This holiday season, we should be thankful that the values that define America—personal liberty and individual pursuit of happiness—are increasingly embraced around the globe.
The Arab Spring and upheavals in Russia are affirmations that ever more of humanity finds hope in democracy. The remarkable economic progress of Brazil, China, and others are tangible proof of the power of individual enterprise and ambition.
For much of the last century, America has used its wealth to promote those values and build international institutions supporting them, and we are succeeding.
That is American Exceptionalism.
Now we must ask is America exceptional enough to prosper in a world it did so much to create?
The Great Recession and halting recovery teach America’s special place in the world cannot be taken for granted. To enjoy extraordinary prosperity—and the freedom of purpose it enables—America must be more than home to visionary innovators like Steve Jobs. Americans must build an exceptionally competitive society, anew—and we have limited resources to do it.
We can no much longer endure unbridled greed in private business and endless squabbling in public institutions, and succeed. Jointly, we must recommit to self-restraint and compromise, or we will go the way of the Greeks—both ancient and modern.
To meet global competition, prepare our children, and build a new sense of commonweal, we must change how we think about many things.
For example, free trade is great stuff—but those words have very different meaning in China, India and even in most of Europe. The world is not going to wholly acclimate itself to American notions of fair play without more tangible demonstrations of American resolve. Washington must effectively match other governments’ involvement to support American enterprises in global commerce, and to accomplish this, free market fundamentalists on the right and left must accept we don’t live in a perfect world.
Schools must be more vocationally attuned. Neither economic success nor equal opportunity is best served preparing every child to study at the finest universities and enter the professions. However, those do require ensuring each child obtains a skill valued by the global economy and a dignified place to apply it.
In commerce, great profits and huge incomes need be more defined by innovation, as opposed to financial schemes that seed instability and ruin. Buccaneer capitalism has too much triumphed. Wall Street would do well to exercise more self control lest society impose that discipline through tight regulation and to no one’s optimal purpose.
In Congress and Administrations of both parties, leaders increasingly have seen compromise in terms of converting the other side to their own point of view—or convincing voters to grant them majorities sufficient to wholly impose their vision unilaterally. Both impulses are patently destructive.
Democrats insist government must lead, Republicans insist it must be absolutely limited, but success requires something between the two.
Compromise built America. To our forbearers, it was the ultimate virtue. And only through it can American values—and America—prevail.
Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Peter Morici served as Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission from 1993 to 1995. He is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and a widely published columnist. He is the five time winner of the MarketWatch best forecaster award. Follow him on Twitter @PMorici1.