4 Problems That Could Sink America

Don't expect an economic recovery to bring a return to prosperity.

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If we're lucky, the recession is winding down, and life will start to feel a bit more comfortable before long. But that doesn't mean things will go back to the way they used to be.

The global recession that began in America's housing market has shaken the world's economic order and possibly knocked the United States down a notch or two. The spendthrift American consumer is out of money. American wages are flat. Despite some hopeful signs, the U.S. economy could muddle along for years.

[See why a housing rebound could take 20 years.]

Meanwhile, actions in China—rather than the United States—may have been the initial trigger for a global economic recovery. Many other nations will grow faster than the United States over the next few years and command an increasing share of the world's resources. "The message to Americans," says Mauro Guillen, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, "is you need to redouble your efforts to be more competitive."

American innovation has solved daunting problems before and could again. But it would be a mistake to assume that American prosperity will continue on some preordained upward course. Nations rise and fall, often realizing what happened only in retrospect. Here are four problems that are undermining our future prosperity:

We don't like to work. Sure, now that jobs are scarce, everybody's willing to put in a few extra hours to stay ahead of the ax. But look around: We still expect easy money, hope to retire early, and embrace the oversimplistic message of bestsellers like The One Minute Millionaire and The 4-Hour Workweek. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn't sending as much money our way as it used to, which makes it harder to do less with more.

White-collar jobs are now migrating overseas just like blue-collar ones. Kids in Asia spend the summer studying math and science while American mall rats are texting each other about Britney and Miley. "We need a different mind-set," says Guillen. "People need to invest more in their own future. Instead of buying stuff at the mall, spend the money on evening classes. Learn a language or skills you don't have."

I recently interviewed entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, who transformed his father's neighborhood liquor store into a $60 million business anchored by the Web site winelibrarytv.com. An overnight success? Hardly. Vaynerchuk has big plans, and he works at least 16 hours a day to achieve them. "If you want to work eight hours a day," he says, "you're going to get eight-hour-a-day results. There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't want to hear you bitch about money if you're only willing to work eight hours a day."

Vaynerchuk is 33 and has something in common with John Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard mutual fund firm, who's 80. I talked to Bogle recently about how Americans need to change their approach to work and money. He told me this: "We need more caution, more savings, and we may have to work harder. Maybe we need more people who like to work and don't count down every day till retirement."

[Read Bogle's thoughts on how to invest smarter after the recession.]

Nobody wants to sacrifice. Why should we? The government is standing by with stimulus money, banker bailouts, homeowner aid, cash for clunkers, expanded healthcare, and maybe more stimulus money. And most Americans will never have to pay an extra dime for any of this. Somehow, $9 trillion worth of government debt will just become somebody else's problem.

When he was campaigning, candidate Obama dabbled with the "personal responsibility" theme, and in his acceptance speech in November he called for a "new spirit of sacrifice." But now that he's in office, there's less interest in such quaint ideas. During his prime-time news conference about healthcare reform in July, a reporter asked Obama if ordinary Americans would have to give up anything in exchange for better, more widely available care. Obama's answer: "They're going to have to give up paying for things that don't make them healthier." Hooray! Something for nothing! He may as well have said, "Here's a magic pill that will make all your problems go away."

Obama's plan is to get a tiny portion of the American public—the wealthy—to pay higher taxes for the benefit of the majority. Hey, while we're at it, let's see if we can convince 1 percent of the population to bear the entire responsibility for fighting two open-ended wars that are supposedly in the interest of every American. It would just be too uncomfortable to tell the middle class that if they want something, they need to earn it themselves.

[See how the bailouts could have gone better.]

We're uninformed. The healthcare smackdown—sorry, "debate"—is Exhibits A, B, and C. The soaring cost of healthcare is a problem that affects most Americans. It's shrinking paychecks, squeezing small businesses, bankrupting families and swelling the national debt. Yet outraged Americans seem most concerned about fictions like death panels and government-enforced euthanasia, while clinging to the myth that our current system of selective availability and perverse incentives somehow represents capitalist ideals. But let's take a break from that burdensome issue to examine the likelihood that President Obama was born in a foreign country and hoodwinked America into believing he was eligible to run for president.

People who lack the sense to question Big Lies always end up in deep trouble. Being well informed takes work, even with the Internet. In a democracy, that's simply a civic burden. If we're too foolish or lazy to educate ourselves on healthcare, global warming, financial reform, and other complicated issues, then we're signing ourselves over to special interests who see nothing wrong with plundering our national—and personal—wealth.

[See why postal-style healthcare might not be so bad.]

iCulture. We may be chastened by the recession, but Americans still believe they deserve the best of everything—the best job, the best healthcare, the best education for our kids. And we want it at a discount—or better yet, free—which brings us back to the usual disconnect between what we want and what we're willing to pay for.

Rationing is a dirty word, so we can't have a system that officially rations something as vital as healthcare or education. Instead, we have unacknowledged, de facto rationing that directs the most resources to those with the best connections, the most money, or the savvy to game the system. What keeps the rest of us content is the illusion that we, too, will be able to game the system someday—as long as the government doesn't interfere.

Solutions that serve some public good—like Social Security and bank deposit insurance in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s—usually require everybody to give something to get something. If it works, the overall benefits outweigh the costs. Good programs leave individuals the option to pay more if they want more. Bad programs promise more than they can deliver. But often we don't know that until it's too late.