DAVID WEBBER: Experienced residents stimulate discussion about America's decline

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — To broaden and deepen the students’ thinking in my "Is America in Decline?" class, I organized a discussion with four residents with whom I have had enjoyable conversations over a minimum of eight years.

Last week, Tom Elliott, my dentist; Noelle Gilzow, a Hickman High School biology teacher; Rosie Gerding, an accountant and small-business owner; and Caroles Taylor, a Baptist minister and MU administrator, shared their views and concerns about America’s future. All of these speakers have children. Some have grandchildren, and all are age 40 or older.

Over the years, I have used outside speakers in my classes, but they have always been public officials or other academics. While both are valuable information sources and idea contributors, the former tend to be a bit guarded and the latter can be too narrow. Last week my four guests brought a full range of issues combined with a good dose of personality and energy to our class discussion.

While each listener captures different themes, these are five that I have replayed during the past week.

1. American expectations

Each panelist responded directly to the topic “Is America in Decline?” One person stated it depends at what point in history we choose to use for comparison. Another panelist quoted Socrates and Peter the Hermit, thus acknowledging that it is difficult for humans to look back on their earlier days and not think that youth are less respectful, responsible or as earnest.

There seemed to be agreement that American expectations on both the individual level and national level might be inflated and unrealistic. At least partially because of television, we are all overexposed to the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. We forget that many baby boomers were brought up in living conditions that today would be considered "lower middle class" or "near poor," but they didn’t know it because everyone else was like them. At the national level, at least two panelists thought that we now expect America to forever be a superpower and that we might appear arrogant to other nations.

2. The American political system

Somewhat surprisingly, the American political system seemed to be a secondary, perhaps irrelevant, concern. Politicians were described as self-serving promoters of their own interests (including generous pensions), but one said: "I don't know that it has made a difference to my own life which party has been president during my adult years." Another panelist said: "Politics is always ugly, look at the movie 'Lincoln.' We just have to accept that."

Several panelists mentioned specific policy issues, such as defense spending and spending policy, but they didn’t seem to be major concerns compared to cultural and financial issues.

3. Our future economy

It was not surprising that panelists mentioned economic uncertainty and the lack of jobs as one of their concerns, but I didn’t expect the panelists and my students to give so much attention to the impact of globalization, specifically to the question of whether the U.S. can be a thriving economy with full employment without a vigorous manufacturing sector. Several panelists were impatient with the current approach to international trade and outsourcing of jobs.

4. A bifurcated education system

Much like the concerns about increased economic stratification, concerns were raised about American K-12 students seemingly falling into two groups: those who are doing very well, and those who are falling behind because of family situations or lack of motivation. Certainly the best students from Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools, and from MU, are ranked with the best students in the world, but there are too many American students, some who become high school and college graduates, who have fallen behind.

5. Consumer debt

Surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on over-consuming and private debt. Yes, the federal deficit was mentioned but not dwelt on. Instead, individual responsibility for consumer debt sparked the lion’s share of the discussion. One speaker expressed concern that the expanding higher education debt is part of America’s borrowing culture and that student loans might be the next bubble to burst in the financial industry.

Another panelist reminisced about being brought up in the era of layaway plans when consumers actually saved for a new washer or dryer before they bought it. There was a good deal of disagreement on who to blame for the 2008 mortgage collapse: the financial services that loaned to borrowers who they knew could not afford to repay the step-up loans or the individual consumers who should have known better.

These four residents generated lively discussion among my college students — a feat not always easily accomplished. While not unanimous among the panelists or the students, my hunch is that a majority lean toward the view that America in 2013 is just different, not worse, than it was back in the 1950s or '60s.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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