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Is America going from Great to Good?

April 5, 2011

Is America going from Great to Good?

My friend, Jim Collins, certainly the most curious person I know, got me thinking about this over a long dinner in Chicago.

First a story, one I have partially related before but one that haunts my subconscious. Collins was invited by our mutual friend, Frances Hesselbein, to present at a seminar that she and the Secretary of the Army hosted at West Point. The respondents were equally divided between three sectors: C-level executives in large corporations, leaders of nonprofit organizations (Frances’ pals from her Life II leading the Girl Scouts) and three-star generals. You might reasonably call them America’s elite.

Jim asked Frances what topic she wanted him to hold forth on. She answered in one word: America.

Knowing that these managerial wizards had heard many a speech in their years of service, Jim decided to take a different approach. He began with a question, one that references his best selling book, Good to Great. He asked for a show of hands on the question, “Do you think America is going from Great to Good?”

The answer was a shock to me. Half of the people felt America was headed from Great to Good. Half! And these were people embedded in influential roles that exposed them to our strongest rivals in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and the rest of the world. This informal ballot was taken before the 2007-2008 financial collapse where Ben Bernanke and others thought we narrowly averted a global catastrophe.

You may recall that last summer I wrote a pessimistic piece from the Aspen Ideas Festival. It was a prior museletter (The Aspen Ideas Festival) based on the session with David Gergen, real estate magnate Mort Zuckerman, and Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson. Asked last month by Fareed Zakaria on a television special about the current state of America, Ferguson rendered the following opinion, “We are standing on the edge of a cliff. We have lost a lot of our margin for error.”

Ferguson is the author of a stunning 300-page 2011 update on what I heard in Aspen. The title is Civilization: The West and the Rest. Beginning in 1411, Ferguson covers with reams of deep research (21 pages of notes, 30 pages of bibliography) a defining-narrative of modern world history – the rise and fall of one civilization after another. Ferguson is a very engaging story teller of some great tales of circumstances that at the time would have struck their predecessors as wildly fanciful. And yet it happened.

Now a confession. My major interest on this book grew from what this dire prophecy might mean to the investment portfolio that supports my assured lifestyle and my Life II work as a Social Entrepreneur.

Sooo, God forgive me, I skipped the first 294 pages and went straight to the chapter titled, “Conclusion” which begins thus:

“There is not better illustration of the life cycle of a civilization than The Course of Empire, a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that hang in the gallery of the New York Historical Society. … 

“Cole beautifully captured a theory to which most people remain in thrall to this day: the theory of cycles of civilization.

“Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop. In the first, The Savage State, a lush wilderness is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive existence at the break of a stormy dawn. The second picture, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have cleared the trees, planted fields and built an elegant Greek temple. The third and largest of the paintings in The Consummation of Empire. Now the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepôt, while contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been replaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants, proconsuls and citizen-consumers. It is midday in the life cycle. Then comes Destruction. The city is ablaze, its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillages beneath a brooding evening sky. Finally, the moon rises over Desolation. There is not a living soul to be seen, only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy.

“Conceived in the mid-1830s, Cole’s pentaptych has a clear message: all civilizations, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall.”

Through the course of the prior 300 pages, Ferguson cited numerous examples of civilizations that were supremely powerful and collapsed within a decade. He summarizes, “Swift collapses have been the leitmotif of this book.” He cites the Incas of 1530, the Ming Dynasty of the mid-seventeenth century, the French Monarchy that overextended themselves financing our Revolution in the 1770’s, the British Empire that bestrode the world stage “whose age of hegemony was effectively over less than a dozen years after its victories after over Germany and Japan” and, of course, the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe that fell apart in 1992.

What are the implications for Western Civilization today? Jim Collins, in Why the Mighty Fall, says one reason for decline is “a failure to face the brutal facts.” Here is just one brutal fact, also a shock to me, cited in Civilization, “In the space of just ten years, the US Federal debt in public hands has doubled as a share of gross domestic product (GDP). … “Note that these figures do not take account of the estimated $100 trillion of unfunded liabilities of the Medicare and Social Security systems. Nor do they include the rapidly growing deficits of the states, nor the burgeoning liabilities of public employees’ pension schemes. On this basis, the fiscal position of the United States in 2009 was worse that that of Greece. With a debt-to-revenue ratio of 312 per cent, Greece was manifestly in dire straits. According to calculations by Morgan Stanley, however, the debt-to-revenue ratio of the United States was 358 per cent.”

Ferguson does not think it is “all over” just awfully close to the edge.

Ferguson is not alone. Here’s what that most reasonable of political/social columnists, David Brooks, said in yesterday’s NYTimes, “The President’s budget would double the nation’s debt over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget office … doing nothing is not a survivable option.” Further on, Brooks mentions “national bankruptcy” as a possibility.

“Whether you prevail or fail, endureor die, depends more on whatyou do to yourself that on whatthe world does to you”.

— Jim Collins


“Trust in the LORD with all your heartand lean not on your own understanding.”

— Solomon, Proverbs 3: 5

Like the West Pointers, I am about 50/50 on Great to Good. We have a lot going for us. How about you?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2011 9:52 PM

    The debt and reckless spending bother me a lot. However, as a Clinical Psychotherapist I have even great concerns. If the political leaders, especially the Executive, were to come to see me and relate that his basement was filled with flammable gasses yet he insisted there was no danger to his wife, children and relatives staying there, I would ethically be compelled to intervene. He would be immediately diagnosed as out of his mind by placing his entire family in mortal danger.

    The President and his party are living over a volatile mixture of gasses that could ignite any moment. Yet, he insists that his family is to blame when they ask him not to smoke or build a fire that might set off an explosion. He viciously attacks anyone who says, “Let us remove the gasses and put out the fires” and it is obvious that he is out of touch with reality and leads his union supporters to agree that the real issue is a need for more gas to be poured into the basement.

    It feels like the USSR right after the wall came down and my friends were asking me to buy them homes in Ohio for when they bailed out in their private planes. Where do we bail out to when the collapse arrives?

  2. Gilbert Hadfield permalink
    April 8, 2011 3:57 AM

    The USA seems to me (I’m in New Zealand) to be growing up, moving focus from self to others. As Bob Buford points out in “Finishing Well”, in youth we go for SUCCESS, in mid-life we take stock of our SIGNIFICANCE, and in maturity we learn to SERVE.

    After the shock of the Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbour, USA came out of isolation and tried very hard to be SUCCESSFUL globally and in space.

    In the 21st Century, the world stands on tiptoes awaiting the revealing of the USA as great enough to humble herself and SERVE humanity.

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