Japanese would agree that a nation’s stock market performance is a suitable measurement of life and its value, or of an entire society and its performance.
Japan’s economy may be far from booming (not a surprise in a nation with a shrinking population), but by and large the Japanese feel quite content looking at their standard of living.
Technology is improving constantly, the country’s public infrastructure is great, households waste less and less of their income on energy, health care is a given, and so on.
Turning to the United States, let’s start off with the often overlooked fact that the wealthiest 1% of the U.S. population holds more than one-third of the country's financial assets.
Against this backdrop, measuring a society’s progress in this particular manner does seem rather like a concern mainly for those who can afford to worry about such luxuries.
What constitutes a society’s progress? The determination and ability to solve its long-term problems in a global landscape marked by competitiveness.
Evaluating the past decade in that manner, a troubling picture emerges. The United States has actually accomplished very little of lasting value in terms of repositioning itself in the concert of nations.
True, the war against terror has been fought — but often in the wrong manner and, in part, even the wrong theater.
Meanwhile, profound social and economic imbalances at the national level were left unattended. They range from energy to the environment, education to public finance, immigration to infrastructure.
And they extend to crucial matters, such as the failure to assert authority over Wall Street and the failure to deal with troubling trends in income distribution as well as declining social mobility.
Such a systematic disregard for what in its sum total constitutes the real core structure of a nation and a society ends up eroding the standard of living. And sadly, that statement very much applies to the United States — even if many people were still able to shop more over the years (often on credit).
Simply put, buying a bigger washing machine (or car) doesn’t make anybody better off. Buying a more efficient one actually might. While most industrial countries have long embarked on a broad trend toward smarter (rather than more), the United States has been the holdout.
One key reason is that many parts of U.S. industry still balk at making the shift, because — it is said — consumers don’t really want more efficient machines (since they cost more).
The latter is certainly true initially. But since Europeans and Japanese aren’t richer than Americans, and still buy the more expensive items, what could explain the difference?
They buy less and less often — and always factor in operating costs and consider their purchases a long-term investment.
The Obama Administration took the stage at a time when an entire decade of making necessary adjustments had already been lost.
And now? The politics of Washington have become so dysfunctional, the process of policymaking so vituperative and the influence of business over public policy so corrosive that the nation’s real business was not taken care of.
Political leadership is all about the constant effort to optimize a nation’s economy to position it well for the future. And using the competitive performance of other nations as inducements to break domestic political stalemates is part and parcel of how that strategy is executed.
Fear, in that sense, has its purpose. It can be utilized as a creative stimulus and real motivation for self-improvement on the social and economic frontlines of a nation. And it can help citizens accept the need for painful adjustments.
Looking at oneself in a much more comparative manner helps acknowledge weakness — and forces voters to look at hard trade-offs.
In contrast, a nation which basks in domestic rhetoric about its global glory and dominance ultimately misleads itself — by believing that, sitting on top of the world, it can avoid the painful trade-offs and have everything it desires.
That may look seductive, but is self-deluding. Nobody operates in a vacuum. While there is still doubt on the minds of some whether earth really needs to be in balance, even those who doubt that will comprehend quickly that a society that is not in balance is doomed.
Correcting that troublesome finding is not just at the core of President Obama’s challenge. It is every American’s challenge — regardless of party.
Comprehending that an entire decade has already been lost should actually help induce a sense of activism and hope. It’s high time to come out of deep-freeze and simply get the job done.
That kind of pragmatism, as the world knows, at least used to be the real spirit of America, blending a sense for action with an innate sense of optimism, which virtually ensures that a task, no matter how hard, can actually be done.
But make no mistake: In terms of courage, determination and pure grit required, this is America’s D-Day. Fortunately, it just has to “invade” itself — and defeat the demons that have moved the nation off its long-term path of accomplishment and humility.
**Editor’s Note: This article is based on an analysis first published in The Globalist’s Executive Edition in January 2009.