For all the Obama-era talk of decline, there is at least one reason why America probably won't, at least not quite yet.
“Peak oil” and our “oil addiction” were supposed to have ensured that we ran out of either gas or the money to buy it. Now, suddenly, we have more gas and oil than ever before. But the key question is: Why do we?
The oil and gas renaissance was brought on by horizontal drilling and fracking that opened up vast new reserves either previously unknown or considered unrecoverable. Both technological breakthroughs were American discoveries, largely brought on by entrepreneurial mavericks and engineers exploring on mostly private lands. Couldn't the Saudi, Venezuelan or Nigerian oil industry have discovered these new methods of resource recovery, given their nations' reliance on petroleum exportation?
The world now wakes up to iPhone communication, Amazon online buying, social networking on Facebook, Google Internet searches, and writing and computing with Microsoft software. Why weren't these innovations first developed in Japan, China or Germany — all wealthy industrial countries with large, well-educated and hard-working populations? Because in such nations, young oddballs like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs more likely would have needed the proper parentage, age, family connections or government-insider sanction to be given a fair shake.
Even in its third century, America is still the most meritocratic nation in the world. Unlike the caste system of India; the class considerations of Europe; the racial homogeneity of China, Japan or Korea; the tribalism of Africa; or the religious orthodoxy of the Middle East, America is still a place where one can offer a new idea, invention or protocol that is judged on its merits, rather than on the background, accent, race, age, gender or religion of the person who offers it.
Businesses evaluate proposals on the basis of what makes them lots of money. Publishers want writing that a lot of people will read. Popular culture is simply a reflection of what the majority seems to want. In the long run, that bottom line leads to national wealth and power.
If history is a guide, the most savvy Chinese citizen of Japanese descent would not make it as a high official in Beijing's Communist Party — no more so than a brilliant Japanese citizen of Chinese descent would run Toyota or Honda. A white Croatian of enormous talent could not end up as president of Sudan.
Mexico has a word, Raza, that conflates race and nationality, in the way that the German word Volk used to suggest not just being German, but looking German as well. I doubt that either country would ever elect a black head of state.
It would be virtually impossible for the most talented Christian or Jew to be allowed to head contemporary Egypt, or for a brilliant four-star Buddhist general to run the Iranian military. For the immediate future, don't expect a female business-school valedictorian to manage Saudi Arabia's national oil company. Note that in all these cases, such exclusions derive from criteria other than innate talent, character and industriousness, and can result in the lesser qualified being considered the only qualified.
The mixture of consumer capitalism and constitutionally protected free speech — and all sorts of races, religions and ethnicities — sometimes means that America can be a wild place with a popular culture that appears crass and uncouth to those abroad. Our generation's $17 trillion national debt, unfunded entitlements and nearly 50 million people on food stamps might convince the Founding Fathers that they had spawned license rather than guaranteed liberty.
Yet the upside to the wild arena of America is that almost anyone is free to enter it. Oprah Winfrey, an African-American woman, reinvents the genre of daytime talk shows and builds a media empire. Warren Buffet outpaces New York's Wall Street — from Nebraska. A one-time five-and-dime owner from Arkansas, Sam Walton, refashions the way an entire planet buys its stuff. A Russian émigré, Sergey Brin, co-founds Google, perhaps the most indispensible site on the Internet.
Just when we read obituaries about an unruly nation of excess, unlikely nobodies pop up to pioneer fracking, the Napa wine industry or Silicon Valley. Why? No other nation has a Constitution whose natural evolution would lead to a free, merit-based society that did not necessarily look like the privileged — and brilliant — landed white male aristocracy who invented it.
The end of American exceptionalism will come not when we run out of gas, wheat or computers, but when we end the freedom of the individual, and, whether for evil or supposedly noble reasons, judge people not on their achievement but on their name, class, race, sex or religion -- in other words, when we become like most places the world over.