Opinion: 2012 is a Paradigm Shift for the USA

All of our attention is focused on whom the Republicans will nominate to run for president of the United States against Barack Obama. While that is the simple way to approach what’s happening, the real story is that the United States is going through a serious “mega passage,” a “paradigm shift” if you prefer.

I’ve written and blogged about this and David Brooks wrote an excellent piece, “Pundit Under Protest,” in The New York Times. Let me lay out the problem.

For over a century the United States has been “the most powerful nation on Earth” and “the richest country in the world.” You get used to that and it is hard to accept that the world is changing and the United States has been slow to adapt.

For example, we assume that American wireless (i.e. cell and smart phones) is the best in the world. Yet anyone who has traveled to Europe or Asia knows we are WAY behind in both devices and service. U.S. wireless companies, to put it bluntly, suck compared to the services in many other countries.

Credit cards are another example of lazy corporate greed. U.S. credit cards are antiquated and not secure. In the United Kingdom where I was recently, my U.S. credit cards which must be “swiped” were laughed at by people, some of whom didn’t even know how to operate these outdated pieces of plastic. In the U.K. they use “chip and pin” cards which have a computer chip and require the owner to enter a secure password. The cards never leave the customer (a huge security problem in the U.S.) and instead are inserted into a portable device with the transaction done, say, at the table.

Another example is the absurd reliance on single-passenger vehicles to transport people and goods. I’m talking about cars and other vehicles that have a single passenger and are clogging up our roads in an impossible congestion of fuel guzzling steel. Do we really think that building another four or six lane highway will improve this situation? Is anyone in the U.S. thinking outside the box and looking at 2050 or beyond? Not that I know of, certainly not our elected officials who are about as conventional and stuck in the past as anyone.

 “This election is about how to avert national decline. All other issues flow from that anxiety,” Brooks wrote in a New York Times op-ed on June 13. He adds:

 “The election is happening during a downturn in the economic cycle, but the core issue is the accumulation of deeper structural problems that this recession has exposed — unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special-interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality.”

This is absolutely correct and as he points out, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have an answer. The Democrats believe that increasing the size of government and extending public services and entitlements will move the country into the 21st century. The GOP insists that lower taxes and deregulation will solve the decline.

Since we have been essentially doing both, the logic goes that the U.S. should be showing signs of transformation to the new realities of a competitive world and rampant globalization. In fact, our economy is such that inequality is increasing and the working class is getting decimated.

The United States cannot afford to be the “world’s policeman” either. It’s not even clear that American military assertiveness is all that effective in bringing stability to troubled regions. Isn’t there a lesson in the fact that after the U.S. basically withdrew from Vietnam stability came to that region? Apparently, we don’t learn from history.

In the meantime, the institutions we created to lift the working class up – colleges and universities – have turned either into dubious money-making machines or increasingly expensive so-called “public” universities whose rising tuition and fees are unaffordable for more and more Americans, and bankrupt the others with post graduation debt.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a vision of the future. It’s safe to say that none of the candidates for President of the United States of either party can lead us out of this mess. It’s not “Back to the Future” folks.

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University, blogs for the Des Moines Register and WNYC “It’s a Free Country,” and is chief political correspondent for Insideriowa.com.