On the 246th anniversary of our founding, many Americans will find reason for pessimism about the nation’s future. There are many difficult challenges before us, which I will list shortly. Still, we are also possessed with deep wells of strength from which to craft a free and prosperous future.
In 2022 we suffer a large public debt, but as a share of our GDP our external debt ranks 38th highest globally, behind nearly all the rest of the developed world. Our population growth rate has slumped, but nothing like that of China, Japan or most of Europe. Our murder rate ranks 64th worldwide, putting us well above most of the developed world.
Many of our institutions suffer deep stress. Church attendance is down, and young people in particular have fewer formal institutions or clubs with which to reinforce their sense of community and shared responsibility. Our political institutions have recently come under attack. Just last year, the United States was targeted by an attempted coup by a sitting president. A substantial share of sitting members of Congress enabled that coup attempt either directly or through their lack of moral courage.
Over the past two years, more than one million Americans died of COVID, with more than one-third dying needlessly over their objection to vaccines. This pandemic was the prime source of our current debt, the recent bout of inflation and the shrinking labor force. Our Federal Reserve and federal government responded too cautiously to inflation, prompting many states to make matters worse through tax cuts and heightened stimulus.
We have foreign enemies from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, and in terrorist camps across Africa, the Middle East, and in South East Asia. Our nation appears more divided than at any other time in my life, and that discord makes dealing with our enemies, both foreign and domestic, more challenging. The most extreme views dominate debates about guns, abortion, voting rights, immigration and cultural issues. Too often, people of goodwill and who could craft principled compromise are yelled down from fringe activists.
My greatest concern for the future of our nation is that poor places are growing poorer while rich places grow more affluent. I see little meaningful effort to reverse that trend, which cannot be healthy for the Republic I so urgently love.
Despite this, I see three sources of strength that give me hope and optimism.
First, our institutions appear to be holding. Let me provide two examples.
Former President Trump’s coup attempt against our Republic failed. As the January 6th committee hearings now make clear, he orchestrated a broad and purposeful conspiracy to stage a coup against our government. These crimes failed due to the actions of hundreds of patriots from Congressional police officers to former Vice President Pence. While the wheels of justice move slowly, indictments, arrests, confessions and imprisonment await many. This will affect officials from the highest levels of government.
In weaker nations, treasonous conspiracies are often met by summary executions. That these criminals face deliberate investigation and eventually a public trial is our nation’s strength. This thoroughgoing process is needed to ensure we remain a nation ruled by laws, not despots.
Second, the checks and balances of government remain in active tension as our founders intended. The best example of that is in recent Supreme Court rulings on Roe v. Wade. Whatever one thinks of the decision, this is a prime opportunity for voters to have their say.
If the many opinion polls are correct, as surely they are, four out of five voters seek broad compromise on abortion. This alone will favor candidates who reject the extremes on both sides. With providence, our Republic will emerge stronger after a period of compromise and elections that reflect actual policy choices, not culture war slogans.
I am also optimistic because across many margins of potential discord, our nation is actually improving rapidly. The past few decades have been ones of remarkable change. As a nation we grow more affluent. While there may be growing disparities, even the poorest families are better off than they were a generation earlier.
By every objective measure, racial harmony is better than ever. As many as one in seven marriages are interracial, demonstrating a radically better environment than that of my youth. Other minority groups thrive in America in ways that were unimaginable even a generation ago.
The gender wage gap for young women has largely disappeared. With three women now attending college for every two men, the issue of gender equity is largely self-resolving.
I think much of the culture war from both sides reflects the narrowing window of policy arguments. As the real issues about which we fight become more modest, the loudest voices grow more extreme. The result is an unreadable social media environment populated by what is charitably described as wackos. Neither party has a monopoly on craziness. We’d all sleep better ignoring them.
The single factor that makes me most optimistic about the future are today’s young Americans. I’ve been closely associated with the 18-to-25-year-old crowd for four decades. I’ve been leading, commanding or teaching since the summer of 1981. I’ve watched the tail end of my generation of Boomers, through Gen X, Millennials and now Gen Z. I’ve supervised them in the workplace, military training, in combat, and in college from community college through doctoral classes. I like what I see now, more than ever.
To be sure, the current generation is imperfect. Their musical tastes are suspect, few if any can drive manual transmission and their phone etiquette is horrible. Too many of them are drawn to the political and cultural extremes. Still, these are common criticisms of youth.
In the matters most salient to longer-term prosperity, young Americans today do just fine. Today’s young adults are far more accepting of others and their differences. The palpable decline in prejudice of all types unleashes access to substantially more human capital in businesses, schooling and public service. This alone offers substantial optimism for our future.
The shock of COVID restrictions left a dent in education for a whole generation. Still, the many young people I know have emerged more resilient and more thankful for normalcy. Among the higher performing students of this generation, COVID provided the type of challenge that revealed the best of their nature.
As a conservative, I view human nature as constant, but culture as fluid. From my vantage point, many of the cultural innovations of today’s youth offer hope for our future. These young adults, combined with the resilience of our political institutions and general economic and social improvements in our nation, fill me with optimism this Independence Day.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected]