Sunday, May 2, 2010

America #1

This was previously posted on on or before 2006-11-26:

Greetings from the humblest of corner offices overlooking Rockefeller Center Plaza, the home of our great nation’s big Christmas tree. Construction of the Rockefeller Center started in 1931 and all the buildings East of 6th avenue were complete by 1940, just in time to redirect the construction efforts to the war against the axis of evil – Germany, Italy and Japan.

As the war ended and the US had bombed the dictator regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo into submission, all parties killing some 50 million people in the process, the great industrial power of the greatest country on Earth redirected its productive capacity from making bombs, airplanes and tanks, to feeding its people and launching the great consumer era.

It didn’t take long for America to show why this country not only wins on the battlefield, but also wins in capitalistic commerce.

In 1951, the average American ate 50 percent more than the average European. Americans controlled two-thirds of the world's productive capacity, owned 80 percent of the world's electrical goods, and produced more than 40 percent of its electricity, 60 percent of its oil and 66 percent of its steel. America's 5 percent of the world's population had more wealth than the other 95 percent, and Americans made almost all of what they consumed: 99.93 percent of new cars sold in this country in 1954 were U.S. brands.

By the end of the 1950s, GM was a bigger economic entity than Belgium, and Los Angeles had more cars than did Asia — cars for a gadget-smitten people, cars with Strato-Streak engines, Strato-Flight Hydra-Matic transmissions and Torsion-Aire suspensions. The 1958 Lincoln Continental was 19 feet long, and Elvis was King.

In 1950, 40 percent of Americans had never seen a television program; by May 1953 Boston had more televisions than bathtubs. In 1951 a Tennessee youth was arrested on suspicion of narcotics possession. The brown powder was a new product — instant coffee. Folks did not eat foreign food, except French toast.

Unlike today, when everything edible, from milk to spinach, has its moment as a menace to health, in the 1950s everything was good for you. Cigarettes? Healthful. Advertisements, often featuring doctors, said smoking soothed jangled nerves and sharpened minds. X-rays were so benign that shoe stores installed special machines that used them to measure foot sizes.

In Las Vegas, downwind from some creative atomic weapons tests, government technicians used Geiger counters to measure fallout. People lined up to see how radioactive they were. It was all part of the fun. What a joy it was to be indestructible! But, people somehow knew without a warning label that bleach was not a refreshing drink.

Few things except for the culture of “The government owes me x” has changed more for the worse in recent decades than childhood. The lives of children used to be unsupervised, unregulated and robustly physical. Even in the 1970s, when I grew up, admittedly on the other side of the planet, kids were always outdoors — I was pushed out the door at 7:30 in the morning and not allowed back in until 4:30pm unless I was on fire or actively bleeding.

America’s dominance isn’t what it used to be. Decades of high taxes, runaway government spending, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, insane litigation, political correctness, Eliot “Gestapo” Spitzer and most recently Sarbanes-Oxley have kicked this society’s dynamism into a far more humble and dull setting, seeing its growth rates lag behind other more capitalistic countries such as Hong-Kong, China and most recently India. Those economies are still small – the US grew more the last five years than the size of the entire current Chinese economy – but over time, the US will fall behind if it continues to shoot itself in the foot.

One statistic alone says it all: In the first 9 months of 2006, Buick sold more cars in China than in the US. The defense rests.

Yet at least New York City after decade of Guiliani and Bloomberg in the Mayor’s seat could have had an even worse record. The 4.1% unemployment rate is the lowest on record, and the city's credit rating is at the highest level ever. With crime down 20 percent since Bloomberg took office — after a 57 percent reduction during the Giuliani years — the FBI rates this as the nation's safest large city, which is one reason for the sharp increase in applications to Columbia University and New York University. Welfare caseloads, which totaled 1.1 million a decade ago, are under 400,000. In 2005 the percentage of high school students graduating on time was the highest since the city began keeping that statistic in 1986. Bloomberg credits his crusade against smoking with the decline in heart attacks that has helped make the life expectancy of city residents higher than that of the rest of the nation.

Neither America nor New York City are perfect, but we are still #1. It feels good to be #1. In Europe, on the other hand… oh well, they’re still debating the proper etiquette for surrender, how not to offend women forced to dress in bee-keeper suits, and why it should be illegal to work more than 35 hour a week (presumably by employing a work hour Gestapo).