How Ordinary Folks Can Fix America

The nation’s future depends not on Washington, but on the determination and heart of its people.

By + More

FE_DA_ReadAHistoryBook_AmericaDeclineSlideshow.jpg
The reading room of the New York Public Library.
We're toast.

The Chinese outwork us, the Indians outsmart us, and the Germans outvacation us. Our biggest corporations have become computerized Potemkin shells that crank out profits without people. Our middle class is too obese to hustle down to the outplacement office. The government takes all of our money and gives it to Goldman Sachs, while the schools rot. The typical high schooler can barely spell "Snooki."

[In pictures: See 12 ways to stop America's decline.]

Many of the ideas and institutions that once made America the most prosperous nation on earth seem to be disintegrating. In her new book Third World America, Arianna Huffington writes that "the warning lights on our national dashboard are flashing red. Our industrial base is vanishing ... our infrastructure is crumbling.... America's middle class is rapidly disappearing." A steady flow of dismal news provides weekly corroboration. Unemployment is appallingly high and stuck there. Nearly 44 million Americans—14 percent of the population—live in poverty. The national debt seems insurmountable. Americans are so discouraged by the flailing economy that they're marrying less, giving up on retirement, and abandoning the American Dream.

The antics in Washington generate more discouragement than hope. Instead of solving problems, America's so-called leaders engage in bitter fights and pointless moralizing that promote class warfare and mainly depress the electorate. Sure, they'll rally when the mushrooming national debt becomes a full-blown crisis. But until then they seem determined to accomplish as little as possible with the most vitriol they can muster. No wonder it feels like America is self-destructing.

[See 9 signs of America's decline.]

But hold on. Step back from the ledge. There is redemption. For all the attention they get, self-important politicians exploiting democracy for their own gain don't need to dominate our national consciousness. The U.S. economy is still driven by clever, industrious people finding better ways to get things done, not by policies emanating from Washington. Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, and No Partiers all have competing prescriptions for how to fix America, but ordinary Americans don't need to wait for that. There are plenty of things they can do to improve their own little patch of America right now. Here are 12:

Stop complaining. Sure, there's plenty to be unhappy about: a weak job market, dysfunctional government, elusive prosperity. But while you're whining about how unfair it is, somebody else is using their energy to figure out new ways to succeed and exploit opportunities you might be missing. When Jennifer Chu got laid off from investment bank UBS in late 2008, she decided it was an opportunity to turn a rainy-day idea into her own company. She began studying how to produce and market shoe liners for women that would help keep shoes fresh without a ghastly sightline. With less than $30,000 in upfront money, she developed "silver linings" that cost $15.99 for a set of three. She hopes to hit break-even within a year, expand her product line, and enjoy a long career as an entrepreneur. "The highs are really high and the lows are really low," she says. "But I feel good about it. I'm optimistic." Not bad for somebody who was laid off less than two years ago.

Stop waiting for Washington to solve problems. Far too many people depend on the U.S. government for all or part of their livelihood. Economist Gary Shilling has calculated that 58 percent of America's population depends on the government for "major parts of their income," including teachers, soldiers, bureaucrats, welfare and Social Security recipients, government pensioners, public housing beneficiaries, and federal contractors. That's nearly twice as high as it was after World War II, and it can't be sustained. Demographic trends and basic math make it nearly certain that in the future, government will do less to take care of people. Get ready for it. "The middle class doesn't need to be in a joint partnership with the government," says Charles Payne, CEO of investing firm Wall Street Strategies. If Americans expected less of their government, it might even make it easier to cut the parts that don't work and make the rest of it more productive.

[See how the government is swallowing the economy.]

Get involved in your community. For all the anxiety it produces, the folderol in Washington matters less than what happens in your city, your town, and your neighborhood. "An awful lot of us don't quite get around to doing the community stuff we ought to do," says business guru Tom Peters, author of The Little Big Things and 14 other books. "But when the shit hits the fan, your community becomes an important part of everything that happens. I've said in speeches many times, when people are bitching about the government, then shut up and run for the local school board. Government is not 535 elected representatives on Capitol Hill, it's a whole bunch of community-related things."

Stop being scared. An Islamic mosque near the World Trade Center site in Manhattan could be a launch pad for terrorist attacks. Prisoners can't be transferred from Guantanamo Bay to stateside maximum-security prisons because they might use black magic to escape and rampage through the countryside. President Obama is a foreigner—or worse, a Muslim—with nefarious secret plans. We need to "take back" America from whoever has kidnapped it.

Hey look, anxiety is normal, especially in tough economic times. But irrational fear comes from ignorance and makes people manipulable. America's best moments have been characterized by courage, not fear. The same goes for individuals. Cowering is un-American.

[See 4 things missing from the Republican "Pledge To America."]

Be more entrepreneurial. Many people mistakenly think that being an entrepreneur means starting a business. Not necessarily. "To me, entrepreneurship is really about pursuing your passion, as opposed to pursuing what someone tells you to pursue," says Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, the Internet radio service. "It's being proactive about your decision-making in life." For the foreseeable future, there will be fewer stable jobs in big companies, which means more people are going to have to fend for themselves. Doing something you love will help sustain the determination it often takes to overcome setbacks. It also makes you better at what you do. Westergren, for instance, maxed out 11 credit cards in the early 2000s to keep Pandora going, and barely slept for months. If the company goes public, as seems likely, he'll end up a multimillionaire. Passion goes a long way.

Work more. Americans, on average, work hard, but not that hard. A typical American logs about 1,680 hours a year, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That's slightly below the OECD average for 30 developed countries, and significantly less than in countries like Korea, Poland, Israel, and even Mexico. Many Americans work harder than average, of course. Linda Rohman of Omaha has a law degree and a Ph.D. in psychology, and after taking time off to raise her two sons, decided a couple of years ago to go back to work. Revenue was down at her husband's dry cleaning business and the family needed extra income. But so far she hasn't been able to find a job requiring her skills. So she's been working three part-time jobs as a tutor, court reporter, and pre-dawn "paper Mom" delivering 150 newspapers a day, seven days a week. "I do things other people feel are beneath them," she says. "It's not attractive to me, but I'm not depending on anybody else. I don't feel optimistic for my country but I do feel optimistic for myself." If more people were that hearty, optimism in America would skyrocket.

[See why American workers need to toughen up.]

Get out of debt. Way too many Americans are enslaved to purchases from the past that did little or nothing to improve their lives. It's worthwhile to take on debt to buy a home, invest in education or a business, or help carry you through an emergency. But using loans or credit cards to finance stuff that's not essential is foolish. Unnecessary debt severely limits your financial flexibility, your ability to move or change jobs if necessary, and your ability to exploit opportunities. Americans have been slowly paying down debt since 2005, when it peaked at levels far above historical norms. But there's still a long way to go. The sooner you clean the slate, the sooner you'll leap ahead of the pack.

Solve a problem. You won't distinguish yourself by taking orders. You might by showing initiative and figuring out better, faster, or cheaper ways to do things. The best way for a company (or a country) to get out of a hole is through innovation. It's also the best way for an individual to get a promotion, straighten out his finances, or come up with a game-changing career move. Some people think America has lost the knack for innovation. Prove them wrong.

Help somebody. Few people succeed alone. If you help somebody who's down on his luck, you might be contributing to somebody else's success. Many people find that surprisingly rewarding—powerful, even. It might also make you more inclined to ask for help yourself when you need it. Which might turn out to be the smartest thing you ever did.

[See 7 new rules for getting ahead.]

Read a book about American history. Most people in America over the last 300 years lived in far tougher times than we live in now. This will become immediately apparent if you read a biography of iconic Americans like Ben Franklin or Thomas Edison or a concise summary of America's economic history like An Empire of Wealth. You'll also notice that people who made a difference spent little time complaining and seemed to know that time and energy are finite assets that you use, or lose.

Learn something new. Every day. The evidence is overwhelming that education—both formal and informal—is one of the strongest determinants of success. Companies increasingly value multiple skill sets, such as a formal discipline combined with knowledge of social media or e-marketing. Skills you learn on the fly can be just as valuable as an expensive degree if you know how to apply them right. And if you feel overwhelmed by what you don't know—don't worry, so does everybody else. "Everybody needs to look out for their own skill set," says Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, author of the new book Good Boss, Bad Boss and the 2007 bestseller The No Asshole Rule. "And that can be exhausting. A lot of companies have gotten rid of leader development. So if you aspire to management, you might have to find your own leader-development classes. Find your own mentors. People need to rely more on their social network and their occupational network, and less on employer promises."

[See 10 new things we can't live without.]

Create Your Own American Dream. There's no set definition of the "American Dream," although in general, it's the ability to improve your own living standards through hard work and ingenuity. But somewhere along the way it came to entail a huge house, a fleet of automobiles, and a rewarding career that materialized simply because you deserved it. We're obviously redefining all that now, with less emphasis on materialism and more on self-sufficiency. About time. In Third World America, Huffington reminds us of a meeting in 1965 between President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, who was lobbying for passage of the National Voting Rights Act. Johnson knew he couldn't muster the votes to pass it, and told King so. So King set out to rouse thousands of activists and intensify the pressure on holdouts in Congress. Five months later, the law passed. "LBJ didn't think the conditions for change were there," Huffington writes. "So King went out and changed the conditions." We could use some of that now.