Co.Design

Nussbaum: Is 2011 the Dawn of America's New Optimism?

Despite what you hear from Washington, Bruce Nussbaum believes we are finally entering the Twilight of Pessimism for America.


As the first decade of the new century ends and the second begins, it is easy to embrace a Declinist vision for the United States. A decrepit infrastructure, gaping inequality (one in five children live in poverty), bleeding overseas war, spreading Know-Nothingism, rising China, and partisan political rancor make for a dour view of the nation's future. Yet I believe we are actually entering the Twilight of Pessimism for America. We are, in part, confusing temporary noise in Washington and the economy for deeper, truer social and economic signals that are actually marking America's comeback.

First, some personal context. I remember the weekly public school drills in the late '50s when we had to hide under our desks in case the Russians launched their ICBMs into our cities. Krushchov, after all, publicly threatened to "bury" America. Sputnik went up in 1957 and Gargarin, the first man in space, in 1961. We built bomb shelters in our backyards through the '60s, huddled there in the Cuban Missile Crisis and fought proxy wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan in '70s and '80s. And then... the Soviet Union was gone and the Russian threat ended.

I remember also the '70s as the decade when OPEC quadrupled oil prices and I wrote my first cover story for BusinessWeek -- "The Decline of U.S. Power" -- in 1979. And then... the real price of oil plummeted and the OPEC threat was gone.

There is something about being a "Comeback Kid" that is deep in American culture.

In the '80s, "Japan as No. 1" was a vision accepted by virtually all of America's business, intellectual and political elites. It had a better work ethic, higher quality manufacturing, smarter consumer electronics, and superior education. And then... Japan's threat was gone.

In just the half century that marked the first half of my life (we don't need to deal with the two earlier world wars), the U.S. has faced three major competitive threats to its global position and economic prosperity -- and came back from all of them. There is something about being a "Comeback Kid" that is deep in American culture, something about needing a challenge to make it rise to its best again and again. You see it in sports, in business and, of course, in politics. You can feel it when it begins to gel and when a movement picks up momentum. I feel it today.

I spend most of my time in New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and teach at the Parsons School of Design at The New School. The world I live in is a world of possibility, where entrepreneurs start up new companies, mayors and governors build energy-saving public transportation and improve schools and students learn to design sustainable products, new health experiences, and better business models. I live in a world of inclusion, surrounded by people having babies with a rainbow of skin colors, buying their food from local farmers, using social media technology to create, innovate and build new businesses and organizations.

Beneath the noise of politics, the Know-Nothingism, the anger, the arrogance of belief and the corruption masquerading as lobbying, another culture is being built in cities where the future is more evenly distributed an far more optimistic. It is where political leaders really lead, Gen Yers build their lives on their own platforms and people wait for the bad movie that is Washington to end. I?m betting that in the decade ahead, the signal that is America's comeback will grow stronger and replace the current noise. And no, it's no the eggnogg hangover speaking, but the context of history.

[Top image by Zen Shooter]

Add New Comment

11 Comments

  • John Winslow

    Let's see: 50 million Americans with no health coverage; income disparity at its highest ever; tens of millions of Americans out of work, many (those over 50, for instance) with no hope of having a good job again; the banks unregulated; and gas prices on their way up - and Mr. Nussbaum detects "deeper, truer social and economic signals" of a comeback? If so, name them. He doesn't, because he cannot, beyond yuppies eating organic in Union Square. This is jingosim at its worst.

  • Anthony J. Damian

    "Insightful and encouraging an absolute gem" I believe that the strength of a society lies within the people that make up that society.

  • Richard Geller

    "When the people lead, the leaders will follow" so read a popular bumper sticker in the mid-60s. The civil rights movement and the protests against the Viet Nam war brought significant changes,which came from the ground up and not from Washington.

    Like Bruce, I too am feeling a change in the pulse of the country. More and more, Americans on all sides of the political spectrum are waking up to a common realization that Washington is broken. It does not represent their needs and best interests. It is not working the six or seven basic issues that all Americans need government to work and is therefore increasingly irrelevant.

    Reluctantly perhaps, but inexorably, I believe Americans, of all stripes and shades, are accepting the fact that if there is to be significant reform, we the people are going to have to bring it. Washington as currently structured is out of date and out of touch with reality. The best government money can buy is just not going to cut it indefinitely. Change is in the air.

  • Richard Geller

    "When the people lead, the leaders will follow" so read a popular bumper sticker in the mid-60s. The civil rights movement and the protests against the Viet Nam war brought significant changes,which came from the ground up and not from Washington.

    Like Bruce, I too am feeling a change in the pulse of the country. More and more, Americans on all sides of the political spectrum are waking up to a common realization that Washington is broken. It does not represent their needs and best interests. It is not working six or seven basic issues that all Americans need government to work and is therefore increasingly irrelevant.

    Reluctantly, but inexorably, I believe more and more Americans, of all stripes and shades, are accepting the fact that if there is going to be significant reform and change, we are going to have to bring it. Washington is out of date and out of touch with reality.

  • Chris Reich

    It's not enough to think positive or to believe better times are ahead. American's have lost the willingness to make the effort to turn this decline around.

    We are the society of the remote control. We are too lazy to change a channel let alone read a book. Note the stats on reading!

    It's not too late to reverse the decline if and only if we are willing to adopt the necessary ethics, forgo wants of today for gains tomorrow and work hard for the home team.

    I think we'll choose cheap over quality, china over made in US and our government will continue with charge over cash.

    I am going to spend all of 2011 promoting businesses that are "doing it here". Join me.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Bill Hazelton

    Bruce has a very good point here. Past changes tended to come from the bottom up, so that's clearly the place to look for new trends. However, many trends seen at the grassroots never made it to the larger culture without major changes. The Beat and Hippie generations influenced, but didn't change. Fortunately, the US is set up to allow bottom up changes more easily than many other countries.
    The issues that Steve sees are very real as well, and it is difficult to see how a grassroots change could topple the powers that corrupt and control the nation from the top. Perhaps the major grassroots change will be to make Washington irrelevant and move more back to a local level. Increasing energy costs point as this being the thing to do, and 'Think Globally, Act Locally' would be the slogan to stick on this approach.
    Meanwhile, as we still have this right, let the discussion blossom. The more we discuss the nature of the problems, the better the chance we will start to see viable solutions.

  • daltxguy

    Your logic is disturbingly wrong. In none of your examples did the USA actually do anything to avert the potential threat, except for the one recurring theme - go to war. Over those same 50-60 years, the nation has bankrupted the nation, its infrastructure and now the wealth of the middle class. Kruschev ( not Kruschov, btw) may have been right in the end, but he didn't need an ICBM. It's articles like this that proves the USA is in serious trouble. Ever the rose colored glasses which prevents people from seeing the true issues and the true situation. America is a killing machine and a bully and it is losing its place in the world quickly. Have some more eggnog.

  • Daniel Cardenas

    Wonderful article, thanks for the optimism. I am especially excited for 2011 after an incredible 2010.
    Good luck to all in the new year. One side note, I love the immediacy of on-line writing, but please can we proofread? There are two typos in this article. It really messes with the flow information if I have to stop and figure out what the writer really meenz. :-)

  • Ken Rowland

    Great timing...wonderful statement of faith in tomorrow! Ten thousand (10K) of 'US', daily, beginning near-term, @ 12:01 a.m. in the tomorrow's of our new decade...might 'think' they are retiring(?) Nope! Monday is a NEW business day in the Land of Opportunity; just listen to its Reveille. News @ 11...with the statistics; stat. Happy New Year everyone! Best to ALL, kr@intramedianet.com

  • Ken Rowland

    EXCELLENT!! KUDOS!! "Dead-On"...in a manner of speaking, on the eve of this new decade. It IS re-launch and rejuvenation time. If I may, I'll plagiarize..."Nothing was ever achieved without enthusiasm." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson. Also, but to paraphrase our Uncle Ralph, 'it is not what lies behind us, nor ahead of us, it is what lies within us!" That said...it's ENCORE time...10,000 of US turn 65 years of age tonight at 12:0001 a.m. Monday is the start of a NEW business day...listen and hear the sound of our Reveille...(News @ 11...statistics to follow; stat). Happy New Year Mr. Nussbaum, thank you! kr@intramedianet.com