chief executives pay themselves obscene bonuses even when they have run their companies into the ground.
Even more fundamentally, the Great Recession is giving the lie to bedrock assumptions of the American Dream. The right to make a fortune has always been part of that dream, but within certain parameters of fairness. Those parameters are now stretched to breaking point. Hardly a week goes by without new statistics showing how national wealth is ever more concentrated in the hands of a very few. The gulf between the very rich and the rest is now wider than at any time since the 1929 crash. Liberals blame the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003; these, however, only reinforced an existing trend, whereby technological advances rewarded the owners of capital and the superskilled, while globalisation of the labour market wiped out millions of traditional middle-class jobs in the US itself.
Another vanishing assumption is that each generation will be better off than its predecessor. Today's young Americans may well live worse than their parents, in a world where full employment in the traditional sense could be gone for good. Education, too, was supposed to be a key to eternally growing prosperity. Now Americans are constantly bombarded with evidence that their school standards are slipping dangerously behind their main Asian and European competitors.
American universities, it is true, are the envy of the world -- as proved by the foreign students who flock to them. But the average debt of US students has risen to more than $25,000 per head, a record, while total student borrowing now exceeds total credit-card debt. And this when the decent jobs that will allow graduates to repay their loans are dwindling. America was supposed to be the land of social mobility. In fact, studies now show that if you are born into a poor family, you have a better chance of becoming rich in Canada and several European countries than in the US.
Which, in a way, leads back to Steve Jobs. Indubitably he was a titan of modern business, who has been compared to Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. But the grief at his death spoke to something more -- a sense that a certain America had died with him, the America where a couple of kids in a garage could change the world.
Such fears, of course, are wildly exaggerated. The U.S. is still the most inventive place on earth, as testified by patents taken out, Nobel prizes won, and crazes that sweep the world -- not to mention the relentless industrial espionage against the U.S. conducted by China, Russia and others. But the sense is palpable that the 21st century will not belong to America, and that global economic supremacy is shifting across the Pacific.
A less painful but still tangible contributor to the sense of decline is the ebbing power of the U.S. abroad. Last week's G20 summit in Cannes underlined the point. Once, Washington would have been seen as a potential rescuer of the eurozone. These days, in debt to the gills itself, the U.S. is a virtual bystander. All eyes are on China, with its $3.2 trillion of foreign reserves.
In military terms of course, America remains unchallenged, the world's only superpower, alone capable of projecting massive force instantly anywhere on the globe. But Washington can no longer afford another Iraq or Afghanistan, wars that have cost over $1 trillion, all of it borrowed money, and with little to show for it.
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