“This is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft, and we didn’t have the same competitive edge that we needed.” - President Obama
Go ahead: write off Mr. Obama’s recent, much-discussed comment to a Florida television station as unhelpful nagging. A pass-the-buck excuse for the nation’s ongoing economic woes. A slap in the handsome, chiseled face of American Exceptionalism, the historical and philosophical proposition that We the People are, to put it humbly, totally awesome.
Fact is, dismissing the Scolder-in-Chief is a lot easier than stepping on the scale, looking in the mirror and conceding that the president just might be on to something.
Has America gone soft? Seen our once formidable, can-do economic, cultural and geopolitical six-pack abs devolve into a can’t-be-bothered muffin top of belt-buckle-busting, Snuggie-swaddled goo?
“No question about it,” said Steve Seibold, the author of “177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class.”
“In many respects, we’ve lost our way, presuming superiority without feeling we have to prove it,” said Michael Farr, a CNBC contributor and president of the investment firm Farr, Miller and Washington.
“We were a frontier people, a founding people,” said Alan Dowd, a foreign-policy writer and senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, an Indianapolis-based public policy foundation. “We forged an empire of our own, defeated European and Asian totalitarians, then faced down Moscow. Now what? Has there been a softening? I think it’s a fair question.”
Signs of our cultural anxiety abound: a vague but creeping sense of unease, if not (yet) a red cardigan-clad, President Carter-esque crisis of confidence. From the political right, it’s the conviction that America’s inherent entrepreneurial drive and bootstrappin’ ethos are being smothered by the loving, terminal embrace of the Nanny State, creating an entitlement society of Big Government teat-suckling sheeple; from the left, it’s the notion that the nation is too materialistic, overfed, dumbed-down and distracted by bread and circuses (and Fox News) to tackle large-scale problems requiring collective effort - for instance, climate change - let alone halt the looting of the country by a system-gaming cabal of wealthy corporate and political interests.
Looking abroad, we’re afraid that other nations - most notably, a rising China and a nuke-hungry Iran - are emboldened, aggressive and looking to clean our clocks. Perhaps the title of a recent best-selling book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman detailing how the rest of the world is surpassing America in education, infrastructure and innovation says it best: “That Used To Be Us.”
Looking inward, another best-seller - “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” - castigated American parents for not pushing their children hard enough, touching off a flurry of hand-wringing that our Asian competitors not only produce more efficient midsize sedans and flat-screen televisions, but also more efficient human beings.
In California - once America’s sun-splashed Tomorrowland, now choked by debt and political dysfunction, plus two installments of the “Real Housewives” franchise - a 30-something man named Stanley Thorton Jr. lives as an “adult baby,” using disability payments to pay for wipes and rash cream. Why? Because he wears diapers. By choice.
In Arkansas, an 11-year-old football star recently was prohibited from tallying more than three touchdowns per game - otherwise, according to his school principal, the gifted boy would score “almost every time he touched the ball.” As if that’s a bad thing.
In a recent Time magazine cover story, veteran political scribe Joe Klein wrote that during a tour of the Midwest and Texas, the vast majority of the people he spoke with were in “general agreement that Americans had gotten soft” and had “a sense that the unprecedented affluence of the past 60 years had caused a certain lassitude, that we weren’t working as hard as we used to.”
Meanwhile, in the trendier parts of Brooklyn - about as far from the heartland as, say, Paris - hipsters have embraced a neo-lumberjack aesthetic of flannel shirts and Brawny Man-before-his-metrosexual-makeover beards. Umm … compensating much?
“Have we gone soft?” pondered Thomas Connell, a cross-cultural communications consultant and instructor at the Washington-based National Defense University. “Physically speaking, it’s inarguable.”
Nicknamed “Dr. Culture,” Mr. Connell teaches foreign nationals about American mores and habits. His students invariably marvel at two things: (a) The number of diabetes-equipment ads on American television; (b) The sheer size - read: abject tubbiness - of their red, white and blue hosts.
“If we’re out of shape, we’re out of discipline, and that affects the mental side as well,” Mr. Connell said. “We’ve gotten soft in education, soft politically, soft in our attitudes. We value being smart too little and being stupid far too much. These days, internationals want to modernize without Westernizing.
“Many of the dynamics that made us great are still here. But it’s almost as if we’ve become the ‘whatever’ nation.”
The Great Softening?
Once upon a time, the Whatever Nation produced the atom bomb and the Marshall Plan. We built the Hoover Dam. We responded to Sputnik with the moon landing, the greatest moment in the histories of both human achievement and in-your-face one-upmanship. We invented the microchip and the beer cozy - and while lesser nations suffered the dual indignities of lukewarm beef patties and soggy lettuce and tomato, our esteemed, envied temples of industry and innovation birthed the McDLT.
That was then.
In the here and now, we’ve botched Katrina and Iraq. Bungled the stimulus and Solyndra. Blown any hope of a college football playoff or putting Casey Anthony behind bars. We build bridges to nowhere. We no longer send astronauts into space with our own rockets - instead, we rely on Russia - yet seem to open new cupcake boutiques faster than a neutrino in a European (not American) particle accelerator.
“Softness is everywhere, no doubt about it,” Mr. Seibold said. “In business, in personal life, there’s a pervasive sense of entitlement. We have the collective emotional maturity of a spoiled teenager. We know more about who is winning on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ than what’s going on in our government.”
Survey the economic indicators, and it’s easy to see why America needs a pep talk. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Unemployment is high and stubborn. Wages have stagnated since the 1970s. Standard and Poor’s recently downgraded our national credit rating for the first time ever. According to Foreign Affairs, our federal debt as a percentage of GDP rose from 32 percent to 67 percent from 2001 to 2009 - a borrowing binge to match the now-busted balance sheets of state and local governments, not to mention our tapped-out private households. From 1999 to 2009, our share of global GDP fell from 23 percent to 20 percent while China’s increased from 7 percent to 13 percent - putting China on course to surpass our economic output by 2016.
“From the perspective of innovation, we are losing our competitive edge,” Nicholas Ashford, a professor at MIT and co-author with Ralph Hall of “Technology, Globalization and Sustainable Development: Transforming the Industrial State,” said. “Money has been chasing money in this country. But it has not been chasing innovation.”
Geopolitically, America still retains the means to bomb just about anyone we deem threatening. Our military remains hard. Question is, can we afford it? Our frustrating, inconclusive occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq - deposing Saddam Hussein, good; inadvertently strengthening Iranian influence, bad - are winding down largely because they cost too much darn money, a trend that shows no sign of abating. According to the Congressional Research Service, the cost of supporting an active-duty service member increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2005.
The leader of the Free World seems increasingly OK with leading from behind. At this rate, the World’s Policeman will soon be reduced to manning guard shacks at the front and rear gates to Fortress America.
On the cultural front, New York Times columnist-cum-zeitgeist tea-leaf decoder David Brooks frets that America has become a “Genteel Nation” - read: squeezably soft - by abandoning practical, productive pursuits for pleasant, enlightened ones. Put another way: We’ve become a country of communications and leisure studies majors, falling behind in an engineering and computer science world.
On the right, there’s the tea party sense that the poor and unemployed lack accountability and that the Occupy movement is the province of spoiled whiners. As Herman Cain put it, “If you don’t have a job, and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”
Meanwhile, the left fumes over the wealthy going soft, jettisoning moral hazard by socializing risk, all the while carping that the Obama administration is “anti-business” despite record corporate profits.
One thing everyone except Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner agrees on: We’ve totally coddled bankers. “We are still settling for Wall Street executives who leveraged 40-1 to walk while the taxpayer pays,” Mr. Farr said.
In his recent book “The Arrogant Cycle,” Mr. Farr argues that the financial crisis stemmed in part from cultural overconfidence and irresponsibility.
“I talk to tea party folks and Occupy Wall Street folks,” he said. “Many are reasonably articulate. But nobody seems to have a mirror. Nobody wants to talk about their own credit card bills, about the average household debt doubling from 55 percent to 111 percent between 1980 and 2009.
“It wasn’t just Washington doing deficit spending. Collectively, we have no inclination to endure pain or live within our means. We say we want accountability, but we’re not willing to vote for it.”
Fat, drunk and stupid
Speaking of coddling, in the case of America v. Softness, our schools are Exhibit A. SAT scores plateaued in the 1960s. The World Economic Forum ranks our overall educational system 26th in the world, behind those of Canada and Singapore; if America’s classrooms were a college basketball team, they’d be in the “also receiving votes” category of the weekly polls.
Time reports that American children spend less time in school than many of their international counterparts. By the end of high school, the average South Korean spends almost two additional years in class. In the highly ranked, highly competitive Finnish education system, all teachers are required to have master’s degrees, and only one in 10 applicants to teacher-training programs is accepted; in the United States, by contrast, half of our teachers graduated in the bottom third of their college class.
“While the rest of the world has been catching up, our educational system from kindergarten through high school has slowly been collapsing,” Mr. Ashford said. “So the basic skills, understanding and talent of people coming into the universities is not what it used to be.”
Student softness isn’t helping. According to San Diego State professor Jean Twenge, research indicates that the percentage of high school and college students who spend 10 or more hours weekly on homework has declined since the 1970s. A separate study of time use by college students found that just 23 percent of their weekday time was spent on classes and studying, and that 50 percent of their weekly time went to socializing and leisure.
During the same period in which study hours decreased, Ms. Twenge said, the percentage of students graduating with an “A” average doubled.
“Better grades for less work,” she said. “So why should we work? Our idea of overpraising and thinking that you’re good instead of being good has lead to a rise in entitlement and narcissism.” Literally.
The author of “Generation Me” and co-author of “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Ms. Twenge notes that college students’ scores on the standard psychological test for narcissism have steadily risen since the 1980s. For that matter, so have the rates of plastic surgery; the number of parents giving children unique names to stand out; the amount of antisocial and narcissistic language in song lyrics; the size of our homes; and our self-professed desire to wield authority over other people. Meanwhile, our self-reported desire to work hard has dropped, as has the amount of weight that industrial workers are willing to lift on the job.
The cultural results?
“One of the essential traits in narcissism is being unrealistic,” Ms. Twenge said. “Not thinking long-term. Overconfidence. Taking too many risks.” (Is there a better explanation of the financial meltdown?)
“Entitlement is there, too. A feeling of, ‘I deserve this, even if it looks like I can’t pay for it.’ ” (A more concise raison d’etre for America’s broken balance sheets?)
“There’s vanity. Wanting people to notice you. Thinking everyone is entitled to your opinion. You end up with people who think they know everything but actually don’t.” (Hello, reality TV! Also Congress).
“Overall, it’s toxic to society,” Ms. Twenge said. “In terms of going soft, we’re not going to be able to compete in a global market if we have a population who says they don’t want to work particularly hard. The countries we’re competing against, particularly China, have strong work ethics.”
Moreover, those countries aren’t literally soft. Unlike us. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no U.S. state in 1991 had a percentage of obese people of more than 20 percent; last year, no state’s percentage of obese people was less than 20 percent.
America’s unchecked pound-packing - almost 34 percent of the population qualifies as obese - has consequences. Reduced quality of life. Increased health care costs. It offers a window into our souls: Instead of the lean, mean and hungry title character of “Rocky,” we’re the bloated, unmotivated champ of “Rocky III,” about to get pummeled by Mr. T.
“I did a TV interview in Toronto the other day,” said Mr. Siebold, also the author of “Die Fat or Get Tough: 101 Differences in Thinking Between Fat People and Thin People.” “During the break, they talked about how as soon as you go over the [U.S.] border, you can see the difference, how fat we are. Sadly, they’re right.
“And we sugarcoat it. We think about eating emotionally instead of critically. I went on the ‘Today’ show and said, ‘If you’re fat, get tough, fix it. No one is stuffing pizza and doughnuts in your face.’ Afterward, I got death threats.”
Of course, we still have the aforementioned college football, a fierce competitive crucible where only the mentally strong and physically fit survive, where tomorrow’s hard-nosed leaders are today’s tried-by-fire student athletes.
Student athletes such as those of the Louisville Cardinals, who recently lost to conference rival Pittsburgh. The reason? According to Louisville coach Charlie Strong, his team was “poorly prepared,” distracted by the previous week’s release of the new “Call of Duty” video game.
On second thought, maybe we’re doomed.
Don’t squeeze our Charmin
Or maybe not.
Pop quiz: Who took the following stand against All-American softness in a campaign speech while running for the presidency? “We’ve become fearful to compete … . I want to see our nation return to a posture and an image and a standard to make us proud once again … . We ought to be a beacon for nations … ” :
(a) Mitt Romney in 2011
(b) Barack Obama in 2008
(c) Ronald Reagan in 1980
All set? The correct answer is: (d) Jimmy Carter. Mr. Malaise himself. In 1976. Which just goes to show that the republic has always been going soft - or at least fretting about the possibility.
Scene: the first Thanksgiving, Plymouth, 1621
Pilgrim No. 1: Yum. This corn tastes good. So much better than starving.
Pilgrim No. 2: Oh, great. Now we’re dependent on foreign sources of starch, becoming wards of the Wampanoag welfare state. This does not bode well for our future economic growth.
“Asking if we’ve seen our best days is as American as apple pie,” Mr. Dowd said. “Go back in history, and it’s very common for presidents to stand before Congress and say things aren’t very good. But that sense of decline is often more about feeling than fact.”
Our softness, it turns out, is relative. If America has a paunch, we also still possess formidable biceps. Fact: We account for more of the world’s GDP than any other country. Fact: In 2006, a U.N. report named our workers the planet’s most productive. Fact: According to Foreign Affairs, we lead all nations in exporting goods and services, and are the globe’s second-largest manufacturer behind China.
Time reports that two-thirds of 40-year-old Americans live in households with larger inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents had at the same age. Of Fortune magazine’s Global 500 largest corporations, 133 are American - more than double that of any other country.
Contrary to conservative canards about entrepreneur-shackling overregulation, the World Bank ranks the United States in the top five of nations with the most business-friendly regulatory environments; counter to liberal teeth-gnashing about a parasitic elite grifting off the nation’s wealth, the top 1 percent of earners contribute 37 percent of collected income tax.
Losing manufacturing jobs to robots and developing nations hurts, but it doesn’t make America soft; it makes us ingenious, and a nation with child labor laws that we — cough, China, cough — actually enforce.
On the world stage, the United States still spends more on its military than all other nations combined, controlling the planet’s oceans and airspace. SEAL Team 6 did not throw a Snuggie around Osama bin Laden, read him his Miranda rights and turn him over to lawyers at The Hague; they shot the world’s most-wanted terrorist in the face. Under Mr. Obama, the nation is killing more bad guys with drone strikes than it did under President Bush.
As for the much-derided Obama administration strategy of “leading from behind” in Libya? Mr. Gadhafi, he dead. And on the cheap, in terms of both American blood and treasure. Soft? Or smart?
We are tougher on crime - with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and violent offenses occurring at their lowest rate in almost four decades - and absolutely brutal on our reality-show contestants.
Our higher-education system remains unmatched: Of the world’s top 25 universities, 15 are in the United States. (Not by accident has the elite-college admissions process become an Olympic-shaming competition.)
Oh, and our supposed laziness? When we tell pollsters that we don’t want to work as hard, it’s probably because we’re already exhausted: The average American works more hours per year than anyone else in the industrialized world, including the French (duh), the Germans (no kidding!) and the Japanese (to quote Keanu Reeves: Whoa!).
“The trouble with America has nothing to do with a lack of elbow grease,” said Derek Leebaert, a historian, former Marine and foreign-policy professor at Georgetown University. “We’re in troubled times, but the majority of our population is working its butt off, trying to provide health care and education for their families in a difficult environment. That takes a lot of courage, perseverance and all-around grittiness.
“Americans also volunteer more than any other people, working for the Boy Scouts, their churches, the Red Cross. Combine that with our jobs, and we are the busiest people on the planet.”
Are we fat? Guilty as charged. But we’re also home to Joey Chestnut, the greatest competitive eater in the world, a man who once ate 241 wings in a single sitting and 68 hot dogs - plus buns - in 10 minutes.
Likewise, we are really, really good at “Call of Duty.” Is it just coincidence that our young soldiers excel as drone pilots?
Brief history of softness
In his 2004 book “Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future,” political writer Michael Barone argued that the seemingly tough United States of the 1950s and 1960s was in many ways a cushier place, thanks to a Big Government, Big Labor and Big Business coalition that insulated society from the harshness of unrestrained market forces.
Right or wrong, his analysis reflects a fundamental aspect of our character: We’re forever stressing about our self-diagnosed softness - questioning whether we still have our former juice, or are busy slouching toward Charminville. Political scientists even have a term for it: declinism.
18th century: Our European ancestors widely thought that all living things in the Americas were in a state of permanent decline, largely because of excessive atmospheric humidity. No, really.
1860s: Following the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman fears that America will slip into anarchy.
1930s: The Great Depression. Need we say more?
1946: A year after winning World War II, American policymakers squabble and point fingers over “losing the peace” in Eastern Europe, while Gen. George C. Marshall refers to the triumphant U.S. military as a “hollow shell.”
1950: “Who lost Eastern Europe?” becomes “Who lost China?” The Cold War dawns, with Americans fearing they are too soft and hedonistic to contain communism for the long haul, and the CIA predicts that the Soviet economy will be three times larger than America’s by 2000. It’s a slam-dunk!
1960: Ur-conservative Barry Goldwater asserts that “we are losing the Cold War.” Pointing to a “missile gap,” Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy agrees.
1970s: Late 1960s turmoil gives way to a loss in Vietnam and to Watergate; oil shocks and stagflation; polyester and Disco Demolition Night. In response, Henry Kissinger concludes that America has “passed its high point, like so many other civilizations.”
1980: Ayatollah in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan, a Billy Joel song to follow.
Late 1980s: The academic best-seller “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” predicts an American slide owing to “imperial overreach”; the popular best-seller “Rising Sun” predicts an American slide owing to Japanese business competition.
1990s: Actually, this decade was pretty great. (Even so, traditionalists such as “The Death of Outrage” author Bill Bennett found reason to bewail America’s moral softening, as epitomized by (a) the Monica Lewinsky scandal; (b) the hard-core gangsta rap of future “Are We There Yet?” star Ice Cube; (c) Bart Simpson’s unpardonable sassiness.)
2000s: Global rivals are going to do us in. Or maybe global warming. Or maybe America’s dystopian future will simply look like “Wall-E.”
“As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes,” Mr. Dowd said. “There’s a cycle to what Americans think of themselves. We go through these periods of intense self-doubt.
“But this is one of our strengths. We’re a very self-critical people. So we adapt and change and come out of these times better.”