A bad rap
During a summer scorched with scandal and tragedy and warfare around the world and within US borders, nary a word was shouted amongst pundits or spread across the Internet about one once-fashionable topic: the economy. No laments about skewed unemployment numbers, no vigorous defenses of the autonomy of alleged job creators, no calls for financial sector reform or campaign contribution reform or any button-pushing reform or regulation. Even Obamacare, a favorite news punching bag and economic boogeyman, took a vacation from the spotlight.
Has the US economy been too boring? Or has it just been nowhere near as deliciously newsworthy as flag-waving protesters shouting down busloads of refugee children or criminal hackers robbing celebrity photo clouds? Turns out, the economy hasn’t been doing too bad. After a dismal 2.1 percent drop in the US’ GDP during the first quarter, the economy came roaring back in Q2 with 4.2 percent growth. And while some analysts think the third-quarter GDP growth will settle down to a 2.5 percent increase, other sources, such as the Institute of Supply Management, think the rocket-ride will continue with a 4.9 percent increase. Aside from GDP, consumer confidence grew for the first half of 2014 before dipping a scant 0.1 percent in July, and construction spending and housing starts have shown decent gains in the last few months.
Within the context of the last few years, such gains make sense—the US economy is still in an undeniable recovery, and despite a few hiccups that only seem like setbacks when certain news media blow them up to be such, we’ll keep on chugging and prospering and hopefully learning from our mistakes so we don’t make them again. Why? Because deep down, the fundamentals of American-style capitalism are sound, only failing when they’re grossly abused by the powerful and greedy.
Removed from the humans who operate it, it’s no secret why our economic system is a beacon to our neighbors around the world. The misfortunate and fortunate alike are drawn to the solid foundation of opportunity and flock to our shores and borders to explore the potential within them. Just because so many of them are treated so poorly upon arrival doesn’t diminish America’s promise, although it does tarnish our image (the Statue of Liberty wasn’t supposed to be a bouncer, people).
What’s more, the US economic system hasn’t even tapped into its own full potential yet. Think about it—with this country’s collective wealth of money and brains and talent, we could do so much better. We could be 100 percent energy independent. We could be the global center of quality manufacturing, boosting exports and guaranteeing annual trade surpluses. We could divert all the funds we waste on foolish military ventures into education and the arts, reinforcing our apex position in worldwide cultural popularity while enticing the world’s best and brightest to join us.
So why haven’t we unlocked these achievements already? The easy answer is too many jerks in power, but the more complicated answer goes back to America’s infancy as a European immigrant settlement, long before the descendants of those first settlers banded together to make an official nation. People came to the New World for one of two primary reasons (although often both): to make money, or live independently. Thousands of years of human ambition and love of shiny things explained the former. The latter was the result of centuries of the fortunate few oppressing the misfortunate many. At some point, several of the many said “screw this” and sailed across the ocean for the opportunity to live however they wanted, worship however they wanted, burn whoever they wanted at the stake.
It was the birth of the Rugged American Individualist, and while that image looks pretty good on a paper towel wrapper, the reality of such objective determinism—combined with the visions of gold and cotton and tobacco dancing in their fellow settlers’ heads—turned real gruesome real quick. The price of freedom and riches was paid with the near-decimation of an entire continent’s population. Modern US citizens try their best to forget, but they owe it to the victims of their ancestors to make something great out of their ill-gotten gains. Seriously, if you’re going to steal a yacht you might as well throw a party, not park it in a swamp and let it rust.
The basic desires of our two American archetypes—the individualist and the entrepreneur—are the basic desires of us all: Live Free and Live Well (I would add “be nice” but that might be asking too much). If we can recognize that in each other, if we can quit sniping about our differences and blaming each other for the past and trying to hurt and control each other, perhaps we can finally start to build the future we deserve. And once we have it (with robots doing our bidding an no one wanting to bomb us and welcoming with open arms anyone who shows up to contribute), America can finally graduate from an experiment in human civilization to the next step in its evolution.